Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
By Carrie Brownstein
[Riverhead/Penguin Books]

Sure, I know it’s tiresome to say that a quasi-celebrity has parlayed their notoriety to become a “brand,” but that’s exactly what Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein has done in the last decade or so. So what is the Brownstein brand, you ask? The Brownstein brand is post-indie cool, subtle self-parody, a queer je ne sais quoi that everyone finds sexy, a great haircut, cool clothes – and a heaping dose of indie/punk cred. In other words, Brownstein is the It Girl for middle-aged rockers like (probably) you and (definitely) me – a much more intelligent and much less haughty Edie Sedgwick for the aging grunge generation, if you will. Ah, wonderful Carrie.

Of course it’s Sleater-Kinney that first propelled Brownstein into the limelight. The band was (not exactly by design and for better or worse) tacked onto the tail end of the riot grrrl thing, which was probably only guilt by association. Sure, Sleater-Kinney was inspired by Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and the like – but their subject matter was more about alienation of and emancipation for the othered individual than it was about women’s (or grrrl’s) struggles per se. Sleater-Kinney weathered (and perhaps exploited) the riot grrl pigeonholing to eke out a sturdy niche for themselves as America’s most righteous band – post-Fugazi that is. For an indie band, they were really, really popular.

But it was probably the IFC comedy series, Portlandia, that ended up being Brownstein’s ticket to lasting semi-fame. Sleater-Kinney was a cool band, but their warbling post-punk sound may have been a wee bit grating for some – including myself. In contrast, Brownstein, as she (more or less) portrayed herself on Portlandia, was the funny, pretty (and pretty friendly) pangender girl next door – a supercool older sister who just so happens to like girls, maybe. Anyway, in a couple of decades Brownstein quite capably evolved from just another indie rocker to become the darling of the Whole Foods, NPR set. Or something.

And then Sleater-Kinney had its triumphal reunion a couple-three years ago.

So Brownstein’s trajectory would provide ample fodder for what is essentially yet another rock memoir, right? Sure, the rock memoir has become a hackneyed form, just as rock ’n’ roll has long since become hackneyed. But Brownstein has built a career by defying the petrification of cliché. Brownstein is much smarter and more introspective than most rock stars. And, as usual, she’s beaten the odds again.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is basically Brownstein’s coming-of-age story in the context of Sleater-Kinney. Yes, there are brief passages about the post-reunion Sleater-Kinney and the briefest mention of Portlandia, but the bulk of Modern Girl concerns Sleater-Kinney’s Mach I period. And quite frankly, that’s the part of Brownstein’s career arc that’s probably the most interesting, anyway. And when you combine an interesting story with a really good writer (Brownstein), well, you’ve got a great read.

Modern Girl is a memoir, not a tell-all. This is to say that while the book reveals much about Brownstein and (especially) her interaction with Sleater-Kinney members Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, the book is more than a tally of who-fucked-who, who got fucked up and who got fucked over. Sleater-Kinney was always aware of its place (or lack thereof) in the male dominated rock hierarchy, and the band built a career out of their own self-referential navel gazing – to good effect, I might add. The Sleater-Kinney experiment was both an interrogation of what it meant to be a woman and (perhaps more so) what it meant to be a woman in rock.

Brownstein writes: This is where we {Sleater-Kinney} were starting to grapple with something we would grapple with for the rest of our time as a band: there was always a sense that we were going to have to defend and analyze what we were doing. Why are you an all-female band? Why don’t you have a bass player? What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realize that those questions – that talking about the experience – had become part of the experience itself. More than anything, I feel that this meta-discourse, talking about the talk, is part of how it feels to be a “woman in music” (or a “woman in anything,” for that matter – politics, business, comedy, power).

 Likewise, Brownstein’s memoir is something of a meta-analysis and/or autoethnography – she (capably) employs Sleater-Kinney’s rise-to ruin-to rise-again story as a (fittingly) paradigmatic unit of analysis with which to ponder big picture questions about gender, sex, class and sexuality. Yeah, this sounds like it might be a bit tiresome for the reader – but it isn’t. Brownstein is such an excellent writer that such musings read more like a really interesting conversation in a coffee shop than something you’d hear in a Gender Studies lecture at Smith College. Sure, she takes herself seriously – but not too seriously.

There are some gaps in Brownstein’s memoir, however. The era between Sleater-Kinney’s breakup and reformation is only barely addressed. Brownstein and Weiss’s post Sleater-Kinney band, Wild Flag, is only barely mentioned. And Portlandia is almost totally elided. She’s probably saving those accounts for another book.

Still, Modern Girl offers artfully wrought, “rich description” of Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney’s ’90s era in the trenches of the punk/indie underground – which will remain the most interesting segment of Brownstein’s continuing story methinks. It’s certainly the most entertaining, memorable, and worthwhile rock memoir of the year, and then some.