“Peel back the skin, see what’s there”: Carrie Brownstein’s HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL

That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now.
-Carrie Brownstein, from Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl [pg. 3]

0903fe1eHalfway through reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I had a dream about Carrie Brownstein. Yes, it was a sort of sexy dream; no, I am not going to go into detail. I woke up smiling – not only because it was a sweet dream, but also because it made me realize how everything has come full circle. I first dreamt about Carrie twenty years ago, when, at age fourteen, I read about Sleater-Kinney in a fanzine and saw the picture of the band that ran alongside it. This makes Carrie my longest-running musician crush. She wasn’t my first – Billy Idol and Michael Steele (bassist of The Bangles) share that title – but she’s the only musician I had a crush on as a teen that I’m still crushing on. The other thing that has circled me back to my origins is my relationship to Sleater-Kinney’s music. I saw Sleater-Kinney on their Dig Me Out tour, at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, in May 1997. That show was my first non-local punk/rock show. That show made me know I wanted, needed, all that in my life forever. Punk, rock’n’roll, dark clubs, words, and guitar. I knew I’d find a way to always be a part of it, whether by making music myself or writing about it, and when I got home from Minneapolis I wrote about Sleater-Kinney (and my crush on Carrie) for my own fanzine. And here I am, nineteen years later, writing about Carrie’s memoir for a music website.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a tender artifact. Carrie pokes at her memories like they’re a sore spot in her mouth, like when you bite the inside of your cheek and you can’t stop your tongue from pressing against the tiny wound, even though you know you should leave it alone. I don’t mean that it’s too confessional. It’s not. Carrie makes it clear that she will not give everything away on the page. She writes about some personal, painful things, but there are some things that aren’t for the public eye. It’s a topic she touches on in the book – how women are reviled for being too confessional (keep your messy feelings to yourself), but at the same time people are uncomfortable when a woman is not being confessional, when she’s using a persona or holding something back. She also mentions that the times she has felt most herself have been when she was on stage, playing music: and that even when she was singing about personal things, she was still in her rock’n’roll persona. She felt most herself when “not (her)self.” To quote my favorite, Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” That goes for woman, too.

Carrie’s memoir is not overly confessional, but it is real. She doesn’t tell us everything, but she tells us the things that matter. As I said, it’s tender. By turns heartbreaking and joyful, but it’s all oh, so human. Everything she shares is honest and unglamorous. Even when she’s writing about longing for the old songs and the old days, she does it in a way that doesn’t make them sparkle with the glamoured light of nostalgia. In Hunger…, Carrie is open about the people and situations that have hurt her, but she doesn’t portray herself as a victim. She owns up to her own less-than-pretty moments, too. About the only complaint I have with the writing is that she sometimes uses words that disrupt the otherwise conversational tone of the book. She uses words like parsimonious when she could have said stingy; perspicacious when perceptive would have worked just as well. But maybe that’s one way she holds part of herself back from us. Her choice of words and phrasing means that it doesn’t read like a diary, sloppy and emotional. She selected her words as carefully as she selected which pieces of her life to share. Even in the conversational moments, there is a remove: it’s not a conversation like you’d have late at night with your best girlfriend after a few bottles of wine, it’s a conversation like you’d have with someone interviewing you for a magazine. She shows us, once again, that not everything is for public consumption.

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To reiterate: she may not share everything, but she shares the things that matter. One of the reasons I love this book is because there are so many echoes of my own life in it. I relate, in a visceral way, to her teenage longing to be cool and sophisticated and failing at it. I know what it feels like to be an outsider in your own family, and in the world at large. And I especially relate to turning to music, both the playing of it and the listening to it, as an escape from all that. When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere, you find yourself in the sound and the scene. She also writes with candor about how the ethos and insularity of the punk and indie scenes can become their own kind of trap; how you turn to the underground so you don’t have to play by mainstream society’s rules, but then find that you’ve got a whole new set of rules that you’re supposed to follow.

My favorite moment in the book comes when she describes hearing Bikini Kill for the first time:

It was the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation, the feeling that all these institutions and stories we’d been taught to hold as sacred often had very little to do with my own lived experiences. I had already been listening to punk and had related to storytellers like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller, but hearing Bikini Kill was like having someone illuminate my world for the first time. Here was a narrative that I could place myself inside, that I could share with other people to help explain how I felt, especially at a time when I was a shy and fairly inarticulate teen. I could turn the volume up on their songs and that loudness matched all my panic and fear, anger and emotions that seemed up until that point to be uncontrollable, even amorphous. [pg. 55]

I felt that way when I first heard Bikini Kill, too, but I felt even more that way when I first heard Sleater-Kinney. I loved Bikini Kill, but Sleater-Kinney felt closer to my own reality. Bikini Kill had a toughness that sometimes kept me at a distance. I wasn’t tough as a teen. Everything felt like a disaster, I was oversensitive to the world, and I cried constantly. It felt like Sleater-Kinney got that. Their songs could be just as angry and loud and tough-sounding, but I also sensed a vulnerability that I never got from Bikini Kill.

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Before I read Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I read an interview with Carrie Brownstein, conducted by Ana Marie Cox for the New York Times Magazine. In it, Ana says, “You wrote that in college you ‘wanted to be someone who has the power to drift in and out of people’s imaginations, who could be bigger than mere human form, a surface upon which others could project their longings.’ It’s rare to see someone aligned with indie rock be so frank about seeking fame.” Carrie’s response was: I don’t want to be famous. I wanted to be that solidity for someone else, in the same way that when I was young, I was able to project my desires and insecurities and uncertainties and need for belonging onto someone else.

Carrie, you were that for me. From the moment I first heard you sing Peel back the skin, see what’s there / I’ll never show you what’s in here, from the moment I saw you jumping around like a rock star in that dark club in Minneapolis, you were someone I wanted to be with and also be like. Your words (and guitar) helped me navigate my own awkward, painful adolescence. And two decades later, it still means so much.

About Jessie Lynn

Jessie Lynn McMains is the girl Cometbus, the Debbie Harry of poetry, and the Poet Laureate of Racine, Wisconsin. She’s an aging punk rocker, but she loves pretty much every other kind of music, too.

2 comments

  1. What a beautiful review. I totally agree with your singular criticism, the high-brow vocab definitely sometimes took me out of the narrative, but I love the way you framed that in terms of her intentionally, on some level, keeping us at a distance. Thank you for this wonderful piece!

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