Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Carrie Brownstein

In the summer I read Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, and struggled to write anything about it. The book is broad and scattered, attempting to establish Gordon’s roots as an artist while also covering basically every side project she took on while she was the bassist for Sonic Youth for twenty years. She seems to write the least about her experiences in the band, even insisting she doesn’t primarily consider herself a musician. Her approach felt emotionally distant, though she acknowledges that people tend to see her that way; yet then she delves into raw, gossipy detail on the dissolution of her marriage with Thurston Moore after he was unable to end an affair with another woman.

Eventually I ended by writing something about her defiantly exposing the disconnects between rock-star idealism and mid-life crisis clichés — except that seemed to overstate the reality of the book. Kim Gordon isn’t a terrible writer by any means, but when I tried to extract my honest feelings about her book, I just came up with petty criticisms. It wasn’t until starting Carrie Brownstein’s memoir that I could see that it was precisely Gordon’s nonchalance about her success that held me back from feeling engaged with her book as a story.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is specific in scope, focused on Brownstein’s time in Sleater-Kinney, with a little about earlier bands like Excuse Seventeen. “Portlandia” fans will only get a brief mention of Fred Armisen, and various side music projects are skipped entirely, even hiatus-era Wild Flag. Yet the progression of Sleater-Kinney is presented clearly as a narrative through each album and tour, and she puts them in context with Olympia’s music scene and riot grrrl. The requisite childhood foundation is integrated into Brownstein’s story, so that her mother’s struggles with anorexia and her father’s coming out as an adult aren’t just background stories but referenced in context with her progression as a musician.

Mostly the draw of this book is that Brownstein has a clear passion for her music and Sleater-Kinney, and it’s her earnestness and humor that solidifies the feeling of the book. When she writes about auditioning to join the band 7 Year Bitch the year she graduated high school, she describes determinedly writing a letter to plead her case when they turned her down by comparing herself to John Frusciante, the “genius guitar player” for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who joined that band when he was about her age.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end the letter there. Instead, I bared my soul. As in letters I had written to soap stars and teenage heartthrobs in elementary school and junior high, I told Elizabeth about my entire life: how I didn’t get along with my parents, about my mom leaving, the whole maudlin story. People think that the digital age and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter nurture oversharing, but in 1992 there was nothing stopping me from treating any piece of paper like a personal diary. I wanted so badly to be taken to some special place, to be asked into a secret club that would transform my life. I felt like music was that club. And to see inside for a moment and then be asked to leave was devastating.

The appeal of memoirs written by well-known figures is mainly in their potential for sensational backstories and surprisingly relatable emotions, and while this one may be light on lurid details — Brownstein’s sad tour hook-up stories are hilarious however — to see heartfelt purpose realized is a pleasure.