Carrie Brownstein–Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Portlandia, the Emmy-nominated sketch comedy show that elevated Carrie Brownstein to a household name, is mentioned once in her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl–in the epilogue. The title of the book refers to the fifth track on The Woods, the seventh album from Brownstein’s band Sleater-Kinney and the trio’s last record before their decade-long hiatus. Brownstein had her pick between “hunger makes me a modern girl” and “anger makes me a modern girl.” Either line fits her youth.

Within thirty pages we learn that Carrie was fourteen when her mother Linda sought treatment for her anorexia, rendering Carrie motherless for a month. The first time Carrie, her younger sister Stacey, and her father Kenny visited Linda in the eating disorder unit at Ballard Medical Plaza in Seattle, Linda’s clothes looked “hardly different on her than [they] would on a wire hanger.” Linda returned home, which was in Redmond, Washington–but not for long. She left for good less than a year after her stay at Ballard.

Mr. Brownstein wasn’t entirely there, either. He “wasn’t just taciturn–it was like he didn’t want to be heard… Perhaps his reticence came from not being able to name what or who he was, or what he felt. So he stayed quiet, and he waited for the words to find him.”

The words never quite found him, though. He forced them when Carrie was in her early twenties: “So I guess I’m coming out to you.”

His admission shook Carrie. “If he wasn’t himself during my childhood, then what was my childhood?” she wondered. “What was I?”

Contemporary memoirs often read like lengthy boasts, narratives over which the world ought not lose ink. Carrie Brownstein, however, endured an extraordinarily arduous adolescence, became a co-guitarist, -lyricist, and -vocalist for a critically acclaimed band (sharing those roles with frontwoman Corin Tucker), and rather than succumb to hubris, she divulges moments she clearly regrets, such as the time she yelled, “Fu*k you!” at Toni Gogin–whom Janet Weiss would later and not incidentally replace–for botching a drumroll on tour.

After the release of their sophomore album Call the Doctor, S-K wanted to switch from Chainsaw Records to a larger label. They set up a meeting with Matador Records in New York City, and Brownstein walked in forty-five minutes late. “I might as well have been wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sucking my thumb,” she so candidly reflects. (They ended up signing with Olympia-based Kill Rock Stars, a label that had Elliott Smith on its roster at the time.)

Brownstein praises other musicians way more than she compliments herself. She says Jack White has “that star quality of simultaneously sucking the air out of a space and giving it life.” And surely by now Kathleen Hanna has grinned with pride at the fact that a fellow riot grrl artist calls Bikini Kill’s music “a revelation.”

Even when she writes about music journalist Greil Marcus deeming Sleater-Kinney the best American rock band in 2000, Brownstein avoids complacency: “‘Best Band in America’ and my back is about to go out again because I’m carrying a sixty-pound amp into a practice space the size of a pantry in which Janet’s aged marmalade cat has sprayed multiple times. It smelled like piss and dryer sheets. This was us having ‘made it!’ We never stopped working.”

Feline urine aside, the prose is stunning. Take for example this description of an indoor swimming pool Brownstein frequented as a kid: “I loved the echo in the cavernous room, the way the sounds and voices melded into each other, gurgling, muted, watercolors for the ears.”

The diction is colloquial but never to a condescending extent, and, given that Brownstein studied sociolinguistics at Evergreen State College, one is driven to think the colloquialisms indicate not a poor lexical repertoire but an intention to build and maintain intimacy between author and reader. (“We never had groupies. Writing that sad little sentence, I wish we had, just so instead I could have written, ‘Yes, of course we had groupies! Endless, countless numbers of groupies. A cornucopia of groupies, groupies coming out of my ears, groupies for days.’”)

Because she achieves this friend-talking-to-a-friend tone, cliffhangers at the end of a few chapters can be annoying, sorta like your gal pal is teasing you with an intriguing bit of a story and making you wait to hear the full version. But music’s effect on Carrie Brownstein–the hungers of hers it has sated, hungers for love, attention, self-respect–is a story worthy of your patience.