Carrie Brownstein Gives Me a Heart Attack

A few years ago, my friends started leaving New York in quick succession. Soon I was the one who was leaving. At the time, I got a lot of mileage out of pictures, like the one above, of Carrie Brownstein’s public displays of friendship with Mary Timony onstage in the band Wild Flag. Just look at these two inordinately talented and badass women, leaning into a conspiratorial laugh between songs, getting ready to shred. Two women at the height of their musical powers, bleeding chemistry all over the stage. #Goals.

I have tagged myself and my friends Tya and Kathleen in this photo many times over the past few years. (I’m always Mary Timony in these social media scenarios; they are total Carries.) What slays me about this picture is the way it stages friendship as an event, a mode of relation and, even, fandom, that is pivotal to making art—or, in my own wild and needy projections, to writing dissertations and books.

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When I read Carrie Brownstein’s new memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl this fall, I found myself thinking hard about why this image of some favorite musicians just wholeheartedly adoring each other on stage has meant so much to me. I realize that love may not have been what you were expecting from Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, but hear me out. Brownstein’s book presents something like a grand semi-unified theory of love: how love finds an object, how it produces its subjects, how it blooms into recognizable categories (friendship, fandom, family, a band) while always and inexorably dissolving the lines between them.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl offers a narrative of Brownstein’s childhood in suburban Seattle and career as a guitarist and singer in the bands Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney (there’s weirdly no mention of Wild Flag). It’s also a rich account of moving through life as a fan, and of fandom as subject position. She tells us early on that “to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” Brownstein turns out to be one of the world’s great enthusiasts, and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is ultimately a love letter—not to any specific famous person who earned her admiration, but rather to the powerful experience of adoring an only semi-known someone. Sharon Urquhart writes that the love of a fan hurtles toward a “hopeless object” who is equal parts unobtainable and accessible, and Brownstein finds words for the particular quality of feeling that is love for the stranger who compels you, who has somehow formed you, and who may but more likely will not answer you back.

And so we witness a young Brownstein writing pages-long letters to TV and film stars who never issue any response, before graduating to lesser-known soap actors who actually take the time to send a note in return. Brownstein describes these epistolary gestures as efforts to be seen and recognized as a person. Receiving a response is the most profound form of validation, proof that she “somehow belonged to the world.” It’s an indication that she has made a sound audible beyond the walls of family and home and school. Later on, it is fandom too that launches her musical career in Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney. I don’t know why it delights me so much to learn that Carrie Brownstein started out as a huge fan of Corin Tucker’s band Heavens to Betsy, that she listened to their six-song tape over and over in her dorm room and then accosted Tucker after a show at Brownstein’s college in Washington. This is the rags-to-riches narrative of the interpersonal sphere, is it not? It’s proof that the power imbalance of fandom can and sometimes does evolve into something less embarrassing. The hierarchies level out. Also, some of my most treasured friendships began in just this way.

Brownstein’s admiration for Tucker quickly folds into friendship, and soon the two are bandmates, writing songs together, living together in Olympia. Their friendship becomes art’s greatest vehicle. Tucker’s ability to be direct in both lyrics and demeanor permits Brownstein to take refuge in academic distance, so that books and concepts often mediate bare emotion in Sleater-Kinney songs (“She was bold; I described boldness”). Brownstein’s guitar style also develops in relation to Tucker’s playing: all of Sleater-Kinney’s chords are half-formed, every note dependent on its partner. “My entire style of playing was built around somebody else playing guitar with me,” she writes, “designed to be completed by someone else.”

That the two women were also dating for the first years of Sleater-Kinney’s existence thickens the memoir’s friendship plot. Brownstein is a little stingy on the juicy details here—actually, there are no juicy details to speak of—but this notable obliqueness about Sleater-Kinney’s sexual history helps to flesh out the book’s theory of love. Once Tucker and Brownstein’s early romantic attachment comes apart, they have to forge a totally different kind of love from the ashes of their relationship. In Brownstein’s telling, it’s not about learning to tolerate one another again, or finding ways to build distance into the gross daily proximity of touring. No—she describes the reconstruction of their relationship as a process of falling into a new, platonic love through the intensity of living inside each other’s songs. (Friendship through fandom? Fandom as possession, or as occupation?)

carrie 2Brownstein also offers an account of how it feels to be the object of love for so many strangers. As she narrates her band’s growing acclaim—their first major press coverage, their incredible success at CMJ in 1996, a surreal tour opening for Pearl Jam in giant venues—she discovers the flipside of fan mail, and it’s the realization that fans often have their own bottomless need for recognition. Elsewhere in the book she insists that the fan’s love also feels inspiring and affirming, but when it comes to the seemingly awkward task of describing her band’s adoring audience, her tone is overwhelmingly—maybe necessarily—self-deprecating. So for example, Brownstein pokes fun at the very idea that the band ever had any groupies.

Self-deprecation is obviously safe harbor for the modest. But such a rhetorical gambit obfuscates the … sensual reality of attending a Sleater-Kinney show. Even after their audience expanded and masculinized with the release of The Woods (2005) and the Pearl Jam tour, the crowd has remained intensely matrifocal (I’m shamelessly borrowing the word Brownstein uses to describe Olympia in the early nineties here). And the girls, all of us, were screaming for Carrie. I have always thought of her as the Kinsey Scale’s most precipitous tipping point: when she starts playing guitar in her iconic angular style, with the high leg kicks and the windmill and the business casual outfits and the unlimited swagger? Forget it. It’s a mass conversion. You can feel the crowd’s collective longing for a moment of mutual recognition, for any indication that its affection is reciprocal.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl will form an instant part of the rock memoir canon. At its core, the book offers a vigorous defense of fandom as a way of being in the world. I’m offering this quasi-review here—partial, truncated, passionate—as a kind of love letter that demands no answer.

Laura Fisher teaches English at Ryerson University.