These days, as commercial rock n’ roll speeds head-on into the dumpster, it’s hard to imagine getting upset about some rock band splitting up. Certainly there are plenty of moments when I think more wannabe Joey Ramones should unplug their guitars and call it quits -- vowing never to play a strident out of tune chord again. That’s why I’m shocked to say that when Portland, Oregon based trio Sleater-Kinney announced last week that they were taking an “indefinite hiatus”, I was crushed.
I remember daydreaming in the back of a friend’s truck, after taking a few pulls off a stale joint, when I first heard the sweet angst and guitars of Sleater-Kinney. It was 1996, and their second album Call the Doctor had just been released. My friend, who was in college in Seattle, had picked it up right before heading back to Montana for summer break. I ended up stealing the CD later that night with no intention of returning it. I was hooked and have been ever since.
Rock critics are quick to remind us that the members of Sleater-Kinney are all female. Which, for the sake of argument, couldn’t be less important. Their music should stand alone. Secondly, most reviewers won’t even touch bands like S-K. They are too edgy, too indy, too influential. And that is pretty much why rock critics suck.
Over the years, since my first Sleater-Kinney indulgence, I have grown to love their politics as much as their music. Sure, I could pine on about Carrie’s searing SG, Janet’s pulsating drum kit and Corin’s shattering vocals. Or how they outgrew their Girl Rock roots to evolve into one of the great bands of my generation -- but I’d rather talk about what S-K stood for and more notably, what they stood against.
In a November 2002 interview, shortly after the band had released their sixth album, One Beat, lead vocalist Corin Tucker summed it up for me. “Rock musicians can provide social and political critique that can stimulate people,” she said. “A big inspiration for us was the Clash's album, Combat Rock, which was written in the ultraconservative Thatcher era … I don't know why there aren't more artists writing about the pending war or the government," said Tucker. "I guess protest songs are sort of uncool these days."
Fortunately, One Beat was loaded with dissent. During the build up to Bush’s war and in the wake of 9-11, most rockers were on the sidelines, either waving flags or waiting for the dust to settle. But not Sleater-Kinney. They screamed and rocked against the invasion of Iraq and the incursions on our civil liberties. They performed at numerous rallies and let the anger and uncertainty of our political climate reverberate throughout their lyrics and scolding riffs.
On a song titled “Combat Rock” off of One Beat, Carrie Brownstein sang, “We'll come with our fists raised, the good old boys are back on top again, and if we let them lead us blindly, the past becomes the future once again.”
With One Beat, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss proved that together they were one of the most important and inspired rock bands in the United States.
It is not just US imperialism Sleater-Kinney had a problem with, but the way the corporate music industry trampled creativity while simultaneously elevating megastars like Britney Spears and Bono.
In an interview published in Magnet Magazine, shortly after the release of their seventh and most powerful album, The Woods, the band announced why they would never allow any of their songs to be used in an iPod commercial. As drummer Janet Weiss put it, “I think commercials ruin songs … [I]t’s hard for me to imagine putting one of my songs that I put my heart and soul into a TV ad … To me, it's not even about the product. It's about the song: what it does to your song, what context it puts your song into and what imagery it attaches to your song. The imagery of buying something.”
There is little doubt that music drives revolution. And S-K took rock to its teetering edge, not only in tune but also in spirit. And that’s why I hope their “indefinite hiatus” is not “infinite.” Our world (and ears) needs bands like Sleater-Kinney.
(Sleater-Kinney plays their last show in Portland, Oregon on August 11)
Joshua Frank, author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005) edits www.BrickBurner.org. He can be reached at: BrickBurner@gmail.com.
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