clock menu more-arrow no yes
Suzi Pratt/Getty
Suzi Pratt/Getty

Filed under:

Carrie Brownstein's Band Memoir Is So Good

The Sleater-Kinney guitarist has clearly thought hard about fame, feminism, and the artistic process

When Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein was in her late teens, flailing around between colleges in the Pacific Northwest and trying to find her place in a band, she answered a classified ad and ended up auditioning to be in the Seattle-famous, all-female rock band 7 Year Bitch.

Bassist Elizabeth Davis rejected Brownstein for being too young, but she didn’t accept the judgment. As Brownstein explains in her new book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, “I did what any teenage girl would do: I wrote a letter wherein I compared myself to the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.”


Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

She also described her alienated childhood in suburban Redmond, Washington, and her mother’s abandonment of her family — "the whole maudlin story." Looking back, she writes, "People think that the digital age and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter nurture oversharing, but in 1992 there was nothing stopping me from treating any piece of paper like a personal diary." The letter didn’t work, but Brownstein eventually achieved its goal: to live through making music. Years later, Davis met Brownstein again after a Sleater-Kinney show and told her she loved the band; Davis didn’t recognize her as the young fan desperate to be transformed by rock and roll.

Sleater-Kinney fans will discover what it was like to be onstage during the shows we were lucky enough to witness.

The older, wiser Brownstein telling this story has shed the tendency to open up her diary to strangers, and fans hoping for unguarded self-revelation will find themselves occasionally howling at the page. Brownstein backs away from some of the seemingly crucial moments in the story of her band’s evolution. Most egregious of these is the handful of sentences devoted to the romantic relationship between Brownstein and bandmate Corin Tucker, which started when their musical collaboration did and ended right after they recorded their second album, Call The Doctor. "During this time I broke up with Corin," is Brownstein’s terse description of their breakup, and that’s basically all we get. This book is not, as she later admits, VH1’s Behind The Music.

Instead, Brownstein’s memoir has more in common with the fascinating 33 1/3 series: books that take apart albums and moments in music history and deconstruct them from both technical and emotional standpoints. Better still, it’s written from the perspective of an insider who can tell us what it felt like to produce those sounds and to flail and kick her way across those stages. For Sleater-Kinney fans, a lot of the pleasure of reading Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is in how it enables us to relive the moments in our lives when we first heard those records and remember how they made us feel, and to discover what it was like to be onstage during the shows we were lucky enough to witness.

Brownstein_2005

Brigitte Engl/Redferns

The book is structured around albums and tours, and Brownstein carefully traces the way Sleater-Kinney’s unique sound came to be. Tension in the band produced some of its most memorable music, and we do get a peek at how Dig Me Out is, in its way, Sleater-Kinney’s Tusk: a breakup album co-written by the people involved in the breakup. "Since we sing on each other’s songs, and often have to write lyrics that work in conjunction with one another, we were forced to live inside the other person’s story, her perspective, her ache," Brownstein writes. But there were other, more unexpected sources of musical evolution: a tour opening for Pearl Jam between One Beat and The Woods re-set the band’s expectation of itself, teaching its members how to break out of patterns. Playing for an audience who didn’t know their songs, they finally had license to jam.

For readers like me, whose brain chemistry was permanently altered the first time we heard Dig Me Out as teens, this book could have been a setlist in Brownstein’s handwriting and we’d be happy. But there’s also a lot here for people who aren’t particularly into the band and who know of Brownstein because of her other careers, most notably as the co-creator of the satirical IFC series Portlandia. As that show makes clear, Brownstein is a keen observer with a wicked sense of humor. That humor is only on display here in brief, impish flashes, but her sharp eye makes what could have been another lackluster entry on the crowded shelf of mostly ghostwritten band memoirs transcend its genre.

Brownstein makes it clear that life on the road, even for a band as beloved as Sleater-Kinney, is far from glamorous.

She has also thought hard about fame and work and feminism and the artistic process, and it shows. Among her memorable insights: that you have to continually unsettle yourself if you want to keep making good work after becoming successful, and that "the notion of ‘female’ should be so sprawling and complex that it becomes divorced from gender itself." The latter statement comes from a combination of years of being interviewed and profiled in sometimes shockingly sexist ways, and her education at Evergreen, the question-everything liberal arts college she attended in Olympia, Washington. This background has made Brownstein a measured and clear-eyed critic of what it means to be a woman in what’s still a male-dominated industry. (There are also many moments of dead-on description, including the best evocation of her friend, the artist Miranda July, that I’ve ever read: "both delicate and dangerous. A rabid bunny.")

What becomes clear is that being in Sleater-Kinney is very hard work, both physically and emotionally. Despite the occasional interventions of Portlandia-style mediators — a hard-rock fan named Stacey D/C, a pair of couples counselors who are, themselves, a couple — the band has always been plagued by interpersonal strife, splintering and reuniting in small ways until finally, in 2006, a crisis led them to abruptly call it quits for six years. Brownstein describes these struggles without a shred of melodrama, axe-grinding, or self-pity, and she makes it clear that life on the road, even for a band as beloved as Sleater-Kinney, is far from glamorous. Since the transcendent moments performing are as good as it gets, she writes, she doesn’t understand how anyone could get onstage and not "give everything." By the end of Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, we feel grateful that Brownstein has given so much of herself, including this book.

Essays

Aging, but Make It Fashion

Essays

The Death of the Plain Preppy Sneaker

Essays

Navigating the Intensely Gendered World of Hair Salons When You’re Queer

View all stories in Essays