Sleater-Kinney makes me feel like a cooler person, which is deeply uncool.
In eighth grade I talked my way onto a field trip to Yale University. At my middle school we received grades but we also received a number between one and three indicating our performance in the areas of conduct and effort. It’s basically a system for quantifying the amount of maintenance a given twelve-year-old requires. The Ones do all their homework and are at least subtle about chewing gum in class, like a five-year-old adopted dog with a happy disposition who is already house-trained and good with kids. The Twos are new puppies, talking too much, starting to get worryingly convinced they’re hilarious, eating your shoes but you get over it. Three means a special needs shelter mutt, a pit bull rescued from dog fights, the dog that only weird aunts with big hearts and cool twenty year old celebrities with big bank accounts pick. When Spring arrived that year, The Ones were being taken to visit Yale. The Twos couldn’t go because you have to teach your baby dog that her actions have consequences. The Threes couldn’t go because the education system is deeply flawed and they never got to do anything. I was a kinda loopy circle-talking girl in a suddenly too tall weirdo half-child body who watched a lot of HBO and was sometimes sent to the library during Algebra for expressing too often to Mr. O’Driscoll the ways in which I fundamentally disagreed with his teaching methods (he was a nice man and I’m sorry.), so I was a Two and I couldn’t go, so I was a Two and I could swirl myself around this rule in the guidance counselor’s office, which is how it happened that a blond tour guide named Anna should introduce me to Sleater-Kinney.
I’ve never known a lot about music. My favorite album has been Carole King’s Tapestry since I was six years old. I really liked Ashlee Simpson because she had her own MTV show and her mom was so upset when she dyed her hair black in the bathroom sink. A boy burned me a copy of The Eminem Show and a decade later I am still trying to unpack what he was saying to me. I stood in a huddle of Axe and hoodies in the hallway outside a college radio station control room and Anna and her big green sweater, heavy shoes, crisp voice said a bunch of things and then said, “Sleater-Kinney. Pretty nice, huh?” and we were into The College Dropout and did not care at all– a position I still hold, conceptually, about everything, anything– and then she led us to some place where we could eat free french fries and whisper about each other. I don’t know. Anyway. This isn’t some great origin story. That’s not the point. I went home and Googled them. We still had dial-up Internet. Screech and crunch and a bathroom break waiting for the page to load. I’ve never known a lot about music but that day I found Sleater-Kinney is the first time I remember trying.
I’ve never known a lot about music and what I mean when I say that is: I’m not a Music Person. What I mean when I say that is sometimes when men ask me what kind of music I listen to I unblinkingly reply that I don’t like music. I do, though. I’m not a robot. I like music, but I don’t feel easy or sure or confident about it and I get a little suspicious of those who appear to. I’ve never known a lot about music. What I mean when I say that is that all my life I have been finding reflections of myself in stories. Ravenous reading and tv lullabies, I looked at pretend people and said, “oh, yes.” Another corner of myself and all my caverns, shine a light to understand. There, look at me. In music, I don’t hear myself. The experience is not the same. I’ve come to think this is because music is more immediately performative, the creative labor a more obvious part of the final product. Another human being stands before you (through whatever medium, you know, but) and creates noise that has meaning. It’s so bizarre, intimate. Even songs crafted by a full bench of producers and writers and recording engineers have a face at their center and I cannot divorce my experience of that song from the physical, personal reality of that face. Somebody’s song. A real somebody. When I listen to music I do not hear myself, I hear what I could be.
The first Sleater-Kinney album I owned, when I was thirteen, was a used copy of Dig Me Out, and I still had a cherry-colored discman then. I was making myself somebody else before we even got home. Firing at all cylinders, synapses, in my bedroom, I played it over and over. I watched myself moving in the mirror. It was clothes after that, maybe, and a little sneer, a little while. I felt incredible. And I knew I was nobody. I was all soft, Sylvia Plath, and I got so excited. Music allows a personal recreation, as the listener, just by experiencing, just through hearing the words in your head, which is unlike any other art form. It’s only that it takes some angling. You just have to figure out that this whole long ordeal is all done in costumes, anyway. Then, it’s fun. Put it on and take it off, a shit-kicking new me. This music– these women– felt better in my head and bones than I remembered, sounded better bouncing in my skull, shaking through metallic teeth, better for glowering out bus windows than Green Day ever did, and I became something new. It was something to me, just that they were girls with instruments, cooler and older, hissing out smart lines and stomping their feet. It’s not different now. I felt it in the first new single, how I walked a little harder after, liking all my sounds and my straight spine. Me bounding up stairs in heavy shoes with Carrie Brownstein red lips. Thinking ‘bout a bob ‘cause I’m embarrassing, like– it’s all the same. “Born too small too weak too weird,” goes, “Gimme Love.” “Closed off from the seeing world / Inside my heart beats like a girl.” Christ, I know.
No Cities To Love doesn’t exactly chart new territory, either. All of us swapping back forth out of our different looks and loves until we’re dead. Sleater-Kinney’s back and it’s killer. I’m thrilled. The most novel thing about it is that it exists at all. Since their split in 2006, after a seven album run, Corin Tucker’s been making babies and solo work. Janet Weiss worked behind the drum kit for Bright Eyes, The Shins, Quasi, the one-and-done rock band Wild Flag with Brownstein. Brownstein’s spent the time hanging out with Fred Armisen constantly and somehow I still really like her. Now they’re back and they’re talking about bodies, being in them. Blood and bones out free in the world. I am raw material make me plastic make me fuel. “Gimme Love” is about desire; “Price Tag” doesn’t want to want. Twice in 10 tracks and 33 minutes the band seeks to remind us that they’re not dolls. A body is a body, and it has a self.
No Cities To Love is very concerned with presence, the self. My pet subjects, but, I swear, it’s true. “No one here is taking notice / no headline will ever hold us / it’s not a new wave / it’s just you and me,” croon Tucker and Brownstein at the heart of “A New Wave,” together again, and I feel immediately enveloped back into something I loved, was safe inside while becoming myself. (My favorite part of the whole album is Carrie Brownstein bringing back her classic syllabic yelps on that same track in a way that makes my hips jut and snap in time standing against a brick wall on my lunch break. Everyday I throw a little party / But a fit would be more fit-ting fit-ting. The song’s a jam and when I’m bouncing I don’t care what she’s saying, so it’s just a bonus that it’s kind of great. And every time I go a little higher should I leap or go on liv-ing, liv-ing?) “Price Tag” rails against rampant consumerism. A little opaque, but a banger nonetheless. “Hey Darling” is worried about fame again. All these different ways to mean the same thing. To worry over what’s real. “Sometimes the heat of the crowd / feels a little too close / sometimes the shout of the room / makes me feel so alone.” On “No Anthems” we remember that we are “seduction pure function / it’s how I learned to speak / steal your power in my hour / I will change most everything.” Create our own kind of obscurity. The difference between becoming and being. The multiplicity of self, both of the self you are, and the self you perform. Being, but also being seen. The whole thing’s pretty self-involved, so of course I’m obsessed. I put on Sleater-Kinney, to hear, and then I put on Sleater-Kinney, to wear like armor, like babydoll dresses, put on me.
This is a good album. It’s endlessly hooky and has something to say. I’ve been trying to tell you what makes it good but I am afraid to choose the words. I own a pleather skirt from American Eagle and mostly only like the music that my mom played in the car when I was three. I don’t know and barely care. I’m comfortable writing about Taylor Swift. I can tell anyone why “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a self-reflexive piece of pop mastery that skillfully slices through the circle-jerking glut of popular image in, the rapidly self-consuming, reproducing celebrity news culture, in order to reclaim the narrative, and all with a wink, a cotton candy lip gloss sound, and I do, and I love it, but, like, if you already think Sleater-Kinney is good? If you know Greil Marcus called them the best band in the world? If you’re not rolling your eyes at me as soon as I begin talking then there’s no call for the put-on bratty swagger of the half-righteous poptimist (vom) so I get nervous and have to give up and watch Scandal in bed where I belong. I don’t know how to say that this album zips and quavers with real animal strength I sometimes forget can be a part of music and it makes me feel strong, sleek, like I’d only key somebody’s car if they really deserved it and I’d look good the whole time. Most days I feel as if I might do anything. Most days I cannot make all my parts move in synchronicity. Sleater-Kinney, still, now, and maybe I should outgrow this, though these songs seems to say I won’t (“wandered through the void of me” in the title track) helps me carve a clear self from my whole mess, clean, and that self is cool like concrete for an hour, for a day. “Unbelievable masquerade.”
This is a good album. I bought the hard copy; I play it in my car. It’s punchy, feels big, but not overblown. It makes me hit the steering wheel with my palm. Even the most lyrically sparse songs are smart and layered. I yell every word with gum in my mouth. This music, here now, on the other side of my adolescence, is homecoming and rebirth, figure-eighting for infinity, mad cool, and to sit still while Janet Weiss’ drumming moves through you remains a great part about having a body. After a few listens through I recognized that it’s “We live on dread in our own gilded age” not “We live UNDEAD in our own gilded age” on “Bury Our Friends,” but the song is not any less about vampires, the parasitic cycle of existing in the world, the immortal fact of what a draining exercise it is to be a woman. Only I get to be sickened by me. Every time I listen to these tracks I find something else I want to store away in my brain to mention casually to some girl with a good haircut and a leather jacket at the horrible bar with one hundred awful beers on tap who I’ll want to impress because I still don’t know about me. I also kinda want to smash something and laugh about it. Kick my boots against my tires before I walk inside to read quietly, because I can stand on these legs, and I do. Just checking.