Sleater-Kinney’s radical riot grrrl message stays true

Carrie Brownstein performing with her band Sleater Kinney at Riot Fest Denver at the National Western Complex. Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Fourteen-year-old me, who was just starting to learn about the leftist politics of the punk scene,  would be proud that I got to see the infamous girl punk rockers, Sleater-Kinney, in concert. The Pacific Northwest punk band performed a sold-out, second night show at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom on Nov. 20 as part of the tour of their 2019 album “The Center Won’t Hold.” 

In 1994, the riot grrrl group formed in Olympia, Wash. shortly after famed acts like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy made a space for women in the punk scene. Riot grrrl is a music genre and movement that began in the early ’90s in the Pacific Northwest and combined third-wave feminism with punk aesthetics and politics.

After a hiatus that started in 2007, members of Sleater-Kinney got back together in 2015 with their album “No Cities to Love” and most recently added “The Center Won’t Hold” to their discography in August. Despite forming decades ago, the band’s inclusive, feminist themes remain fresh.

Kicking off the night, they opened with the album’s self-titled track, “The Center Won’t Hold,” which is a commentary on being a modern woman, with the lines “I need something pretty to help me ease the pain / I need something ugly to put me in my place.” The set followed with the track “Hurry on Home” that deals with the conflicting perceptions of the self that can be so common for women. Guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein sings that she’s “hair grab-able, grand-slammable,” but also “unf*ckable, unlovable.” The band matched the intensity of the tracks’ content with explosive vocals and high energy.

The set also featured older tracks from the band including “One More Hour,” “Call the Doctor” and their fan favorite, “Dig Me Out.” Brownstein and her fellow bandmate Corin Tucker had been romantically involved before the release of the album “Dig Me Out” in 1997, and the breakup heavily influenced the album’s tracks. The fact that the two still can perform tracks from this album together is impressive and adds to the experience for fans who still want to hear songs made during the era of riot grrrls.

Even with Tucker and Brownstein’s previous relationship and falling out, the show did not seem tense or awkward. The leading women’s chemistry was playful, and got the crowd excited every time Brownstein came closer to Tucker at the center of the stage. The two women seemed to enjoy performing for their hometown crowd, with Brownstein frequently breaking into a wide grin with her usual red-lipsticked mouth.

All of their tracks grappled with the struggles of existing as a women, whether in the ’90s or today. Brownstein made sure this point was clear when she spoke on the importance of “showing up” and voting for politicians who support oppressed groups in between songs. The Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) also tabled the concert at the back of the venue, which added a practical aspect to the band’s message of fighting oppressive systems.

Though Brownstein and Tucker thanked them crowd and had a few comments in between songs, the dialogue between musicians and the audience was limited. The concert would have benefited from more moments like the performance of “Animal,” where Tucker encouraged the crowd to sing and let audience members yell the line from the chorus “I’m not who you thought” into the microphone. 

Before this tour kicked off, drummer Janet Weiss dropped out, saying the band’s production style had strayed from its roots. This was a huge concern for fans who worried the tour might have been canceled. However, the remaining members of Sleater-Kinney found replacement drummer Angie Boylan and pushed forward with the tour. Boylan matched the intensity required for the drum-heavy songs, and was able to bring a fresh spirit to the set. She wore a shirt that said “Protect trans women” which was very timely considering the concert was on Trans Day of Remembrance, a day that honors the deaths of transgender people.

The opening act, pop and R&B artist KAINA, also focused on uplifting marginalized groups. KAINA is a first-generation Latina immigrant, which is something she frequently explores in her music. During her set, she repeatedly mentioned that her supporting musicians were “the only men she trusts,” which was a comment that resonated with the crowd. However, not everything she said pleased the audience.

KAINA mentioned that her fellow musicians had visited Casa Diablo, a local strip club, which is not unexpected given Portland’s strip club prominence. However, an attendee shouted “Stop objectifying women” to interrupt her on stage banter. This clearly represents a clash between the ideas of second-wave and third-wave feminist thought.

Second-wave feminism spanned from the 1960s to 1980s, though its ideas still persist today, and emphasized rejecting femininity and anything considered symbolic of women’s objectification, including sex work. Third-wave feminism, however, embraced traditionally feminine things such as makeup and girliness, viewing them as powerful instead of misogynistic. Through this same logic, the third-wave was more accepting of sex work. Riot grrrl groups such as Sleater-Kinney have been criticized, from the beginning, by second-wave feminists because of these ideological clashes.

KAINA’s response, however, added a refreshing perspective to the debate. She explained that women are not the only ones who do sex work, and, if someone chooses that job, they should not be shamed. She then moved into her song “Love Money,” which emphasizes the necessity of money for survival in a capitalistic world, coincidentally tying into some of her points about sex work. After, she invited anyone who wished to have a genuine conversation about sex work to see her after the show at the merch table.

The concert upheld the radical spirit of the riot grrrl movement while updating the message by including trans women and sex workers. For a long time fan and as someone who has been long invested in the anti-capitalistic, woman-centric rhetoric of the movement, as defined by Kathleen Hanna’s “Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” the show was inspiring and invigorating.

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