Last week, the San Francisco JCC was abuzz. In the building’s atrium, hip men and women of all ages milled about, munching on tamales as the music of Sleater-Kinney, a late 90’s indie rock band, played from above. The space could have been mistaken for my favorite Oakland bar on a Friday night. It wasn’t, of course, but there was presumably one commonality: a love for Carrie Brownstein.
Brownstein, 41, was at the JCC to promote her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, through a discussion with local literary celeb Dave Eggers, with whom she let us in on the wild stories behind her creativity, which she details in the book. For nearly two hours, Eggers and Brownstein delved into the nitty gritty of the punk scene in Olympia, Washington, including Brownstein’s journey from a dorky kid living in the suburbs of Seattle to becoming a nationally renowned rock guitarist and actress. They also joked about the rocker’s floppy bowl cut and goofy hats.
In her memoir, Brownstein has written a searingly candid account of the inspiration behind her unique female gaze, which she highlighted with Eggers through a series of anecdotes about her younger self—bids for attention, such as strumming fake guitars made of scrap wood, or insisting on singing Eagles songs for her parent’s friends every time they visited. These were the ways she said she was able to control and create structure amidst the chaotic and alienating unhappiness of her family life. Her hunger started young: growing up as the child of an anorexic mother who only existed “to disappear” and a quiet closeted father who was “hard to know.” Brownstein writes that her penchant for performance stemmed from a desire to “entertain the pain right out” of them both.
Music—particularly the act of listening and witnessing—provided vital respite for young Brownstein. In her memoir, Brownstein lovingly describes her first musical encounters: driving to venues in Seattle and Olympia as a young girl, pressing herself against stages in dark basements, vying manically for glimpses of strings, fingers, amps. Anything to make the music real. “I saw merit and beauty in it all—and if not beauty, then purpose, or at least just a way of positing yourself in the world, standing in one spot and being heard,” she wrote of the punk music scene that raised her. Driven by this need to be seen and heard, Brownstein temporarily dropped out of college and moved to Olympia: the punk music haven of the Northwest, which provided Brownstein with a canvas upon which to paint her “inarticulable, boundless need” to feel seen. Music by female indie punk bands of the riot grrrl denomination, like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy, gave her a sense of self and the gumption to form her own bands. “I felt very recognized by these songs,” said Brownstein. “They have me the key to all the things I could unlock in myself.”
Her descriptions of the Olympia during the 90’s is charming and sensitive, as it details the young radical communities and artistic experiments that have come to define the city to this day. Then, Olympia was a fire, with seemingly everybody in constant political dialogue, playing in a few bands at once, hungry and queer. But eventually it became a fire that was as destructive as it was exciting. After connecting with Corin Tucker, a vocalist and guitarist in Heavens to Betsy, the pair decided to go to Australia to record a side project together. (Brownstein said that Tucker once left her a voicemail suggesting they name their project “Sleater-Kinney” after a popular street corner in Olympia.) In Australia, they stayed in the basement of a friend of a friend, connected with a drummer, and recorded an entire album over the course of days. Their guitars weren’t properly tuned and their songs were named haphazardly. Soon, they returned to the Pacific Northwest and began their first tour.
And yet, even though Brownstein spends much of her memoir describing the forces that brought her to (punk) music, including her relationship with Corin, she tends to skate quite gracefully (and quickly) through each of the 10 years and seven records that were to follow for Sleater-Kinney. (Relationships, Europe, a near-fatal soy allergy and a long tour with Seattle grunge gods Pearl Jam are just a few of the stories she touches on.) What stands out most of all is how accidental Brownstein makes it all feel—the excitement, the playing, the fame. Shielded from the Gaze of the mainstream, protected by their outsider status and communal politics, Sleater-Kinney had the space and support to grow through experimentation, and play, until they ultimately because one of the most original indie-punk rock sounds of their time.
Sleater-Kinney songs aren’t pretty. They aren’t supposed to be. Brownstein writes that Sleater-Kinney’s music resembles a “crude aural bloodletting,” and she joked with Eggers about it, too: “When I hear Sleater-Kinney come on in a bar, I often think, “What is this racket?” It’s disruptive and unrecognizable. [It’s] scary to hear…from the outside. I can only recognize the songs from the inside, from playing them.”
Brownstein remains explicitly elusive on the topic of what it means to be a musician who is also female. When a young audience member stood up to ask her about how her gender and sexuality have affected her music, Brownstein was careful to sidestep the direct question.“I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band,” she says, “I have nothing else to compare it to.” And yet, while she doesn’t answer that question specifically, her book, all 244 pages of it, is a sprawling testament to that experience. “There’s a lack in sophistication to that question,” she continued, “and it leads us to keep talking about me being a woman, rather than talking about the work.” Rather than being dismissive of the impact of her gender on her career, Brownstein is asking us to start asking her different questions.
In that way, Brownstein can be seen as doing a very different kind of reclamation project than that of the ‘90s riot grrrl feminist hardcore punk movement that raised her. Rather than a bid for an exclusively woman’s space, Brownstein (and Sleater-Kinney by extension) are working towards the reclamation of a space for women to exist and play music and be that is neutral and unquestioned. Male privilege is, in many ways, the reality that men are never asked how their manhood effects their music. This doesn’t mean that the stories of their lives as men doesn’t come out in the re-telling, but what it allows for is for the conversation to be centered on the music, on the experiences—rather than on the lack. Brownstein’s feminism is vying for the same kind of treatment.
Her story, one of hunger and disassociation, longing and dissatisfaction, rebellion and confidence, depression and desire, feels particularly powerful for me—as a girl who grew up in a modern Orthodox community where women weren’t allowed to sing. Brownstein’s hunger feels like a radical notion in that it doesn’t symbolize a void or a lack, but rather it represents a force to be taken seriously, a compelling need, an urgency to be. In a society that valorizes anemic bodies, bones that stick out, and smiles that are gaunt, the reclamation of hunger as creative motivation is one worth considering. Because, rooted deep within hunger is desire: wanting. And for Carrie Brownstein, it was from within her hunger that she found her strength.