The Sleater-Kinney Chronicles: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Carrie Brownstein

Carrie Brownstein’s circuitous, painful, ultimately triumphant time as co–lead guitarist and vocalist in the rock band Sleater-Kinney is the topic of her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. In the book’s prologue, the group is on tour in England, and Brownstein has shingles. She feels “liminal and weightless,” haunted by the sense that she’s about to destroy Sleater-Kinney, which she says had provided her with the “first unconditional love” she’d ever known. 

After this intriguing introduction, we’re whisked back to Brownstein’s youth in Redmond, Washington, a Seattle suburb that Microsoft would soon take over. While physically comfortable, Brownstein’s childhood was far from emotionally stable. Her mother suffered from anorexia and eventually left the family; her father was hiding, or slowly discovering, that he was gay. After a description of visiting her mother in the eating disorder unit at a hospital, Brownstein writes of the patients, “No matter the size of their own sense of insubstantiality, each had taken on the form of her disease. It made me hungry and empty, too, but not for food. I was hungry for family, for strength, for wholeness.” The hunger of the title refers in part to this yearning.

Hunger Makes Me_largeBrownstein went looking for a family and a band, ultimately ending up at the Evergreen State College in Olympia. Nostalgia fittingly pervades the sections about her early encounters with the riot grrrl movement and such bands as Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and her own first band, Excuse 17. Brownstein’s descriptions of her outfits from this era made me laugh out loud: For an audition with 7 Year Bitch, for example, she wore “cutoff jeans with a slight pleat at the top paired with an oversized Hanes T-shirt” and “one of my father’s suit vests, which swung out from my body like saloon doors. Worst of all was that I had a green J.Crew baseball cap atop my head that I inexplicably wore backward. In a momentary fit of self-consciousness and doubt (and I am relieved that I can write this) I removed the hat before I got out of the car.” She didn’t get the gig, but not because of her outfit, exactly. The band felt she was too young.

Soon Brownstein started hanging out with Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy. Tucker wanted to start something new; initially this took the shape of both a band, Sleater-Kinney, and a romantic relationship. Tucker and Brownstein dated for several years before breaking up while on tour. I was astonished to learn that Spin magazine had outed the women in their first major interview for a national publication, much to their own and their families’ surprise (they hadn’t even discussed it in the interview). Brownstein reports having felt “splintered and smashed.” She hadn’t yet come up with a persona for herself, she explains, and now one was being written for her without her permission.

Some of the best moments in the book come when Brownstein analyzes music, the music business and the scenes that support it. She critiques riot grrrl and similar movements, noting the “elitism that was often paired with punk and the like.” Many of those who came out of Olympia, she says, were suspicious of success in a way that was too constricting. This is another part of the hunger Brownstein’s title recalls. “Sleater-Kinney was ambitious,” she writes. “We didn’t only want to preach to the choir, to the already converted.”

Despite the band’s desire to be heard more widely, their deference to their punk roots and the limitations of the mainstream music media kept them in relative obscurity even though they had earned critical acclaim. And the women have constantly been reminded of their outsider status in the male-dominated world of rock. “I was a female guitarist and Janet [Weiss] was a female drummer for years before we were simply considered a guitarist and a drummer,” Brownstein writes with some bitterness. She’s clearly proud of Sleater-Kinney’s part in making skepticism about women in rock a thing of the past, but she’s also still annoyed about all the time that she and her bandmates spent answering stupid questions instead of just making killer music.

Although Sleater-Kinney has always been a small operation of do-it-yourselfers, some talented people did support the group over the years, and Brownstein nods to a few, including Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, as well as Jack White and the White Stripes. As a huge Jack White fan, I particularly enjoyed an anecdote in which Brownstein and White attempt to attend a party at Oberlin College, only to be turned away. The image of those two standing on a stoop in Ohio and having a door close in their faces is just too incredible. All in all, name-checks of famous friends and stories of wild adventures are few and far between here. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish for more of those, but apparently that’s not what Brownstein’s life has been like.

In The Washington Post, Ruth Graham begins her review of this book with the complaint that “it is hard to write a satisfying memoir when your life’s narrative arc is, ‘I was born cool, I got cooler, I was rewarded handsomely for my coolness, and I kept on being cool,’” which Graham thinks is essentially Brownstein’s story. This book certainly doesn’t put its author’s coolness in doubt, but it definitely helps dispel the impression that she’s too cool for school. Carrie Brownstein—exulted musician, occasionally resented comedian—is a real person, shingles and all.

Photo: Everett