Don't Talk Like

by Rob Horning

18 July 2006


I’ve been trying to pin down what is off about Carlene Bauer’s story at Salon about the end of Sleater-Kinney. I too “still believe in feminism, and I still believe in the saving power of rock music,” as Bauer proclaims at the end of the article, so why am I left feeling skeptical and unconvinced?  Part of it has to do with the hyperbolic deck line: “The breakup of Sleater-Kinney signifies the end of an era when women made a loud and unapologetic noise—onstage and in society.” Has that era really ended? Was it really contingent on one semi-popular indie-rock band? Seems like the media is full of loud and unapologetic women—Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter come to mind—who soldier on even though their era is through. And must every female voice in the public sphere be assessed in terms of its volume (a.k.a. its “shrillness”), even metaphorically? Volume seems a dubious metaphor for having an influential and respected voice, suggesting it’s a sheer quantitative rather than qualitative thing. And announcing someone’s refusal to apologize, even in the context of praising them for it, seems to reinforce the notion that culturally speaking, apologies should be expected. It as though Sleater-Kinney deserves praise for refusing to apologize for existing. This seems a patronizing sort of plaudit. As does this: “Sleater-Kinney—friends and artists whose friendship and art has nothing to do with expensive shoes and self-deprecation—are quitting when they seem most necessary.” Are female friendships really gnerally as shallow as this implies?  (And can a band really be politically “necessary”? Why just them? Where was the love for 1980s progenitors such as Salem 66 or Scrawl—who by the way might have been mentioned instead of bete noires Liz Phair and Courtney Love). It seems a weird way to praise a band that is also celebrated for having “never wasted time running other women down.”

The article itself is a testimonial built on personal anecdotes, the kind that uses one’s own emotional states in the place of more conventionally objective-seeming evidence (the kind of diaristic writing once ghettoized as “feminine”; perhaps blogging is eradicating that stereotype). This mode may be intended to fuse the personal and political, but it can come across as faintly narcissistic: “When I heard the news, I felt a burning need to see them one last time, though I was mindful of the fact that one must be circumspect when one is 33 and about to utter the phrase ‘burning need.’ Surely, one is being ironic. Surely, one has confused the feeling with heartburn. And yet, that feeling just won’t quit. I’ve been listening to music and going to shows for more than half a lifetime now, watching indie rock devolve into backward-looking, fashion-damaged pop, while the culture grows ever more unwilling to admit feminism did anything but give women delusion, heartbreak and resentment. In this blue moment for indie rock fans and feminists alike, I need to pay my respects to three women whose noise never sounded like anyone else’s and kept getting louder and larger the older they got.” Again size and volume are deployed as metaphors for significance, as though women were doomed forever to be judged in such terms. And the characterization of indie rock as devolving, as though it weren’t always already devolved seems strange. Was there really a time when it was free of fashion? And are the non-mainstream bands percolating today really so different in terms of gender equity and fashion consciousness? Plenty of indie-rockers still subscribe to the “non-image” image and it seems like there are other bands around with women in them. (Perhaps Erase Errata is fated to become the new Sleater Kinney.) If Sleater-Kinney had any cultural effects, one of them would probably, hopefully, be the normalization of female rock bands—that is the goal, isn’t it? To take for granted women in rock?—so why does the article make such efforts to champion Sleater-Kinney’s singularity? If it is and always would have been an exception to the general cultural rule, then how can one take heart in its example? I’m not sure if Sleater-Kinney is being praised for being beyond gender somehow or for being extremely gender-specific. Were they great musicians who happened to be women, or are they great for making a specifically female music? (I know, probably both, even though they seem to contradict on the surface.)

Longing to see Sleater-Kinney perform one last time, Bauer writes, “I need to be reminded that my peers and friends are living correctives to those who believe that it’s useless to free yourself from the bonds of biology, history and society, and that you can indeed live a life according to principles that pundits with nannies want to make you believe are quaint unworkable utopian relics of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I need to watch three women issue a billowing cloud of noise and in doing so defiantly redefine what it means to be female and an adult.” Again, feminism is seen as defiance rather than an inarguable and inalienable standard, and it motivates joyous “noise”—implying the music’s power (and feminism’s by extension, since Bauer equates them) derives from chaos and intensity rather than talent, careful planning and ingenuity. Not to discount the antifeminist forces Bauer alludes to here, which are all too pervasive, but if they are so wrong, why are Sleater-Kinney so exceptional? Here we get closer to my short-sightedness, perhaps. I’ll never truly understand the force of arguments from dimwits like Caitlin Flanagan because as a man I’m in a position to not really ever have to take them seriously. They affect me only indirectly. This is probably why I’ll take the trouble to criticize Bauer, whose intentions are clearly good and with whom I largely agree, rather than write about Flanagan, who seems beneath contempt. This may not be a luxury women can afford. When I’m listening to music and not necessarily pondering political issues, antifeminism isn’t like a shackle on me curtailing my possibilities, and I can hear Sleater-Kinney in an entirely different context, one in which the band need not serve as evidence of something larger than the music it creates. I never “need” Sleater-Kinney to do anything besides play good songs; I don’t need them to remind me of anything else but themselves. Does that mean I’m not really hearing Sleater-Kinney’s music, I wonder?


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