“My whole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day,” Carrie Brownstein sings in Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl.” It’s one of the band’s happier-sounding songs, with a catchy, almost sweet melody belied by the deeply ironic, cutting lyrics. She follows up those lines with the ones that inspire the title of her new book: “My baby loves me, I’m so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl.”
As she reveals in her excellent new memoir, Brownstein’s life wasn’t all sunshine. The riot grrrl legend and Portlandia comedian endured more pain before she was 30 than many people ever will. But there’s no trace of complaint or self-pity in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl; it’s a memoir that’s both candid and brave, and a powerful tribute to the power of music to heal, to connect, to break you down and then make you whole again.
Brownstein’s book begins with a brief prologue that sees Sleater-Kinney about to play a show in Belgium in 2006. Brownstein has shingles, and is contemplating breaking her own fingers so she’ll be able to end the tour and go home. “Sleater-Kinney was my family … it had saved my life countless times … And I was about to destroy Sleater-Kinney.” Sure enough, the band broke up that year, only to reform eight years later.
A page later, Brownstein hits rewind, and we’re introduced to her as a child growing up in the Seattle suburbs. She was an early entertainer, always eager to be the center of attention, but she was mostly a fan, devoted to Madonna and George Michael: “This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.”
If her early childhood was happy, it didn’t last long. She fought bitterly with her mother, the two throwing things at each other in particularly tense moments (“Everything was a projectile, an indoor hailstorm”); later, her mother would seek treatment for severe anorexia, and eventually leave her family. Brownstein’s father, she would later learn, had been living in the closet; he came out as gay when he was 55.