Saturday, June 02, 2018

A portrait of the artist as a young woman

While in San Francisco on tour in support of The Hot Rock, her band Sleater-Kinney's biggest album to that point, Carrie Brownstein tore ligaments in her spine - not through over-exertion in performance, but while digging through the racks of Amoeba Records on Haight Street. As rock 'n' roll injuries go, it's a classic. And yet, as comical as it sounds, it proved an extremely painful one, curtailing the tour and foreshadowing the band's initial demise.

That isn't the only pain that Brownstein recalls in her superb memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. The most vivid instance is when she describes repeatedly punching herself in the face during a pre-show meltdown in Brussels, shortly before the band went on hiatus. But even the act of writing the book must have been an emotionally and psychologically painful experience, given that it brought her to confront and discuss her mother's anorexia, her father's gradual and almost grudging realisation that he was gay and her own youthful awkwardness, caught between desperately wanting to attract attention and not knowing what to do with it.

The memoir is remarkable in its candour and clear-sightedness. Brownstein continually shows herself to be capable of enlightened self-criticism, while never lapsing into the sort of laboured flagellation that actually betrays self-pity. She is that rarest of things: a musician who is acutely perceptive on the subject of her own music. Brownstein's writing generally is more than merely a cut above that of your average rock star autobiog - though it's abundantly evident that she isn't your average rock star from the book's content, not least the fact that in the year of her band's split she won the Volunteer Of The Year award at dog charity the Oregon Humane Society. (She also went on to establish the cult comedy series Portlandia with Fred Armisen, not that you'd know it from this book.)

Brownstein is particularly good on the nature of fandom, on harbouring an all-consuming passion for music, and on the process of teenage self-discovery and self-realisation, and she understandably takes sharp issue with those who have (even in a well-meaning way) focused on her gender above all else: "We were considered a female band before we became merely a band; I was a female guitarist and Janet was a female drummer for years before we were simply considered a guitarist and a drummer".

However, perhaps the most striking passages are those in which she describes how she came to feel entangled and imprisoned by ethics and "ashamed for striving, for desiring, for ambition": "Eventually, I started to cringe at the elitism that was often paired with punk and the like. A movement that professed inclusiveness seemed to actually be highly exclusive, as alienating and ungraspable as many of the clubs and institutions that drove us to the fringes in the first place. One set of rules had simply been replaced by new ones, and they were just as difficult to follow." How hardcore fans from Sleater-Kinney's early days took this, I can only imagine. But the truth is that it was better for Brownstein and her bandmates to escape the ghetto and win hearts and minds beyond their immediate circle of influence than to remain cloistered in the comfort zone.

No inducement to buy more Sleater-Kinney records should really be necessary, but Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl certainly does the job.

No comments: