Book Reviews, Non-fiction

Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir (2015)

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a memoir of Sleater-Kinney; of punk, riot grrl, and a young musician’s finding her identity. This isn’t the story Portlandia, but of a time and place that fostered a style of music and the messages that music imparted. Before the Internet coalesced our interests and cultural identities, being a musician or a fan of music meant being a fan of regions. This is a memoir about growing up in a music culture simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, about breaking the barriers of what it meant to be a — imagine a nebulously pejorative-but-well-intentioned tone — ‘female musician’ rather than simply a musician.

This is a memoir about Olympia’s 1990s music scene, what led Carrie Brownstein to it, and how her work in Sleater-Kinney (S-K) contributed to the labels born from it. Brownstein paints her youth as simultaneously typical and broken in the suburbs of Redmond, Washington. Shy, gawky, but not one to avoid the spotlight, her interest in music started in childhood performance-art experiences like Lil’ “d” Duran Duran, a cover-band that didn’t actually cover anything, but played along to Duran Duran’s music on all-wood ‘instruments.’ The privileges of a suburban adolescence drove her to seek her identity in Olympia’s riot grrrl movement, to find strength in simply being on stage and surprising an audience that wants so badly to underestimate her and her bandmates.

…when you’re part of an early movement like [Corin Tucker] was with Riot Grrrl — where she had to create a space for herself and for her audience, where every show felt like a statement, where before you could play and sing you had to construct a room, one you’d be respected in, wouldn’t get hurt in, a space that allowed for or even acknowledged stories that hadn’t been told before, about sexual assault, sexism, homophobia, and racism, and then, musically, you have to tear that very space down — there’s not a lot of room for joking around. There is a direness in the construction of safety, in the telling of theretofore untold stories. [Loc. 755]

The very first 1994 Sleater-Kinney show in Sydney, Australia.

Brownstein’s writing wavers between casual — many of her stories show up almost verbatim from her earliest writings for the Believer and Slate — and academic. It can occasionally be disconnecting, a jolting shift between personal and professional, but ultimately indefinable in why those transitions don’t work. (This may admittedly be nothing more than a built-in prejudice against memoirs, that I preferred the more academic sections distantly deconstructing her and others’ decisions.)

She’s always uncomfortably introspective and self-critical, however. Much of Hunger covers her own search for identity in a movement she didn’t intend to define; she puts herself on the reader’s level in trying to understand the methods and mindsets that went into crafting important discussions in music. Riot grrrl, for its early pioneers, was about creating a dialogue with the listener, about validating and invalidating one another’s views and experiences, making room for inclusion*: It was a movement of self-awareness.

It’s important to undermine yourself and create a level of difficulty so the work doesn’t come too easily. The more comfortable you get, the more money you earn, the more successful you are, the harder it is to create situations where you have to prove yourself and make yourself not just want it, but need it. The stakes should always feel high. [Loc. 1181]

As S-K’s popularity exploded — a surprise to the crew, for sure — Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss had to continually reinvent themselves within the label system without falling into the classic trap of ‘selling out.’ They were growing up — not necessarily out of the original intentions and the frustrations of the riot grrrl movement, but in the way that angst was channeled.

S-K’s 2003 tour with Pearl Jam taught Brownstein how to be a fan. A growing-up moment, Brownstein and co. challeneged themselves to play for and understand mainstream appeal.

Much of Hunger is about the changes within S-K and the Olympian music scene as the world became increasingly aware of them. As their sound got out, they were suddenly at the mercy of the imaginations of thousands of fans who were separated from the scene, which only further muddled the riot grrrl identity. And the more time the group spent cramped in vans together, scraping together to live on the road — some with increasingly important home lives calling to them  — the harder it was for them to not break apart.

It’s a good story, and Brownstein’s a fantastic writer and thinker.

(I think I’m sharing too much.)

Sleater-Kinney allowed me to perform both away from and into myself, to leave and to return, forget and discover. Within the world of the band there was a me and a not me, a fluctuation of selves that I could reinvent along the flight between perches. I could, at last, let go. For so long I had seen the lacking I’d been handed as a deficit, my resulting anxiety and depression were ambient, a tedious lassoing of air. But with Sleater-Kinney I stopped attempting to contain or control the unknown. I could embrace the unnamed and the in-between. I could engage in an unapologetic obliteration of the sacred. [Loc. 2900]

There’s not a whole lot to her story — here, at least — after S-K broke up the first time, but Brownstein’s more my hero for what she writes, anyway: She spent the year after S-K’s breakup racking up over 100 volunteer hours with the Oregon Human Society — enough to be awarded their Volunteer of the Year Award in 2006 — and started building a family of pets.  She shares stories both adorable and heartbreaking, and then it’s 2015, Wild Flag’s come and gone, S-K are back together with No Cities to Love just released, and her memoir’s closed until another day.

Brownstein poses with her first dog, Tobey, on the eastern edge of Oregon’s Cascade Range.

Bands like S-K, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile — they’re special to me. They take me back to when music was more than just background noise to bob my head to, but something that brought to light our plethora of social injustices. Even if that message is now a marketable label for concentrated angst — ‘riot grrrl’ is far removed from its original meaning after journalists and record labels transformed it into two very simple, very cool words — it meant something in and to our youths. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl recalls that wonderfully.


* Even if that inclusion ultimately came to look like an elitist form of exclusion she and Fred Armisen would lampoon in Portlandia, of keeping out those who didn’t understand the movement.

See, for example, this review.

Brownstein’s saved some of the more colorful reviews over the years, positive reviews by men and women both entrenched in our culture’s bountiful sexism:

Fortunately, their frequent lyrical challenges to gender roles didn’t devolve into rote male-bashing, and both sexes jumped and bobbed with joyful abandon. It helped that the three were quick with smiles, obviously enjoying the charged room.
(Washington Post, 1998)

But never does Sleater-Kinney sound forced, angry or sweet— the three words one most associates with all-women rock bands, and the three words that tend to hold women’s music back from the kind of raw believability that characterizes more macho rock.
(Metroactive, 1999)

You can call them punk. You can call them chicks. In fact, you can call them anything. But whatever you do, just don’t use that tired, worn phrase and call female trio Sleater-Kinney a riot grrrl band.
Prior to the interview, the band’s publicist even suggested that we refrain from asking the inevitable “women in rock” questions. But after listening to Sleater-Kinney’s tender yet irate brand of punk, you almost can’t help it. . . .
(CNN, 1999)

And my favorite:

Post-Riot-Grrls Sleater-Kinney are a boy rock critic’s wet dream. Not just because they sport that pouty, Salvation Army T-shirt-wearing look that drives those guys wild, but because SK’s fifth album, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars), is the kind of complex, multifaceted work that sparks hours of tedious nerdspeak. Is it a self-important, jaded up-yours to their indie-rock peers? Is it a portrait of the young ladies as artists? Is it a song-by-song conceptual response to the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat? The answer, more than likely, is yes to the third (the thematic cohesion is remarkable), but who cares? . . .
The trio blends synthesizers (!) and fuzzed-out boy-rock almost sweetly everywhere else— clues to the lay listener that there’s more going on here than just some spoiled little tomboys postponing their entrance into the workforce. . . .
So the Y-chromosome-bearing, cardigan-and-chain-wallet-wearing set can pop open a six-pack of Mountain Dew, kick off the Chuck Taylors, and settle in for a night of fawning. Everyone else should take All Hands on the Bad One as evidence that Sleater-Kinney aren’t some overrated one-trick indie artifact to be filed between Bikini Kill and Bratmobile— and proof to the boys that they’re more than three hot chicks in low-rider cords.
(City Pages, 2000)

This is shockingly condescending. It’s unbelievable that someone was actually paid money to write this cliche, sexist word-vomit. It’s even more shocking that this person was a woman. There’s barely any reference to the real music itself, just the presumed wet-dream fantasy of the first sentence.

I guess it’s fortunate that S-K at least knew how to put a smile on.

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