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10 December 2015

At last: a survival guide for rock’n’roll feminists

Carrie Brownstein of the riot grrrl pioneers Sleater-Kinney has written an artful and compelling memoir.

By Sarah Ditum

“It almost succeeded,” writes Carrie Brownstein of a concert video blasted into uselessness by bad lighting. “That could be our band biography: Almost, by Sleater-Kinney.” This is not a band biography. It’s a memoir by Brownstein, one of the Sleater-Kinney’s two guitarists and singers (Corin Tucker is the other; the third member is drummer Janet Weiss). But it is also, predominantly, about Brownstein as a member of Sleater-Kinney: how she became the kind of person who wants to be in bands, how she joined bands, what being in her band was like.

It’s disconcerting that Brownstein refers to Sleater-Kinney as a “nearly” band, because if you occupy a certain world, they’re the biggest thing in it. That world is the riot grrrl scene of Olympia, Washington – part upsurge of young women making DIY punk music and fanzines, part feminist conscious-raising group on a town-size scale. Of all the bands that came up through this movement, Sleater-Kinney have lasted the longest and gone the furthest. (Their only rival is Kathleen Hanna of riot grrrl architects Bikini Kill, whose career has been sadly interrupted by lengthy illness.)

But for Brownstein and her band, the aim was never to be the biggest thing in Olympia. Her earliest yearnings for stardom are not remotely lo-fi: the first gigs she goes to are Madonna and George Michael, a kid crushed up against the barricades. It’s at the latter that she has one of her foundational revelations about gender and music, and who she wants to be. The friend she’s with announces that she wants to give George Michael a blow job, and Brownstein (who will grow up to be bisexual and so not overwhelmingly fussed about penises) is not so much repulsed as uncomprehending: “I would much rather be the object of desire than dole it out from the sidelines, or perched upon my knees.”

The juvenile pursuit of fame that follows is described as comically as you’d expect from someone who went on to co-create (and star in) the hipster-twitting sketch show Portlandia/: she spends her time at home ambushing her parents with performances, or marshalling her friends into a Duran Duran tribute band. That longing for attention is one of the “hungers” that the title refers to (it’s a lyric from the Sleater-Kinney song “Modern Girl”). There’s another, more literal one too: her mother is anorexic, and spends substantial periods of Brownstein’s youth in an eating disorders unit.

Eventually her mother leaves the family entirely, which precipitates her father’s late-life coming out. An air of suburban gothic and repression hangs over Brownstein’s background, and she can evoke emotional states as intensely in writing as she does in music. Incidents rhyme and echo through the narrative, fed back through the amplifiers of memory and turned into squalling motifs of feedback. (In particular, it is bad news for Brownstein’s pets, who tend to arrive, acquire emotional resonance and then die tragically.)

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All this personal information is in sharp counterpoint to Sleater-Kinney’s notably buttoned-up public presentation. Rock’n’roll is a boys’ club – even for a girl band, tour debauchery involves hotel porn and peep shows, and Brownstein recalls being taken to a party by some musician friends where, of the three women present, she is the only non-call girl. For Sleater-Kinney, withholding emotionally is one way of refusing to be pinned down by their sex: “An audience doesn’t want female distance, they want female openness and accessibility, familiarity that validates femaleness.” In the eternal lose-lose of slut vs prude, they choose to be holdouts – which makes this artful, angular confessional matter all the more.

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The strategy works. Sleater-Kinney win the respect of peers and the love of critics. The rock critic Greil Marcus calls them the best band in America. Pearl Jam take them on a stadium tour. There’s a cost to this, though, and Sleater-Kinney find themselves rejected from the indie hug of Olympia. This is a generous memoir, with minimal score-settling: if anyone comes out of Brownstein’s anecdotes looking bad, it’s usually herself. But her ambivalence about small-scene life (and particularly the tendency of feminist groups to punish high achievers by trashing them as “sellouts” or “problematic”) is clear, and it’s one of the most compelling themes of the book.

There’s also the problem that success at a certain level in music really just means relentless, gruelling work. In 2005 Brownstein has an on-the-road breakdown that takes Sleater-Kinney most of a decade to come back from – but when they returned this year, they did so harder, sharper and more exciting, playing to audiences that had rediscovered feminism during their hiatus. With her comedian chops, Brownstein could have written one of those funny-woman self-help-ish books – like Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Amy Poehler’s Yes Please or (and this is the one that probably exhausted the genre) Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Thank goodness she didn’t. But if the post-riot grrrl generation of feminists wants a guide to surviving both the maddening demands of a male-made world and the pinching conditions of their own movement, they couldn’t do much better than this.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein is published by Virago (256pp, £16.99)