By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I have always believed it can’t be that difficult to write a rock memoir. The life of a musician, by its very nature, involves touring, performance, the creative process; your average rocker, on sitting down to write his or her autobiography, is surely unlikely to find they are lacking in material. I assume it is substance rather than style which attracts a reader to a book of this genre, rather than an expectation that the language will inspire discussions of the writer’s impressive use of metaphor; for most authors of the music autobiography, the expectations for creating a literary masterpiece are pretty low.
To write a really, really good rock memoir, however, is a whole different proposition. Not every musician is involved in the song-writing process, and so cannot be expected to be blessed with superhuman talents of constructing a metaphor (it could be argued some successful songwriters would also struggle with this). Given the trajectory of so many music autobiographies is essentially the same pattern of working class upbringing, playing in dive bars to seven people, major-label success, drug addiction, etc, to write a really, really good rock memoir that truly does something different within the genre must be fairly challenging.
Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a really, really good rock memoir.
For the uninitiated, Brownstein is a singer and guitarist from the band Sleator-Kinney, formed in Olympia, Washington in 1994. The band released seven studio albums before undergoing something of an implosion in 2006. Sleator-Kinney returned in 2015 with No Cities to Love, one of my favorite albums of last year. For the initiated, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is exactly what you want it to be: honest, witty, self-effacing, informative, and a book which serves as a perfect accompaniment to the Sleator-Kinney oeuvre.
One thing accomplished by most works in this branch of writing is dissuading the reader of the myth that life as a rock star is non-stop glamor. Brownstein follows this path from the very beginning, opening Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl in 2006, on the eve of the band’s breakup, with the writer suffering from shingles. As non-aspirational introductions go, it does its job, as well as setting the tone for a book which is by turns triumphant and painful to read.
“I only wanted one thing on tour: to slam my hand in a door and break my fingers. Then I would go home.” – page iv
The main thing to know about this book is that Brownstein can really write. In discussing her youthful fascination with the past, she writes that it possessed “a stillness…a clarity, the way it had been somewhat defined and dissected, in the rearview mirror; it was there for the taking, for the mining” (page 12). On dropping out of college and moving home, she “was ready to test whether my increasingly thorny disposition could puncture the soft padding of my suburban environs” (page 63). There’s a use of vocabulary in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl which was conspicuously absent in, say, The Dirt by Mötley Crüe. Along with this impressive linguistic virtuosity comes cultural critique which made this particular modern girl shout “yes!” and nod vigorously.
“Persona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman, more distant and unknowable, and thus threatening. When men sing personal songs, they seem sensitive and evolved; when women sing personal songs, they are inviting and vulnerable, or worse, catty and tiresome.” – page 166
Aside from an undoubted ability to wow with her prose, Brownstein also has plenty to say with that prose. On subjects from sexuality and relationships to being a music fan and the song-writing process, she is consistently fascinating. Her considerations of the ways in which an all-female band is pigeonholed and patronized act as a rallying cry, while also acknowledging the discomfort involved in acting as the standard-bearer for a political movement. Emma Watson could do a lot worse than choose Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl for her much-publicized new feminist book club.
In a rock memoir, anecdotes are vital; they serve to provide snippets of the kind of gossip a fan really wants to know, as well as humanizing the star, often painting them in a way which is embarrassing or humbling. Reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl it is entirely evident that Brownstein has a wicked sense of humor and an entertaining willingness to mock herself. The illness-related opening is just the first of many examples of her self-deprecating humor, which also include the very modest suggestion that she “could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions” (page 80).
When reading a music autobiography, it is often frustrating to realize the amount of the book in which the writer doesn’t really have anything to say. Groupies, for example, usually feature in abundance, with families and partners thrown by the wayside; it is easy to say this is because the majority of these narratives are by men, but it seems accurate to surmise that the female experience of rock stardom (or, at least, cult success) takes a somewhat different form. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl creates in its reader a sense that, while you wouldn’t necessarily want to be incessantly touring in a decrepit van, picking up freak record-collecting injuries and arguing with bandmates, you would definitely want to be friends with Carrie Brownstein. Her memoir is entirely lacking in hubris or rock and roll cliché, instead providing its reader with fascinating insights into every aspect of the record industry, as well as the toll it takes on its participants. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is entirely unique within its genre: intelligent, compelling, honest and, I say with no doubt whatsoever, worthy of your attention.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is available now at GPL.