Books

Carrie Brownstein
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Most authors of memoirs have one of three qualities: they’re already famous, they’ve done something interesting, or they’re talented writers. Triple threats are rare. Patti Smith is one; another is Carrie Brownstein, whose work in Sleater-Kinney left a deep footprint on the American indie rock landscape of the 1990s. 

Brownstein has wrangled her journey into a thorny narrative, beginning with a normal enough childhood where she “had very little desire to be present, only to be presentational, or to pretend”. Perhaps she gets this from her parents, who turn out to have secrets, too: her mother had an eating disorder, while her dad was a closeted gay man.

This is background material to Brownstein’s real topic: what it meant to be in a small band in the 1990s, a time when codes of subcultural musical belonging were stronger than anytime before or since. That Brownstein lived in Olympia, Washington, home of the labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars, amplified the joys and horrors found in any indie scene.

“The esoteric and extraneous knowledge of musical minutiae is still embedded deep within me,” writes Brownstein, “developed during those formative years as a means of social currency and credibility.” This makes her an excellent navigator of what indie rock meant, and means. Here she is on nostalgia: “To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something – survived it, experienced it – is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something … It creates a sense memory that momentarily simulates context.” Or, on fandom: “…to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” It’s as good a piece of fine-grained rock criticism as you’ll find in, for example, the excellent 33  book series.

Sleater-Kinney was forged after riot grrrl and before the internet smashed communities formed by exclusionary taste to smithereens. It’s the music of the ’90s, and Brownstein’s inglorious education in telemarketing jobs or delivering meals to office parks contextualises this. When the band was having problems, its members went, hilariously, to couples therapy, where they learnt how to speak in “I feel” statements.

All that therapy has at least paid off for us. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a salvation story, but it’s a form of salvation recognisable to the non-celebrity: one plagued by self-doubt and self-evaluation, aware that some acts are victorious but less sure which ones.  CR

Virago, 256pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR