Carrie Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” and Sleater-Kinney’s “No Cities to Love” Tour: A Mash-Up Review

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

Sleater-Kinney recorded their 2005 album The Woods, the band’s last release before their 9-year hiatus, in Cassadaga NY, located approximately 20 minutes from where I attended college. While recording, they played an unannounced show at a dive bar in the same town as my school on December 16th of 2004. The show was allegedly a warm-up for a New Year’s Eve performance at Madison Square Garden. Despite the low publicity, feminist students turned out en masse, myself included. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the show. I do recall being mesmerized by Carrie Brownstein’s rock star swagger and that after the set Corin Tucker brushed by me in the crowd. At the time, I didn’t realize it would be nearly 11 years to the day before I would hear Sleater-Kinney play again. When they publicized their indefinite hiatus in 2006, I was shocked and disappointed, wishing that I had paid closer attention, that I had etched every moment of their show into my memory like video clips I could open and replay nostalgically. The band’s announcement made the cover of The Woods, which depicts a forest at night framed by red velvet stage curtains, all the more meaningful. Fans couldn’t help but assume The Woods would be Sleater-Kinney’s finale.

Last winter, when one of my students told me Sleater-Kinney had released a new album, I thought I was being punk’d. Low and behold, when I went to the iTunes store, No Cities to Love, the band’s 8th studio album, popped up. I was further delighted and surprised when Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, was released this October. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect much from the book. I knew Brownstein was a brilliant guitarist and songwriter and that she had done some acting post Sleater-Kinney, co-creating the Emmy-winning sketch-comedy show Portlandia with former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen, but could she write nonfiction? In all fairness, we don’t typically equate rock stars with literary genius. I figured even if the book was awful, it would at least give some further insight into my beloved Sleater-Kinney, soundtrack to my high school and undergraduate rebellion and emerging feminist consciousness.

carrie brownstein

The more of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl—which draws its title from Sleater-Kinney’s song “Modern Girl”—I read, the more I was impressed. Brownstein narrates her experience growing up in the Pacific Northwest, her involvement in the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, Sleater-Kinney’s evolution, and finding one’s voice and identity through creative expression in lucid and accessible prose. The book is full of beautiful and evocative lines such as the following description of dealing with an outbreak of shingles while on tour: “I felt raw and scraped, like a human crayon, dragging myself across surfaces, leaving a foamy smudge.”

Feminist readers will be particularly interested in Brownstein’s nuanced discussion of women and sexism in the music industry. In particular, she examines how musicians who are women are always circumscribed by gender in interviews and media representations. Women cannot simply be musicians, let alone rock musicians, but are continuously asked to comment upon what it means to be a “woman musician” or in an “all-female band.” “I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band,” Brownstein muses, “I have nothing else to compare it to.” She goes on to astutely observe “I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’” One of the most illuminating portions of the book is Brownstein’s analysis of reviews by well-meaning critics who attempted to write about Sleater-Kinney in a more holistic manner, yet fell into the same gendered traps. She also points out that when male musicians draw from personal experience to create art, they are viewed as gutsy and brave, whereas women who do the same are seen as “emotional” and “over sharing.” The same can be said of the genre of memoir. In her book The Art of Memoir writer Mary Karr, often dubbed the “queen of memoir,” argues that memoirs written by men tend to be regarded as serious works of literature, while memoirs by women are still seen as merely “confessional” or “trashy.” What is most impressive is how Brownstein’s analysis of gender politics in music is incorporated seamlessly into her overall narrative. Her observations, though pointed, are never heavy-handed or didactic.

When discussing the formation and evolution of Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein refrains from self-aggrandizement despite the band’s cultural significance and the way it reshaped the musical landscape, challenging the predominant image of what a “rock star” should look like, be, or do, and helped fuel third-wave feminist politics. Brownstein even humbly relays the fact that noted music critic Greil Marcus described Sleater-Kinney as “America’s best rock band.” Above all, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is Brownstein’s love letter to Sleater-Kinney, which she describes as saving her life and as her rescue and salvation. “In Sleater-Kinney,” she writes, “each song, each album, built an infrastructure, fresh skeletons. These, at last, were steady bones.”
SK drumscarrie brownstein

Photo Credits: Kate Johnson

When I heard Sleater-Kinney was playing a show on December 10th in Buffalo, I didn’t consider whether I would go or not. The answer was inevitable. The trio played a set that encompassed songs from 1997’s Dig Me Out to No Cities to Love to a packed house at Babeville, a multi-use performance space located in downtown Buffalo, New York, owned by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. A particularly noteworthy moment of the show came when Brownstein climbed on top of Janet Weiss’ drum kit, continuing to play her guitar alongside the torrential force of Corin Tucker’s vocals. This gutsy move confirmed Brownstein as the rock star of my teenage reveries, listening to Call the Doctor and The Hot Rock in my bedroom after school. She is voraciously talented, yet humble, critical, yet kind, a combination of qualities I deeply admire and are important for today’s young feminists of all genders. Sleater-Kinney’s music was, and remains, the answer to so many of my frustrations.

Carrie On DrumsCarrie Brownstein

Photo Credits: Kate Johnson

Despite Sleater-Kinney’s 9-year hiatus, I am struck by how relevant they remain and how they have reemerged at a time when their music is desperately needed. Given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernadino, California, a line from the song “Step Aside” off 2002’s One Beat, Sleater-Kinney’s excoriation of post-9/11 politics, remains particularly timely: “When violence rules the world outside/And the headlines make me want to cry/It’s not the time to just keep quiet/Speak up one time to the beat.” Much of Sleater-Kinney’s music, as well as Brownstein’s memoir, speaks to the transformative power of music upon both self and society. Brownstein likens this transformative potential to an unlit firecracker we carry within us, waiting to ignite and fill ourselves and the world around us with a “glowing spectacle.” The power of art lies in its ability to help us better understand and articulate our frustrations, to channel them into effective actions, to speak up to the beat. Musicians and fans share a special relationship in which the beloved performer leads by example, allowing fans to define and embody the best possible version of themselves.

Carrie Brownstein

The song “No Anthems” from No Cities to Love speaks to the lack of social critique in current mainstream music. In response, Sleater-Kinney call for songs that can create meaningful change: “I want an anthem, I’m singing an answer/An answer and a voice/To feel rhythm in silence, a weapon, not violence/Power, power, source.” Drummer Janet Weiss speaks to this lack in an interview with PBS NewsHour, in which she says contemporary music sounds too much like “hugs” and “comfort” in contrast to Sleater-Kinney’s urgent and visceral approach. In the same interview, the band also discusses lingering stereotypes about rock musicians who are women and the lack of women’s perspectives in rock, an absence they hope to address through their reunion. As Weiss says, “I feel like a part of my role being a musician and part of why I want to be a musician is to show women an alternative to sort of the cultural norms, the stereotypes of what we’re supposed to be, demure and quiet and motherly. For a young woman to see three very powerful, independent, creative women who are not operating within a box, it is enticing.” The group also partnered with Planned Parenthood for portions of the No Cities to Love tour to help raise awareness about the necessity of accessible reproductive health care for women.

In reflecting upon Sleater-Kinney’s final show before their hiatus, Brownstein says the following about the act of performing: “When we finished the show, there wasn’t any real closure; it just felt like it always does, the three of us trying to pass something on to the crowd, hoping it was good enough.” Yes, Carrie, it was more than good enough—at least for this fan.