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Sleater-Kinney Never Says Die: How The Band Has Stayed Relevant

There are few bands more enduring than Sleater-Kinney, which is currently in the middle of a five-show run in New York City (tonight they’re hitting the Music Hall of Williamsburg). From their self-titled album in 1995, to 2015’s No Cities To Love, the trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss has remained relevant in the pop culture sphere. On Sleater-Kinney’s breakout single “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” Tucker sings “I’m the queen of rock and roll.” At the time it seemed like an exaggeration for the band from Evergreen State College. Now, it seems prophetic.

So, why can no one ever forget about Sleater-Kinney?

There’s never been a moment in my life where Sleater-Kinney hasn’t had music out–their first album was released the year I was born. And, while I listened to my fair share of All Time Low, I remember listening to Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” on my iPod classic, while thinking about the angst of being a 15-year-old in the midst of an Upstate New York winter. Despite a 20-year age gap–a hiatus that at the time seemed unending, and my own lack of musical knowledge–Sleater-Kinney was undeniably engaging.

Despite the roots of the band being in the ’90s insular riot grrrl scene, Sleater-Kinney managed to transcend the label, while also refusing to let go of it. They brought the anger and self-reflection of feminism to the mainstream with only two guitars and a drum set. Why? Because through every re-imagining of the band, they’ve been balanced accessibility with vulnerability, politics, and personal.

If you listen to songs like “Jumpers” or “Sympathy” you can see why Sleater-Kinney is so powerful: The tuned down guitars, the back and forth between Tucker’s powerful voice and Brownstein’s near growl, Weiss holding the songs together with a driving beat, the minimalist arrangement, but above everything the sense that pain can be turned into something beautiful. In the same breath, Sleater-Kinney made intensely political music. In 2004, the band contributed “Off With Your Head” for the second Rock Against Bush compilation. They sang about hating consumerism, breaking out of traditional gender roles, and how boring it was to idolize male rock stars.

Sleater-Kinney has continued evolve as the music scene–and pop culture itself–is constantly, progressively changing. Call The Doctor is frenetic and aggressive, where The Woods is conceptual and self-reflective. No Cities To Love is indisputably pop, where Dig Me Out is more punk. As the music scene changes, Sleater-Kinney does too. And they aren’t afraid to. Where many bands hang onto recreating their first album over and over again, the trio has never been afraid to explore new arenas and sounds. Recently, they’ve even delved into pop culture outside of the music realm, doing collaborations with Broad City and Bob’s Burgers.

From the beginning, Sleater-Kinney songs were always about what it’s like to be Sleater-Kinney. From Tucker and Brownstein’s break-up being tackled on “One More Hour” to trying to figure out how to revive a band on “Bury Our Friends,” the music has always been about exploration. Perhaps “authenticity” is an outdated concept, but Sleater-Kinney embodies the idea that being famous doesn’t mean giving up your personhood. There’s no persona, no character–there’s just three people making music about what it’s like to be them.

And for many, Sleater-Kinney was the first, even somewhat, mainstream band that tackled what it’s like to be a girl that’s in love with another girl. Sure, within the riot grrrl scene many bands ended up within the “queercore” label, but few talked about the realities of being alive and not straight. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a band as big as Sleater-Kinney–a band that Greil Marcus called the best band in America in 2001–talking about being queer, feels revolutionary. 

In essence, Sleater-Kinney is who everyone wants to grow up to; they’re the success story. Who doesn’t want to end up being paid to do what you love with your best friends? They’re the cool older sisters you’ve always wanted, and that’s why they’re impossible to ignore. 

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