Book Commentary: “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein

Some may know Carrie Brownstein best from Portlandia, wherein she runs a feminist bookstore, buys things from Kumail Nanjiani, and earns the nickname “Pull Out King”.

This book isn’t about any of that, though. “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” is instead about Carrie’s childhood and adventures in the life of her band Sleater-Kinney. For me it was an empowering, authentic story of the joys and pains of turning creativity into reality.

"Hunger Makes Me a Moder Girl" cover

Carrie starts with her childhood, and what struck me was that she wasn’t always a “rebellious trouble-maker” type while growing up. Her awakening was something that happened over time. I really identified with this, as I always had wanted to fit in at school like most other kids, and the confidence to be true to myself has taken some time to develop. Sometimes the length of that time and my continued difficulties in self-expression are a source of shame for me, but having Carrie’s story to relate to helps me believe that there’s no shame in “taking longer” than someone else. Unfortunately I didn’t know Sleater-Kinney’s music as it came out; it’s making a big impact on me even now, so I can only imagine how much it would’ve helped at a younger age.

Next, Carrie documents her first attempts to form a band, and Sleater-Kinney’s humble beginnings. It must have been hard to foresee the magazine interviews and stage spotlights of later success in the tiny crowds (once to a crowd of only four) and unremarkable tour provisions of their self-managed early years. This sort of “humble beginnings” story is familiar in broad strokes, but still unique in the ways the band searches for identity and navigates the labels put on it because of gender, “scene,” or geography.

For anyone who’s embarked on an artistic endeavor– whether it’s playing music, writing a novel, creating visual art, etc.– it can be a lonely, difficult journey with a lot of rejection. What I felt while reading Carrie’s human, relatable memoir was that there isn’t a magic secret to artistic success that other people have and I’m not good enough to possess (always the opening arguments in my internal dialogue whenever my cue comes in while recording). Instead, what really matters is that the music and lyrics come from that raw, scary, vulnerable, true ecosystem inside yourself. If they do, the music is right. It may or may not connect with critical and commercial success, but there are literally mathematical formulas for that if that’s what you’re after.

You can hear this in the first two Sleater-Kinney albums (all of them are on Spotify); they have a raw quality to them that gives you a direct line into their recording space. The first album is only 22 minutes long with 10 tracks, with no “professional” production standing in the way of authenticity. They are living musical documents of what was present for them at the time.

The perpetual need for authenticity continues into their later albums. A good scene is the day when Time magazine calls them the “best rock band in America”: meanwhile, they are working away, carrying their own heavy equipment from a van into the drummer’s tiny, smelly basement to practice. The juxtaposition of stardom with the mundane occurs throughout the book. Musicians and performers often say that something magical happens on stage during a show– the inevitable flipside being that the magic switches back to complete normalcy and even discomfort when the show is over.

Carrie talks about the stories behind certain songs in their discography, as well as documenting the beautiful ups and strained downs of her deeply meaningful friendships with bandmates Corin and Janet. Going through and listening to Sleater-Kinney’s music again with this context brings the meaning alive even more. In the end, this book was really inspiring to me. Recommended!

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