Lindsay King-Miller’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I don’t remember why I asked for a Sleater-Kinney CD for Christmas the year I turned thirteen. I didn’t know anyone who listened to them; all my friends that year were rocking out to guy groups like Nirvana and Green Day. In the throes of my generic adolescent angst, I loved those bands for their noise and their rage, but they didn’t speak for me. I liked that Kurt Cobain called himself a feminist, but my own burgeoning feminism demanded something else – a female voice I could relate to. I don’t think I expected Sleater-Kinney, the standard-bearers for political woman-driven rock in the post riot-grrrl era, to be the musical idols I’d never had, but on Christmas evening, sitting in my tiny basement bedroom listening to All Hands on the Bad One on my turquoise CD player, I fell in love for the first time in my life.
As Corin Tucker’s voice wailed, slightly fuzzy, from that cheap little speaker, the inside of my own throat buzzed in recognition. Her voice didn’t pour like honey; it ripped, it clawed, it howled. It was un-beautiful, risky, wavering on the high notes in a way that was almost painful. She sounded like vulnerability and sex and loneliness and rage and a slightly terrified sense of her own power. She sounded like everything inside my chest that I didn’t know how to put words to. I was enthralled.
With the voracious enthusiasm that marks adolescent discovery, I immediately declared Sleater-Kinney my favorite band and set about collecting every one of their previous albums. As I moved backward through their timeline, they got angrier and angrier, and I did too, until I was screaming along with “Real Man” on their self-titled debut: I don’t wanna join your club! I don’t want your kind of love! For the first time in my life, my interest in a band was not directed by anyone else’s opinions or passions. I wasn’t buying albums because they were recommended to me, but because I needed them, because I was hungry for more of these songs that spoke with eloquence and fury about the confusion and unfairness and beauty of being a girl. Sleater-Kinney’s music was the flame that set me boiling, bringing every drop of alienation and ambition and fear and desire bubbling to the surface, foaming over, sizzling. I was young and only beginning to be myself, and one of the first things I learned was that this – these songs, the lyrics I learned by heart, the drumbeats that crept into my wrists and my dreams – this was a part of me. This was mine.
Punk rock is a deeply idealistic musical genre. Sure, it’s loud and angry, but it’s more than that. You make noise because you believe someone is listening. You get angry because you believe things are wrong and can be made right. At thirteen, when my social studies teacher made fun of me in front of the whole class for calling myself a feminist, when boys made comments about my body as I walked down the hall, I needed the ability to get angry. I needed anger because I knew that I was at least as attracted to girls as to boys, and that if I told anyone I went to school with they would torment me mercilessly. I needed anger because I knew girls my own age who had been sexually assaulted by their boyfriends. I was lonely and scared and I believed in my guts that I deserved better. Sleater-Kinney agreed with me.
And not only were they inspiring feminists and powerhouse singers and musicians; they were fucking hot, talented, awesome queer women. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker and guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein were both bisexual – in fact, they were dating when they started the band. It would be inaccurate to say that Sleater-Kinney taught me I was queer – credit for that has to go to Eliza Dushku in Buffy the Vampire Slayer – but I have never crushed on a celebrity more intensely or for a longer time than Corin Tucker, Moon-faced Rock Goddess of My Heart. If I had to distill my sexual orientation down to one perfect sentence, it would be Corin Tucker on “Milkshake ‘n’ Honey” drawling “I’ve always been a guy with a sweet tooth and that girl was just like a king-sized candy bar.” The first time I saw a picture of her, I swooned. The first time I saw her live in concert, I don’t think I breathed for an hour. A friend of mine drew me a beautiful pencil sketch of Corin for my sixteenth birthday, and it hung on the wall in my bedroom until I left for college.
One of the greatest things about being a queer girl is that your role models and your crushes can be the same person. That was how I felt about Sleater-Kinney, both as individuals and as a group. I wanted to be them and dress like them and make out with them and dance myself breathless to their songs. One of the greatest things about being a teenage girl is that your love is so enormous. It fills up your whole body and makes you heavy. It’s in your lungs and your blood. It fills up every room you walk into. It’s your whole life. Nothing that happened to me in my teenage years could be separated from my all-encompassing love of Sleater-Kinney.
So it made a certain kind of sense that, the same year I graduated high school and moved away from my hometown, the band that wrote the songs of my adolescent soul broke up. My youth was over. There would never be another album to match One Beat for its ability to make me cry and laugh and fall in love and get angry and trust my own voice.
When your favorite band breaks up, it does something small but significant to the landscape of your heart. You immediately become older. You realize that you’ll never have a new favorite song again. No matter what the future holds to surprise and delight you in the realms of literature, film, food, sex, nature, etc., there will never be a song more powerful than the ones you’ve already heard. The first time I heard “The End of You,” it felt so natural and vital, so nearly a part of my own body, that it was more like a memory than a discovery. I haven’t felt that way since 2005. I’ve heard new songs that I loved, but Sleater-Kinney remained untouched in my heart. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss continued to exist and be beautiful and make music, but the bizarre and perfect alchemy that was the three of them together cannot be replicated by any other musical grouping. I love them as individual musicians, but I worship Sleater-Kinney, and Sleater-Kinney was no more.
Sure, if you’re fickle and callous you could just go out and find a different favorite band, a band that’s still together. But I don’t think I have it in me to love anything new as hard as I loved at fifteen. Most people have had the same favorite book, favorite band, favorite movie, since high school. I don’t have any statistics on that, but it feels accurate. The kind of expansive idealism that made me give my heart to Sleater-Kinney isn’t part of me anymore. I no longer quite believe that yelling really loudly and playing a guitar can right any of the world’s wrongs. I don’t trust the power of music the way I used to. These days I’m less angry and more sad. Sadness is anger that has given up. Sadness is anger that doesn’t believe it can change things.
The truth is, there’s often no way to change things. This is the realization that often goes hand-in-hand with getting older – so often that it’s a cliché by now, but it’s still true. Since Sleater-Kinney broke up, a lot of things have happened that I couldn’t fix. Pieces of my youth are disappearing – the ice cream place I loved closed, my friends have moved away. My parents divorced. My grandmother’s house is up for sale. The emotions I feel now are older, more measured, still intense (I am a woman of many and extreme feelings) but markedly different. If I heard “Dig Me Out” for the first time today, I doubt it would make the palms of my hands ache like it did when I was fourteen, but I listen to it now and feel that voracious sense memory, a moment of time travel.
My youth began to end when I was eighteen and Sleater-Kinney broke up. It ended finally and forever on December 14, 2012, when Heather, my best friend since seventh grade, died in her sleep of an undiagnosed heart condition. I was twenty-five. She was twenty-five. She’ll always be twenty-five. She was basically my adolescent soul personified: she was loud and impulsive and emotional and demanding and creative and sometimes so, so angry and sometimes so, so kind and unbelievably terrible at being anything except herself. She was with me at my first Sleater-Kinney concert. At one point I reached out and held her hand and the stacks of chunky silver rings she always wore dug into the sides of my fingers. I held on until it ached and then let go.
With Heather gone, I feel so much older, so much less the girl who believed in the healing power of rock and roll. My idealism these days is measured, my optimism cautious, my emotions desperately tamped down to fit into a defined space so they don’t balloon out and smash everything. I don’t listen to my music as loud because I care about long-term hearing damage. I don’t go to very many concerts anymore because I have a budget. I can’t remember the last time I was in a mosh pit.
And then, on October 20, 2014, the news broke: Sleater-Kinney are back together, have been recording in secret, will to drop a new album and go on tour in 2015, and released a new single. It’s called “Bury Our Friends” and it is so fucking good. It is good in a way that hits me in places I didn’t even know I could still feel. By the time I listened to half of the song, I was shaking, almost crying. I was dancing in place and laughing and doubling over with the overwhelming weight of it. Other people, I’m sure, have offered critical observations about the song as a piece of music; I can’t do that. I can’t tell you objectively how it compares to their earlier work or to their other bands or anything that’s happened in the music world between 2005 and now. All I can tell you is that it hit me like a sledgehammer to the chest, in the best possible way. It went down like three shots of tequila, left me burning and lightheaded and giggling for no clear reason. It felt like walking in out of bonebreaking cold and standing much too near a fire, freezing and burning at the same time. It felt like coming home and also leaping off a cliff. I don’t know. Similes are useless. It felt like when your favorite band gets back together after almost a decade and suddenly the world is a better place than it was before.
“Exhume our idols, bury our friends,” Sleater-Kinney, who are back together, sing on their first new single since I was eighteen. I buried my best friend two years ago and now my idols are back from the grave. This is a song for the aging punk rock kid, for remembering how to get angry even when you’re sad. This is music to wake the dead. This is music not for going back in time but for bringing the past back to life. “We’re wild and weary, but we won’t give in.” This is exactly the anthem I need most at this moment. This is the song that taught me I can still fall in this kind of love.