We’re queer women and we’re exhausted.
It’s about a week before Christmas and we’re gathered in the still-being-renovated Market Hotel in Bushwick for the last of Sleater-Kinney’s handful of December NYC shows. This “we” has layers. The 300 of us crowded into this space with origins as a DIY venue are some of the biggest S-K fans in the Northeast, the diehards of the diehards. We obtained the magical tickets that sold out in seconds and are packed into this small club within an earshot of the J and M trains. But that we includes a smaller we, a we within a we. I am very intentionally there with someone with whom I’ve shared so much more of myself than with most other people in my life. She and I may not know one another without this band. Sleater-Kinney are just as much our story as it is everyone else’s; this band informs so much of how we interact with one another and how we approach our work and our lives.
Sleater-Kinney began as a dyke band, a lesbian band that notoriously does not have any lesbians in it. They were never a dyke band in the way that Team Dresch were a dyke band, a band that sonically and lyrically slaps you in the face with their militant queerness. But this band has always had a huge queer lady following, helped along by many of us thinking of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein as queer women. This band’s popularity was built on the backs of queer and feminist women, women’s labor that over time was channelled into making the shows safe spaces for people of all genders and sexualities. Some of S-K’s songs resonate differently if you’re a woman who has been intimate with women (hear: basically everything on 1997’s Dig Me Out) but the band have always also set their sights on the macro forces that seep into our individual relationships: capitalism, sexism, imperialism, nationalism. Many of their songs are about what to do as broken people in a broken world—and how that feels. Midway into their set, the band transition to the explicit politicalness of their 2002 One Beat album via “Far Away.”
“Far Away” begins with tight guitars and drumming, a militaristic feel that the band explodes by the time they reach the chorus “Don’t breathe the air today/ Don’t speak of why you’re afraid,” Tucker screams-sings. Although the song was originally written about 9/11, its force and urgency are just as much felt in a 2015 where black people continue to be murdered by the police and overzealous political candidates and bigots seek to keep (certain kinds of) asylum seekers out of America. The guitars and drums that suddenly go off-kilter at the chorus are both the protest against the militaristic drive of the status quo and the wearing down of non-straight wealthy white male bodies that gives complacency its power in the first place. We are both breaking to try to escape and breaking because sometimes there is nothing else we do in a world that is so fucking incredibly… broken.
On stage at the Market Hotel, Sleater-Kinney are breaking down before us after a long year of touring, the first since they spent 2005 promoting The Woods. Near the end of the set (but before the encore), the band shift gears to a jam that is sonically familiar to me from their 2006 tour. This is their moment of catching their breath before they roar into “Words and Guitars,” a fan favorite from 1997’s Dig Me Out.
The band are pushing through the songs, attempting to string that exhaustion into adrenaline and that adrenaline into excitement from the crowd. At other times they work in the other direction, internalizing the energy (the jumping, the hands in the air, the singing along) from the crowd with a smile or a joke. “Oh let me have that sound/ Tonight,” Tucker quietly sings before the band and their instruments roar back in for the chorus. At the next run through the pre-chorus, Tucker asks the crowd, “Where are my singers?” and later beckons the crowd with a “Come on, come on, come on.” The vibrations pull us into the band who are lyrically deteriorating on stage, inviting us to add the materiality of our voices to this forcefulness. There are limits to this forcefulness, yes; this is an extremely white crowd for a band who has always had a predominantly white following. But there is still something meaningful going on here.
We’re nearing the end of the show. I am pressed against my company, this person who has always seen me in all my complexity—a theory head with a big heart, an andro woman with feminine-ish moments, and a switch who sometimes just wants someone else to take charge. In our shared pain and exhaustion, we can be broken together in this moment; it’s safe now. The band sound off the opening guitar riffs for “Dig Me Out,” the most explicitly lesbionic (in the sex between women sense) of all of their songs.
This is a song about sex, about the ways that your body (and all the mental roadblocks that hold it back) breaks in the company of another woman that you dare to physically and emotionally let in, someone with whom you dare to be vulnerable. With this band and with this crowd during this set, the music physically and figuratively breaks us. The band’s wear is our wear; this worn-downness circulates and permeates the space. On album, “Dig Me Out” is a tight and triumphant opener to thirty seven minutes of a non-stop rock explosion. In concert, the song maintains its jubilance while also leaving room for the song, the set, and our bodies to become unwound. Ours are bodies that have been worn down by capitalism and queer tokenism. Ours are bodies that break under the weight of deciding how much of our queer selves to share (a daily decision). Between the walls of queer concert spaces and between the sheets of queer sex, our bodies come apart. In this third space especially, we allow ourselves to unravel.
We’re queer women and we’re exhausted. But we keep going.