Sleater-Kinney and the Feminist Fist


For many of my music loving brethren, an older sibling played a pivotal role in their musical development. This left me, an only child, at an effervescent disadvantage. Luckily my Motown-loving Father and folk-favoring Mother gave me a solid foundation, but they did nothing to help me branch into my own decade. In this vacuum, I had to rely on the older neighbor girl who introduced me to The New Kids on the Block instead of The Talking Heads–a band I would much prefer to cite as my gateway musical drug.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly began to diversify thanks to chain record stores and the older brother of my first boyfriend. Remember, this was a pre-internet age that Apple hadn’t yet iTransformed; you actually had to leave the house and moderately interact with other humans (if only at checkout) in order to peruse new and old releases. For a shy, awkward teen girl with overprotective parents (again, only child) I did not often find myself alone in public, EXCEPT for places like The Warehouse and Best Buy* where Mom would let me run around and explore to my heart’s content while she attended to her own business. It was in places like these that I stumbled across Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, two of my favorite bands of all time and the opening dialog with my future boyfriend’s incredibly cool older brother.

This fella, to whom we shall refer as J, was a recent high school grad who had just joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a man of few words who read Bret Easton Ellis novels and wore a lot of black. I was awe struck, not sexually speaking (I want to get that out of the way) but rather in the way that only kids are always looking for surrogate sources to brothers and/or sisters. It sounds creepy, but it’s not; this is not a Single White Female situation. To some extent, solo kiddos such as we are unsocialized and ever grateful for a little guidance. Having just delved into the Kerouac literary catalog while clutching every Modest Mouse album I could find close to the chest, I was ripe for a cultural infusion J was only too happy to provide. What he loaned me were the aforementioned Ellis novels as well as CDs ranging from Cab Calloway to The White Stripes, all of which I greedily burned and played to death.

This is when J gave me the gift of Sleater-Kinney in all their Riot grrrl glory. For those who are unfamiliar, the Riot grrrl movement was partially incubated in Olympia, Washington, where Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker–founding Sleater-Kinneyians–were attending Evergreen State College in the early 1990s. Often associated with third wave feminism, Riot Grrrl music gave women an outlet in a typically male dominated punk realm as grrls lyrically unleashed taboo topics such as rape, patriarchy and domestic abuse without apology. In her book “Words + Guitars: The Riot Grrl Movement and Third-Wave Feminism”, Hilary Belzer explains how the movement sought to develop mediums that spoke to girls who were “tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk…BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”

If you think about it, this motive is not dissimilar to the socio-educational rhetoric of the mid- and late-1990s. Everywhere I turned, parents and teachers were discussing how I felt and where I stood. Do girls feel comfortable raising their hands to speak their minds in co-ed classrooms? Are girls athletic programs given as much play as boys? We were given Murphy Brown and Title 9 to look to, but by rioting these grrrls spoke to an undercurrent that could never have been mainstreamed on television screens or in legislation. For me, grrrls like Brownstein and Tucker spoke of being sold out to and sucked in by teenage hormones–a predatory right of passage that often floated boys adrift on a testosterone tidal wave of conquest but just as often left girls with a handful of shiny placations, gemstones we thought were diamonds but revealed themselves to be nothing but paste. This is the dynamic that makes a promiscuous football player a legend and the equally adventurous cheerleader a slut on a high school campus, but I had never thought about that before listening to Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous album. MIND BLOWN.

Songs like “A Real Man,” “How To Play Dead,” and “Sold Out” turned my teenage angst into a feminist fist, and continue to resonate with me albeit in a different tenor. Sleater-Kinney is no longer on the road, except for one glorious reunion show of my dreams late last year where they shared the stage with Pearl Jam, and Carrie Brownstein is probably more recognized wielding a heavy dose of irony on Portlandia than she is for wielding a guitar. We grow up and things change. However, the beauty of aging is self awareness, and the falling away of the fog that causes young girls to thrash about in feminist fatigues. This is not to say that I am any less a feminist, but rather that I prefer to speak softly and carry a big stick. Instead of locking myself in my room, hitting play on Sleater-Kinney and writing terrible poetry about future things I hadn’t quite grasped, I pour myself a glass of wine, cue up the same album on Spotify and write about the things I remember. BECAUSE I know my voice has value. BECAUSE the space I write in is paid for by my own labor. BECAUSE now I’m old enough to know it’s the grrrl that makes the riot, and not the riot that makes the grrrl.

*This past Christmas, I wanted to buy my little cousin CDs I had loved when I was his age in an attempt to be for him the sherpa I never had. Not knowing my surroundings well, I opted to patron a Best Buy–the place I had purchased a vast majority of my CDs when I was a tween. Almost as soon as I walked through those automated doors a pit formed in my stomach: “I bet they don’t sell CDs anymore,” I said to myself. Technically, they do still sell CDs but it’s a random assortment of nothing anyone wants to buy. And as I rummaged through the pitiful, multi-genre chaos…I felt old.