Three the Hard Way: The Return of Sleater-Kinney




WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT of Start Together, the limited edition vinyl box set of the seven albums Sleater-Kinney had released since 1995, a few months back, probably most of the critics planning to cover it started composing their final farewell to the band. Sleater-Kinney’s announcement of an “indefinite hiatus” in 2005 following the release of their last album The Woods had already been the occasion of career assessments and attempts to find something other than finality in the word “hiatus.” But the news, a few weeks back, that Start Together contained a new single, “Bury Our Friends,” and that a new Sleater-Kinney album was on the way in January — combined with the elusive meaning of the box set’s title — suggested that we now had to consider not a legacy but a preface to the unheard work yet to come.

Whether this piece is a valediction or a speculation about the music ahead, it doesn’t, for me, change the fact that I have never gotten over hearing Corin Tucker’s voice, the sound of a wounded warrior emanating from someone who seemed possessed of the power to unleash the furies. Specifically, I’ve never gotten over the moment on Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney’s second album, when Tucker sang, “I’m your monster, I’m not like you.” There were so many things going on in the way she wailed those words — pride, disgust, rage, scorn. There was the simultaneous need to declare yourself apart and to belong, a desire to possess the power that comes with being feared, a willingness to say that you are your truest self at your ugliest, and the determination to strike back at everything that brought you to that point. This was the opposite of inchoate. This was music that possessed dozens of simultaneous articulated possibilities. The other lyrics were, on paper, a rant about how the forces of society want to make you conform because conformity is a means of social control (“they want to simplify your needs and likes / to sterilize you”). But the words mattered less than the urgency with which Tucker and co-guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein delivered them. If Tucker’s voice was a quavering wail, Brownstein’s was a bloodcurdling shriek. On “Call the Doctor,” as on many songs over the albums that followed, Brownstein often sang a separate set of lyrics in counterpoint to Tucker’s lead. The result was less tension than dovetailing: Brownstein’s ripped-throat screams were the thunder bursting forth from Tucker’s sky-darkening howls.

You could hear, as some people did, Tucker’s voice as so harsh it barely qualified as music. And you could hear Sleater-Kinney’s sound as so immediate and undeniable that by comparison almost all the rock ’n’ roll surrounding it sounded fatally safe and compromised. What you couldn’t do when confronted by their music was not pay attention. This was a sound that, as the best rock ’n’ roll always does, forces a reaction and demands you choose a side. I lost track of how many times after we had seen a Sleater-Kinney show my wife (also a big fan), for weeks, had to listen to me complain that dozens of performances by plenty of bands were, next to Sleater-Kinney, so much insignificant fluff. These were often perfectly good performances by perfectly good bands. But fuck goodness and decency. Sleater-Kinney was one of those things that sometimes happens in rock ’n’ roll when you are shaken to the core by a band or by a song the moment you hear it because, you suddenly realize, you have always wanted to hear this very thing, even if such a thing were previously unimaginable.

Sleater-Kinney came into existence as part of the early ’90s bands that Tucker and Brownstein each belonged to (Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively). Both emerging from riot grrrl, the female-centric punk movement that also produced the likes of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 sounded vital in a way that wasn’t always pleasurable but was so urgent they demanded attention. The Heavens to Betsy single “My Red Self” was the adolescent menstruation story you might get if Stephen King’s Carrie had taken a women’s studies class before her locker-room humiliation.

you make me hide
the truth from you
so you make me hide
my red self from you

These lyrics joined self-loathing to anger at everyone who ever made a woman feel embarrassed about herself — every ashamed mother explaining the facts of life to her daughter; every boyfriend who was grossed out by his girlfriend’s period.

It wasn’t like there was no other good rock music at the time. Nirvana was impinging on the popular consciousness in the way that only a few performers and movements — Elvis, the Beatles, punk — had ever achieved. The homemade tapes that became Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville were released, and every week there were dozens of CDs ranging from quirky to brash to majestic from dozens of bands. But riot grrrl had a force and a threat to it that reminded me of how a friend described seeing the Sex Pistols in the South on their only American tour. “Whatever you thought of these guys,” my friend told me, “it was clear that they weren’t kidding.” Riot grrrl had moments of pure punk effrontery, like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna yelling, “Come here baby, let me kiss you like a boy does / let’s wipe our cum on my parents’ bed / Come on!” at the end of “New Radio” — that “Come on!” making her sound for all the world like Brenda Lee reincarnated as some high school lesbian poon hound, which made for a reassuringly familiar bit of rock ’n’ roll salaciousness, even as it was something no one else had said before.

Much of it was far, far less playful. This was a generation of women who were as attracted to rock ’n’ roll as the English punks had been and who felt just as left out of what rock ’n’ roll had become. Despite the examples of artists like The Slits, The Raincoats, the Go-Go’s, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex, the established gender roles (girls as lead singer but not leader) remained. And since this was a generation who had grown up with their mothers’ or sisters’ dog-eared copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Against Our Will and Fear of Flying and others, they combined fandom with a honed, or sometimes just furious, sense of feminist anger. I wouldn’t call riot grrrl exclusionary, though clearly the white male rock fan in his mid-30s, as I was then, was not its intended audience. But the fury in the performances overwhelmed the tendency toward cant in the lyrics. The drama of the songs felt as if they were actually happening as the song was being performed. It was exciting and upsetting, designed to tell much of the audience that they were not alone in their anger, and to pick a fight with those who couldn’t sympathize.

Riot grrrl finally made plain to me a long-growing resentment over the contention that rock ’n’ roll was about boys, white ones, playing the guitar. That resentment went back to my days in junior high when liking rock ’n’ roll meant liking Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull or Yes, bands that meant nothing to me. It encompassed too many arguments made to me about why Fairport Convention or Chic or Kid Creole and the Coconuts or Al Green or Pet Shop Boys weren’t rock ’n’ roll. I had, and still have, a place in my heart for bands who seem to express the warmth of boys’ camaraderie — the Faces, Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Replacements. Riot grrrls may even have had patience for cock rock. (At one Sleater-Kinney show I attended in the ’90s, Tucker and Brownstein were all hepped up about having gone to see KISS a few nights before.) But ever since riot grrrl, almost none of the bands that have mattered most to me have been exclusively male.

Listening to Sleater-Kinney’s albums spanning the 10 years from Sleater-Kinney to The Woods, it’s clear from the beginning, the band’s drama and presence overwhelmed what, in the hands of lesser performers, might have been merely didactic. Despite the years of earnest critical analysis devoted to them, rock lyrics, even the best, are often a rough sketch for the meaning supplied by vocals and music. The lines “Feel safe / inside / inside those well-drawn lines / boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life” from “Anonymous” could easily read as bad student poetry, the work of someone who feels but has not yet achieved the control to transform feeling into art. What Tucker does with the lines, singing them in a nervous, breathless tick-tock rhythm that reduces each feeling, each item a meaningless entry on a list of things necessary to do to conform, gives each one the concreteness of a link in a chain. The come-on in the midst of the maelstrom that is “Little Mouth” (“you wanna try her? / I think I wanna”) takes the sliminess of a pimp’s pitch — and the john who’s buying — and filters it through the disgust of a woman who’s had it with women being turned into commodities. It’s easy to imagine a young woman hearing the sneer in Tucker’s voice and feeling someone is speaking for the anger she’s felt being cat-called on the sidewalk, or given the sort of bald once-over devoid of any erotic or romantic warmth. But without denying the female experience that she speaks for and to, it’s also possible to hear the song speaking for whatever it is — a crummy job, a school more interested in your money than your education — that threatens to commodify us.

It’s inevitable that, given time and the familiarity that comes with playing together, a band will grow as a unit. The challenge for punk bands has always been how to admit that growth without losing the rawness that is the heart of punk, or falling into the vogue for professionalism and musicianship, the qualities most often hailed in hacks. Sleater-Kinney met the challenge by developing a punk version of blues-derived rock. Tucker and Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, who joined for the band’s third album, the 1997 Dig Me Out, developed a heavy-bottomed sound that never lumbered. Dig Me Out was, in its way, as perfect a distillation of the band’s sound to that point as A Hard Day’s Night had been for the Beatles. The record is full of expertly clipped off punk rave-ups that leave the listener screaming from the guts for more. “Not What You Want,” a road movie that begins in hyperdrive, and revs its engine ever louder as you listen to it, the sound getting bigger and bigger and, impossibly, freer as the volume increases. Tucker could be Kowalski, the driver played by Barry Newman in Vanishing Point, pushing his white Challenger to the limit because in speed lies freedom. Carrie Brownstein, the best-dressed woman in rock ’n’ roll and maybe the greatest thrift-store shopper rock has seen since David Johansen, had been striking guitar-hero poses on stage and here she was become a guitar hero, tossing off the riffs that make it hard to get through an album because you keep going back to hear the number you just heard again.

From here, on The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One, the sound would feel darker, more menacing. The band was still addressing feminist concerns, excoriating the stereotypical expectations of a female band not as rock-star self-pity but as a means of addressing the constricting expectations of women in general. They also talk about the strains of work and relationships and a culture that ground you down in a way that felt familiar to anyone attempting to put together an adult life. The tunes weren’t as immediate, even the hardest numbers felt ruminative, but the emotional satisfactions of the music were perhaps deeper. The same was true of the language. The pronouncements were still there (“it’s time for a new rock ’n’ roll age”) but the metaphors (“I’d set your heart on fire but arson is no way / to make a love burn brighter”) admitted the aches of maturity alongside the anger. “Don’t talk like you’re 19 / you’re 35 if you’re a day,” Tucker sang on “Don’t Talk Like,” and you could hear the lines as a rebuke to “I hope I die before I get old” or “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” to every notion that rock ’n’ roll is a form that cannot be used to speak about adult life.

Which made the disappointment of 2002’s One Beat all the worse. To this day, it’s the only Sleater-Kinney album I can’t listen to, the one where the band’s clarion call gave way to sloganeering. To be fair, Sleater-Kinney was in the impossible situation other artists found themselves in at that time, unnerved by 9/11, fearful of being frog-marched to war in Iraq by the Bush junta, feeling it was incumbent upon them to say something. It’s hard, sometimes, to see that the best choice an artist can make is not to speak, especially when the result reduces moral and political complexities to bromides. “Is our guilt erased by the pain that we’ve endured?” asked the band on “Combat Rock,” and the line can stand for everything that’s simpleminded and easy about One Beat. It’s a pretend question that before it’s asked knows the answer. As in Susan Sontag’s appalling statement, before anyone had claimed responsibility, that 9/11 was the result of “specific American alliances and actions” (none specific enough for Sontag to actually mention), the reflexive truth for much of the left was that America’s guilt erased any claim it might make to suffering. It was the geopolitical version of asking a rape victim what she was wearing to have provoked the attack, and it was a debasement of the band’s intelligence and artistry.

As if to prove that The Woods, the last Sleater-Kinney album to date, combined elusive, sometimes oblique lyrics with emotional urgency that wiped the misstep of One Beat from memory. The American jitters to which the band tried to give voice on One Beat found the right words in the opening lines of “Jumpers”: “I spend the afternoon in cars / I sit in traffic jams for hours / don’t push me / I am not ok.” The quiet harmonies on that last line were deeply unsettling, suggesting both an acceptance of the stress of modern life and the possibility of eruption. It was what Joan Didion might have produced if Didion hadn’t always been so self-conscious of the dread she packed into her anomic haikus. When the eruption came at the end of the song, the music made the punk clatter of the band’s early work sound very … young by comparison. That’s not a putdown but a way of acknowledging the band’s discovery that if life trains you to expect bruising, it also teaches you that as you age bruises take longer to fade. From the cover painting of stage curtains parting to show a set of artificial trees, to the inside photo of the band in the forest at night to the album’s hard dark-walnut sound, The Woods was mysterious work that Sleater-Kinney was moving to all along, an accounting of perseverance in the face of anxiety that, the music seemed to say, had become the normal texture of life.

With their new album in January and the tour that will follow, Sleater-Kinney retakes the stage as returning heroes. Start Together, limited to 3,000 copies, sold out before it was released (CD remasters of the individual albums are now available), and tickets have already been snatched up for most of February’s tour.

I was at their last New York show in August of 2005 at Webster Hall. The place was an oven. It had been inhumanly hot that day (105) and the air-conditioning did nothing to cool those of us packed onto the floor who spent most of the show jumping as one. Janet Weiss was slumped forward over her drums, her back rising and falling as she took in what air there was in the room, while Tucker and Brownstein traded solos. The heat had no effect on the ferocity of the performance. If anything it become one more obstacle the band set out to obliterate. Tucker’s cries of “Land ho!” from The Woods’s opening track “The Fox” cut through the room and made us all feel like we were lashed to the mast while she took us on some tumultuous journey. Everyone in that room would have followed her anywhere.

The guy next to me, 220 if he was an ounce, short, squat, huge, shaven-headed, tattooed, and dressed in combat shorts. Unbidden, he turned to me before the lights dimmed and said, “You know, I’m big and soft so if you want to jump around and bump into me when the band comes on, that’s cool.” We talked a little about how we first encountered Sleater-Kinney. He came upon them without having a clue who they were on a bill at CBGB’s and was struck dumb. When the band came on, this guy spent most of the night making sure the short women around him could see, that he was blocking no one. He probably had a mother who raised him right. He was a testament to what riot grrrl in general and Sleater-Kinney especially made possible in rock ’n’ roll. You don’t rock any less hard for making space for the people around you.

¤

Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.



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