This post was originally going to be called “What It Means to Listen to Sleater-Kinney Now as a Queer Woman.” It was going to be a talk-back piece, one of those blog posts you write to insert yourself into a conversation that you—or people like you—have seemed strangely absent from. I began to brainstorm what this might look like all the way back in July, when Janet Weiss left the band in advance of the release of The Center Won’t Hold (how prophetic that turned out to be) and Hanif Abdurraqib penned his gut-wrenchingly beautiful “What It Means To Listen To Sleater-Kinney Now.” And while I certainly will be writing from the position of (white) queer femaleness missing from nearly all of the reviews of the album, at this point I’m more interested in thinking about (feeling with) how queer and female friendship unfolds on S-K’s stages—which, of course, means writing about myself in relation to this band, who has meant more to me than the majority of people I’ve met during my 32 years on Earth.
The opening scene: Fox Theater in Oakland, California. It’s a little before 8pm and I’m excitedly standing in line with 3/5ths (myself included) of a queer friend group from Austin that utterly transformed my first two years in the city. We were humanities grad students together, along with companions for concerts, Tuezgayz dance nights, and political protests. This group of friends came into my life during a time when my ideas of sex and intimacy were expanding beyond any previously conceivable horizons (more on that coming in next month’s blog post)—and they became the people with whom I sorted through how these changes in how I approached my romantic life were fundamentally changing who I was as a person. In addition to continuing to navigate our post-Austin lives together, we would be weathering our first Sleater-Kinney concert without Janet Weiss together. But the trade-off for that would be a new/old five-piece band: founding members Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, touring member (and former guitarist and vocalist in the excellent late 00s/early 10s British indie rock band Sky Larkin) Katie Harkin, multi-instrumentalist and St. Vincent collaborator Toko Yasuda, and touring drummer Angie Boylan. For the first time in my 17 years of fandom, Sleater-Kinney would be an all-queer band. They would also be an intergenerational band, with two of the members being around my age—and one of them (Angie) being someone with whom I had crossed paths with in the South Brooklyn/Prospect Park queer scene back in the early to mid-2010s. More than ever before, I would see myself—and my queerness—in this latest manifestation of Sleater-Kinney. And this would bring a new sense of joy to seeing them live.
As with each of the seven Sleater-Kinney concerts that I’ve attended over the past 14 years, the show begins with the first song from the new album: “The Center Won’t Hold.” The band then transition to “Hurry On Home”—and mostly sticks to the two most recent albums for the first half of the set. When they get to “What’s Mine Is Yours” from their 2005 release The Woods ten songs in, I feel my heart pick up in excitement. As they move towards the end of the bridge, I say to myself, “Please let Angie nail this drum solo” (she crushed it). The drum solo is a simultaneous moment of tension and release, a reminder of the distance between the two most recent (touring) versions of Sleater-Kinney and a reaffirmation that this is still a continuation of a band that we all know and love. The theme of the show will be change and contrast, the familiarity of the old songs played off the slickness of the new songs to accentuate the layers and nuances present within and across all of Sleater-Kinney’s albums. About midway through the set, Brownstein remarks, “We have a lot of records. Some of you have been with us the whole time. And some of you just discovered us on this new record—or the last record before that. And that’s… exactly what you want to happen as a band.” Throughout the set, there is no explicit reference to Weiss’s absence. But there are the little reminders, such as when Harkin jumps in for the harmonies on “Jumpers” or Yasuda plays the melodica for the bridge on “Modern Girl.” While I get excited to hear my old favorites (“Start Together,” “Get Up,” “All Hands on the Bad One,” “One More Hour”), it is the newer songs from No Cities to Love and The Center Won’t Hold that sound the best in this configuration.
Of course, the transformation of Sleater-Kinney has always come from a place of tension. The band began grounded in the (short-lived) romance of Tucker and Brownstein, the disintegration of which is catalogued on “One More Hour.” “Don’t say another word/ About the other girl,” Tucker sings in the break—even as Brownstein would later write in her memoir, “There had never been anyone else and [Corin] knew that.” Tucker and Brownstein were friends who first got to know one another through sex and the intimacy that it brings, people who first learned one another’s bodies as they were learning their music and their minds. For a moment, there was a flicker of another possibility. Any queer woman who has had this kind of emotionally-charged sex with another woman can appreciate the intimacy that lingers between Tucker and Brownstein on stage. Brownstein is the most openly affectionate, resting her head on Tucker’s should or cusping a hand around her waist. When Tucker and Brownstein look one another in the eye and smile widely, the love that powers their friendship shines through. It is always heartening to watch and hear how much their connection is amplified in the music. It is their connection that I hold onto throughout the set to mitigate the absence of Weiss on stage. When the band close out their pre-encore set with “Entertain,” the first single from The Woods that signaled their “new direction” back in 2005, I feel the loss of Weiss’s presence the most acutely. This was something that they had done together. But sometimes, not everyone goes with you to the next part of the journey.
How do you begin to write about your favorite band that has shaped so much of your life over the course of the past 17 years? For me, to write about Sleater-Kinney is to write about the older sister that I never had. Sure, I had a friend group and track teammates while I was in high school, but for the most part, my relationships with other women were tenuous at best. I didn’t really have anyone to lean on, let alone learn about sex, feminism, or queerness from—until one of the members of my white girl, indie rock-listening friend group burned me a copy of Sleater-Kinney’s 2000 release (which CRB in Oakland would describe as “the album that all the critics hated”) All Hands on the Bad One. It was March 2003 and one of our other friends was in the throes of the deepest of depressions, which would ultimately splinter our group into an ever-evolving series of factions for the remaining two years of high school. As the smoke was beginning to clear, I wrote my best friend a letter about how much I loved her—and about how much I didn’t want her to die. In retrospect, this was the first love letter that I ever wrote someone, although that wasn’t how I interpreted it at the time. But it definitely was how my best friend interpreted it, which led to rumors about my supposed lesbianism soon spreading around our all-girl Catholic high school. What would follow was a moment in my life where I would feel torn between wanting to open up to women (in all senses) but feeling absolutely terrified to even think about doing so, a tension that forestalled any honest reckoning with my sexual identity. Alongside this trauma, sitting with the love and sex and desire present on All Hands On The Bad One felt like the only safe space that I actually had.
The first time that I saw Sleater-Kinney live was at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan on my 18th birthday in June 2005, in the company of my cousin and the last guy that I would officially date (“date” here is used loosely). I only knew All Hands, One Beat, and The Woods at the time, the latter of which I had listened to for the first time as I drove myself and a guy friend (who is today still one of my closest friends) to my senior prom. The Woods was the first Sleater-Kinney album that I listened to in real time. It was the sound of a group of women pushing themselves beyond the sound that had become expected of them, never mind a primer in the classic rock genre that I had had little interest in as a high school student. Today, when I think about its bombast and tearing at the walls, The Woods seems aptly metaphorical for the moment right before I was about to go off to college—and at last have the mental and emotional space to begin to navigate my own queerness. At that show at the Roseland that night, everything, in the spirit of the new album, felt new and exciting. I remember the leopard print of Corin Tucker’s skirt, the pale pink of Carrie Brownstein’s tank top, the gold streak through Janet Weiss’s jet-black hair. These women had markers of femininity on them yet were also visibly tough, their wailings of voice or shredding of guitars or pounding of drums illustrating a place where women—and especially queer women—could exist in the messy space of the in-between. The visuals and sounds both complemented and contrasted one another, creating a space where queerness and straightness could collide in a way that was mutually reaffirming—and could make the other even better than before.
After opening with “The Fox,” the band transitioned to a song that I did not yet know: “One More Hour.” Although I didn’t know the words or the riffs, there was something about the song that felt warm and familiar. When I got back home, I would discover that this song was part of Dig Me Out, the LP that describes the intimacy of sex between women in the most graphic detail of any S-K album. A little over a year later, at Sleater-Kinney’s supposed “farewell show” in Portland in August 2006, I would sing these lyrics to the woman (and vice versa) who would later become the first girl that I would ever kiss. I would repeat the process again while holding onto my academic ex in December 2015 during our period of re-dating, when we went to see Sleater-Kinney together at Market Hotel in Brooklyn and came full circle on the band that had originally brought us together. Listening to this song at the Fox Theater, I smiled as I remembered having this moment of simultaneous closing and opening with this particular ex four years ago. There I was, a long way (emotionally and mentally) from four years back, let alone 13 or 14 years ago. But as Sleater-Kinney played those songs from The Woods in Oakland in November 2019, I could remember what it felt like to be a teenager growing up with this band. The Woods were our songs, the songs of those who came into Sleater-Kinney during the midway point of their career. Dig Me Out would be the queer theory/queer life mentor, showing us enough of the way to get us out of the dark but leaving the rest of it to be figured out for ourselves. We would take the bombast of The Woods with us.
The Center Won’t Hold was bound to be the most contentious Sleater-Kinney album even before Janet Weiss left the band. In the three months since its release, I have argued with everyone from my ex to the clerk ringing up my purchase up at Amoeba Records about the influence of St. Vincent (whose songwriting and production I like but don’t love, for the record) on The Center Won’t Hold. Besides the inherent sexism in this attack on Annie Clark, I am most struck by music listeners’ unwillingness to even try to move with the change of direction that Sleater-Kinney were making on the album. The Center Won’t Hold is the sound of a band (duo) at the crossroads, of wanting to move in the direction of a new future while not losing themselves entirely. “I need you more than I ever have/ Cause the future’s here/ And we can’t turn back,” the band harmonizes on the chorus of “The Future Is Here.” I remember holding onto my best friend from my old department on the night of the 2016 election, grasping for the stability that she always seemed to offer as a Capricorn. But as with that friendship (and Sleater-Kinney as well), sometimes you can break from all the ways in which you can try to hold (onto) someone. The center couldn’t hold for Sleater-Kinney as the synths and drum pads were eroding it. Yet, conversely, the center would likely have not been able to hold either if the band merely continued to make albums that built on yet sounded different enough from the previous ones. I think what is probably most upsetting to S-K fans and diehards about the timing of Janet Weiss leaving Sleater-Kinney is the feeling of being robbed of stability (and dare I say predictability?) during a time of existential and political crisis. If our old rocks cannot keep us grounded and in one piece, then what the fuck are we supposed to hold onto?
In recent interviews, Corin Tucker has said that her songwriting on The Center Won’t Hold is some of the strongest of her career. As someone who has always been on Team Corin (her Scorpio darkness just draws me in), I can only whole-heartedly agree. On standout tracks “The Future Is Here” and “Reach Out,” Tucker puts her heart on the line, leaving not an ounce of herself emotionally behind. “I am your friend/ You can cover me/ Just come over here/ And give me everything,” she sings on “The Future Won’t Hold.” Given that she is in a band with someone she dated 25 years ago, she would know. But more than that, Tucker here gets at a sentiment that a lot of we queer and/or feminist women have felt with other female (or trans or nonbinary) friends. Sometimes we become so close to people in friendship that the intimacy spills over into the realm of romantic love. Or, sometimes we become friends with people through first becoming sexually and emotionally intimate with them. Or still, sometimes we even become friends with our exes (I’ve only had a 1 out of 4 success rate here), after enough time, space, and talking. “The Future Is Here,” like many other Sleater-Kinney songs, sounds to the power of intimacy shared between people who identify as—or once identified as—(queer) women. There is nothing more powerful than feeling seen by and free with someone. At this point in my life, I only want to deeply give to people who can meet me in this place. In this sense, “The Future Is Here” has become my fall anthem, guiding me through the always treacherous waters of emotionally opening up to others.
Given the darkness on The Center Won’t Hold, it could be easy to hear and feel it as an album of loss. I know that there are certain people (my best friend from high school, my best friend from my old department, multiple friends with whom I used to talk music and exchange writing) who come to mind whenever I listen to it, the space of the absence of where they used to be in my life so crushing that it sometimes literally freezes me in place. When I was in my last bad bout of depression 4.5 years ago, I would get stuck in this place for days or weeks at a time. There’s a way that you can come to live in this space of loss, a way that you can get accustomed to the idea that people seem to come into your life only to go away in the end. The Center Won’t Hold acknowledges this space while not getting stuck in it—and in literally moving forward (as a live tour) even after the loss of the heartbeat of the version of Sleater-Kinney that we all grew to know and love. During the rise of extreme white nationalism, we are only left with one another in the end. The Center Won’t Hold is an album of people reaching out, of showing up and holding onto and pinning each other against walls or floors to remind one another of the viscerality of (still) being alive. Perhaps in lieu of the circumstances, we can make room in our hearts for two different versions of the band. Perhaps, we can hold onto all of it at once.