Modern Girl: The Powerful Simplicity of Carrie Brownstein’s Memoir
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl details the history of Sleater-Kinney. Even more than that, it's a moving personal story.
It’s tough to say, in 2015, whether more people know Carrie Brownstein from her work with Sleater-Kinney—the punk band she formed with Corin Tucker in Olympia, Washington, in 1994, which went on to be repeatedly and rightfully named among the most essential bands of theirs or any era—or from the award-winning IFC sketch show Portlandia, which she created with SNL alum Fred Armisen. But it’s clear how she wants to be known. Brownstein’s new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, is divided into three parts: “Youth,” “Sleater-Kinney,” and “Aftermath,” with the middle section accounting for most of the book. Portlandia is mentioned only once, in the epilogue, as a stepping stone to the 2012 Sleater-Kinney reunion.
Brownstein begins at the beginning, in the suburbs of Seattle where she grew up wanting to be seen. She craved response and validation, which were hard to come by in her house. Brownstein’s father was a closeted homosexual, and her mother was anorexic and frequently hospitalized. Those internal struggles superseded Brownstein and her sister. Even the family dog died, essentially, of neglect.
This is when Brownstein started seeking out the music that would shape her future, most notably Bikini Kill. Her lack of fulfillment at home and innate desire to perform naturally led Brownstein to start bands with like-minded alternative teenage girls. First was Born Naked. Then came Excuse 17, who ended up touring with Heavens to Betsy, Corin Tucker’s band. From there, Tucker and Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney. It was as much a next step as it was a necessity. It’s kind of as simple as that. They needed something, so they created it. Nobody else was going to do it for them. “Because we felt like outsiders—both in Olympia and Portland, to some extent, but also at festivals and in the mainstream world—we often wrote about rock music,” Brownstein writes. “We wrote and played ourselves right into existence.”
As it turns out, other people needed Sleater-Kinney in the same way that Brownstein needed Bikini Kill when she discovered them a few years prior. In one of her book’s most important moments, she writes of fulfilling that need, “It’s hard to express how profound it is to have your experience broadcast back to you for the first time, how shocking it feels to be acknowledged, as if your own sense of realness had only existed before as a concept. I felt like I could step inside something; it was a revelation.” Here is where Sleater-Kinney’s female fans will nod vigorously, grab a pen and underline, shed a tear or two of solidarity, or turn to the nearest guy and say, “Read this.”
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is powerful in its simplicity. Reading it is like picking up Patti Smith’s Just Kids for musician gossip and instead coming away cracked open. In her experiences, you find yourself. Brownstein is an observer, an honest and reliable narrator.
Punk’s inclusive-yet-exclusive attitude became stifling for Brownstein after years in Olympia.
She frankly addresses the sticky situations that come with aligning yourself with punk/alternative/outsider culture as such issues come up in her chronology. As with many others, first comes being in high school and rebelling against the people who feed and clothe you. “Like a lot of middle-class kids,” she writes, “I needed my punk rock and rebellion underwritten by my parents.”
Another is the understanding and acceptance that punk’s no-rules philosophy ironically comes with a dogma of its own. Kurt Cobain addressed this problem in a 1992 Rolling Stone interview when he said, “There’s more things to life than living out your rock and roll identity so righteously.” Punk’s inclusive-yet-exclusive attitude became stifling for Brownstein after years in Olympia. She describes it perfectly: “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. These self-aware scenes are as cool as a secret handshake and a sly shared gesture of recognition, but at some point I was done living inside the town equivalent of a wink.”
Yes, this is a memoir of her time in Sleater-Kinney, with a section devoted to each studio album and unprecedented insight into their tours and songwriting processes. But it’s also the story of a teenager, a woman, a daughter, a queer person, a Pacific Northwesterner, an anxious self starter, an animal lover, a human. Nothing about her story is out of reach when part of her is part of you. She’s a cultural icon who could be renting the apartment next to yours and volunteering at the animal shelter where you adopted your cat. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is not built on rock-and-roll excess; it’s shingles, panic attacks, and not knowing when it’s appropriate to make out with someone. It’s also one of the best memoirs to come out recently, musical or otherwise. FL