Carrie Brownstein, if you don’t know, is one third of the band Sleater-Kinney and one half, if you dissect a TV show, of Portlandia. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl fits rather neatly alongside a burgeoning niche on the memoir shelf of people who are not men who have been in bands writing books about their experience (see also: Kristin Hersh’s Paradoxical Undressing, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band). As a fan of both Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, this was a book I read expecting to like – and I did – but it was also surprising, in groovy and unexpected ways, and challenging, as all good books should be, confronting me (much as Una’s Becoming Unbecoming did) about things that I just take for granted in a way that is sort of renewing. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
First of all, what do you get for your bucks? Well, we start off in 2006, as Brownstein is ‘about to destroy Sleater-Kinney’. We then retreat into her childhood, following her becoming, standing off to the margins (as she did herself) amongst friends and in her family, privy to her mother’s battles with weight loss and her father’s issues with his own sexuality. We get the sense that Brownstein constructed a self in direct relation to how uncomfortable she felt in her own skin (although she never approaches Hersh-like levels of trouble, homeless and hallucinating, Brownstein is very candid about her experience and reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is both intimate and revealing, this is a book you emerge from liking Brownstein a great deal). But there’s more to the book than just Brownstein herself: this is the best glimpse into a time and a music scene I’ve ever read (when Brownstein was finding her feet, I was working in a record shop in Leeds and a lot of the bands she saw and championed were bands I saw and loved, and it’s a good feeling, a communion, seeing all manner of bands that had slipped into the dim and distant resurrected momentarily). It’s also a vivid portrait of a world that is now gone, when differences were stark and important:
“[At the time] people were staking out territory, constructing niches in a punk landscape that felt vast. Parceled out like land claims, punk was divided by city, by sound and by indexers like gender and sexual orientation.”
Kim Gordon says (in the back cover quote), “So many times while reading this book I screamed “Yes!” inside.” I had a lot of those YES moments too. Here is Brownstein talking about the gigs she went to pre-band:
“All the music was still very much a mystery, how it all cohered. I discerned very little between good and bad bands, popular or obscure. Every band was good. Every player had a purpose, was standing his or her ground, contributing, making a sound. Any band was worth buying a single from, supporting dancing along to.”
Unlike Girl in a Band, which was more arty and as a result a lot more elliptical, Brownstein takes us through the life of Sleater-Kinney, from the mechanics of their song-writing process
“I wrote rudimentary but melodic leads over Corin’s crunchy three- or four-chord progressions. She sang whatever melody first came to her. The notion of simple or complex didn’t really matter as much as sound. I guess you’d call that punk, but I also think it’s just a matter of creating without the watchful eye of an audience or outside expectations in one’s head.”
to the ups and downs of life on the road, and it’s as good a view of that life as I’ve read (reminding this reader more than once of Toby Litt’s excellent I play the drums in a band called ok).
But I said Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is surprising too. The first big surprise is the writing. It’s really good. Now, me saying that it’s a surprise that the writing is so good is pretty insulting so let me qualify. I started reading with an expectation that Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl would be good. If it had not been good, I would have been disappointed because, as I say, I came to the book a fan. The writing, the mechanics of Brownstein’s sentences are often unusual, forcing you to stop, evaluate, listen harder, pay attention – and even as you do those things, you pick up on nuance and you hear a kind of music, and you think this is good.
Here’s an example from page 1:
“I only wanted one thing on tour: to slam my hand in a door and break my fingers. Then I would go home.”
“I already felt liminal and weightless, outside myself, a series of free-floating particles that only occasionally cohered into humanness, into arms and legs. Tour reassembles you: it’s a fragmentary and jarring existence even without an added illness or malady. But now I could not find the floor; I was outside the room, outside myself.”
I mentioned earlier about the ways in which the book confronts and challenges you – some of that comes from the kind of objectification a woman is on the end of as a direct result of being in an all-girl band.
“What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realised that those questions – that talking about the experience – had become part of the experience itself. More than anything, I feel that this meta-discourse, talking about the talk, is part of how it feels to be a “woman in music” (or a “woman in anything” for that matter – politics, business, comedy, power).”
The book is the chart of a journey, from a child “headstrong and hurling myself into rooms’ who became ‘an unlit firecracker… eager to ignite at the slightest provocation’ to a person who, having ‘built an infrastructure, frsh skeletons’ with every Sleater-Kinney song and album, is now ‘at last, … steady bones.’
I said I came away with a sense of renewal. Part of that is because Brownstein’s music and comedy is such that I feel – as I’m sure a great many people feel – here is a person who I would get on with in real life (I say this in the full knowledge that this is nonsense but the persona she has developed in music, TV and now in this book is such I think, yeah, you’d be a good person to know). And part of it is a sense of being alive during a similar period and having experiences as a young person that were not a million miles apart. And part is that much broader feeling you get from just having read a good book. On the subject of which, here she is talking about reading on the road:
“Books grounded me, helped me to feel less alone.”
I have a feeling that Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is the kind of book that will help others feel less alone too.
Any Cop?: So good that I cannot but hope we get a second volume where she tells us how Portlandia came together.