I am ashamed to say I had never heard of Sleater-Kinney before coming across this memoir by guitarist Carrie Brownstein, but suffice to say, upon completion, I feel as though I can hear its melodies and nuances in my mind simply from the flow of her narrative. Brownstein’s refusal to label or place identifiers on either her own identity of that of her band is what makes this book so fascinating, and so relevant in today’s society, where the process of destroying binaries and labels is still met with such hostility.
“My persona would not be about artifice or flamboyancy, it would not be alien or otherworldly, it would be about kineticism, it would be about movement.”
I’ll admit – I picked this book up because it looked a bit groovy and unusual, and knew it would make me look edgy and musically well-informed on my daily commute. However, I was taken aback with the quality of Brownstein’s writing and honest and open declarations about growing up and finding an identity within the world of rock music. Her shameless attitude to storytelling is something so rare these days in a climate of filtering constant self-censoring. I found myself likening it to On the Road by Gloria Steinem in this way (which, incidentally I’ll be reviewing soon). Brownstein’s struggles to come to terms with her identity, both socially and sexually, is healed and resolved through music. If there is one thing this novel focuses on is the power and ability of music to complete one’s broken sense of self.
“Together we felt bold enough to be amplified.”
Brownstein is able to draw an incredibly in-depth view of the music scene of the late nineties and early 2000s and how life on tour became a strangely comforting experience. She says despite the transiency of travelling, “all the time it felt permanent, the most permanent and concrete thing I’d ever felt.” This notion of being surrounded comes across in her narrative, and as readers, we are fully invited into her world and introduced to those around her, and not in the fleeting, off-hand manner so common of memoirs. She discusses the relationships of those in the musical scene in Olympia, where the band were primarily based, as being fluid and undefined. The insight into her relationship with romances whilst on tour was equally fascinating and unpretentious – there was no attempt to paint herself as a verified rock ‘n’ roll legend, which I found thoroughly endearing. She was just as perplexed by the unusual way of life on the road, but admits it was a lifestyle that suited her fluid approach to relationships and sexuality.
What a privilege it must be to never have had to answer the question ‘How does it feel to be a woman playing music?’ or ‘Why did you choose to be in an all-female band?
The element of this novel that stuck out to me most, as the cliché feminist I am, is the way Sleater-Kinney saw themselves as a “female band”. I use inverted commas intentionally, as Brownstein continually refers to the frustration they felt with being viewed through a distinctly gendered lens. This has always been, and remains to this day, not only a feature of the music industry for women, but also countless other industries. Sara Pascoe described in Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body how by being labeled as a female comic she is restricted and compartmentalized. “A women talking about her experiences is oddly always seen as feminist – whereas with a man it’s just a man talking about his experiences,” she says. Not only were Sleater-Kinney pigeonholed as a female band, but their genre was constantly being defined by others, and Brownstein articulates her understandable frustration at this. “I think Sleater-Kinney wanted the privilege of starting from neutral ground, not from a perceived deficit or a linguistic limitation.” This stubborn refusal to have both her and her music’s identity defined by others perfectly reflects Brownstein’s dominating voice in this narrative, and is why I will return to this novel again and again.
In a nutshell: Both eloquent and informative, whilst simultaneously painting a multisensual landscape of the music industry at the time. A wonderful little summer read, and one that will be sure to get you interested in a whole new genre of music. Plus, reading it till make you look well edgy on the tube.