Last Exit for Sleater-Kinney
Notes on the break-up of an iconic band.
On June 27, at 3:31 p.m., I wrote an e-mail to my friend Julianne that simply said, "Sleater-Kinney broke up. My youth is over." It was an end to not just a band whose career I had followed for 11 years, but also to a trio of women—Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss—who had become icons. As much as I mourn their early retirement, I suspect it's also the best thing they could have done for the future of feminism.
Sleater-Kinney remains inextricably linked to my high-school years. I was a suburban teenager whose life was changed by riot grrrl, the feminist punk movement of the early 1990s. In the pages of Sassy magazine, nothing seemed more seductive than photos of girls with "slut" and "rape" written across their stomachs, calling attention to female oppression via Sharpie markers. These girls were not much older than I but already had bands and manifestas of their own. I soon became a convert, cutting my hair short, wearing "Your Body is a Battleground" buttons on my backpack, and mail-ordering records by Corin Tucker's first band, Heavens to Betsy (I now cringe at the memory of my obsession with their song "My Red Self," an ode to menstruation) and Carrie Brownstein's band Excuse 17.
When Tucker and Brownstein joined forces to form Sleater-Kinney, they became a riot grrrl supergroup. When I saw them in 1995 on their first tour, playing in a living room in Santa Cruz, Calif., I was not disappointed. They had instantly outdone their outraged predecessors by simply toning down the dogma and making songs that were danceable. They had grown up in a time when Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde showed the world that women could unapologetically rock, but also when Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Tina Turner's feminist-flavored pop ruled MTV. Brownstein and Tucker's dueling guitars and vocals could seem feral one moment and sweet the next. I thought it soundedexactly like what it felt like to be a 17-year-old girl. I was hooked.
Soon I was bound for college in Olympia, Wash. (where the Sleater-Kinney exit off the freeway—an innocuous boulevard lined with strip malls—has become something of an indie rock tourist attraction), partly because the band made their hometown seem like a utopia of third-wave feminism. During my undergraduate years, I sang along to S-K's "Dance Song '97" at parties and had a linguistics professor who was so proud of fellow student Brownstein that she had an early profile in Spin taped to her office door. I saw them in concert too many times to count: at a Food Not Bombs benefit in San Francisco's Dolores Park, in a basement club in Paris, at a bookstore/record shop/camera store combo in Anacortes, Wash.
S-K defied girl-band pigeonholing by making each album more musically and lyrically complex, winning over critics and fans alike. They got legitimately famous—going from feminist icons to rock icons—and played stadiums as the opening act for Pearl Jam. Even so, they resisted the lure of major labels, recording for the indie labels Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop until the very end. They played all-ages shows and countless political fund-raisers, and they asked girlcentric bands they liked to tour with them. They retained control.
For a while, around their midcareer albums The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One, I thought I had outgrown Sleater-Kinney. I was glad that they existed, but I stopped relating to how angry and earnest they were—two qualities I had overdosed on during my angry and earnest high-school and college years. Even listening to their old records made me feel guilty, like the band could somehow tell I now much preferred listening to Destiny's Child.
One day, driving in a friend's car, I heard 2002's One Beat and I realized that Sleater-Kinney had grown up and moved on as much as I had. The album sounded like it was made by thirtysomething women who were still frustrated by the status quo—and played louder than ever to prove it—but you could hear that they were living with children and mortgages and standing weekly therapy appointments. Their last and arguably best record, The Woods, came out last year and has a certain finality to it, packed with songs about the complications of success and long-term relationships, ending with the warped lullaby "Night Light," as if they knew all along it would be their last one.
It's a shame that we won't hear what Sleater-Kinney in their 40s or 50s would sound like. Then again, as one friend pointed out to me, they were together longer than the Beatles. As unwelcome as the news of their breakup was, I applaud them for quitting while they were still vital. Unfortunately, the breakup of S-K (as well as the recent announcement that Le Tigre is on hiatus as well) has been interpreted by many fans as one more sign of not just the increasing lack of women in rock, but the death knell of feminism itself. We are being asked to believe that three female musicians deciding to pursue other projects is indicative of the stifling political climate we now live in; that the greater cultural message to draw from this is that women should be docile and silent, not pogoing on stage and wailing; and most of all, that the 90's (Zines! Indie music! Bill Clinton!) are over and we're never getting them back.
Luckily, the state of women in rock will never be dependent on one band. Sleater-Kinney's demise has left a gaping void, but does every generation need just one icon? I wonder if the feminist movement—where a parallel debate has raged since the deaths of legendary women like Betty Friedan, over who the next generation of leaders is—might learn a lesson from Sleater-Kinney's breakup. At a certain point in their career, S-K seemed to tire of discussing the fact that their music was made by women. But for many, the novelty never wore off and they were still constantly referenced as spokeswomen of their gender. They seem ready to let someone else parse the endless discussions of women and rock that seemed to only irritate them. Perhaps more aging leaders should take S-K's cue and gracefully step aside.
I also hope that a whole group of bands will collectively take Sleater-Kinney's place. I will look to former tour mates like the Gossip and Erase Errata and I will listen to PJ Harvey and newly reunited (it can happen!) Team Dresch for my 90's-nostalgia fix. Not to mention bands like the Grates or Be Your Own Pet featuring girls who were in grade school during much of Sleater-Kinney's reign. I'm so ready to see what happens in Sleater-Kinney's wake. At least, that is exactly what I'll be reminding myself when I go see them play for one last time.
Photograph of Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney by Vaughn Youtz/Zuma Press.