It can be either a relief or a point of despair to look back at the past and find that the difficulties of the present aren’t actually troubling new developments. In this vein, I found it useful to begin 2016 with Sleater-Kinney guitarist and actress Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” an account of her time in the crucible of Olympia, Wash., the birth of the Riot Grrrl movement. The book is a useful look back on a situation that mirrors some of our present cultural difficulties. And it’s a smart consideration of how high political standards, and the continual fight against entertainment industry sexism, affected Sleater-Kinney’s art.
I was only ever a devotee of Riot Grrrl from a distance, publishing an issue of a college women’s magazine devoted to Sleater-Kinney and spending a cold night in a Providence, R.I., hotel lobby waiting for a bus home after seeing the band play on Valentine’s Day. But I read “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” with a shock of recognition that threw me back and forth in time. The female superstars of today may not have taken much from the movement sonically. But the intellectual tradition of Riot Grrrl is alive and well and mainstream in cultural criticism today.
Brownstein points to Evergreen State College as a formative influence on the music scene in Olympia, which was not merely anti-corporate but engaged in a searching, collective critique informed by academic doctrines about race, gender, sexual orientation and class. It was a process that Brownstein describes as “an exhausting endeavor but one that built a special and sometimes frustrating insularity,” and one that’s immediately recognizable in contemporary discussions of mass culture.
She also sketches a portrait of a call-out culture familiar to anyone who follows today’s pop culture discussions closely. In the absence of the Internet, those critiques of individuals might have had more limited reach — getting ” ‘zined’ (the term for devoting pages of a fanzine to a person’s perceived racist, sexist, classist, ageist, transphobic, whatever-ist behavior)” might not follow a person beyond the city limits of Olympia, and a song might not be recognizable as a zinger beyond the context in which it was originally written and performed. But that didn’t make them any less scathing. And Brownstein suggested that they made her something of a moderate.
“I became acutely aware of myself as a political entity, but while the discourse felt important, necessary even, it also felt stifling,” she writes. “The perimeters were unclear, almost like traps. Those bolder than I set forth unabashedly, and were willing to be called out, but I stuck to watching it happen, on the periphery of the dialogue as an audience member and supporter, too scared to commit something treasonous.”
Brownstein’s girlfriend and bandmate, Corin Tucker, was quicker to dive deeply into critique, even in the most intimate areas of her life. “You’d walk around the apartment and be confronted with words like ‘Racist’ affixed to a can of Calumet baking powder. I’m not sure why she didn’t just avoid the brand, but I suppose if you’re in a period of continual confrontation, why stop at yourself,” Brownstein observed wryly.
So what does it mean to live and make art in an environment like this? Brownstein credits Bikini Kill and other bands with creating space for Sleater-Kinney to merely rock. But there’s a sense of profound fatigue running through “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.” “A certain kind of exhaustion sets in from having to constantly explain and justify one’s existence or participation in an artistic or creative realm,” Brownstein writes of the burnout her predecessors experienced.
She describes Tucker’s early band, Heavens to Betsy, as characterized by a certain humorlessness because “when you’re part of an early movement like she was with Riot Grrrl–where she had to create a space for herself and for her audience, where every show felt like a statement, where before you could play and sing you had to construct a room, one you’d be respected in, wouldn’t get hurt in, a space that allowed for or even acknowledged stories that hadn’t been told before, about sexual assault, sexism, homophobia, and racism, and then, musically, you have to tear that very space down–there’s not a lot of room for joking around.”
And the political goals of Riot Grrrl freighted the movement with an obligation it couldn’t possibly meet, to “address all forms of personhood and inequality.” The standards it set for individual members were also extraordinarily high, “to protect one another, to be inoffensive, inclusive, aware of our own shortcomings and faults, to improve and evolve, to make radical changes.” Ultimately, Brownstein would feel particularly stung during the planning for Ladyfest, a music festival scheduled for 2000, when her fellow organizers — echoing second-wave feminist infighting about success and credit — criticized her and Sleater-Kinney for being too popular with journalists.
But trying to pretend that gender doesn’t matter in a historically male space like rock carries its own cost. “Sometimes the effort of pushing ourselves away felt like an act of self-amputation, self-effacement,” Brownstein writes, especially after the accusations of rape and sexual assault at Woodstock in 1999 and the rise of the Spice Girls’ commercialized brand of female empowerment.
I don’t know that “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” has a comforting lesson for anyone trying to navigate an intensely political cultural environment. Sleater-Kinney was defined in part by the magnetic poles that pulled the band in multiple directions. Since I’ve read it, I can’t stop thinking about Brownstein’s sharp diagnosis of Riot Grrrl, which applies just as well to many of our cultural debates today: “There is a direness in the construction of safety, in the telling of theretofore untold stories.”
Maybe it will be something of a relief to read that politics didn’t force Sleater-Kinney into the band’s eight-year hiatus beginning in 2006. There were many contributors to the band’s decision to take a break. Brownstein had physical problems, including an exercise-induced allergy, a bad attack of shingles and a series of panic attacks. Tucker started her family and felt increasingly conflicted about the long tours that took her away from her husband and children. And Brownstein is blunt about the sheer economic precarity and grueling work of being a touring band on the edge of success. It can be both draining and incandescent to live in pursuit of your ideals. And whatever standards we hold artists to, they, like everyone else, have to make a living.