(Photo: Ash Mar)
I didn’t know Sleater-Kinney in the 90’s. I still dig this book. Even chapters revealing how specific albums were made (albums I’ve never heard) were illuminating. Because this book isn’t a celebrity tell-all; it’s a meditation on creativity, on dark confusing youth, on finding validation in other people’s art, on exploring the ways to let your own art out.
I loved Brownstein’s insights into fandom. I’ve been a fan, adoring and ravenous, and I’ve been a creator, uncomfortable with a complimentary audience. I’ve felt that fans were sheep, were dumb – been embarrassed at my own fandom. But Brownstein shows a real relationship between creators and fans, even if they never meet. What it means to love and consume art, what it means to create for yourself and for strangers. In her school years she wrote letters to daytime soap stars describing not just her adoration but also her personal troubles. Some of them wrote back:
“A response, any response, implied that I existed, that I was not a weirdo, that I’d be okay. I could have gone to a school counsellor or even talked to my parents, but I needed someone on TV or in the movies to reach out to me, not because they were famous but because they were so far away, it was like being seen from outer space. Suddenly I didn’t feel small; I was bigger than the house I was living in, larger than my town. Thanks to them, I somehow belonged in the world.
I always think about these moments when fans approach me, or write letters, or send messages on social media. I try to recall the sturdiness that comes from recognition.”
Brownstein began as a fan of Pacific-Northwest punk. Then she became one of its stars: still shy, still unsure, but performing with power and strength. Not only does she remember what it’s like on both sides, she sees how this relationship can help us understand what it means to be human.
I also enjoyed Brownstein’s insights into young adulthood and the search for self. It’s hard out there for a twenty-something, especially someone trying to forge a creative path. Brownstein had it harder because her talent is more than one thing – a musician in Sleater-Kinney and a writer-actor on the comedy show Portlandia. The book shows how she built to her success without smoothing the wrong turns and false starts. It describes the muddled mess of young adulthood without glorifying the angst. Too often media celebrates the tortured artist – makes depression and anxiety look like brooding mystique. Brownstein feels real.
“I showed up to Olympia a wanderer. I had about two months until school started. I spent the first few weeks walking around downtown stopping in at the State Theater or thrift stores or the Martin apartments, places I knew people I wanted to be friends with worked or hung out. I lingered and muttered, I waited around. I was desperate to insert myself into situations, to learn, to observe. I was an archaeologist of sorts but I wanted to be a participant, to be connected and engaged. I was shy, which didn’t help. Underneath that nervousness, however, I had a cunningness and intentionality, or at least a cluelessness that was intrepid enough to get the job done. I cared too much about what people thought but also not enough. I didn’t mind that I was just hanging around. I didn’t want to be discovered, I wanted to be part of the discovery.”
After the book was finished I picked up some Sleater-Kinney. The music made sense to me in a way it wouldn’t have before. The arguing guitars, the wail of singer Corin Tucker, the big drums of Janet Weiss, all of it expressing the struggle and strength of being those women in the Pacific-Northwest in the 90’s.