Listening to the new Sleater-Kinney album, The Woods, makes the same old dream come back to me. The dream is that I came of age in Olympia, Washington, in the early ’90s, instead of coming of age in the northeast in the early aughts. Singer Carrie Brownstein’s voice is so good, so visceral, it makes me want to buy some time travel combat boots, strap ’em on, and get the fuck out of here.
Riot Grrrl music was certainly in my pop lexicon when I was twelve or thirteen, when the REAL riot grrrls were hurling their bloody tampons at rowdy sexist audiences and Kathleen Hanna was scrawling “slut” across her taut belly. The problem was I didn’t really get what the riot grrls were doing. I knew they liked to yell and stuff, but the meaning behind their squalling was lost on my barely pubescent self.
I was busy sitting in some boy’s attic bedroom trying to pierce my belly button with a safety pin. I was walking around with girls at my artsy hippie Jew camp screaming, just like Courtney Love in her Hole days, “I’m miss world / Somebody KILL ME,” not really understanding that she was being ironic. At that point Courtney Love and Mariah Carey held the same amount of cultural currency in my mind.
Compact Discs: Sound of the Future
Had my time-travel wish been fulfilled, I would have been a women’s studies major at the University of Washington in 1991, only ate organic produce, and written some kick ass ‘zine with a name like “Simone” or “Vagina Dentata.”
Maybe it’s better that the music hit me full force after the real riot grrrl movement. As I understand it, after the movement got appropriated by the media, and its message (as messages often are) was distorted by all the press, the movement imploded on itself, as overly hyped movements are wont to do. As Bratmobile member Alison Wolfe says on their website, the band broke up quickly after achieving notoriety because, “We were young, inexperienced, and highly opinionated. I think people often expected too much from us, and we expected a lot from ourselves and each other. We just couldn’t be all the different things that people expected us to be.”
It’s harder to make sense of anything while you’re in the middle of it. By coming to riot grrrl after it had been deconstructed and reconstructed again, perhaps I could come away with my own, more lasting conclusions from the music.
The way I discovered it, truly, was through riot grrrl progeny rather than the original bands. I got really into Le Tigre in college, and listening to songs like “Hot Topic,” off their self-titled album, with its name-checking of feminist icons, turned me on to artists and filmmakers I had never even heard of. I bought Ariel Schrag’s awesome graphic novels as a direct result of hearing her name through that song. I could finally truly appreciate the rage behind lyrics like, “Let you depoliticize my rhyme.”
Which brings me back to Sleater-Kinney. The Woods in its own right is a great album, but to me what makes it even better is that the progress the band has made is palpable. Their early albums have a DIY charm, but each member of the band has progressed as a musician over the years.
My favorite song from The Woods is not a loud, angry rager, like most of my other favorite Sleater-Kinney tunes from All Hands on the Bad One and Dig Me Out. “Modern Girl” has a sweet, almost folksy guitar and harmonica thread throughout the track, and it’s more mournful than anything else. It starts out sweetly, “My baby loves me / I’m so happy/ Happy makes me a modern girl,” and then as the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure progresses, “My baby left me/ I’m so angry/ Anger makes me a modern girl.” Perhaps this is the joy of the nouveau riot grrrl: she’s still ticked off, but she can express it subtly, and with pathos.