The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Carrie Brownstein's 'Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl'

Andrea Swensson with Carrie Brownstein's book
Andrea Swensson with Carrie Brownstein's book (Jay Gabler/MPR)

There's a tired old adage about music criticism that claims that, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Over the course of her new memoir's 244 pages, Carrie Brownstein not only lays waste to this idea, but also delves deep into what she describes as the "ineffable" side of music and examines her relationship with it from all sides.

In the book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, we learn about Brownstein as a fan, as a struggling new artist, and as a successful touring musician. And though she certainly includes more personal details about her life and the inner workings of her band, Sleater-Kinney, she never wavers from her focus on the music that inspires her and the sounds, vibrations, and feelings that haven driven her to press forward and create.

If the runaway success of Jessica Hopper's book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic has taught us anything this year, it's that music lovers are hungry for more music writing from a female perspective, and there are certainly overlapping themes between that collection and Brownstein's new work — namely, their shared experience of discovering Bikini Kill and realizing that music could speak specifically to girls, too, and the validation and excitement that comes from stumbling on an art form that punches you right in the gut. But what we get from Brownstein, specifically, is an up-close look at what happens when a fan slowly turns into a rock star, and how the hunger from her earliest days as a music lover never wavers despite her failures and her success. That drive, that hunger re-emerges throughout the book, and it's what kept me devouring each page until it was over.

Brownstein is a terrific writer. She describes her turning points and emotions in vivid detail, turning these vignettes inside out to examine their importance and their role in her trajectory. Hunger is far from the gossipy tell-alls that we've come to expect from our musician memoirs; even when she's revealing intimate details about her life, like her mother's struggle with anorexia or her relationship with her Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker, she never loses focus of the purpose of the book — to investigate how and why she became a musician. She tosses this anchor over the side of the ship again and again, returning to that indescribable connection that we all feel with music, and creating tingly, heart-in-throat moments of revelation and awe. It's far from dancing about architecture. For Brownstein, she's figured out a way to turn writing about music into a process just as stimulating and inspiring as listening to it or playing it. It makes the book a joy to read, regardless of your knowledge of her specific career arc or back catalog.

"Music granted me both an allowance of and a continual engagement with the ineffable," she writes toward the end of Hunger. "The inexplicable is its own form of freedom ... We can't name the feeling but we can sing along."

For Brownstein, being a fan of music is sacred, and she's somehow held onto that belief through all the highs and lows of Sleater-Kinney and the tumult of her life. Even when you would expect her to grow cynical, that sense of honoring the music and respecting the fandom never wanes. And every time she stepped back to reflect on the importance of fandom in her life, I found my heart creeping up into my throat.

I highly recommend you read Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl all the way through — but for a few highlights, read on for some of my favorite passages and most dog-eared pages from the book.

On seeing her first concert

"Madonna came out and I remember only two things: she did multiple outfit changes and I screamed the entire time. When my father and I got home, I couldn't sleep. 'She's high,' my dad said to my mother, laughing. And I was. It was a moment I'll never forget, a total elation that momentarily erased any outline of darkness. There was light everywhere I looked."

On her transition from fan to aspiring musician

"Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it ... I needed to be there — to see guitarists like Kim Warnick and Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks or Doug Martsch of Treepeople play chords and leads, or Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis from Beat Happening, in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. ... I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be."

On discovering Bikini Kill

"Bikini Kill's music really gave a form, a home, and a physicality to my teenage turmoil. Eventually I was able to harness that tumultuousness, build on it and make it my own. It's hard to express how profound it is to have your experience broadcast back to you for the first time, how shocking it feels to be acknowledged, as if your own sense of realness had only existed before as a concept. I felt like I could step inside something; it was a revelation."

On playing in her first band

"Even then, I could still appreciate the moment of simply making sounds with a group of people. There is another place you go to in those instances, and it feels vast, refreshing, like you're creating your own air to breathe. And even though it's never going to happen again and there's a palpable sense of mediocrity, there's still a connection that you wouldn't have otherwise, to the sound, to the people. I think for those reasons I've always been able to appreciate (but be simultaneously heartbroken by) bar bands and karaoke — you witness the playing or the singing and you know that just being up there, engaged in a momentary artifice, a heightening of self, is sometimes enough to get by, to feel less worn down by, less withered by life. Sometimes it's everything."

On the Olympia, Wash. music scene

"The music's value wasn't always based on technical acuity — there was a lot of deliberate underachieving and subversion... The premium was not always on singing but on earnestness, sincerity croaked out or yelped, love songs made tart and less trite because they were voice in a slant, slope, or scream. Angst compensated for everything... It was the sound of a magnified muttering, loud and distorted. Some bands possessed a purposeful clumsiness, while others couldn't help teetering, but any inelegance masked something sharper. Scissors and knives."

On her admiration of Joey Ramone

"Joey Ramone was a performer who embodied both gawkiness and grandiosity. He was simultaneously awkward, with his spindly legs and his hair falling into his face, and larger than life. This contradiction seemed to be an ideal metaphor for my own relationship to performing and music: part of me wanted to own the stage, while the other part of me remained uncomfortable with such power. I suppose some people are born with the certainty that they own sound or volume; that the lexicon of rock music is theirs to borrow from, to employ, to interpret. For them, it might be nothing to move around onstage, to swagger, to sing in front of people, to pick up a guitar, to make records. I set out from a place where I never assumed that those were acceptable choices or that I could be anything but an accessory to rock 'n' roll."

On being a "woman in a band"

"What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realized that those questions — that talking about the experience — had become part of the experience itself... To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don't know what it's like to be a woman in a band — I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asking, 'Why are you in an all-male band?'"

On her stage presence

"I wanted our shows not just to be galvanic, I wanted to destroy the room. More than that, I wanted to obliterate myself, to unlock and uncork the anger, to disappear into the sound and into the music. In subsequent years when I kicked my legs out toward the crowd or swung my guitar close to the heads in the front row, it was about trying to physically harness the moment, to crash into strangers in a horrible but ecstatic impact, a shared bruising."

On the importance of forming Sleater-Kinney

"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. My restlessness and unease was matched by my fellow miscreants — bandmates, collaborators, and audiences alike — but more crucially by a warmth and sustenance. In Sleater-Kinney, each song, each album, built an infrastructure, fresh skeletons. These, at last, were steady bones."

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