It's about time Portland met Carrie Brownstein.
Sure, it probably seems like we know her pretty well already. But ever since Portlandia transformed her from indie-rock star to mainstream celebrity, Brownstein has been more symbol than person, an avatar of the city's changing landscape and a scapegoat for our anxiety. A few months ago, the readers of this paper determined that Old Portland died the moment she and Fred Armisen appeared on television and made jokes about free-range chicken and artisanal knot stores. And maybe you've seen those "Fred and Toody, Not Fred and Carrie" bumper stickers, as if she is separate from the Pacific Northwest punk tradition and not a product of it.
We've debated her work, and we've debated her. But how much do any of us really know about her?
As she admits in her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, if she's seemed aloof, that's partly by design. "For a long while," she writes, "I could share nothing more than the music itself." And, for a while, that was enough. But with her profile growing exponentially in the time between the end of her band, Sleater-Kinney, in 2006, and its return this year, she could no longer keep her guard up in good conscience. She recognizes the importance of someone in her position opening up about themselves, because she remembers, very clearly, what it's like being on the other side. "I think I was too scared to be open with fans," she writes, "because I knew how bottomless their need could be."
And so, consider this book a formal reintroduction. Hi, this is Carrie. Her first concert was Madonna. In high school, she was really into hosting murder-mystery parties. Once, she got drunk and made out with a stranger on the street outside a club. She's got a lot of nicknames for her pets. Like, a lot.
OK, so this isn't exactly a tell-all. (When it comes to Portlandia, and her relationship with Armisen, it's a tell-nothing: The show is referenced once, in passing, in the epilogue.) But Hunger is still revealing, more in how it's written than what's actually revealed. On the page, Brownstein comes across as funny, charming, self-deprecating and self-aware—while also being perhaps a bit detached from her own life.
She writes about herself with an almost journalistic remove, even when covering the more harrowing aspects of her autobiography: her mother's anorexia; her father's midlife coming-out; the sad, lonely death of her childhood dog. But it's that quality which also lends her prose a vividness lacking in typical musician memoirs: "Bikini-clad, burnt red like she'd been dipped in cherry Kool-Aid…somewhere between rotting and a fossil," is how she describes a photo of her mom on the family's last vacation together.
Brownstein describes her childhood as a constant search for attention, validation and belonging, albeit in ways that are often impossibly endearing. (As a kid, she made pen pals with soap-opera stars, recruited her neighbors to form a Duran Duran cover "band" and ran for elementary-school office with the slogan, "Girls just wanna have fun, but they want to be politicians, too.") She finally found her place in the punk scene, and particularly in Olympia, Wash., that enclave of feminist politics and DIY ethics. And once Sleater-Kinney enters her life, it becomes her life. Tertiary figures fade to the periphery, and relationships with anyone outside the band are given glancing mentions. Each album gets its own chapter. Expectedly, she dissects her own discography with a critic's eye.
But then, things fall apart. She is more or less forced out of Olympia by the band's growing ambition. And if you've wondered what ended Sleater-Kinney the first time around, you probably couldn't have guessed how big a role a case of shingles played in their undoing.
Hunger skips over the part where Brownstein becomes a TV star, filling in the gap with a tad too much detail about her time volunteering with the Oregon Humane Society, before ending with her back onstage with Sleater-Kinney—her one true "home." At less than 300 pages, it is not a complete portrait. But the image that's presented is of a woman who is hard to dislike, and harder to dismiss.
FIVE (BARELY) SALACIOUS REVELATIONS FROM HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL:
Her first lesbian experience sprung from a night of baby-birding liqueur with her friends.
"Polly suggested we pass the drink mouth-to-mouth. It started like that, our mouths merely conduits, containers. The feeling was warm but still perfunctory. But somewhere in the middle of this contrived routine, this newfound alcohol-dispensing technique, was an ersatz kiss, another mouth."
She's a total home-wrecker.
"Finally, Corin [Tucker] broke up with her boyfriend. He acknowledged my so-called victory by giving me a photo he'd found of a boy sitting inside a basketball hoop. The note on the back read You bagged my girl.—Dan."
She and the Sleater-Kinney merch guy used to watch French porn together while on tour.
"We lay in our underwear in adjoining twin beds, half turned on, half wanting to make out, but instead talking about how we missed our girlfriends back home."
She once had an Eyes Wide Shut moment in Paris.
"I sat on a sofa watching bodies become more entangled, turning from angles and lines to squiggles and waves….In the end, all I could manage was the kind of shoulder dance moms do when they make shrimp scampi in the kitchen while drinking white wine and listening to Bruce Hornsby."
There was no groupie sex on Sleater-Kinney tours, but there were a few awkward makeout sessions.
"I'm not certain if it was intentional or if we merely bumped into each other's faces as we fell asleep, but as the morning light crept in through the cracks in the curtains, our lips touched. An hour later, the alarm went off. Those are my tour hook-up stories."
SEE IT: Carrie Brownstein is in conversation with Tig Notaro at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, on Thursday, Nov. 5. 7:30 pm. $37.95. All ages.