Feature artwork by Jacob Livengood (Purchase Prints + More)
FACES is Consequence of Sound’s quarterly literary magazine. Each volume focuses on an artist whose scope of creativity and cultural impact defies simple categorization. Through a blend of original artwork and a variety of writings, we hope to both shed light upon and celebrate the artists who continually inspire us to put pen to paper.
I had a few concerns when selecting who would be the final artist featured in our first year of FACES. While the first three editions were exciting collections of art and writing, I also couldn’t help but notice a trend: Neil Young (old guy, rocker), Tom Petty (old guy, rocker), and Dave Grohl (rocker, coming soon: old guy). All three are worthwhile subjects who had interesting years to comment on, but I didn’t conceive FACES with the intention of falling into predictable patterns or starting a de facto old guy, rocker publication. We’ve had enough of those, I suspect. So, during a frigid November walk from Consequence of Sound’s annual year-end coverage meeting to a Thai restaurant, I asked editor Sasha Geffen, “What could we do?” Her response: “Sleater-Kinney has a new album coming out…”
Sleater-Kinney. Carrie Brownstein. Sold.
And as you read these pieces, I think you will be too. Alongside returning contributor Dan Bogosian and artist Jacob Livengood, we have fresh faces in Geffen, Leah Pickett, Nina Corcoran, and Michelle Geslani. I consider it a major coup that I snagged them from their various other commitments to contribute to this winter edition, but truth be told, I just had to type “Carrie Brownstein” in an email subject line and wait — and not for long. The final result is a collection of coming-of-age fiction, moving personal accounts, and sharp cultural analysis, all of which make one thing abundantly clear: Carrie Brownstein matters quite a bit to us all.
For my own part, I admire Brownstein as the type of artist who further drives the nail into the coffin of gender stereotypes and myths that should’ve been buried decades ago. Her art answers, “Yes, women can rock as hard as men. Yes, women can be as funny as men. And no, a female artist doesn’t need a man behind her steering the ship in order to be successful.”
And if that’s too strenuous a message, you can always just listen, watch, and laugh, too. Yeah, that works.
Table of Contents:
— Yr Monster by Sasha Geffen
— Inside a Girl by Leah Pickett
— Sociolinguistics and the Role of the Observer: Or Why Carrie Brownstein Just Gets You by Nina Corcoran
— The Dream of Carrie Brownstein Is Alive in Portland by Michelle Geslani
— “Heroes.” by Dan Bogosian
— Original artwork by Jacob Livengood
As always, support our in-house art staff by purchasing their work in your choice of a variety of fun, innovative, and practical formats. All proceeds go to the artists.
by Sasha Geffen
Editor’s Note: The following is a work of fiction.
There was a swing set by the gym that no one ever used, and it was where Jen would go when she had time to kill after classes. Hidden in an alcove of pines, she would sit on the cracked rubber, put her headphones over her ears, grip the chains, and listen to both sides of a cassette tape with the Walkman that had been passed down to her by her brother.
Her first tape was the Led Zeppelin one with the weird symbols etched across the front. She had borrowed it from her brother and never given it back, and when last period had ended, she would walk to the side of the gym and press the play button on the plastic silver box. Hey hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
She liked the way the guitar would clack against the pound of the drums, the way the bass glued them both together. She liked the way the singer screamed.
When Jen had a little money from watching the neighbors’ kid, she would buy tapes from the record store in town. The music played loud and hard over the speakers there, and boys in jean jackets and dirty sneakers flipped through albums for hours. Sometimes there would be grainy photocopied magazines for sale by the counter.
It was September, and her brother would graduate high school in June. Jen went to the middle school, whose classes let out earlier in the day. She had an hour and a half between the end of class and the time when the bus would arrive to take her and her brother home. Jen’s brother, Trey, would come out of the high school laughing with his senior friends. He’d nod to Jen, and then she’d follow him onto the bus.
Jen had never been to a rock show. She saw pictures of them in Rolling Stone, bands drenched in sweat and their screaming, filthy-haired fans. She looked at the spiked-up hair of Green Day’s lead singer and thought about her own hair, lank and dark and too long. She panned through pictures of bands staring defiantly into the photographer’s lens. When it got cold again, she started wearing an old sweatshirt under a gray canvas jacket she stole from her brother’s closet. Now that he had his varsity jacket, it wasn’t anything he’d miss.
The man who worked the counter at the record store on weekends told Jen she should hear Pixies, so she bought Pixies. He told her she should hear Pavement, so she scraped together for a used copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. He didn’t know her name, but he let her keep her bike in the store and kept an eye on it, so it wouldn’t get stolen.
Jen took one tape to school at a time, already rewound and stashed in her Walkman, which she kept in an inner zippered pocket in her backpack. In class, she drew the cover of Surfer Rosa from memory on a blank page at the back of her notebook. When she was finished, she scribbled over the drawing with black pen and then ripped out the page and threw it in the trash on her way to English, just in case.
“What is this?” Jen asked the man at the counter on a Saturday. It was warm outside, but she still wore her sweatshirt with the hood up under her jacket, the sleeves pulled long over her hands. The music that had just started to play over the speakers in the store sounded like rock music twisted into something fake, like the drums weren’t really being played by a drummer. Weird radio noise flickered in and out of it. It sounded new.
It was Beck, the clerk said, his new album. He pointed to an issue of SPIN magazine with Beck’s name on the cover. Gene Simmons leered from behind his makeup in the cover photo.
Jen picked up the mag and went to a corner to read. The magazine called Beck a “boy wonder.” He looked out from a pastel purple background, his eyes flashing blue from the page. She skimmed the article and flipped through the rest of the issue. Her fingers caught on a full-page photo of three girls. The one on the left stared straight into the camera, her finger pointing up at Jen.
“Laugh, Riot,” the headline said. Below it: “Get set for Sleater-Kinney — riot grrrls who’ve rediscovered the pleasure principle.”
Jen looked down at the woman’s dark brown eyes. She wore big, black boots and a bright, red jacket. Next to her, a girl in a leopard-print coat also looked at the camera. The girl on the right could have been a boy, her hair clipped short, her clothes baggy.
Crouching down to sit on the floor, Jen read the small, white print layered over the photo. The girl on the left was named Carrie, and the girl in the middle was Corin. They were 21 and 23, they both played guitar, and they both sang. They had just put out an album called Call the Doctor. And then Jen’s eyes snagged on a sentence.
“Tucker’s ex-lover (from when the two began co-writing in 1994), Brownstein covers the singer’s flank as she explores new sides of herself.”
Jen’s eyes flickered back to the photo. Both girls stared so confidently from the page. Both stood like they knew where they were going.
“Do you have this?” Jen asked the man at the counter, pointing to the page. He smiled. He didn’t, but he could call it in. He could probably get it by next week. She nodded, put the magazine back on the rack, grabbed her bike, and left.
That night Jen babysat while the neighbors were out, and the next day she got her money in an envelope dropped through the mail slot. Once she scraped up some quarters from her parents’ parking meter dish, she had enough for a new tape. She listened to Surfer Rosa every day after school. She waited for Saturday.
When it was Saturday, Jen biked through a drizzle to the record store. Her backpack hung damp from her shoulders. He had it. Her hands were cold, and she dropped two quarters as she paid, which spun around on the ground and slithered into a crack between the bottom of the counter and the floor. The man behind the counter smiled and shrugged it off. It was hers.
Jen biked home and lugged her backpack upstairs and forgot to take her shoes off and had to wipe the mud off the hardwood, and no, she hadn’t been anywhere — just the bookstore just to read magazines just to put them back when she was done it was fine. She’d be in her room, headphones on, please don’t bother her.
She took the tape out of its paper back and picked at one corner of the plastic wrapping until the whole thing tore off. She spread the paper insert out on her bed and snapped the tape into its player, and since it was brand-new and already wound up the right way, she could just press play on the A side. She did.
Two guitars flashed into her ears. A set of drums quivered behind them. They want to socialize you. They want to purify you.
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you.
I’m your monster. I’m not like you.
All your life is written for you.
They want to simplify your needs and likes to sterilize you.
There were two voices, and both came from women. Both screamed and shook, spittle flinging off their words over the tape hiss. I’m your monster, they sang. I’m just like you, they sang. They were women, and ex-lovers — ex-lovers! — who sang to each other.
Jen leaned back on her bed, the foam of her headphones bristling at her ears, her clothes still wet, the last of the day’s light slipping gently from the rain-splattered window.
Inside a Girl
by Leah Pickett
Our love is the size of
these tumors inside us.
This sucker-punch of an opening couplet is what introduced me to the band Sleater-Kinney and to the song “The Size of Our Love” in one raw tug to my insides that felt like waking up.
It was February 2009, and I was spending the night with my Film Theory classmate and two-doors-down neighbor Jeff at our cheap motel-turned-student housing complex, “College Inn,” at the University of North Texas. We were sitting next to each other on his rock-hard twin bed, inside his hollow square of a dorm room with cold, cinderblock walls and concrete floors that was identical to mine. His white Macbook sat glowing between our knees.
“This is a sad song,” I remember saying.
“Yeah,” Jeff replied. He tightened the yellow tourniquet around his arm and tapped the inside crook of it with his fingertip until a blue vein popped up. When he stuck the needle in this time, I didn’t look away.
What I wanted to say was, I’m lost, I’m sad, I miss my boyfriend, but he doesn’t love me anymore, I can’t stop hurting myself, I like hurting myself, I have never felt so empty and alone.
What I said instead was, “Can I try it?”
A woman lies face-up in bed, staring at the ceiling of a small, yellowed room. Her body is stiff and straight like a pencil: her arms flung up above the pillow that cushions her head, her legs pointed under a long, pink skirt, and her feet, in dirt-smudged socks, are dangling off the edge of a quilted duvet with little green leaves. A postcard of a white baby seal is taped to the wall behind her. Trash is strewn across the floor. A potted plant with sprawling, skeletal branches dies in a corner. A large cat, fluffy and white with gray spots, is perched on the bed near her ankles, twitching its tail and looking straight into the camera.
This is a scene from the 2001 short film Getting Stronger Every Day, written and directed by Miranda July. The woman on the bed is Carrie Brownstein, but in this scene, we don’t see her face. Her character is filtered through the narration of a gaunt, anonymous man, played by Richard Greiling, who tells two parallel stories of childhood sexual abuse and escapist fantasy in a rambling, conversational tone.
“I saw this movie on TV, I Know My First Name Is Steven, that’s the name of the movie,” begins the skinny, rambling man. He is sitting in what appears to be a storage closet, crammed with cardboard boxes, scattered tools, and musty-looking suits, with a ghost made out of streamers — something a little kid might make as an arts-and-crafts project for Halloween — blowing from an unidentified breeze on the wall behind him.
The man goes on to describe how a neighborhood pedophile kidnaps Steven:
“So Joseph Parnell raised Steven and molested him for eight years, until he was like, sixteen. And then he kidnapped another little boy, and that’s when Steven just couldn’t take it anymore and couldn’t stand to see it only happen again.”
As he recounts what happens next — that Steven took the younger boy to the police station and then walked back to his childhood home, only to find that, being a man now, his parents had moved on without him, and he had trouble integrating back into the family — the woman on the bed lowers her arms to her sides, slowly, then flies them back up again. Her feet tingle.
“It’s like this other movie I saw called Flight of the Navigator, where this boy finds a spaceship and gets on it and goes on this really fun space adventure,” the man continues. “But when he lands and gets off the ship, five years have passed, and he hasn’t aged. So his little brother is older than him now, and he’s like this guy from the past, like Steven. They just don’t fit in.”
Then the woman’s face is shown, but only for a moment. She is sitting up in bed and staring at something just to the right of the camera, or maybe at nothing at all, as we hear the man say:
“So what Steven does is he marries this girl, this girl from his second grade class, before he was kidnapped. And of course she remembers him. And she has her problems, too; I can’t remember what.”
I remember this film because it was the last one that I watched in class before I dropped out of college in May 2009 and went to rehab in Arizona.
What I wanted to tell the woman on the bed was, I see you. I know you. I’m hurting, too.
Instead, I called Jeff and asked him if he wanted to watch Flight of the Navigator.
We watched the boy zoom off in his spaceship, his face lighting up at takeoff, and I blinked back tears as the needle sunk in, deeper and deeper, until a black curtain of sleep scooped me up in its thick, warm embrace and swallowed me whole.
Sometimes listening to Sleater-Kinney’s most elegiac record, The Hot Rock, carries me back to that fateful night in Jeff’s cinderblock cell. I was already falling deep into the abyss of my own misery and looking for an excuse to go deeper. “The Size of Our Love” certainly woke me up to all of the feelings twisting inside of me that I couldn’t name, and perhaps opened me up to the possibility of being vulnerable, but it also didn’t keep me from wanting to stay numb, at least not then.
Today I can listen to the song through the clarity of hindsight, understanding the lyrics as experiences I have lived through, parasitic demons I fought and survived but now refer to only in past tense. I have lost track of Jeff and my obsession with anaesthetizing myself, but memories come floating back with a pinprick of fear from time to time, like a ghost carrying a phantom pain that I have to remind myself isn’t real.
When I see Brownstein on a show like Transparent or in a film like Some Days Are Better than Others, in which her character Katrina sobs and stumbles and agonizes over a failed relationship, I am often reminded of the outpouring of empathy I felt when I first saw her. I think about how much I wanted to know her and understand her, because, in a roundabout way, I was holding up a mirror to my own issues, and unconsciously looking for a way to forgive myself.
I’ve grown afraid of everything that I love, warbles Brownstein in “No Cities to Love”, the title track from Sleater-Kinney’s aggressive, hiatus-breaking album that has been pumping a straight shot to my heart with each listen. The record itself is a triumph, but the fragility of this line pokes out like a tender slice of collarbone, a reminder that we all are skeleton creatures underneath our skin, that we all can be cracked, crushed into powder, and dissipated. How fitting then, that this admission dangles at the edge of the bridge, hanging in the air like a question, before leaping up into a dance-y, who-cares chorus.
Fuck it. Isn’t that the body’s response when bungee-jumping off a cliff, or diving out of an airplane? Fear is sucked out by the same wind that makes the bones go weightless, cradling your body in a blue womb of sky until your parachute opens and jerks you awake.
I’m afraid, I tell my current boyfriend, my friends, my therapist, my writing group. I’m afraid of everything that I hate and everything that I love. I’m afraid that I’m too much and that I’m not enough. I’m afraid that the weight of my own expectations will grind me into dust, that I will be snuffed out and blown away and forgotten.
Fuck it, I remind myself. I listen to “No Cities to Love”, and I dance anyway.
Sociolinguistics and the Role of the Observer: Or Why Carrie Brownstein Just Gets You
by Nina Corcoran
Carrie Brownstein is a bit of a wunderkind. She’s too humble to admit it, but her resume makes that abundantly clear. She formed the band Excuse 17 while studying at Evergreen State College, creating one of the pioneering bands of the riot grrrl movement in Washington and re-establishing the importance of feminism. She was still a teenager. At that time, Sleater-Kinney was only a side project, but they quickly blew up to become the musical giant they’re known as today. She then went on to write for The Believer magazine. She jotted down several videogame reviews for Slate. She had her own blog for NPR Music. She wrote a book. She started Portlandia with Fred Armisen. She got a role on Transparent. Like someone at the buffet table who simply has too cultured a palette to order a single meal, she adds more to her plate with each passing year. Don’t be fooled, though. As carelessly as Brownstein seems to balance her hectic life, she’s got a trick up her sleeve. Even more so than being an entertainer, Carrie Brownstein is an observer – and she’s mastering the art.
Brownstein is as talented as she is verbose, and much of this stems from her ability to read those around her. When it comes to music, she knows how to narrate emotion. When it comes to comedy, she knows how to notate the antics around her. When it comes to her own journalism, she’s careful to study the relationship between a respondent and the interviewer. The way she digests the world is what makes her so optimal to serve our thoughts, actions, and errors back to us in a medium we can digest. Carrie Brownstein is watching us and listening to us and making sense of it all. That’s why everything she tells us makes so much sense.
Over the course of her undergraduate time at Evergreen State College, Brownstein had a varied schedule that focused in sociolinguistics. That semi-passive decision — she never actually declared the study as her major — wound up influencing her career path, intentional or not, and the way in which she reaches out to others. Sociolinguistics is the study of society’s interaction with language, but it goes beyond just what we’re yapping at one another every day. Sociolinguistics pays attention to all aspects of society: cultural norms, parental expectations, social expectations, mediums of language, ethnicity, religion, status, education, age, gender, and so on. It looks closely at the words leaving our mouth, how they hit our ears, and what, if anything, changes. Her focus on sociolinguistics led to a firm grip on the world around her and an understanding of why we operate the way we do.
Yes, it’s easy to argue we’re all sociolinguists. We see how our political points go ignored at Thanksgiving or how our friends abbreviate words so much that we’re suddenly texting them from the next room over in a conversation that consists solely of emojis. Even people who stay in their studio apartment all day are hearing their floorboards creak and engaging with how-to videos on YouTube. The difference is that Brownstein doesn’t stop. With every new career path she begins walking down, she waits to take a step until she’s done a 360 around her, taking in the way things work, how they sound, and what every word dropped actually means.
Songwriting is about telling your story. Brownstein knows that all too well. What makes a good author is being able to write with a sense of openness, whose words have a flexibility that allows readers to see them and think, “Oh my God, that’s me.” We’re human. We recognize a bit of ourselves in one another. The object of the writer is to create something that connects to the audience, no matter how polarizing or specific the topic at hand may be. Clarity is the outstretched hand that introduces these topics to the reader. Even if the written situation is something far from what they have ever experienced, the audience is capable of connecting to it. Brownstein writes in a way that slowly invites readers into her world.
During her time writing for NPR’s All Songs Considered, she sat down to write one of her best blog sets, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Phish.” In it, she catalogues the two weeks she spent diving headfirst into the musical phenomenon and eternally mysterious allure of Phish. It started off with a joke, of course. She photographed herself and her two dogs before entering the battlefield, ready to note any physical and mental changes that may occur before prolonged exposure to the band. Then it began. She stepped into the well-worn shoes of Phish fans (or do most of them go barefoot?) to experience the decade-long love directly. She tried listening to Phish as herself. She tried listening as a critic. She tried listening as a driver, as an audiophile, as a concertgoer. She met up with Phish fans for curatorial help, and, most importantly, she listened. She wasn’t taking endless notes for her journalism piece. She wasn’t thinking about whose quotes would make for the most clicks online. Brownstein was paying attention and digesting language word by word.
Of course, a study on the obsession behind one of the world’s most cultish bands is an obvious case where someone would be tuning in to the crowd. However, this is where she stands apart. Brownstein did this all the time. She still does. She’s observing the way people speak about what they love most, from the fans firsthand accounts to the musicians’ notes powering through her speakers. She’s a scientist taking notes, and she’s not cherry-picking the best results. Everything matters because everyone matters. She wants to be able to write about it later in a way that will connect with anyone who chooses to read it.
There’s just as much of a cult hanging around for Sleater-Kinney, too. Well, their fans may not backpack around the world to experience every blissful guitar solo and witty onstage one-liner, but they will stomp a foot down and refuse to move it when it comes to defending the importance of the band. Namely the importance of feminism, as made obvious by the fact that Brownstein was the only woman on Rolling Stone’s readers’ list of the “25 Most Underrated Guitarists of All Time.”
Ten long years separate Sleater-Kinney’s last album, 2005’s The Woods, from their new one, 2015’s No Cities to Love. The music world has changed a lot in that time span. A lot. Streaming services are one of the most popular ways to hear an album – Spotify alone has over 25 million users a month. Music news spreads like wildfire around the world, making journalism outlets compete to be the owner of a lucky link that’s shared. Plus, if a band plays a new song live, footage of it will be uploaded to YouTube come the following day, if that. There is a new row of factors to take into account. Almost all of them make the imaginary wall between fans and musicians increasingly opaque.
While some musicians are tempted to fight against them, others rise to the challenge. Sleater-Kinney did just that. They held a Q+A on Reddit. They put their album up to stream a week early. Hell, they even made a Twitter (because yes, really, Twitter didn’t exist in 2005). Brownstein and her bandmates accepted change in hopes of connecting with their fans. No Cities to Love isn’t an indulgence in nostalgia. It’s a dialogue with the present. Even though Brownstein is the youngest in the band — she was 19 years old when they started — her role was pivotal. She had a fresh eye to write with. It’s true that they all were experiencing a good deal of mind molding, as most college students do at that time, but Brownstein had the slight hesitance of a younger child. She watched as much as she acted. She listened as much as she played. In Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein makes sure to hear what every bandmate has to say, what every person’s part is trying to promote, and joins in with her own guitar, scratching chords into the mix that brighten the core of what they’re trying to deliver through rock.
No job so clearly displays her role as an observer better than her time with Portlandia. As a comedian, Brownstein feeds on those around her. Her observations and mocking responses are so accurate that now even she can’t wear clothing with birds on it. She went and ruined that for herself, which honestly comes as a laugh. She has an acute awareness and sensibility in picking up on rising trends, undercurrent mannerisms, and hypocritical stances. There’s humor in our everyday movements, but we’re so used to them that it’s hard to realize. So she takes out a pen and points it all out, crafting up script after script that sees her and Armisen nailing not just Portland stereotypes or hipsters, but our inane obsession with constant culture consumption and the need to continually refine it.
The end product of the show is a greater sense of community. With every bite Portlandia takes at its citizens, there’s a clear display of empathy and kindness. Brownstein writes and acts out her jokes the way a best friend can call you out on your insane vices. She delivers each skit as an outsider’s look at the inside. Because of that, she’s just as critical as she is vulnerable. She’s willing to put herself in another’s shoes while still portraying them from an outsider’s point of view. Technically, it should be detached. Instead, it welcomes the viewer, creating a half-confessional, half-transparent scenario. So when an episode draws to a close and Netflix zooms out and asks if you want to watch another episode, you click continue – and you click it every time.
Now Brownstein’s got a feature film in the not-too-distant future — Todd Haynes’ Carol — in addition to a worldwide tour and another season of Portlandia. She’s juggling, she’s smiling, and she’s keeping both ears open. There’s no doubt that she’s a superhuman, but understanding how she’s able to balance it all makes it easier to understand. As fun as being the entertainer is, Brownstein knows that’s not why people come back for more. We seek meaning in life. To be able to find commonalities in the media, from books to albums to TV shows, is to be able to feel more comfortable with ourselves. The best way to do that is to see how we’re all similar and then point out why that’s the case. Brownstein is a grade A observer. Somehow she’s managed to be one for decades without ever coming across as a creep. The secret is in genuinely being interested. Her goal isn’t to be applauded for exposing our innermost emotions and thoughts. Her goal is to help connect us all, and she’s going about doing so through whatever medium she can.
There’s a reason Carrie Brownstein gets you. It’s because she’s listening and waiting to see how those words, those actions, influence what comes next. Though, perhaps the best way to explain why Brownstein is so good at what she does is in her own words. “If nothing else — if someone was trying to figure me out, who am I, what exactly I do — well, that’s it,” she wrote in her Monitor Mix farewell. “I’m a fan.”
The Dream of Carrie Brownstein Is Alive in Portland
by Michelle Geslani
A look at How Portlandia Became a Natural Extension of the Sleater-Kinney Rocker
“Tell me what you wanna be!” Carrie Brownstein howls on the chorus of “Words and Guitars”, a raucous highlight off Sleater-Kinney’s third album, 1997’s Dig Me Out. It’s an easy enough phrase, yet one that could almost serve as the tagline for her multi-faceted career.
Her time spent in the punk rock outfit — be it the early riot grrrl years when third-wave feminism was at its peak, or today, with comeback LP No Cities to Love dropping amidst a landscape of heated race relations — has always been informed by the concept of existence, more specifically the freedom to simply be, within a world that seems to always want to dictate the rules of what’s right, appropriate, culturally and morally sound.
Brownstein isn’t here to tell us what categorical box we should nicely slip into or profession we should adopt and let define us. (After all, in addition to brazen rock star and actress, she, herself, counts NPR music columnist, advertising employee, and sociolinguist as past gigs.) No, Brownstein is here to remind us that we’re all distinct, we all have our little idiosyncrasies, we all belong to disparate communities, and most importantly, that we all possess the right to be whatever we choose at any given time. We need not succumb or give in to any supposed establishment.
She championed this idea through Sleater-Kinney’s music, and powerfully so, her onstage charisma and energy a blazing sight that could not go unseen nor unfelt. However, following the band’s break-up in 2006, which we now thankfully know was just temporary, she went on to continue to speak her truths through another medium: sketch comedy. Portlandia is perhaps what Brownstein is best known for, with many of the IFC show’s viewers barely even recalling the Sleater-Kinney name, let alone the riot grrrl movement that birthed the band in the first place.
“They just see me as this person they know from television, and then they listen to Sleater-Kinney and they think, ‘What is this scary music? You seem so happy on the show. What’s wrong? Why are you so upset?’” she told Bust of some of the frequent reactions her Portlandia fans had. It’s not so much that there’s something new bothering Brownstein. There’s always been a fire burning inside her, a system in desperate need of criticism, but instead of spiky guitar riffs and ferocious yelping, her new weapon of subversion is satire.
It’s not the mean-spirited or derisive type, but the kind that’s more of a character examination taken to an all-new level of absurdity, both for comedic effect, obviously, and to make a certain point about society and/or a specific group of people. “Because our show’s a comedy, we can explore that kind of duality and contradiction without being too didactic,” she explained further.
Much of the show’s approach can be traced back to Brownstein’s interest in sociolinguistics. She noted the connection between her studies and comedy, telling Salon: “At the time it was very fascinating to me how people found communities to gather around, and then created a register of speaking that informed the context and was an identifier of who they were… Of course, Portlandia is all about the ways that people curate their physical space and their life.”
If Sleater-Kinney was Brownstein saying, “Hey! You can be anything you want!”, Portlandia is her showing you the communities that are out there, celebrating the gamut of humanity, while simultaneously exposing some of its foibles with a humorous tongue. She’s not immune to the critical eye, either; in the past, she’s admitted that a handful of the Portlandia characters that she portrays are actually “permutations” of herself. Below are some of Brownstein’s most complex and effective characters.
With her polished curls and expressive face, Nance is one of Portlandia’s most recurring characters and probably the most unctuous and overly concerned of the bunch. You know the type — dramatic from the start, hell-bent on making the most trivial things an epic contest of Odysseus-like proportions. Nance’s traits are especially emphasized when she’s caring for her Peter, her mumbling brook of a husband.
“You’re my guy!” she often says in her scenes, gently caressing his face, her voice so cloyingly sweet that it actually hurts. In one sketch about helping him lose weight, she chucks out all the pasta in their house, emptying every cupboard one box at a time without hesitation. After she catches Peter staring at pictures of pasta online, she nearly breaks down in tears, wailing: “You were looking at pasta websites! This is demeaning! This is demeaning to pasta!”
Another sketch, possibly one of the show’s most famous, sees Peter and Nance dining at a restaurant, but being incredibly cautious about what kind of chicken they order. “Is that USDA organic? Oregon organic? PORTLAND ORGANIC?” Nance asks the waitress with the seriousness of a lawyer cross-examining a suspect. “How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free? When you say ‘they’ — who are these people raising Colin [the chicken]?” Later, she gushes with such over-the-top grandeur, “It tears at the core of my being the idea of someone just cashing in on a trend like ‘organic’!”
A personal Portlandia favorite is Toni, one of the owners of the feminist bookstore, Women & Women First. (Fun fact: It’s a real-life Portland bookstore called In Other Words). Dressed in oversized, musty-looking cardigans and her face forever frozen in a pout with pursed lips, she is the most steadfast feminist you’ll ever come across, but also likely the most ornery. Though her principles are undoubtedly rooted in feminism, she unfortunately gives the F word a less-than-stellar reputation thanks to her prickly, imposing attitude. She doesn’t seem to like anyone, not even other women (except for her bookstore cohort Candace, played masterfully by Fred Armisen), and she couldn’t care less whether or not she successfully sells books about feminism. It’s impossible not to chuckle at Toni’s extremist vision, though — which is the whole point — especially when Brownstein offers up such an exceptional deadpan delivery of it.
In the show’s premiere episode, one sketch sees actor Steve Buscemi playing the role of a harmless man using the store bathroom without purchasing something first. Toni and Candace, dutifully wait for him outside the bathroom door, ready to reprimand him for not adhering to the “Bathrooms 4 Customers Only” sign. Buscemi attempts to diffuse the situation by offering to buy a book. However, since it’s just one installment in a much larger series, his gesture is not well-received. “In book 13, you find out if she is a lady, and it pains me to imagine you not knowing her journey,” Toni says with much exasperation. When Buscemi takes out a wad of cash to purchase something else right there on the spot — he really just wants to get out of the store ASAP — Toni immediately scolds him for offending her: “This is not some back-alley hooker/pimp transaction … when a man pulls out money away from a register, I have to wonder…” Later on, she tries to sell Buscemi on a bookstore-sponsored protest event, saying, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
In another sketch, an air-conditioner repairman similarly inadvertently offends Toni. Although he’s there to perform a simple service — fix a broken A/C unit — he’s met with rather biting judgement. “Sir, I don’t think you’re allowed to come into this store and talk about units. Every time you say unit or box or equipment, I feel a penis here, I feel a penis here, I feel a penis here … I am halfway to pregnant,” she says intently as she points to her ears, cheeks, and eyes.
And it’s not just men. When a student (actress Aubrey Plaza) looks to buy a few feminist books for her college class, Toni and Candace are anything but helpful. Toni comments on Plaza’s short shorts, asking, “What happened to your pants?” As Plaza points to a book that she needs, Toni brushes her hand away and reprimands her, “Every time you point, I see a penis.”
With Sleater-Kinney having risen to prominence as a riot grrrl band, and having had her own sexual orientation make headlines on more than one occasion, Brownstein is not one to ignore the topic of gender identity. However, she tackles it in her own clever way. On Portlandia, she speaks through Lance and Nina, a couple that by all means is supposed to represent the typical heterosexual relationship using the stereotypical ideas of what a “man” and “woman” should be. Lance is a tough guy who works on cars and motorcycles, wears leather jackets, chews gum with his jaw half-open, communicates with one-word sentences, and has sex constantly on the brain. Nina, meanwhile, is giddy, giggly, flirtatious, often exceedingly doting, and, in turn, seeks mutual affection from her mate. For the most part, Lance is an unwilling participant and stoic in the face of such mushy-gushy feelings, because obviously, he is a man. The ingenious aspect of this couple, of course, is that both characters are portrayed (and portrayed very well) by the opposite sex: Lance is played by a woman (Brownstein), and Nina is played by a man (Armisen). A literal swapping of genders as a means to comment on gender identity and smash the concept of “man”/“woman” — how’s that for a subversive mind-fuck?
Literally every scene featuring Lance and Nina is worth a watch. Perhaps the sketch most deserving is the one that manages to simultaneously reaffirm and break gender stereotypes in just a matter of minutes. During the sketch in question, the couple’s pet lizard dies, which leaves Lance shaken up and traumatized. “Leon used to watch me play cards,” he says as he squeezes and cries into an oversized plush leopard. Nina tries to provide comfort, but also encourages him to let his feelings out all at once. Following her advice, Lance proceeds to stay in bed for days, whimpering over The Notebook (“the best movie ever made,” according to him), and just sobbing uncontrollably from dawn to dusk. In his absence, Nina takes on Lance’s responsibilities in the house, even going so far as to repair motorcycles for his friends while wearing his greasy wife-beater tanks. The end of the sketch finds Lance hopping on the back of a motorcycle, his arms wrapped around the waist of his now “masculine” girlfriend as they ride off into the sunset.
A less serious bit, but one that’s gone “viral”, has to do with the couple using a new “safe word” in the bedroom. If seeing the two actors engage in typical sex roles — as a “man,” Brownstein grunts and sweats sloppily, as a “woman”, Armisen coos sweet nothings and politely asks for less rough under-the-sheets activity — doesn’t throw your mind for a loop, at the very least the word “cacao” will forever be remembered as the “safe word” that should never have happened.
It’s worth noting that Brownstein doesn’t abandon her musical side (or face, if you will) when the Portlandia curtain comes up. Throughout the series, a number of characters reference fictional bands (Catnap, which is stalked by a maniacal Kristen Wiig, Peter’s old band The Bahama Knights featuring Maya Rudolph) and a music festival that closely resembles the true-to-life MFNW. Additionally, some of rock’s finest often pop up as special guests, including Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, St. Vincent, Jello Biafra, k.d. lang, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, and Juliette Lewis, among others. There’s even an episode where Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder (in the form of a tattoo) attempts to woo Brownstein.
by Dan Bogosian
It’s tough having heroes, far harder than most people assume. You have to walk a line of knowing a person may never live up to your expectations while voluntarily buying into the lie that some just do things right anyway. Hero worship and fanaticism are nearly identical invitations for criticism. People want to know how you can think a real, living human being is a hero.
It’s much more difficult to actually be the hero.
If you google “hero definition,” you’ll either gravitate towards a foot-long sandwich or read “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Carrie Brownstein, though not “typically a man” (among other qualities), is a hero.
She set an example to follow. “One More Hour” from 1997’s Dig Me Out is about the breakup of Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker’s romantic relationship. SPIN, drunk on the pursuit of a better story, published a feature before the album’s release that discussed this dissolution before Brownstein’s parents knew she dated women. How would a normal person react to that? How would a hero?
Brownstein didn’t start a war, though it would’ve been understandable; she didn’t hurt herself, though similar things happen everyday. In Brownstein’s own words, “It was a complete invasion of privacy. My parents didn’t know Corin and I were going out. They didn’t know I had ever dated a woman before.” Outed in public in the least desirable way possible, she took it in stride, said her mind, and let the art do the talking. Dig Me Out still got a 9 out of 10 from the magazine and was ranked #74 on their “125 Best Albums of the Past 25 Years” list in 2012.
Lester Bangs once called David Bowie an “accomplished eclectician (aka a thief).” Who did Sleater-Kinney steal from? Did Black Flag, Minor Threat, and The Minutemen take three women on tour with them? Did they ever take any women with them? Is punk serving women, transgenders, and people of color today? What eclecticism did they have?
Is Brownstein not an accomplished assassin of various styles and art herself? Beyoncé is an indisputable queen and likely one of the feminists your parents know best, but Brownstein’s also a “straight man” on one of the funniest shows on television. Courtney Love may get remembered, but she didn’t protest her way into a television studio. You can’t ask what odds were in Brownstein’s favor; the cards were always stacked against her and her bands to fail.
Sleater-Kinney found success in an industry run by men for men. They targeted women at a time when people like Chuck Klosterman were in power – the same Chuck Klosterman who would later write in his book Fargo Rock City, “There were still probably more males buying Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney records than there were females (boys are simply more willing to spend money on rock music than girls are, even when the songs are specifically intended for a female audience).” The same Chuck Klosterman who said, “Bands who depend on support from females inevitably crash and burn.” Lest you think that’s the world of yesteryear, that’s the same Klosterman who is “The Ethicist” for The New York Times, where he asks important questions like “Should Free Office Food Be Taken Home?” and “Why Tell Koko About Robin Williams’ Death?”
Despite the warring editors, foolish writers, and sexist men standing in her path, Brownstein’s band succeeded with critical acclaim. Despite a male-driven touring atmosphere, Sleater-Kinney were known for their hard work to the point where Rolling Stone recently called them “America’s fiercest punk band.” Despite being called gay then bisexual, Carrie Brownstein proved it didn’t matter and became a legitimate TV star. In a time where most people linger over what they can and cannot do, she proved ordinary people could go their own way, never settling at any stop, and still succeed against all odds.
Carrie Brownstein isn’t a hero because of what her lyrics mean, what instruments and chords she uses, nor because of her band’s story and what words can fit into a press release to help us process Sleater-Kinney’s absence and return. It’s not because she can pull off the setup and the punchline, and it’s not because her every move reminds us that people can be open-minded and loving and passionate and purposeful, that people do seek new things, that the impossible is possible.
She’s a hero because you could be, too.