In the Blog
Carrie Brownstein: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
Image: Penguin Random House
It’s been nearly a decade since Carrie Brownstein’s band Sleater-Kinney announced their hiatus. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest’s burgeoning 1990s music scene—from which the riot grrrl movement and bands such as Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy emerged — Sleater-Kinney was arguably the region’s most exciting exports. Since the hiatus, which came following the tour for their marvellous seventh album The Woods, Sleater-Kinney fans have at least had the chance to follow each of the three band members as they embarked on their subsequent projects. Corin Tucker, guitarist and vocalist of distinct and blood churning trills, went on to do solo work. Janet Weiss—drummer; force of nature—played with other bands, including Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks and the amazing Wild Flag (with Brownstein and Mary Timony). Brownstein herself, meanwhile, undertook some writing gigs and, more recently, settled on a comedy project with friend Fred Armisen—this became Portlandia, which has become so popular that Brownstein’s name is now sooner associated with the comedy show than with the band she played in for twelve years. (I know this because I have been asked, by water coolers and in airplanes, by the young and old and everyone in between, whether I watch Portlandia, and rarely has my interlocutor known what I meant when I said I’ve been a Carrie fan since the 90s.)
In early 2015, Sleater-Kinney released a new album, No Cities to Love, and set out on tour. Think: Elvis coming back from the dead. And then, before the fizz and excitement of this secretly-recorded project and the opportunity to see the three musicians again could begin to settle, came the announcement of Brownstein’s upcoming memoir — Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, published in late 2015 by Riverhead Books.
In Hunger, Brownstein offers, first, a portrait of her childhood years and the perplexing family dynamic that reigned in her home. She writes of a psychologically absent and eventually physically absent mother, and a father who seemed in need of escape (he finally came out as gay to Brownstein when she was an adult). The slow dissolution of Brownstein’s family, what she describes as its “oddity and detachment,” is exemplified by the fate of the family dog Buffy. Initially doted on and cared for to the point that the family took a first-aid class so as to know how to care for her, with time, Brownstein writes, Buffy “turned back into a stray in her own home on account of the rest of us surrendering to emptiness, drifting away from anything we could call familiar.” The family eventually asked Brownstein’s 16-year-old sister to drive the dog to the vet and have her put down. She wasn’t sick, Brownstein writes, just neglected.
Sleater-Kinney was Brownstein’s family and, as she writes in the prologue, it saved her life countless times. The bulk of Hunger is devoted to the story of the band. First, its beginnings — Brownstein’s move to Olympia, Washington and her interactions in a scene that didn’t just support but demanded creative expression, mainly through DIY punk music projects. As the band takes on a shape and becomes a bona fide venture, the chapters follow the making of each of Sleater-Kinney’s albums. Hunger, in that sense, becomes a biography of the band, with Brownstein providing themed anecdotal digressions: the mechanics of touring (sleeping bags, couches, cramped cars); how touring taxes romantic relationships (broken hearts, running to the payphone at road stops to call significant others in a time of no cell phones and no text messaging).
Threaded throughout these sections on Sleater Kinney, are the issues that arose within the band: fights, some petty some big, communication problems necessitating counselling sessions, a recurring sense of tiredness and alienation, even within this second, found family. In the end, Brownstein maps her own issues onto the band’s demise, as if the band’s breakup was her own singlehanded doing, her fault. This doesn’t come as a surprise — we were forewarned even before page 1, in the prologue, where Brownstein writes that she “destroyed” Sleater- Kinney. Reading about the end of the band in the final chapters of Hunger, though, the picture is significantly enlarged. Though Brownstein’s mounting health issues, depression, and stress may have made the band decide to take an exit, it’s clear that the band’s breakup was larger than the sum of its parts. Sleater-Kinney, like many other long-lasting, influential bands, was like a living thing, with a lifespan (and a recent resurrection!). Hunger very successfully gives us a bio of that living thing, through the eyes of one of its essential parts — Brownstein, from stage right.