Review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

“We built this city on rock n’ roll, but we should build this school on leadership.” Rock music has always been a part of Carrie Brownstein. These are her words campaigning for fifth grade vice president. She won. In addition to being vice president of her elementary school, Brownstein is known for her work on the Emmy-nominated sketch series Portlandia, playing guitar for the popular girl-punk band Sleater-Kinney, and writing for The New York Times, The Believer, and Slate. Her most recent creative credit is her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, named after a Sleater-Kinney lyric, is a charming and fascinating self portrait of Brownstein’s life and her deep-seeded relationship with music. While the book primarily deals with her introduction to punk rock and career performing music, there is a particularly heartbreaking but accessible through-line in her descriptions of her relationship with her parents. Her mother, a woman coping with anorexia, and her father, a man coming to terms with his homosexuality, made her feel isolated from her peers who had what she considered to have conventional families. She pens an image of an unhappy family as she and her sister act as the adults in their family and her parents grapple with what she describes as “teenage issues.”

Brownstein’s memoir begins with a prologue zooming in on a scene in 2006, directly before Sleater-Kinney performed in Belguim. She describes Sleater-Kinney as, “…my family, the longest relationship I had ever been in; it held my secrets, my bones, it was in my veins, it had saved my life countless times, it still loved me even when I was terrible to it, it might have been the first unconditional love I’d ever known.” From there, it transitions backwards into her childhood.

Passionate about performing, Brownstein writes about a young girl desperate to entertain. She tells detailed and stories about growing up in her home in Washington, stressing to us that she was, at the time, primarily a fan of music, wanting so badly to jump on stage herself. She reflects on her very first concert — Madonna’s 1985 Like a Virgin tour — and credits it as one of her first significant exposures to live music. From there on, she explains her slow experimentation with punk — from playing her first guitar to buying her first album. Feeling like she didn’t quite belong with those her age, the punk scene provided role models for Brownstein, showing her a fascinating life for others that felt like outcasts.

Expanding on the feeling that she lacked belonging, Brownstein writes intimately about the dark (and ultimately, very human) feelings she experienced growing up. She struggled with her identity and how she could express it. She anxiously questioned her sexuality. She felt distant from her parents and her peers in school. In a moving excerpt about running away from home, she writes, “I felt like no one was really looking out for me, that I was marginal and incidental. I compensated by being spongelike, impressionable, and available to whatever and whoever provided the most sense of belonging. I was learning two sets of skills simultaneously: adaptation — linguistic and aesthetic — in order to fit in, but also, how to survive on my own.”

After the stories of her childhood and adolescence, she describes the formation and rise to fame of Sleater-Kinney. Teaming up with Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, they create a band that is the modern iconic image of girl-punk. Brownstein writes about these women with great love and admiration, citing them as the most important people in her life. She openly shares the bond she felt with these women, but at the same time, reading it feels intensely personal, like a diary. Brownstein is both an open book and very careful about what she allows us to know. She recounts the tension, the success, and the hard work that makes up Sleater-Kinney.

Brownstein’s memoir is an intimate look at her personhood, but she is extremely selective in what she shares in her writing. She sticks mostly with the music — her greatest love. But in sharing that love with us, she gives us a peek at who she is.

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