Brownstein, Carrie. “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir”, Riverhead Press, 2015.
Candid, Funny and Personal
Carrie Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir’ is a candid, funny, and deeply personal look at making a life—and finding yourself—in music. Before she became a music icon, Brownstein was a young girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest just the time that is becoming the setting for one the most important movements in rock history. Brownstein was looking for who she was and a sense of belonging and she was able to find both as she transitioned from musical spectator to Seeking a sense of home and identity, she would discover both while moving from spectator to musical creator and participant as she experienced the power and mystery of a live performance. With Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her bandmates rose quickly in the new underground feminist punk-rock movement that came to define music and pop culture in the 1990s. Sleater-Kinney was considered to be “America’s best rock band” by legendary music critic Greil Marcus for their defiant music. Others felt that the band’s exuberant brand of punk that resisted labels and limitations, redefined notions of gender in rock.
This book is Carrie Brownstein’s intimate memoir of leaving her family and the turbulence that took place there to find a way to self-invent and a community. As she writes about this she tells of the excitement and contradictions within the era’s flourishing and fiercely independent music subculture, including experiences that later became the observational satire of the popular television series “Portlandia” years later.
Her story is candid and raw and above all brutally honest. She shares the being a young woman, a born performer and an outsider, and ultimately finding one’s true calling through hard work, courage and the intoxicating power of rock and roll. She
shares her childhood in the Seattle suburbs and we see the proto-performer searching for her personal stage while navigating tumultuous family dynamics. We are with her when she becomes part of the pioneering punk band, Sleater-Kinney. I love that she does not tell all but what she does share is wonderful.
Brownstein’s compelling story expertly blends music writing with personal revelations. At turns heartbreaking and illuminating, Brownstein’s immense talent has produced an intimate portrait of America’s best rock band.
The memoir opens with Sleater-Kinney’s penultimate tour. Brownstein was sick with shingles and full of anxiety. From there we go back in time to her childhood in the Pacific Northwest, with lots of details as she wants to give us a portrait of a suburban coming of age. Her mother left the family when Brownstein was fourteen, and that later her own father would come out to her as gay. Every memory that she shares is honest and has no self-pity or sentimentality. She writes with compassionate insight about the exact dysfunctional and darkly funny family in which she grew up.
The book is not so much Brownstein’s life (though it is the main thrust of it) as it is about creativity, and her search for artistic fulfillment and meaning. She shows that having a voice and having something to say is the noblest and best reason to pursue artistic success. Brownstein shows that she found that voice and that message through her work inside and outside of music. She writes about the music scene in the Northwest circa 1992, when Nirvana was hitting big and any band with a Seattle zip code and flannel could find success. She feels that Sleater-Kinney always remained on the margins of commercial success yet they had a rabid fan base that exists to this day. She also writes about the sexism that rock music has ingrained within it.
The memoir is written album by album, and in between she tells stories like when she was outed as gay by Spin magazine before she had the chance to come out herself. One of the big successes of this memoir is the amount of space that Brownstein gives herself to show queerness as a nuanced part of one’s identity. She treats her relationship with Corin Tucker and its influence on their songwriting post-relationship, with immense compassion. She also describes how the grueling nature of touring can corrode a relationship.
She also shares the personal combustions behind the end of Sleater-Kinney and this followed by a very difficult chapter about grief heartbreaking chapter on grief. Brownstein restarts her life to include volunteering at an animal shelter, and experiences unthinkable loss. She’s shared so much throughout the memoir that when we get to the natural conclusion, the reunion of Sleater Kinney, it’s hard to read it without smiling.
The book is filled with self-deprecation, keen social observations, and personal and social insights. I fell in love with this book and while still on the first page, I knew I was reading something very special.This is quite basically a love letter to music and a wonderfully thought-out memoir that is beautifully written and which I predict will be one of the books of the year.