Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a document of self-actualization. These days, most people likely know of author Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia, her creepily-accurate Portland parody sketch show, and might actually be taken aback by how seriously she takes her music criticism. After all, she maintained a music column on NPR for three years. But Brownstein made a name for herself in the Pacific Northwest’s underground punk scenes as vocalist and guitarist in Sleater-Kinney, and she has a trapdoor, detailed memory for chronicling the years her band was evolving from local phenom to national icons.
It’s hard to extricate Brownstein’s book title from the song that inspired it, off their seventh and final album The Woods. On “Modern Girl,” she sings lead with her signature incredulity, emphasizing the consonants so its sarcasm resonates: “My whole life... is like a picture of a sunny day.” The prose has similar bite with Brownstein’s ability to analyze aspects of her own life with at arm’s length, but there’s never a disconnect—even on difficult topics like her father coming out as gay later in his life, or her mother’s anorexia.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is also a travel memoir, as Brownstein captures the unforgiving stasis of life on tour, which inflicts upon her shingles and loneliness, sabotages relationships and invokes claustrophobia. She makes clear that it’s a mostly fair trade once she steps onstage, which becomes a de facto home, the exhilaration of playing with her band and concurrently realizing every bit of herself, no matter where in the world or what city she’s in. The stage was a place of solace and continuity when everything around her was confusing, tattered, or difficult in its way.
Sometime in Y2K, while exploring the motherly folds of Northeast Portland’s Lloyd Center Mall, it really hit me that malls were places you could disappear into. I remember this distinctly because I went home and proudly coined the phrase “mall vertigo” in my journal, to describe that feeling of being in the kind of place that looks and smells literally the same no matter where you are in America, and therefore once you enter them where you are ceases to really exist—there is only the beige glow of compact fluorescents, the light din of chatter echoing on tiles, the vapors of new clothes commingling with with the toasty bright smells of Auntie Anne’s and Jamba Juice.
If you were anywhere near the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brownstein’s book might give you a bit of similar vertigo: comforting, and eerie, in its familiarity. Her descriptions of the tenor of Olympia, Portland, and to a lesser degree Seattle, are funny and unsettling, how the insularity of those years’ underground punk scenes could be as dictating and restrictive as liberating.
Bands felt like collective entities, with everyone having a say in what the music meant, calling out each other on wrong steps—an exhausting endeavor but one that build a special and sometimes frustrating insularity. Olympia was the quintessential “in” crowd versus “out”: crowd. Visiting band swere either in awe or felt thorougly snubbed. Though there was indeed a certain amount of snobbery, I think it was that our interactions had been codified, partly as an identifier, but also by necessity. The claustrophobia of small-town dynamics makes for new rules in terms of greetings and salutations; privacy and alone time were often only achieved by looking down as you walked along the streets. This mode of self preservation and insularity can be off-putting to visitors.
The summer I moved to Portland, in 1999, I drove up to Olympia for Yo Yo a Go Go, a “punk music festival,” as the Eugene Register-Guard had described it a few years earlier. I went specifically to see Sleater-Kinney, and don’t remember much of it other than not knowing anyone in a sea of bleach-blonde girls with barrettes in their pixie cuts, and feeling like no one in or outside the venue would even look at me. It wasn’t like that the first time I saw Sleater-Kinney a year before, at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Here is actual video from that concert; if the camera had moved 45 degrees into the audience, I’m sure you’d see me in there.) The Pacific Northwest was special.
The next year, I took a position as the Arts Editor of a weekly paper in Portland and became fully immersed in the feeling she describes, in a purgatory balancing my responsibility as a journalist to report on local music with the overarching notion that a lot of the musicians I loved simply did not want to be reported on, that it would be seen as a version of “selling out.” Brownstein perfectly elucidates how the punk scene often equated publicity with inauthenticity, which strikes me now as absolutely bananas but then made much more sense: post-Nirvana, everyone seemed to want a piece, with both national publications and record labels thirsting to turn what it would coin the Alternative Nation into commodities, decentralized by SUITS and the OLD GUARD. It was definitely a generational disdain, but a capital one, too. At my job, I printed listings for house shows and underground venues like the Portland Robot Steakhouse, but we reached an uncomfortable (and laughable, in retrospect) compromise by never printing the address of these shows. Word of mouth in a relatively small community was more real than getting a 32-word blurb in the back of a brand new and scrappy independently owned weekly newspaper that regularly featured local bands.
I don’t know, it was a weird time. In that sense, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a love letter to that era’s gawky, skeptical adolescence as much as, and maybe more than, it is a memoir. Sleater-Kinney’s existence, and the time leading up to it, understandably takes up more than her own adolescence—but maybe it’s the former that needed the scene more to survive. She writes about how, in that era, members of the scene would police each other in ways that echo now—how, if a person was perceived to have done something politically untoward, they would get “zined” (written about in a fanzine), same as the way Twitter is partial to regulatory outbursts that sometimes wouldn’t pass a sniff test. Brownstein juxtaposes it all against its opposite extreme, the “indie” aesthetic that valued lethargy (and whose members were often the ones being zined):
Though the term “slacker music” (not one that these musicians put upon themselves, I should stress) has since disappeared, certainly the affectlessness remains, the gutlessness, in many bands and artists that have come since. 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. It breeds ambivalence. It’s as if instead of having to prove they are something, these musicians prove they aren’t anything.
The will to prove herself, to make herself heard, to cut a visible figure, is the “hunger” driving Brownstein here. She’s driven, in part, by her relationship with her mother, and her invisibility therein, which she describes as continuing into her 20s at least; like many women of that era, as she found solace in the feminist tenets on which the punk scene surrounding her was built, she also discovers the fundamental ways music can save her.
But it’s not until the final quarter of the book, when Brownstein (and Sleater-Kinney) succumbs to the physical and psychological pressures of touring, that we realize to what extent she intellectualizes her memoir. Her writing is measured, dispassionate, and well considered; it’s engaging for exactly those reasons. Her insight is some of the best on that era and subset of punk that’s been written. She’s a better critic and analyst of her own band than anyone I’ve read writing on Sleater-Kinney up to this point.
When she describes an ugly incident on tour with unsettling honesty and clarity, the emotional climax just before Chapter 19, and after that, all the emotions she kept in check for the first three-quarters of the book flood out, her reticence giving way to loneliness augmented by long, loving descriptions of her rescued shelter pets. “A male loner is a hero of sorts, a rebel, an iconoclast, but the same is not true of a female loner,” she writes, critiquing expectation by way of steadying herself. “There is no virility in a woman’s autonomy, there is only pity.”
It’s in these words that she seems to find her center and—if the Sleater-Kinney reunion is an indication—a way out, too. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl tells us that even if the stage is not sustainable, it allowed Brownstein and all her cohorts to channel their desires—make them not just feasible but able to live in a world that says they shouldn’t. That’s a thing that’s permanent, even after the Portland Robot Steakhouses have closed and Sleater-Kinney broke up and got back together again. It’s a document of how raw artistic urgency manifested can be life-saving. She writes as much:
Sleater-Kinney was my rescue and salvation. It was the first time I felt I could be vulnerable in my creativity in which the emotional and psychic stakes were neither futile nor self-annihilating. That unlit firecracker I carried around inside me in my youth, eager to ignite it at the slightest provocation, to detonate my whole being and fill the room in a glowing spectacle, found a home in music.
Brownstein’s fans—and I—found a home there, too. Read this great book.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.