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Carrie Brownstein Calls Fandom 'Sacred' At Sold-Out Book Talk

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 2, 2015 6:47PM

Jessica Hopper and Carrie Brownstein, photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

By: Jennifer Boeder

Carrie Brownstein may now be more widely known for her award-winning comedy show Portlandia than for being one-third of the legendary feminist rock band Sleater-Kinney. But her audience Friday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art leaned heavily towards Team S-K. Brownstein’s fans are serious devotees: tickets to her MCA talk sold out in a record-breaking nine minutes.

The event was part of In Sight Out, a Pitchfork and MCA collaborative series that explores new perspectives on music, art, and culture. Brownstein is on tour promoting her newly published memoir, Hunger Makes A Modern Girl.

While her book focuses primarily on her experiences of starting Sleater-Kinney, and finding herself through music, she and Pitchfork Review Editor-In-Chief Jessica Hopper discussed an amazing spectrum of subjects—from her favorite authors (James Baldwin, Zadie Smith and Lorrie Moore) to her childhood attempts at performance and growing up as “a misfit who wanted to be liked.”

Some comics are notoriously humorless when they’re not performing (i.e. Steve Martin, whose autobiography Born Standing Up Brownstein cited as an influence in writing her memoir). Brownstein, however, is just as funny off-camera as she is on. She began the talk a little out of breath—she’d apparently had trouble finding the MCA entrance—and opened by apologizing for racing by the line of ticket holders “like a scared feral cat.” She then read a tale from her memoir about her awkward attendance at a wild, orgy-esque party in Paris while on tour with Sleater-Kinney, describing her attempts at projecting cool rock star detachment even as she grappled with her anxiety. Brownstein said, “I couldn’t even figure out what to do with my face.” Brownstein maintained that style of self-deprecating humor throughout her talk with Hopper, and it was easy to see why she’s one of the writers behind one of the most ingenious shows on television.

While the memoir has received rave reviews thus far, Brownstein said she’s received critiques that she was either “too vulnerable or not vulnerable enough.” But she emphasized that she didn’t set out to transcribe a diary: She wrote a book with a specific narrative arc, designed to tell a specific story. And within that narrative, she reveals a great deal about her often-painful history: an anorexic mother, an emotionally shut-down father who remained closeted into his mid-fifties, and a childhood that left her feeling isolated and unseen.

2015_11_hunger_makes_modern_girl.jpg At 18, already a raving fan of Riot Grrrl she-ros like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, and the culture that surrounded them. Brownstein left her childhood home in the Seattle suburbs for Olympia, Washington, a move she called “an act of willfulness.” She was on a mission to join Olympia’s musical movement and immerse herself in the cultural uprising happening there. She started a band called Excuse 17, and connected with future Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker while touring with Tucker’s band Heavens to Betsy. Olympia, it turned out, was not only Brownstein’s path to community, artistic self-realization, and stardom; she pointed out that the occasional elitism and exclusionary attitudes of that scene planted the seeds for Portlandia.

After Sleater-Kinney ended in 2006, Brownstein wrote a music blog about for National Public Radio. She found that her readers responded most strongly when she wrote about herself and her experiences with music, and she decided she wanted to tell the story of how and why she became a musician.

Brownstein devotes a great deal of space in the book to fandom, “My story starts with me as a fan,” she writes, “And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” Hopper asked her to talk further about what being a fan has meant for her, and Brownstein credited being a music fan with giving her both stability and community, calling fandom itself “sacred” with “a desire to connect” at its heart. Hopper inquired about a photo she’d seen of Brownstein at a Barnes & Noble, getting a copy of Grace Jones’s autobiography signed by Grace herself (on social media, Brownstein copped to being so nervous that she wished the superstar “Good luck!”) Both the book and the talk brought home the idea that while Carrie Brownstein may be a brilliant musician, writer, actor, and observer, she’s also one of us; a starstruck, tongue-tied fan standing in line to meet one of her idols.

We learned a number of other fascinating facts through the evening. Hopper asked what Brownstein’s ultimate “hairbrush mic in the mirror” songs were as a kid, and the answers were Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” and Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.” Her dad has read the memoir and his primary reaction was retroactive concern that her touring years had been so squalid. And while Brownstein was writing the book, Sleater-Kinney was still broken up (as a result of intense events she details in the memoir) and she told Hopper she felt as though she were “exhuming a corpse” by writing the story of the band’s conception, rise to fame, and eventual disintegration. The fact that they got back together last year gave her “a great epilogue.”

The talk ended with a Q&A, and a moment that could have gone awry: A young woman in the front row asked Brownstein what her favorite painting was, and then announced that she had a small piece of art to give her. Brownstein seemed confused, and the whole room seemed to pause. Was this inappropriate? Were we in stalker territory? But then Brownstein responded, “Is this a painting of my dogs? I want it no matter what, I’m so flattered that you made it!” She walked to the edge of the stage, knelt down, took the gift, and gave the girl a hug. It was a gracious and generous gesture. In that moment, Brownstein demonstrated not just her kindness, but the fact that she’s never forgotten what it feels to be a fan.

Jennifer Boeder is a writer, editor, and musician who lives in Chicago. You can read her review of 'Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl' on Medium.