You may have never heard of the unabashed rockers Sleater-Kinney, but with seven studio albums, a new single “Hurry on Home” (produced by St. Vincent!), and another studio album on the way, that’s kind of your fault, isn’t it?
Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (yes, of Portlandia fame) in Olympia, Washington. Stemming from the Pacific Northwest’s riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney’s music sought to confront social problems such as gender inequality, classism, and abuse among many other societal issues as a result of being pushed out of a male-dominated punk music scene. The work that Sleater-Kinney has done through their music, and the messages their music spreads, resonates farther and wider than is even tangible.
There’s no doubt that Sleater-Kinney will go down in the (music) history books as an important part of the feminist movement, but I’m here to argue that the values of Sleater-Kinney, and the riot grrrl movement in general, are inherently Jewish.
Besides two thirds of the band members being Jewish, on the surface the band seemingly has nothing to do with Judaism. Other than being born to a Jewish family, we don’t know much about whether or not Janet Weiss (drummer) is a practicing Jew, or if she even still identifies as Jewish.
On the other hand, Carrie Brownstein has been a little more vocal about her Judaism. In her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (which is a line from one of the band’s more iconic songs, “Modern Girl”), she stated that despite her parents being born to Jewish families, when she was young, her family quickly transitioned from putting gifts under a menorah to buying an actual Christmas tree. In conversation with Marc Maron, host of the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Carrie also talked about not possessing the Jewish knowledge to defend the last name “Brownstein.” She spoke of how this led her to be frustrated with her parents, who were the ones responsible for giving her any kind of Jewish background (insert crying emoji here).
But as a fan, I hear the band’s Jewishness come through the music itself. Musicians have three main weapons: their lyrics, their voices, and their musical accompaniment. When these three elements interact with each other, meaning is made. Sleater-Kinney expertly uses the disparity between Corin’s striking vocals and catchy riffs and melodies (as in “Bury Our Friends”) to create tension. The tension is only intensified by the honesty of their lyrics.
Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss are known for their deep-cutting lyrics such as: “Why do good things never want to stay?” (“Good Things”); “Hope’s a burden or it sets you free” (“No Cities to Love”); “There is no righteousness in your darkest moment/We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of” (“Sympathy”).
It’s this honesty that is an indisputably Jewish characteristic of their music. Sleater-Kinney and the rest of the bands who were part of the riot grrrl movement were basically forced to be frank in response to the repression they were facing from the male-dominated scene. By confronting major social issues like suicide in “Jumpers,” consumerism, classism, and selfishness in “Price Tag,” or queer heartache in “One More Hour,” Sleater-Kinney isn’t holding back. They give voices to the voiceless, making the invisible visible, and, overall, attempting to enact change. What is more Jewish than tikkun olam and trying to make the world a better place?
All in all, Sleater-Kinney’s relentless devotion to enacting change and to producing remarkably catchy tunes is what makes them one of the finest bands of our time. They may not be the most outwardly Jewish bunch (we can’t all be Haim) but, their values are. And that’s what counts.
Carrie, Corin, and Janet are some of the most badass rockers in the business, and 25 years after forming, they’re still going strong. Not only have they paved the way for future women in rock by refusing to be referred to as anything other than a band, they have also furthered rock music with their uniquely intoxicating riffs, melodies, and unfading lyrics that make a difference.
Header image via Mat Hayward/FilmMagic/Getty images