Much to the dismay of a large portion of my friends, I had never seen or listened to Sleater-Kinney until last night at Terminal 5 in NYC. Demographically and temperamentally, I should have heard them before — I’m 34, queer, a woman, angst-y and angry and a feminist.
My best explanation is that I grew up in rural Vermont and at 14, I heard Ani DiFranco for the first time and waited in line with other baby queers from my arts camp for her autograph at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. When I finally got to the front of the line, Ani’s handlers arrived to whisk her away to something and I must have looked so heartbroken that she leaned over the table and kissed me hard on the lips (I looked much older than I was) and from then on she was the only angry, queer, woman singer I needed through my teens. But I can’t imagine revisiting Ani now, both because her politics have always been awful — I just didn’t see it before — and her music now feels embarrassing where it used to mean too much to me (that part at least isn’t her fault). So when my Facebook newsfeed filled up over the last few months with friends freaking out about Sleater-Kinney coming out of hiatus, their teenage favorite angst-y queer band that shaped them, I found that a little perplexing.
So when a friend had an extra ticket to the Sleater-Kinney show at Terminal 5 last night, I thought, sure, I want to know what you’re all obsessed with. Here’s what I was expecting: incomprehensible music with a lot of yelling that would be vaguely unpleasant. I also expected it to feel a little like the letdown of going to the Castro for the first time, when I was already an adult with a huge queer community, and it just felt like an empty, cheesy symbol. Planning to see Sleater-Kinney seemed like it would probably be me indulging in someone else’s queer childhood fantasies and coming up a little empty and sticky from nostalgia. I also distrusted Carrie Brownstein because I hated Portlandia. The targets are too easy, no one is ever vulnerable and it’s boring as shit. I’m just too earnest for that.
It’s remarkable how wrong I was. Everything about last night’s performance was earnest and vulnerable. Opener Lizzo, an indie hip-hop artist, had an incredible, unabashed high energy. She reached up between her legs to adjust her little shorts (to prevent chub rub? Stop people seeing up her dress? Both? I don’t know) under her dress on stage and called attention to what she was doing, which made me love her as a fellow fat. She sang “Batches and Cookies” and threw cookies into the crowd, helpfully wrapped in plastic so you could still eat them after they hit five other people and fell on the floor. I had never heard of her before and could have watched her for hours.
Then Sleater-Kinney came out and everyone collectively lost their minds: screaming, crying, shaking. I was there with a friend who shares one of my partners — who’s coincidentally another fat femme named Rebecca. (Being queer means that everyone you know is complicatedly intertwined and that sometimes you fuck people who are embarrassingly similar to yourself, so reading that the founding members of Sleater-Kinney were each other’s exes makes familiar sense.) This friend, who rarely shows excitement, squealed with glee at the beginning of each new song and glared furiously at these huge, Ramones-shirted drunk guys who aggressively pushed their way through the crowd (while still mouthing along to feminist anthems!), wondering aloud if they even understood the words they were pantomiming.
It’s laughable now to think I was worried that Sleater-Kinney would be annoyingly detached — I’ve never seen anyone perform who was more committed and un-self-conscious. Corin Tucker scream-sings so hard that it looks like she’s about to throw her whole body forward off the stage. It looks like she can barely be contained. Carrie Brownstein headbangs in earnest, playing her guitar as a huge physical performance that sometimes ends up above her head or to the side of her body. Janet Weiss was everything I want little girls to see on stage about how to be loud and take up space. It was a revelation. “One More Hour,” “Jumpers,” “Words and Guitar,” “A New Wave,” “No Cities to Love” — every song was huge, loud, committed, and fearlessly aware of the expectations people have laid on them without hiding behind them.
I suddenly understood why a decade ago, when I moved to NYC and worked at a feminist sex shop, riot grrrls were the ones who had taught me some of the skills I needed to survive in NYC, skills I had found unfathomable before — when we would get harassed these physically small women would suddenly become huge, intimidating, yelling back. They knew how to take up space.
One day we were on a subway car late at night with one other woman, and a man, who wasn’t with her. I turned and saw the man had stripped off all his clothes and was jacking off, turning to look between us and the other woman. The woman alone also saw him and looked terrified. Then one of my friends stood up, commanded the man to put his clothing back on, walked past him to bring the lone woman over to us, and made the guy go stand in a corner. It had never occurred to me you could do that (and yes, I realize he may have enjoyed it, I don’t care. Have to use these skills all the time, sadly). Watching Sleater-Kinney made me understand part of where these friends learned to be so loud, why we want to send younger generations of women to harness their musical interests at programs like the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.
By the time the show ended, the room stank of sweat and I didn’t care. This wasn’t indulging in outdated nostalgia. I still need encouragement to be that huge and loud. Every woman I know does. I understand now. I’m so glad you all freaked out all over social media so hard. Thank you.