by ERIC FARWELL
Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, eschews the typical “tell-all” format of the rock confessional. Using music as a gateway to explore her identity – including influential bands and her own experiences in Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney – it’s as autobiographical as it is a sentimental love letter to the music scene. Music gave her strength to carve her own identity. It builds the memoir’s largest theme: one finds their identity through experiences and the art that helps us navigate them.
The first section opens up with Brownstein’s anxieties as a young girl who desperately wants to be noticed as someone who exists. An anxious child, she takes to performing and slowly segues her natural talents into creating music. In her element, she is a girl in search of herself, of power, of clarity. There’s a distance between her and everyone else, even those she loves, a characteristic that may or may not be attributed to her difficult parents.
Carrie characterizes her parents as ineffectual and aloof: her mother struggles with an eating disorder while her father slowly comes to recognize his homosexuality; both do so while she and her sister navigate life on their own.
The book explicitly deals with Brownstein’s search for a sense of normalcy and certainty while working in an unusual field. There is little music industry struggle. In fact, the main area of contention comes from the press, who label Sleater-Kinney as a “female rock band” or some variation thereof, ignoring the fact that the label is useless for such a talented and undeniable group.
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is a literary product of someone who loves books and has developed their own writing style. The beauty of the language gives visibility to some of the more interesting decisions Brownstein makes. One aspect that’s not written about but implied by the writing is a sense of privacy and control. This is especially evident in the memoir’s lack of exploration of her relationships.
Most prominently, her romance with Corin Tucker is touched on, but the trajectory of their relationship is glossed over, with Brownstein abandoning scrutiny save for a few mentions of fooling around and cohabitation. While it’s not uncommon to be reserved about certain aspects of life in memoir, Brownstein’s decision to even mention topics is interesting. Intentionally or not, they paint a picture of someone with wounds and experiences that still seem strange and new. Not knowing exactly how to discuss them gives nuance to the inner world of an already complex person.
On the page, this creates messiness in an otherwise clear narrative, as if Brownstein is applying the subversive skills that Sleater-Kinney utilize to her life story. Sleater-Kinney gives the book its skeletal structure, and the revisiting of the emotional zeitgeist around each album and subsequent tour creates motion and comfortable refrain, as Brownstein finds pockets of personal growth in the monotony of write-record-tour.
Throughout it all, she vacillates between feeling slightly lost or in upheaval and having a sense of certainty and roots, yet this never comes across as peripatetic or pedantic. If anything, it solidifies the value of her band and bandmates to her, and unironically, earnestly offers up the tried and true story of music as salvation and respite from the dour world.
Eric Farwell is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New Jersey. This is his first appearance in these pages. He has written for The Rumpus, Electric Literature and Critical Flame.
“By The Time You’re Twenty-Five” – Sleater-Kinney (mp3)
“Tapping” – Sleater-Kinney (mp3)