I saw Sleater-Kinney last year in Boston while they were touring for No Cities to Love, their first new record in a decade. For 10 years the world waited for the band from Olympia, Washington to return, and then, suddenly, they did—not because they had to, but because they felt they had to, their voices invaluable to a larger cultural conversation about a seemingly obvious question: who should be allowed to feel safe making music?
To me, Sleater-Kinney’s performance represented a resurrection—or perhaps a preservation—of the no-bullshit independent punk that won the trio such a devoted fan-base in the mid-’90s. Weiss’ aggressive drumming was on-point. Corin Tucker proved that she’s still a diva in her own right. Carrie Brownstein flaunted some old-school struts while she straight gnashed on her guitar. Simply put, they hadn’t missed a beat since they dropped their self-titled debut record this week back in 1995.
It’s a beginning worth remembering—and not only because it gave sonic credence to an entire generation of female punks.
Sleater-Kinney emerged from the Pacific Northwest’s riot grrrl scene of the 1990s. This movement combined hardcore punk with a rightly frustrated feminist mindset. Tucker and Brownstein recorded what would become their debut record on the last night of a sojourn in Australia. It drew upon the dogged vehemence of Patti Smith, as well as the alternate guitar tunings and brooding harmonies of Sonic Youth. En masse, Sleater-Kinney sounds kind of like a grittier Siouxsee and the Banshees whose agenda was to tell the world why it sucked so people would care enough to make it better.
“Don’t you wanna feel it inside / They say that it feels so nice / All girls should have a real man / Should I buy it? I don’t wanna,” Tucker sings in “A Real Man.” They’re ruthlessly unapologetic and they leave no room for misunderstanding. In “Sold Out”: “Wanna be a star / Watch me go nowhere / Sucking on his dick / Fuck it, I want money.” What you hear is what you get, and people would do well to hear it.
The women were not just torchbearers for the riot grrrl movement, though. They penetrated a predominantly male rock world and transcended their “all-female” rock band pigeonhole. In 2001, the revered and notorious grumpster Greil Marcus named them America’s Best Rock Band in an article for Time, a success for both women and marginalized artist communities everywhere.
They simply had—and still have—the mettle to go where others didn’t. “Sleater-Kinney are brave enough and strong enough to make a difference and get the word out,” Brownstein said in a 2003 interview with Ms. Magazine. They surely did, and they surely do.
In 2006, just a year removed from The Woods (arguably their magnum opus), the three women took a break from Sleater-Kinney. But they didn’t simply disappear; if anything, they seeped further into mainstream conversations than they had while active. Tucker started the Corin Tucker Band. Weiss played with both the Shins and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. And Carrie Brownstein joined Wild Flag and, of course, became a pop culture icon in her quirky sketch comedy series, Portlandia.
Then, just as abruptly as they’d left, Sleater-Kinney was back. No one, they felt, was adequately carrying the torch that they’d left on the wall back in 2006, and so they felt obligated to return. “It’s always interesting when you step away from something. In some ways, you hope or assume that that sphere will be filled by something else. It just didn’t seem to happen with Sleater-Kinney,” Brownstein told PBS NewsHour during the reunion hullaballoo. “You want someone to carry the torch or take the sonic landscape of your band and explore that, and that really just never happened. So it felt like something was on pause for a really long time. It wasn’t so much, ‘now we have something to say’, it was like, ‘this has been laying dormant and doesn’t seem like anyone else is picking it up’.”
Though their exact sound could never be replicated, there were and continue to be subsequent torchbearers. We have Beyoncé, and bands like Ex Hex, Girlpool, and Worriers, and communities like Discwoman—all people pushing the conversation in the right direction. The voices are growing louder.
No Cities, then, was a resurrection of more than just their signature sound. With their return, Sleater-Kinney introduced their brand of feminism and unabashed cultural critique to a millennial audience whose landscape the women helped beget in the first place.
It feels like their message has aged well since 1995, too. The ideology is no longer sequestered to niche feminist publications like Ms. Magazine, and the debate of gender equality is no longer so readily swept under the rug. That progress was on display when millennial superstars and all-around hilarious comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson interviewed the band in a high-profile piece for NPR (see below).
“Listening to No Cities to Love made me wonder,” began Glazer. “Does rocking hard mean gender equality to you? Does it touch on feminism in that way?”
“Certainly, it’s a big part of what we do,” responded Weiss. “I feel very strongly about that, an alternative to the idea of women being a certain way. And I think you guys [Abbi and Ilana] are chipping away at that as well, that stereotypical quiet, demure, soft-spoken stereotype. I think the three of us get on stage and we really try to break that down and give people who feel differently than that a place to go. A place to express themselves.”
Brownstein goes on to call their approach an “unapologetic obliteration of the sacred.” And sometimes that’s what the world needs. Not a hug, but a bucket of cold water over the head.
In keeping with that style, during their Boston performance, Sleater-Kinney thanked Planned Parenthood for supporting their tour and female reproductive rights, and they handed out free condoms before the show. In some settings, institutions like Planned Parenthood and free condoms are still viewed as illicit and risque, instead of vital. For that reason, S-K’s return continues to be a necessary, welcome message to disenfranchised peoples that they are not forgotten. That their voices still matter and have always mattered, even if they still need to scream a little louder to be heard.
“Gimme equality! Gimme respect!” roared Tucker during their Boston encore. And finally, just before diving into their song, “No Cities,” she yelled even more passionately: “Gimme love!”
Image: Brigitte Sire