The List – Carrie Brownstein and the ‘Modern Girl’

When Carrie Brownstein’s book Hunger Make Me a Modern Girl came out in 2015, I remember reading about it and saying to my husband, “Hey, did you know Carrie Brownstein was in Sleater-Kinney?” He looked at me scathingly. Yes, he knew Carrie Brownstein was in Sleater-Kinney. (So unfamiliar with Brownstein’s musical background was I that I had no idea the title of the book was from one of their lyrics, from a song of the same name. Instead, the title kept making me think of the song “Modern Love” by Peter Gabriel, which I’ve subsequently had going through my head for about three weeks now. If nothing else, this book made me learn the actual Sleater-Kinney song it’s named after…and now THAT’S going through my head. But I digress.)

I knew Brownstein primarily from Portlandia, the hilarious sketch television show on the IFC channel. But she was also a founder of the seminal Riot Grrrl band Sleater-Kinney in 1996…who knew? A lot of people, apparently.

Sleater-Kinney (from left): Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein

Sleater-Kinney was a trio of women who played, unusually, two guitars and drums. They were around for ten years, and they reunited for another album and tour in 2015, about the same time this book came out. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is Brownstein’s memoir of those years in Sleater-Kinney, and the indie band scene in the Pacific Northwest (S-K came out of Olympia, Washington, which had its own grunge scene similar to the Seattle incubator that produced Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden).

To the extent that I knew of Sleater-Kinney, it was because my husband liked their music and has several of their CDs. They never had a big, radio-friendly hit, in spite of being named the “best rock band in America” by rock critic Greil Marcus in Time magazine in 2000. So this book was completely new material to me, and I always appreciate books that teach me something new.

Brownstein is sardonic, serious, intense, and visceral. Hunger evokes a certain time and place…the Pacific Northwest music scene of the late ‘90s. With Brownstein’s writing, you can almost feel the soles of your shoes sticking to the beer-soaked floor of a crappy bar as you watch the flannel-wearing rockers come and go.

She also briefly explores her own baggage-laden past: A mother who was hospitalized for anorexia and left the family when Brownstein was 14; a father who came out of the closet when she was a young adult. It was maybe to be expected that by the time Brownstein formed the lineup that was to become Sleater-Kinney’s permanent incarnation when she was 22, she herself was a mass of insecurities, anxiety, and that all-too-familiar demon in the artistic world, depression. (Next Ten Words’ editor and publisher Rich Larson has written eloquently about depression and its effect on the music and musicians of our generation, in a piece that struck a nerve and exploded around the world.) Like many musical artists, Brownstein ran from her demons and found a home in Sleater-Kinney.

At times, Brownstein can be overly self-deprecating, describing her musical abilities in terms that emphasize her lack of ability…fully aware that Rolling Stone magazine included her in a 2003 piece as the only woman on a list of the 25 most underrated guitarists of all time. But her descriptions of being in a female band–and all that that entailed in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s–are relatable, and frankly make sense to women in any professional field. The frustration of being asked questions like “How does it feel to be a woman playing music?” or “Why did you choose to be in an all-female band?” dragged at all the members of Sleater-Kinney relentlessly.

In many ways, this rock-star memoir hits all the familiar tropes: the sense of teenage alienation that drove Brownstein to seek out like-minded fans; the early, raw years of living out of vans; the growing success and subsequent frustration with the riot-grrrl ethos that accused them of selling out; the band member who grows up, gets married, has a baby, and has CHANGED, man…but knowing that doesn’t make the feelings any less genuine or raw.

At its essence, though, this book is about The Music: Sleater-Kinney’s music itself and the haven it gave Brownstein for ten years; and music in general and the way it helps you find your people. As with so many who feel like misfits in high school, Brownstein started her musical life as a fan, and in the pre-Internet days this meant using the very specific signifiers of certain kinds of fandom: The right band’s stickers; shopping at THIS indie record store vs. THAT indie record store; endorsing particular political views.

In her words:

          “To be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved. All the affection I poured into bands, into films, into actors and musicians, was about me and about my friends. Once, in high school, I went to see the B-52s. I pressed myself against the barrier until bruises darkened my ribs, thrilled to watch Kate Pierson drink from a water bottle, only to have my best friend tell me that to her the concert wasn’t about the band–it was about us, it was about the fact that we were there together, that the music itself was secondary to our world, merely something that colored it, spoke to it. That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better–it’s that we were listening to them with our friends…These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now….
Now I can’t listen to some of these records alone, in my house that I have cleaned and organized….The sounds don’t hold up. In these cases, fandom is contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened, it’s that you were there. It’s site-specific, age-specific. Being a fan has to do with the surroundings, and to divorce the sounds from that context often feels distancing, disorienting, but mostly disappointing. I think of all the times I’ve had a friend over and pulled out records from high school or college, ready for the album to change someone’s life the way it changed mine. I watch my friend’s face, waiting eagerly for the ‘aha!’ moment to arrive, only to realize that my affection for this intentionally off-key singing, saggy bass sound, and lyrics about bunnies isn’t quite the revelation it was fifteen years ago. ‘You had to be there’ is not always a gloat or admonishment–often it’s an explanation for why something sounds utterly terrible.”

As pop culture fans, of any medium or any genre…we can relate, Carrie.

 

Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at info@nexttenwords.com

 

 

 

 

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