Sleater-Kinney’s best songs powerfully render the complexity that characterizes the life of a young woman.
Take the band’s 2005 album The Woods. It features songs like “The Fox,” about a suave animal that entices, but also repulses, a young duck. “Oh fox, is this love?” the moonstruck duck asks. But as the songs goes on, it is made clear that the “good-looking fox only knew one trick”—how to break hearts. It’s an Aesop’s fable for the single woman.
Another standout is the 1996 song “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” in which the women of Sleater-Kinney examine the angst they feel about being labeled as female musicians. As the title of the song suggests, the singers want to be equal to the men, no different than the great Joey Ramone. But this desire is qualified with a proclamation of gender: “I’m the queen of rock and roll.” To be a queen and Joey Ramone all at once—if only such a thing were possible.
The expression of these complex emotions and desires was an especially subversive notion when Sleater-Kinney came to prominence in the 1990s on the heels of the Riot Grrrl punk rock movement. (And it is probably still just as subversive today.) Women were and are too often told what to want—to stay at home, to join the workforce, to have children. Sleater-Kinney explores desire freely, allowing each feeling to rise without worrying if it contradicts the last or adheres to prevailing dogma. This openness makes for strikingly elegant revolutionary statements set to the sound of rock and roll.
Reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein’s memoir of her life as a member of Sleater-Kinney, is an enjoyable, albeit less complicated experience. In some way, this is understandable enough as the book offers a single perspective, rather than three. But memoir as a form does present ample opportunity to portray conflicting desires and emotional messiness—in short, the stuff of Sleater-Kinney songs.
And this is a reasonable expectation based on the book’s title, which comes from a track off The Woods called “Modern Girl.” The song mixes sugary melodies with oscillating, leather-tough lyrics. “My baby loves me,” it repeats, but each time the thought is brought up the emotion that follows it is changed. So at first, it’s: “I’m so happy /Happy makes me a modern girl.” Then it’s: “I’m so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl.” And finally it’s: “I’m so angry / Anger makes me a modern girl.” Happiness. Hunger. Anger. All featured in one song.
Brownstein certainly tells her reader that she is a complicated soul. “Internally I was something far more complex,” she writes, reflecting on her narrow portrayal in the music magazine Spin. (Brownstein harbors some animosity against the press, but rightly so. Spin outed her.) “Introverted and overly cerebral” is how she describes herself in another instance. She got through things with “blinders on” and only reflected later, she says.
But Brownstein misses the opportunity to portray that complexity to its fullest because she does not push the bounds of her own comfort level. There are aspects of her life she is willing to discuss: her maladies on tour, the loneliness of tour, how much she hated tour, the time she repeatedly punched herself before walking on stage because she hated being sick and lonely on tour, and also her pets. There is a whole chapter devoted to the last since caring for animals subsumed her life when the band took a break. She is also willing to discuss her father’s gayness and her mother’s eating disorder at length. Because of this, at times the book reads like a somewhat tired narrative: the necessary and difficult journey of a young person destined to become an artist.
However, when it comes to her personal life, Brownstein is less direct, using vague allusions to discuss her romantic desires. She describes herself as “queer” and briefly mentions girls she dated or desired, but she refuses to delve deeper. This limits Brownstein’s portrayal of herself, and her portrayal of the band’s development because her sexual history is intertwined with Sleater-Kinney—she and Corin Tucker, the band’s other singer and guitarist, dated.
Brownstein offers readers a few details about her break-up with Corin (they were dating in addition to working and living together, and Brownstein felt overwhelmed) but not much about the relationships itself, something that surely affected the band’s output. Perhaps Brownstein did not want to reveal too many intimate details about a relationship that likely meant quite a bit to her. This may be in good taste, but it does not make for a smooth narrative; suddenly the two are broken up when the reader didn’t even realize that they were dating yet. Surely there must be a way to balance the desire to be respectful with the needs of narrative arc.
It is withholding like this that ultimately robs Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl of its chance to equal Sleater-Kinney’s best work.
There is a track on The Woods that both compels and bothers me. It is the song “Jumpers,” which Carrie Brownstein wrote after reading a 2003 New Yorker article. The piece, which shares a name with the song, examines the Golden Gate Bridge and the people who commit suicide by jumping off of it. The song’s morbid lyrics are set to fast-paced music with a strong drumbeat: “Be still this old heart,” it goes. “Be still this old skin / Drink your last drink / Sin your last sin.” It’s the kind of song one might bop along to at a concert—it’s a scary thought, nodding one’s head to suicide.
The thing about “Jumpers” that bothers me most is what I can feel behind the music. Analytical and far from confessional on the surface, the song betrays a deep well of sadness. Because who would write a song about such an article unless they are themselves depressed? A certain amount of despair is what likely attracts a person, in this case Carrie Brownstein, to such a topic. And that leaves you, the listener, in an uncomfortable situation, because how does one respond to another person’s sadness when it’s drawn from what’s not rather than what’s in the song?
This same analytical quality carries over to Brownstein’s memoir. In fact, most of the book is told through the lens of analysis. What Brownstein thinks about the subject precedes the actual events; events are mentioned as points to prove what Brownstein thinks. It’s a house-of-cards construction that allows Brownstein to shield her true feelings from the readers, at least superficially. And while the book is not as worrisome as “Jumpers,” one must wonder what lurks beneath its surface. Perhaps that’s where complexity lies.