There’s a famous quote (often credited to Elvis Costello, but more likely coined by comedian Martin Mull) that equates the concept of writing about music to dancing about architecture. Implicit in the phrase is the understanding that either endeavor is inherently worthless. And, sure; there are plenty of books by and about musicians that would seem to validate that attitude, but, happily, one at least can be said to buck the stereotype. Fittingly, it comes to us from Carrie Brownstein, co-founder and one third of American rock band Sleater-Kinney.
I read Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl in roughly a day’s time. It’s short – just over 240 pages – but it’s quite literally crammed full of incident and insight. At 41, Brownstein might seem a tad young to be writing her memoirs, but the book doesn’t feel ill-timed or premature. And, like all the best things, it leaves you satisfied but hoping for more.
As a reader, I came to this book with little to no preconceptions. I knew and appreciated the bands Brownstein’s been a part of over the years, and obviously I’ve seen her TV show with Fred Armisen “Portlandia”, but I wouldn’t fit anyone’s description of a “super fan”. In short, I knew next to nothing about her life or views beyond the most skeletal of details. Guitarist. Socially progressive. Midwesterner. Brunette. Honestly? I wasn’t even really a fan of Sleater-Kinney until a few years back when I was introduced to what was at that point their final record: “The Woods”. I saw Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss when they were on tour in the band “Wild Flag” and was suitably impressed at what a fucking kick-ass show they put on to regret never getting the full-on Sleater-Kinney experience.
My point is, maybe I picked up Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl hoping to make up for a bit of lost time, but overall I was coming in like a blank page. Reader, meet author. You don’t know a thing about their lives.
And then, right from the start, Brownstein’s writing engages with an immediate, economical style that has you dropping your guard and then wondering where that left hook came from. “Once, in high school, I went to see the B-52s. I pressed myself against the barrier until bruises darkened my ribs, thrilled to watch Kate Pierson drink from a water bottle, only to have my best friend tell me that to her the concert wasn’t about the band – it was about us, it was about the fact that we were there together, that the music itself was secondary to our world, merely something that colored it, spoke to it. That’s why all those records from high school sound so good.”
I mean… fuck me, right? I’ve probably spent the better part of my life wondering about those exact same feelings and notions and I doubt I could have ever come close to fitting them so perfectly into three sentences. That moment, so quickly mentioned and moved on from, seems to form almost the entire base of Brownstein’s life as she relates it in this book. She writes with devastating frankness about her family and their foibles. A mother struggling with anorexia, and a father who she describes thusly: “My father wasn’t just taciturn – it was like he didn’t want to be heard.” She’s equally blunt when it comes to analyzing her own place in the dynamic. She notes that from a young age she was striving to be the center of attention. “I had very little desire to be present” she writes, “only to be presentational, or pretend.”
As I moved further into Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, I found myself inexorably drawn into a running comparison with the last musician’s autobiography I’d read: Morrissey’s Autobiography. Morrissey is, of course, one of the most polarizing figures in modern music. I believe it’s fair to say that most people either love him or, uh, don’t. But even to the people who despise him, I would urge them to read his book. And go for the full, unedited Penguin Classics edition (an imprint, it must be noted, that is usually reserved for long-dead authors of the highest reputation). I read it over the course of several weeks last year. It’s 450-some pages. Small print. No chapter stops. No index. Paragraphs run to multiple pages. For the first time ever in my life I had to use a bookmark or I’d have been lost in between reading sessions. And it is all clearly written by the Man Himself. No ghost writer here, oh no. I doubt there was even an editor. It’s an experience, for sure.
But the thing I kept coming back to – while reading Brownstein’s book – was how much more seemed to be in her tight little sentences than in all of Morrissey’s achingly dense, poetic passages. I hate comparing works against each other like that, but the contrast was so stark, and to be fair the Moz book still so fresh in my head, that I simply couldn’t help it. Staggeringly, Morrissey has now been a performer for nearly 40 years. That’s almost as long as Brownstein’s been alive. And yet, he hardly seemed to be interested in the music he’s created and rightfully famous for. He remembers the adulation of crowds and the scorn of critics in minute detail, but the actual, bloody music? Not so much. And if there is a problem, a misunderstanding or a challenge to his perception of the world? Well, of course Morrissey is blameless. He tries, but the world simply won’t listen. “They” decidedly have it in for “Him”.
(That said, it’s a truly amazing book and anyone with even a passing interest in Moz, or just narcissism in general, should read it.)
Reading Brownstein’s accounts of the time she utterly fucked her band’s chances to sign with Matador Records, or her problems in dealing with relationships outside the cocoon of band life, or how her attempts to focus her energies post-Sleater-Kinney’s break up into animal adoption goes (horrifically) wrong, I couldn’t help thinking how much more generous a glimpse into a functioning artist’s life I was being allowed. And not in the desperate, attention-seeking manner that her younger self might have utilized. Because, while there is certainly plenty of laser-like self-reflection and revelation, Brownstein manages to make that concept of “writing about music” actually make sense. There’s so many dead-on descriptions of music in this book: from a guitarist’s style and how it sounds, to the experience of writing and recording as a band, or even of just the wanting to get close to that. As she writes: “…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.”
Ultimately, as I saw one person describe this book, it’s a love letter to her band Sleater-Kinney, her bandmates and to all the bands that gave her the clues she needed to figure out who she was and what she wanted to do. And, really, to music itself. I didn’t think that I had any expectations when I started this book, but I must not have realized that I half-expected to be only mildly engaged by Carrie Brownstein’s story. Instead, I came out of it feeling like I’d met a fellowe traveler – someone who “gets it.” And that’s a rare thing in this kind of book.
Reader, meet author, indeed.
Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is published by Riverhead Books.
Morrissey’s Autobiography is published in the United Kingdom by Penguin Classics and in the USA by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.