Enraged and In Love

Sleater-Kinney and the dichotomies of rock & roll

Dig Me Out dramatizes this context, interrogating dependencies between musicians and listeners, between passion and catharsis--like "so much metamusic," as Brownstein puts it. The album's flirtiest track, "Little Babies," turns Tucker's lush, tremulous voice into the ultimate musical comfort inn ("are you hungry did you eat before the show") before snapping into a mocking bubblegum refrain about an audience's dumb need. Brownstein nods briskly: "On the chorus, we wanted to have that effect of like all the people in the audience, all the little babies, going 'gimmee, gimmee, gimmee.'"

"It's using this classic rock and roll"--Tucker sways above the remains of her waffles, snaps her fingers, and purrs--"dum dum dee dee dee dum, dum dee dum do. But there's so much rage coming through in that song. And that's what I hope people understand: that you can love rock and roll and also be enraged about it. You can love society, you can love the country we live in, and also be enraged by it. You don't have to choose one or the other."

The most reliable discomforter in the Sleater-Kinney arsenal is, of course, Tucker's tearing, ferocious voice, and all three know it. Brownstein and Weiss call it The Tool, as in "Oh, Corin's warming up The Tool." Which she does, shut inside a backstage bathroom, before every soundcheck. At the Fillmore, Jon Spencer's big, amiable tour manager Chris stops by the dressing room to "see if you guys are getting everything you need" and is blind-sided by a sudden rollercoaster roar. "Whoa!" he blurts. "I guess some people sing in the shower"--he's backing toward the door--"and some on the shitter!" "It's just Corin," says Brownstein, a fierce smile in her eyes.

"My actual voice is not that different from anybody else's," reveals Tucker later. "The first Heavens to Betsy record that we recorded I sing really low and deep. But eventually we played more live shows, and the songs I sang that were sort of higher and freakier, people would be so freaked out. That tension and that craziness," her voice rises and trembles, "is what I always wanted to create. I worked really hard to sing like that."

The daughter of a psychology professor, Tucker, 24, grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and moved to Olympia to attend Evergreen College. Without the example of riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Tucker emphasizes, "I would not be playing music today." When she started Heavens to Betsy in 1991, neither she nor drummer Tracy Sawyer knew their way around their instruments. They made up for it by drawing a raw mix of vulnerability and rage from Tucker's bald lyrics about growing up female (including the indelible "My Red Self").

These days, Tucker finds her Heavens to Betsy rants "self-righteous," although perhaps necessarily so: "It was like, OKAY, I can sing and write these things." If she now feels the need to present a more "multidimensional" image of womanhood, she believes riot grrrl has encouraged her to that end. "That's why it's really frustrating to me that riot grrrl--and women organizing around these issues--is seen as so superficial and unimportant." Later in the trip, when we fall into a discussion of riot grrrl's sensationalistic rise and fall in the world of USA Today, I wonder aloud why more riot grrrls in general didn't protect themselves with lies, provide fake manifestos, fuck the media right back. She gives me a look. "I was 18," she says, flatly.

Where the San Francisco show moved out in full strides, Portland circles uneasily. The band comes on, tunes, fine tunes (they deny that they deliberately dawdle, but Tucker concedes, "I don't want to be that consumable"). "What a start," a man grumbles behind me. The sound guy decides Tucker's guitar should serve as a bass, which clogs up the guitarists' bright exchange. A big guy near Brownstein mock roars "YEEAAHH!" This is their town (or at least Tucker and Weiss's) but not necessarily their crowd. Tucker lets her moon face contort with her words, pushing each persona to its extreme. "Little Babies," which she dedicates to a local teen punk band, Berserk, goes feral. Tucker's voice seems thin, distressed; she barely keeps up on Call the Doctor's dependable squabble "Little Mouth." Exiting stage right, Brownstein kicks her mic stand accurately and effectively into the crowd.

"Oh, so now she's punching people!" It's the next day, before the Seattle soundcheck, and Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simmons is not letting Brownstein forget about the Mic Incident. "We should have a big fight," he declares, "right here--the Explosion versus Sleater-Kinney." Half his size, Brownstein mouths back, no slouch at gasbag repartee. When she walks by later, I lift my eyebrows. Her glancing, sweet smile surfaces: "Jon Spencer came up to me last night and said, 'I heard you hit some guy with a mic stand.' They seemed to get off on it." So what was up? Brownstein shrugs. "That guy was totally harmless. He was just a figurehead for all the morons behind him. I mean...," she sighs, "whatever. It really wasn't specifically directed at anyone. I think I was just channeling a different energy for that show."

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