For those not in the know, Hermione Granger’s–er, Emma Watson’s–feminist book club switched from monthly to bimonthly selections. Since I had so many other books to get through, I only just got to July/August’s pick. But it’s a fun one: HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL, memoir of punk icon Carrie Brownstein!
This book was exciting to me because the closest person I’ve had to a true idol was probably Veronica Varlow, a burlesque performer whose blog, the Danger Diary, I actually wrote about for my college application essay. (It would not be much of a stretch to say that blog got me through high school.) Veronica blog introduced me to Kathleen Hanna and the ’90s feminist punk movement that was Riot Grrrl. I got into Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney; I even read Girls at the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a nonfiction book about the short-lived but surprisingly influential movement. That book focused mostly on Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and the DIY zine scene of the movement’s defining bands; it only touched briefly on Sleater-Kinney, which arguably was a post-Riot Grrl band but the most acclaimed, long-lived, and successful of them all.
The first section leads up to Sleater-Kinney’s ‘making it’, beginning with Brownstein’s childhood–it doesn’t get dysfunctional until three chapters in when her mother is hospitalized for anorexia, which makes it genuinely jarring when it does–to her coming of age in Olympia in the aftermath of the Riot Grrrl movement. The second and longest section is all about the band she formed with Corin Tucker (whom she also dated for a time; a press writeup famously was what outed them to their then-oblivious families) and Janet Weiss. The third, brief “Aftermath” is a coda that follows Brownstein after Sleater-Kinney’s breakup in 2006 to their reunion and acclaimed comeback album in 2015.
Unlike other famous musicians, Brownstein was already known as a writer–most famously, she’s the co-creator of the award-winning sketch comedy Portlandia (which, somewhat surprisingly, barely gets a mention at all.) I haven’t watched it much (not because I don’t like it, but because I’m just not a big TV watcher), but I am familiar with it because the roommate has. It’s notable for being a show by a famously progressive feminist from the Pacific Northwest that spoofs progressive Pacific Northwest hipster types, and it’s that capacity for self-reflection and critique that’s most interesting about this book. It’s striking how little Brownstein attempts to impress us or swagger or cultivate a mythos: she writes with respect and reverence for performing, both as a musician and a fan, but when she admits to feeling unsure of her own identity, you believe her.
Another thing that was really interesting to me about this book was how, yes, relevant it does seem. At times, it genuinely shocked me how much the issues Brownstein describes in the indie scene that made Sleater-Kinney, such as outsider status becoming its own form of elitism (“Art communities and music scenes want to pretend like they don’t care, but they will also tell you louder and more frequently than anyone that they DON’T CARE.”), where the line is between a progressive community that is admirably willing to hold its own members accountable and a self-policing echo chamber, and the commodification of feminism, could easily describe modern Internet culture.
The last one is the most interesting and relevant here. After all, the others are probably issues that never really change; the popularization of feminism is what most distinguishes the cultural landscape of the 2010s with that of the ’90s that both created Riot Grrrl and led it to remain underground. Sleater-Kinney gets a lot of credit for ‘transcending’ the Riot Grrrl label, but two decades later, Riot Grrrl has held up pretty well too. Kathleen Hanna has continued to front successful bands and inspired a documentary; acclaimed musicians like CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry and Screaming Females’ Marisa Paternoster have credited the movement as an inspiration.
Brownstein herself admits that she tried to avoid the ‘feminist musician’ label that was so integral to other Riot Grrrl bands, before realizing, after decades of sexist media coverage (and the infamous “Woodstock 1999” that saw multiple incidents of sexual assault) that ‘Denial is its own form of compliance and self-erasure.’ One passage stood out to me in particular, and I’ll close this post with this:
Persona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman, more distant and unknowable, and thus threatening. When men sing personal songs, they seem sensitive and evolved; when women sing personal songs, they are inviting and vulnerable, or worse, catty and tiresome.