"ENTITLEMENT is a precarious place from which to create or perform—it projects the idea that you have nothing to prove, nothing to claim, nothing to show but self-satisfaction, a smug boredom," writes Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein in her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. "It breeds ambivalence."
She's describing a kind of male-dominated "slacker rock," the opposite of Sleater-Kinney's spare, explosive music, and Brownstein's own all-in performance style. That distinction isn't trivial: Sleater-Kinney were often asked to define themselves in relation to what they were not—men, mainstream, a band with a bass player. But if entitlement breeds ambivalence, Brownstein's memoir suggests that a lack of it could foster a kind of power; Sleater-Kinney didn't have the luxury of smug boredom, so they became one of the greatest rock bands ever, full stop.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a compressed, forthright portrait of a compressed, forthright band, and a document of the pre-tech boom Pacific Northwest of the '90s, which Brownstein portrays as it really was: part swampy frontier land, part well-tended secret, while the music of its damp cities "embodied the emotional equivalent of getting washed up on a beach somewhere." Here's what she told me about unimaginative rock journalism, how far we haven't come, and the allure of business casual.
MERCURY: Today I don't know that Seattle and Portland are the same sort of places for young artists without a lot of money or resources. Are there new places where you're starting to see upstart creative communities?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, I definitely think that second cities are having a resurgence, places like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee. There are reasons that young people, creative people, people with less upward mobility move to cities where they can afford to live and have a quality of life that allows them to be creative and afford to do that without working 60 or 80 hours a week. Not everybody wants to live there, but you do see those migratory patterns and there's definitely evidence that those cities are having a resurgence, and I think that's one of the reasons why; it's because people can occupy both domestic and industrial spaces and make art within those spaces. I think having the resources or the time, which of course is a resource, to be creative is really crucial to being able to focus on music or art, so I don't know what people are doing in Portland. I assume they're working really hard at other jobs and then carving out time when they can to work on their music but... despite it being easier than ever to get your music out into the world, you have to have time to make it, so you have to find a means to do that in the city you live in or go somewhere where it's going to grant you more time because it's cheaper. I'm not suggesting you move out of Portland!
One thing that struck me about your memoir was where you just list all of the vaguely awful things that critics wrote about Sleater-Kinney. When I talk to younger bands with all female members, they bring up really similar concerns. Do you think things have changed, and did you develop an arsenal of responses to those types of absurd questions?
Well, in the book I talk about what became almost my stock answer, which was, when confronted with the question, "How does it feel to be a woman in music?" or "How does it feel to be in an all-woman band?" I said talking about it has become part of the experience, answering these questions has become part of the experience, and I think that's really true in that you can't really separate yourself from the kind of discourse surrounding your music because it becomes... inseparable and intrinsic. So that was my stock answer. It still kind of is when I'm asked about it. And I suppose I just think of it as a lack of imagination, a lack of sophistication on the part of writers. I think there are a lot of people, fortunately, who have made an effort to change the semantics of things, but definitely I hear the same thing that you hear, which is just an echo of that frustration, you know, and I think partly that frustration is not really anger. It really is just disappointment.
I also thought it was interesting that you mentioned resisting labels like "girl band" or "queer band," and how that could become something like an effacement. It's more complicated than "Don't call us a girl band."
Right, because that is the experience that you have. I talk about it as a form of self-amputation. Really, I don't know another experience of playing except as a woman, but I resent that I'm asked to talk about that experience as if it's an anomaly or as if somehow I'm capable of speaking to another experience, because I don't have that experience, and it's tedious. And then at the same time, you want the privilege of 360 degrees of experience, and as someone making music or making art, you feel like you're being asked to parcel out that panopticon into ways that feel limiting. You just want to be in charge of your own narrative. You want the privilege of either getting to think about it or not getting to think about it. If you want to talk about it, you're the one in charge of your own story... a lot of the time, it felt like that story was being told or described for us instead of us being the ones deciding.
In your memoir, you talk about wearing business casual to all of your gigs. What's the deal with that?
Well, I think when I was younger, my idea about what to wear onstage when I thought of being presentational and having a job—which essentially Sleater-Kinney was—I thought, well I need to dress up for a job. [Laughs.] And you dress up for a job with clothes that are essentially business casual. Like I sort of dressed up the way one would dress up when they go home... when they celebrate Thanksgiving or go to an interview, that was sort of my interpretation of what to wear onstage. I think also in the book, though, I explain that it was my sort of mis-assessment, my falling short of emulating the mod look from the '60s—Small Faces or the Who or the Rolling Stones. So there's kind of a combination of both, where it was my version of dressing up in order to make myself look appropriate to be onstage and then also my version of dressing mod but without a good tailor, which I think a lot of those guys in mod bands, they probably had their girlfriends piping their pants for them or were doing it themselves, so I should have learned how to sew.