The first time I bought tickets to see Sleater-Kinney, I was living in a basement apartment in Yonkers, New York. I was in grad school, completely broke, but I bought tickets for me and my roommate. I can chart a lot of my grad school life in New York according to The Woods; in fact, that album basically provided the soundtrack for most of my thesis-writing marathons (I literally thanked Sleater-Kinney for that in my acknowledgements). Shortly after I bought those tickets, the bomb dropped: Sleater-Kinney was going on indefinite hiatus. The New York show, the last they’d play there for almost a decade, immediately sold out. Suddenly, The Woods tour turned into a farewell tour of sorts; my first time seeing them would also probably be my last.
In the nine years that followed, the women of Sleater-Kinney went on to different projects. Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss went on to do other music projects, while Carrie Brownstein is probably most recognized now for her role in Portlandia. Sleater-Kinney reunited in secret a couple of years ago, released a new album in January, and have spent the better part of this year on tour (I got to see them twice…yay!). Carrie also just released a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (lyrics from a Sleater-Kinney song called “Modern Girl”). And while I’ll admit that my take on it is partially colored by the fact that I fangirl hard for Carrie, it really is a beautifully written book!
She recounts her days growing up in Pacific Northwest, middle-class suburbia. She laments not having any cool stories about her music roots (her parents just took her to a suburban music store and bought her a guitar), but she was obsessed with finding new music to listen to. The 1990s music scene coming out of Olympia, Washington was a force to be reckoned with (see: that little band called Nirvana), and the riot grrrl scene was calling. At home, she was dealing with her mother’s eating disorder-related hospitalizations. Her mother eventually left the family, and her father came out as gay a few years later. Music was her creative outlet.
After a few failed attempts at being in a band, she connected with Corin Tucker (who was already part of the riot grrrl scene), and the rest is history. Kind of. There would be a few different drummers before Janet Weiss completed the trio, and though the three are very close — the book is actually dedicated to Corin and Janet — their relationship was not without its hiccups. Touring always took its toll on Carrie, and this stress physically manifested itself on her: her back would go out, she’d break out in hives, she’d have allergic reactions, and at the time it became apparent that Sleater-Kinney needed to go on hiatus, she actually came down with a case of shingles. Things she writes about that last New York show are very telling, and looking back in retrospect, so much of it was obvious that night.
She reflects on all of this in more quite thoughtfully, and the book as a whole is very introspective, but she guards her privacy at all times. For instance, she mentions two failed relationships she had that contributed to her emotional state, but she doesn’t name names or give any identifying details. When she does name names, it’s usually about other people she knew from the early scene, such as Miranda July. Those who mostly know her from Portlandia might also be in for a surprise: Portlandia gets only one or two sentences in the epilogue.
But it was interesting to see what she chose to focus on. Sleater-Kinney’s feminist politics play a major role; at times she analyzes their lyrics and links them to important political and pop culture moments that had an effect on the band. One part of the book reminded me of Nora Ephron’s list of things that she won’t miss when she’s gone; “Panels on Women in Film” makes that list. If a woman excels in something considered to be a “man’s field,” that always seems to be the focus of people’s questions about her career. In Carrie’s case, however, she seems resigned to that fact; to her, being asked, “what’s it like to be a female rock star” is a part of being a female rock star, annoying gender-based questions at all. And the way music critics — even those trying to be complimentary — have written about Sleater-Kinney is telling. Sexist commentary abounds, and Carrie includes a few snippets of sexist reviews in the book, such as this one from City Pages:
“POST-RIOT-GRRRLS 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.”
It’s this type of feminist insight (plus, okay, the Sleater-Kinney history) that made me love the book. As far as rock memoirs go, this one hits all the right notes.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was released on October 27, 2015 by Riverhead Books. I listened to the audiobook version produced by Penguin Audio.