By Alicia Montellanos
“Jumpers” is a song by Sleater Kinney released in 2005, and one that I’ve listened to since my early high school years. It is a song I hold dear because of its meaning. “Jumpers” is specifically about the suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but it is also about
suicide in general. It is about being tired of the meaninglessness of one’s life, the kind of exhaustion that leads you to say, “I’m done.” I identify myself with this feeling (although I’ve never tried to act on it) and “Jumpers” embodies that feeling, not just lyrically, but also through sound.
This is one of the many reasons, but perhaps the most personal, for why I read and am here reviewing Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I’m sure other fans of Brownstein’s work (or of Sleater-Kinney) have other reasons, and I am sure Brownstein’s memoir will satisfy all of them.
Carrie Brownstein is one third of Olympia-based band, Sleater-Kinney, formed in 1994. The other two thirds consist of guitarist and vocalist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss. Brownstein is also an actress, currently appearing in the TV series Transparent and Portlandia, the latter of which she writes and produces with Fred Armisen.
Brownstein opens her memoir with a meaningful reflection of what it is to be a fan and what it meant for her, describing in depth the moment in her life when she was more of a listener. “To be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” Brownstein also describes situations that make up that whole experience, which can be cathartic, anxious, and obsessive. This experience also involves a deep sense of identity, of not having one yet, and music helping you gain one, in addition to the nervousness and potential for clumsiness from getting too close to the music and the bands. All this is captured in Brownstein’s stories, specially the one about her phone call and audition with 7 Year Bitch’s Elizabeth Davis, laughing nervously when there were no jokes.
The memoir is divided in three parts—Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Aftermath. Brownstein tells her story in a coherent and chronological structure, offering many vulnerable moments. One of such moments being the description of how her young personality affected her reaction to her mother’s eating disorder, wanting to “entertain the pain right out of her,” and her hunger for “family, for strength, for wholeness.” Another compelling (and quite intense) moment in her memoir, is when Brownstein recounts very vividly a moment of a breakdown. After months of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and now just being diagnosed with shingles as a result from stress and exhaustion during their 2006 European tour for Sleater-Kinney’s seventh studio album The Woods, Brownstein broke down into a moment of self-harm. “I saw the enemy and it was me; I wanted to destroy it. Pow! I couldn’t stop. Thud! You fucking fraud. I was in the ring with only myself.”
This last event can be seen as disappointing, given that Sleater-Kinney is seen as one of the biggest bands in the women-empowering music movement riot grrrl. Yet I don’t find this moment to be disappointing at all, but rather real. After all, hunger is ambitious and can be motivating, acting as a drive toward a desire and a need, but hunger can also be painful and desperate.
Two thirds of the memoir are devoted to Sleater Kinney, the recording process for each album, and tour experiences. Brownstein clarifies misconceptions about touring, demystifying its assumed glamorous and luxurious character, and painting instead a humble, and sometimes comical, aspect of touring. She offers some reflections about the punk music scene and what it was like to be in it. Brownstein also reflects on assumptions about how women are perceived in music, devoting several passages to the experiences this entails in the context of journalism. Sleater-Kinney was “attempting to talk about our music and the process of writing in an interview, then to read the article and see that the writer focused on what we were wearing or how we looked, discussed our gender, or made a sexist comment in the story.” Three pages are devoted to showing excerpts from articles that focused on the gender of Sleater-Kinney’s band members.
“Why are you in an all-female band? Why do you not have a bass player? What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realized that those questions—the talking about the experience—had become part of the experience itself. More that 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). […] But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’”
Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl offers valuable insight into Carrie Brownstein’s life, personality, her views, and her work, the realness of which I’ve found to be admirable and inspirational. I recommend this book to women musicians, the self-destructive, the anxious and depressed, the ones lacking a sense of identity. I recommend this memoir for all who are trying to get to know Brownstein, for whatever may be their reason, because, given the extent of Brownstein’s work, people may approach this memoir from many different perspectives. Although Brownstein’s memoir has been criticized as not being vulnerable enough or too self-deprecating, the social criticisms she provides are highly valuable to today’s society, but the personal, intimate, and vulnerable aspect of her memoir should be found on a personal level.
Click here to purchase Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl.