Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Release date: November 3, 2016
Label: Virago Press Ltd

Every year or so, a band with a sizeable body of work grabs me, hard, and I get pulled in deep. I usually wonder what took me so long. The style and qualities can vary, but the music is usually inventive, intelligent, emotional, cathartic, infectious, passionate, powerful. It becomes totally entwined with my life at that moment. It encapsulates whatever I’m feeling at that time; it’s a conduit, an expression, and a reflection. It imbues mundane places and activities with its gravity and presence – train station platforms, supermarkets, walks home. It binds itself so intricately that it becomes forever resonate of my life at a particular age; coded in memory and identity.

Over the last year, that has been the band Carrie Brownstein is most well known for being a part of: Sleater-Kinney.

So, I approached this book as a fan in the flourishing of fandom, tight in its emotional grasp. It is therefore apt that, following a brief prologue, Carrie opens the book with thoughts on what it means to be a fan, the forging of emotional connections to music, and some of her childhood and adolescent experiences (play-acting as a band with pieces of wood in place of instruments; screaming with adoration throughout a Madonna concert; pressing against a barrier until bruises darkened her ribs, thrilled to be so close to Kate Pierson of the B-52’s). As Carrie writes, fandom is often contextual and experiential – it’s about you being where you were at that time, your age, your surroundings, the friends it is shared with. But, to quote at length:

“Yet there is much music that survives de- and recontextualisation and that needs no experiential reference point. In this case, the role of the fan is still to be a participant, and to participate is to grant yourself permission to immerse, to willingly, gladly, efface and subsume yourself for the sake of the larger meaning but also to provide meaning. It’s symbiotic. My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood into your veins. This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness”.

Firstly, yes: Carrie can write. Very well. This book contains passages that get at what it feels like to be passionate about and emotionally connected to music at least as well as anything else I have read. The above certainly rings true for me. I’ve long felt that music can play a similar role to religion, and does for me. It’s there for inspiration, joy, sadness, comfort, introspection. It’s energising or calming. It’s thought provoking or challenging. It’s transcendent – the parallels between focusing on music and meditation, or jumping/dancing/singing amongst a mass of people at a gig and a preacher stirring followers to glossolalia and spasmodic movement seem clear to me.

Later, Carrie is nervous, anxious, bumbling, yet bold – eager to impress and ingratiate herself into the Olympia, Washington riot grrrl scene (there’s a particularly amusing story regarding her somewhat accidental application/audition to play guitar for 7 Year Bitch). Here, those she is a fan of are not alien superstars, but people not dissimilar to her. The intimacy, visibility, and directness of punk/indie rock is the realisation: this is how music is played, and this is what my expression shall be. Again, the articulation of the power and inspiration of seeing people like you up close, wringing music from instruments in sweaty basement shows, is spot on.

Music, like religion, is also a refuge, a community, an identity, a political force, and a potential instrument of social justice. The Olympia scene was all of these things, and Carrie’s writing is evocative and insight fascinating. I had a decent grasp of this scene prior to reading the book, but I have a far, far more lucid picture now. I typed place names into Google Maps as I read, tracing the routes from Redmond to Seattle, Redmond to Olympia, Olympia to Portland, getting a sense of the Pacific Northwest geography that seems both far away to me as a Brit, and familiar as an indie-rock nerd (and, if you are a nerd of this species, there’s much to delight in here – the perspective of someone who was a fan of and then key component of the scene, its place within the indie rock/punk narrative, the bands and names playing roles and passing through).

Being a music nerd is connected to both being a fan and music being a borderline religious, identity-conferring, communal force, and Carrie touches upon this too:

“I was so accustomed to hanging out with music nerds and being one myself, that I imagined everyone must love music with the same fervour as me and possess encyclopedic knowledge of it to boot. We also subscribed to codified aesthetics; they created a shorthand […] these were all signifiers so that we could locate other outsiders quickly”.

“The esoteric and extraneous knowledge of musical minutiae is still embedded deep within me, developed during those formative years as a means of social currency and credibility […] The facts are often arcane, but like any memorized code, they mark a kind of inclusion, a competency”.

Carrie is accurate and self-aware in these sections, as well as affectionate and critical. In my experience – and it is, I must admit, one in which I at times revel in being encyclopedic – this data collection is bound up with the emotional importance of music, but it is, also, as Carrie’s writing implies, tied into the construction of identity, group membership, and the language games/tests of the community. I have found myself dropping musical references of increasing obscurity – without consciously planning to do so – when talking with someone who, aesthetically, displays signs that they may ‘get music’. Like a test. If you ‘get’ music, maybe you’ll understand me too. If I’m met with bafflement, I’m disappointed. If their taste, outlook, politics, opinions, and whatever else strike me as unrefined or unpalatable, I may even feel mildly aggrieved. Get away from ‘our’ signifiers!

Carrie acknowledges the pitfalls of this kind of thinking:

“Eventually, I started to cringe at the elitism that was often paired with punk and the like. A movement that professed inclusiveness seemed to actually be highly exclusive, as alienating and ungraspable as many of the clubs and institutions that drove us to the fringes in the first place. One set of rules had simply been replaced by new ones, and they were just as difficult to follow”.

This is a fascinating, nuanced, many faceted topic. While my feeling aggrieved at co-opted signifiers when it comes to locating like-minded individuals is fairly ridiculous, and inclusivity is, generally, good, it seems valid to have been concerned about appropriation and commodification in the Riot Grrrl scene. This was a feminist movement with legitimate grievances and powerful messages delivered with raw honesty and clarity. There was a sense that voices were not being heard and issues were not being addressed; this is my voice, this is my perspective, this is my experience, and I am going to express it – and loudly.
When a message is that vital and personal and important, it is easy to see why its integrity would be protected from interlopers who may seek to exploit, dilute, or fail to understand it. This is post-Nevermind, and alt rock is somehow popular and profitable. Bands are being hoovered up by major labels, banking on the probability of striking gold somewhere. The narrative, ethos, and sound of scenes is simplified, warped, and formularised. The media are repeatedly disingenuous and unethical in the way they gather information and present individuals in the scene, as illustrated by several examples throughout the book. Putting up boundaries is understandable.

And it’s not only outsiders who are challenged. There’s an interesting section which illustrates the self-policing nature and constant internal dialogue of the scene – to be in it is to be a political entity, and to be open to being called out for any of your actions, statements, or values, something which felt both necessary/important and stifling/unclear/trap-laden. Barriers protect the fire, but those within risk self-immolation.
There’s so much going on here, far more than crude, hoary notions of ‘selling out’. Carrie is great at articulating how the scene felt, what some of the attitudes and ideals within it were, and her experience/perspective then and now. I think that self-awareness regarding the nature, codes, and assumptions of the various bubbles we find ourselves within is of particular pertinence in this age of algorithmically inbred echo chambers.

While the music scene largely compelled Carrie to move to Olympia, her departure from home was ostensibly to enroll at Evergreen State College, where she studied sociolinguistics. This is mentioned a few times throughout the book, and although it is not explored in much detail, the study of and interest in sociolinguistics seems to have had an impact on her outlook and work. The sections discussed above certainly seem concerned with discourse analysis and a keen observation of the way people communicate (as does Portlandia, the TV comedy Carrie writes and performs in). It also struck me as interesting in relation to the vocal approach Sleater-Kinney took early on, which came to be a defining element of their sound:

“[Corin] was louder than me, so her vocal was the lead by default, but we never really considered one a background part to the other. It was a conversation we were having: she had her perspective and I had mine. Or I was emphasizing her point, retelling it even as I was singing along with her. And our guitars did the same thing, augmenting and counteracting each other. We would get to the chorus, and intuitively you’d think this is the time for us all to sing together, that there should be cohesion, but instead we would split apart. It was almost an anti-chorus. We weren’t trying to form solidarity with anyone but ourselves”.

It seems to have been arrived at naturally, rather than through intellectual forethought, but feels like a confluence of the social politics of the scene (individual voices expressing individual perspectives in individual ways) and an outlook informed by sociolinguistics to me. The writing regarding the interplay of her and Corin’s guitars also reminded me of Mike Watt and D. Boon’s political approach to bass/guitar: equality through always leaving each other enough sonic space to be fully heard and expressed.

One way that I prolonged the book was to stop and listen to songs when they were mentioned, lyrics in hand and context fresh in my mind. This was a highly rewarding experience I recommend to any reader: listening while knowing what the band had just been through, where/how they had recorded, what they hoped to achieve, what was going on in their lives, how they were pushing themselves, and what the songs were about illuminated them with rich imagery and context. It also helped reveal what strong writers both Carrie and Corin are. The lyrics are hard-hitting, pointed, and fairly wide-ranging, evolving over time. There is plenty of youthful fire, outrage, and anxiety on the early records. Dig Me Out spans the heartbreak of Carrie and Corin’s breakup, and Corin’s new relationship with her eventual husband, Lance. As a three word phrase that gets at both heartbreak and falling in love, ‘Dig Me Out’ is pretty much perfect. The mid-period work becomes increasingly meta, with songs on All Hands On The Bad One elaborating upon and explaining earlier songs (i.e. Male Model – which is a fantastically clever title – in relation to the earlier, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone), and addressing the experience of being in a band, touring, media bullshit, and the frustration of the recurring questions/assumptions received as an all-female band. Later, the politics take a wider focus – One Beat is one of the first albums to explicitly address and critique post-9/11 attitudes and policy – and some of Corin’s most emotionally wrenching songs are written as a new parent. The book is excellent at conveying all of the above, and lots more.

Tour life, and the toll it takes on Carrie’s physical and mental health, is vividly, brutally, unromantically, portrayed. My own limited experience of spending 1 or 2 weeks on tour have felt adventuresome, but I know I would struggle to cope with it as a lifestyle – and Carrie did. Tour is rarely what it is in rock n roll myth. There were no drugs, groupies, or wild antics (and for bands for which there are, I suspect they’re often howls of self-medication). There were stuffy, long, uncomfortable drives, back pains, hospitalising allergic reactions and panic attacks, arguments, homesickness and longing for the loved ones there. Eventually, it becomes too much.

When the band implodes, you sense the gravity of it – you know how much is invested in it. You know Carrie’s narrative, what has led her to the band, and the immensity of what has been realised. This is the same person who stood in the crowd watching Corin perform as part of Heavens to Betsy and thought, “I need to do this”. She did. Her and Corin formed what ended up being one of the best bands in the world. Flick back and look at the photos – young, smiling, outside the van, ready to depart on that first grand adventure. 12 years of this. Feel the weight of the words, “no more”. Know the pain that must have been endured for them to come out. What follows: the relief, the void, the effort to fill it, and its hollowing out. The grief. It gave me quite an emotional hit.

The first section that I quoted at length not only applies to my relation to Sleater-Kinney’s music, but my experience of reading this book:

“Yet there is much music that survives de- and recontextualisation and that needs no experiential reference point. In this case, the role of the fan is still to be a participant, and to participate is to grant yourself permission to immerse, to willingly, gladly, efface and subsume yourself for the sake of the larger meaning but also to provide meaning. It’s symbiotic. My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood into your veins. This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness”.

The book, like the music, kindled a fire. I was already hungry. I am hungrier now; to observe, listen, learn, interact, support and create. To be involved and to be heard. To be conscientious, thoughtful, and just. To live with vitality pumping through my veins, and embrace what it is to be a fucking human being. And what more could you want of art than that?

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