The world of mainstream music is constantly transforming as new artists, styles and trends are embraced with each passing year. In spite of these changes, some musicians have maintained their popularity across decades, reinventing their sounds and careers. Each week, A&E columnist Emily McCormick will discuss the evolution of ’90s artists who have carried the spirit of their decade into today’s music scene.
Sleater-Kinney blasted a crater into the world of music and the eardrums of audiences with uproarious sound, penetrating lyrics and electric energy. When the band departed on an indefinite hiatus in 2006, their absence was conspicuous.
After all, such a consummate ensemble as Sleater-Kinney doesn’t come along that often. Band members Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein melded punk rock with politics since they were just college kids practicing their riffs off the side of the highway of Washington State in the ’90s. Since then, Sleater-Kinney dared to delve into deeply touchy topics, using them as kindling for fiery music.
Today, the band members may be known individually for creating some high-profile side projects, like the TV show “Portlandia,” but that doesn’t mean Sleater-Kinney itself wasn’t impactful. They were. The band made itself a tough act to emulate, because more than great artists, the members were great activists. Tucker, Weiss and Brownstein are mouthpieces as much as any politician, only they demand social change with resounding ballads, not ballots.
One of my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyrics is in the 2002 song “Far Away” about the U.S. government’s reaction to 9/11: “The president hides while working men rush in to give their lives.” Its blunt messages hit home hard.
Coupling their profound lyrics with wailing vocals and clamorous guitar counterpoint, Sleater-Kinney’s music doesn’t just ask, it demands the listeners’ full attentions.
This year, Sleater-Kinney busted back with the unexpected release of their album “No Cities to Love” in January. The band may have shelved their guitars for the past decade, but the album sure doesn’t reveal any rustiness in sound or in writing. For former fans, “No Cities to Love” is satisfyingly still the smart, socially aware Sleater-Kinney of times past. The track “Price Tag,” notably, is all about working class struggles in a capitalist America.
And for newbies, the album is a noisy wake-up call: If you didn’t know Sleater-Kinney before, well, what took you so long?
But even new listeners likely know a thing or two about the three ladies of Sleater-Kinney outside the context of the band. Janet Weiss – named as one of the top rock drummers ever by LA Weekly – has played with The Shins, Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith.
I, for one, first became a fan of guitarist and vocalist Brownstein for her satirical characters in the popular comedy sketch show she created in 2010, “Portlandia.” Probably the biggest celebrity of the members, Brownstein owes much of her commercial recognition to the show, not Sleater-Kinney – a fact she’s just a little bit bitter about.
And rightly so, because the question is not whether the women of Sleater-Kinney are great on their own; they’re all doing just fine. What matters is whether the sum of its parts, the best rock band of the past two decades can stay afloat post-hiatus. Ten years is a long time to wait to make a comeback.
Personally, I think Sleater-Kinney’s timing is impeccable. It is a band built on politics, and really, the landscape hasn’t changed much from the ’90s to now. Yesterday’s riot grrrls are today’s feminists, and social consciousness in music is on the rise with girl-power anthems by Beyoncé and stereotype-busting lyrics by Macklemore, to name a few popular examples.
Social and economic inequality, feminism, war, political unrest – all the issues Sleater-Kinney hit still exist today. Now more than ever, it’s a trend to sing about them.
Perhaps the only difference is that, in the early ’90s, simply being an all-female rock band made a statement. Today, that novelty aside, it takes a bit more cutting insight to make a mark.
2015’s “No Cities to Love” sure doesn’t sound like a swan song; it sounds like the work of three inspired artists returning with rejuvenated creativity. While Sleater-Kinney doesn’t have any new project in particular slated up next, I’m sure they haven’t struck their final chord.
Because really, as long as there is injustice in the world, there will be a need for Sleater-Kinney to be there to shout it down.
– Emily McCormick