- Sleater-Kinney: Fred Durst's worst nightmare.
A decade ago, just about anything by the stringently feminist indie rock group Bikini Kill was probably sufficient to scare the piss out of a young Fred Durst many times over. The oft-quoted, oft-misunderstood riot grrrl movement tended to frighten people in the early '90s, spraying mainstream culture with furious punk and unrelenting feminist politics. While some of the artists who absorbed and ultimately carried on that ideology -- Liz Phair, L7, Courtney Love (pre-Versace), Tori Amos, and 7 Year Bitch -- have come and gone, Sleater-Kinney hasn't backed off. It will keep the misogynist rap-metal aesthetic soiled for many years to come.
But will the Children of the Korn ever grow up? And can anyone lay to waste the genre that spawned them in the first place? How can you confront a phenomenon so powerful that even Homer Simpson jams to Kid Rock?
"You don't own the situation, honey/You don't own the stage/We're here to join the conversation/We're here to raise the stakes," singer-guitarist Corin Tucker sings in "Male Model," a track on the group's new album All Hands on the Bad One, an indie punk, wise-ass masterwork that may emphatically provide an answer to the Limp Bizkit question once and for all.
"I don't necessarily think I want to overthrow [rap metal], and we definitely couldn't do that by ourselves," admits singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein. "All we can really do is create something strikingly and refreshingly different from that. I just have to have faith that there are gonna be people who don't connect with that music -- who feel alienated by it and sort of question its place, and question the kind of cultural power it has, and question themselves for granting it that much cultural power. And then seek out other things. Whether it's us or whether it's bands like Built to Spill -- there's three guys making music that isn't inciting violence and the objectification of women.
"I just have to hope that we're not working alone," she continues. "I think there are other people, who might not be as forthright or political, who are making music that isn't based on them feeling threatened by the really small amount of power that women have gained in music."
A considerable portion of the power women have gained in music came courtesy of Sleater-Kinney -- the Washington state trio started its career as a napalm blast on the gender roles battlefield. A pair of releases in the mid-'90s set the table for Dig Me Out, its 1997 Kill Rock Stars debut, which elated indie rock feminists, inspired critics to attain previously unspeakable levels of euphoria, and completely ignored the mainstream chic of the time (grunge, if you remember). Loaded with the jagged guitars and searing, histrionic vocals of Tucker, the slightly-less-jagged guitars and comparatively soothing vocals of Brownstein, and the full-throttle, surf-rock-savvy drum assault of Janet Weiss, Sleater-Kinney quickly found itself cast as indie rock darlings.
The band took a step back on 1999's The Hot Rock, adding texture, depth, and vibrant color to its repertoire. But Bad One finds it inching back toward aural beatdown territory. Brisk, punchy, and unfailingly pointed, it's quite possibly the band's angriest release. It's also undoubtedly the funniest, which makes for some schizophrenic listening. Furious narratives such as "Was It a Lie?" (a real-life account of a woman's death that was videotaped, looped, and replayed over and over again in a public bar) butt heads with shimmering pop ballads ("Leave You Behind") and cornball tales of a doomed French love affair ("Milkshake and Honey"). Can a band this incendiary and political actually crack a smile now and then?
"I'm not into being dogmatic," Brownstein demurs. "I don't think any of us are. Especially when the medium in which you're being political is rock music -- what an absurd and frivolous medium.
"What an important medium, though, too. I still hope that music has the kind of power it had, before this really horrible period we're having in mainstream music, where people really felt they could connect to it. I think that, even though [on this album] we were being political, we wanted to simultaneously acknowledge the absurdity of rock music. And we have a lot of fun with it. We've also never been about one specific identity. That would have been a misstep for us."
The specific identity of Sleater-Kinney has become somewhat of a sacred cow. Ideologically, it remains tremendously important to a tremendous amount of people, who treat any stylistic or intellectual shift from the band with raised eyebrows and general unease. This can get pretty old -- about the time The Hot Rock came out, the dogma became almost unbearable, leading the band to violently reclaim its image from the critics and fans who gave it to them in the first place.
"I think there are two entities of Sleater-Kinney," Brownstein explains. "There's the Sleater-Kinney that the fans kind of create, and sometimes this identity feels really static. Sleater-Kinney is Dig Me Out. It's this thing that they really feel strongly about, but it feels unchanging, like "Where's our room to grow? Where's our room to do something different?'"
On Bad One, Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss have undoubtedly found that room. "Before we were writing this record, we thought, "Wait a minute. Sleater-Kinney is whatever we're doing, whatever we want it to be," Brownstein continues. "And that really freed us up. Most of our fans want that from us, want an honesty. No matter where it's coming from. No matter if it's different from the last record or not."
"And when the evening ends/We won't be thinking of you then/Even if your song is playing on the jukebox," Tucker sings in "You're No Rock and Roll Fun," and the honesty, adoration, and critical acclaim are all quite wonderful indeed. But how much would Sleater-Kinney like a song playing on the jukebox? Do the words "hit single" carry any weight with them?
"I remember when the Breeders' "Cannonball' snuck through. I was like "Oh my God, finally there's like a really good song!'" Brownstein recalls. "I would be totally happy. Here we are on an independent label. We haven't done a song remix. If one of our songs snuck on the radio, sure, that would be fine. I just wouldn't want to have to change anything to get on the radio."
Fair enough. Sleater-Kinney wants success on its terms. A band that won't hesitate to denounce the Woodstock rape-rock juggernaut, even as it betrays (as any conversation with Brownstein inevitably does) a loyal devotion to the bubblegum cheese pop and poofy hair of the B-52's, is worthy of praise. Brownstein veers straight from a discussion of the riot grrrl legacy into a short list of her favorite B-52's songs: "Hero Worship," "Give Me Back My Man," and "The Deadbeat Club." And that's where the Sleater-Kinney dichotomy lies in all its jagged glory: They got them a car, it's as big as a whale, and they're settin' sail to their own private Kid Rock-free Idaho.