Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No Outline Will Ever Hold Us (Sleater-Kinney and Me)

(Sleater-Kinney and Me: 1999 v 2015)

I grew up in the 1980s in Eastern Washington (the politically and socially conservative tumbleweed-strewn area of the Evergreen State), and on the surface, I must have seemed "normal" for a while. I was a good little Republican kid. Alex P. Keaton and Ronald Reagan were my idols. I would cut pictures of Reagan out of Newsweek and plaster them on my bedroom wall like he was some kind of boy band superstar. I was following the script for my life as a suburban white boy.

But as I grew up, the cracks in that image multiplied and deepened. I started refusing to go to church so I could watch my beloved Seattle Seahawks. I soon realized that I didn't really believe in God, but I kept that to myself. I embraced "Weird Al" Yankovic so aggressively that Hawaiian shirts became a regular part of my wardrobe. In almost every picture of me as a kid, I was in a Hawaiian shirt or a Seahawks jersey. 

(Me in 1987-1988)

Politically, my awakening began at age 14 when I saw "Do The Right Thing" and got obsessed with the music of Public Enemy. But by then I was already carrying around what felt like a shameful secret that I felt had to be hidden at all costs: When I was home alone, I would sneak into my mother's bedroom (or my sisters' rooms), and try on their clothes and makeup. I didn't know what it "meant." I didn't think "Oh, I'm trans." I just knew that it was incredibly liberating to get dressed up and sing along to my Madonna records at full volume. I also knew that NO ONE COULD EVER KNOW what I was up to. 

I hit puberty, and brief questions about whether I was gay were emphatically quashed by the reality that I was extremely attracted to girls. That's "normal," right? Whew. I pushed my occasional attraction to boys to the back of my mind. I tried to eradicate from my brain the fact that in my fantasies about boys... I was a girl. In the very early days of the internet, I discovered trans message boards. I became obsessed with them, and realized that I was attracted to trans women. But was I trans myself? Hell, no. Yet another dark, sticky secret to lock away... 

In college, I got a part-time job at the campus radio station. My musical tastes weren't super-adventurous in the mid-90s: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys and R.E.M. were my favorite artists. The only female artist I was really into was Liz Phair. However, as a DJ at a college radio station, I had some degree of hipness forced upon me. Two of the people I worked with at KUGS-FM would go on to form Death Cab For Cutie, for example. That's where I was introduced to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Modest Mouse, and Built To Spill. There's NO WAY my suburban douchebag ass would have found those artists back then if I wasn't working at KUGS. One band I discovered there won my heart forever, though. 

In the Spring of 1997, we got a new record from an all-girl punk rock trio. I had to listen to it to see if I could find any tracks I wanted to play on the air. I remember the first song immediately grabbing my attention, and then the rest of the record refusing to let go... 

I freely admit that I was totally ignorant of the whole "Riot Grrl" movement/scene. My visceral reaction to this record was "Holy shit! These girls ROCK!"

For a spell that's all it was. But I found that something about Sleater-Kinney resonated with me. I went back and bought their first two records. Even though at the time I didn't yet realize I was trans, the opening cut of "Call The Doctor" hit me with sledgehammer force.

They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you

This is love and you can't make it
(Look out they want what you know)
In a formula or shake me
(Steal a kid break a heart steal the show)
I'm your monster I'm not like you
(Peel back the skin see what's there)
All your life is written for you
(I'll never show you what's in here)

Your life is good for one thing
You're messing with what's sacred
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you

This is love and you can't make it
(Don't need you to explain the pain)
In a formula or break me
(I can prove to you it's all fake)
I'm your monster I'm just like you
(She's dead but she can stand she can walk)
All my life is right before you
(Call the doctor miracle she can talk)

Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor
Call the doctor

This is love and you can't break it
(This is not really me at all)
In a formula or make me
(Stunt girl daring twirls watch me fall)
I'm no monster I'm just like you
(Carbon copy same body different hearts)
All my life is right before me
(Can't tell anymore the real parts)

As you can probably easily tell, it's not difficult to take those lyrics and apply them to the experience of being trans. While Public Enemy awakened my consciousness on racial issues, Sleater-Kinney kick-started my feminist awakening. I also could relate to them on a personal level. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were both from the pacific northwest, and both were barely older than I was. Carrie even attended Western Washington University for a year before I began my studies there. The resonance I felt with them sprung in part from the fact that they were speaking directly to me, long before I consciously understood that reality. 

I eagerly anticipated their 1999 album The Hot Rock, and it cemented their place in my personal pantheon of rock deities. "Get Up" is still my all-time favorite song in their discography...

In the fall of 1999, I moved to Columbus for graduate school, and I felt like a Sleater-Kinney missionary of sorts. I introduced anyone who was remotely interested to their music, and found a willing convert in my friend Natalie. She came to S-K shows in Cleveland and Columbus with me, and at the show in early 2003 at Little Brothers in the Short North I actually had a brief conversation with Corin and Carrie. I bought a bumper sticker from them, and managed to talk to them about anti-war protests in Seattle and Columbus rather than just blurt out "YOU GUYS RULE SO HARD!" It was a proud moment of non-embarrassment for me. The word was spreading about the band. They were getting mentioned on The Daily Show and on Six Feet Under. There was a write-up about them in Time Magazine. I felt like MY band was about to become everyone's. 

Sleater-Kinney would release "The Woods" in May of 2005, and by then I had reached a point of critical mass in my consciousness as a trans woman. I had been married since 2002, but I was miserable. I hated myself, and I looked for validation anywhere I could find it. Regrettably, one way I did this was tumbling into an addiction to internet porn. I also had numerous extra-marital affairs (mainly with cis women, but also with trans women, who I can now see I was trying to live vicariously through). I was absolutely suffocated by shame and buried by secrets.

May 2005: Not loving life. 

I was in Fort Collins, Colorado grading AP government exams when I had my chance to pick up a copy of "The Woods." The record still stands as the band's masterwork (and my favorite record they've made by a wide margin). It's perhaps the best record of the '00s, and it's a master's course in rock bombast with soul. "Jumpers" and "Entertain" are two of the band's best songs, and they sandwiched the track that gives this blog its name...

My baby loves me, I'm so happy
Happy makes me a modern girl
Took my money and bought a TV
TV brings me closer to the world
My whole life
Was like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life
Was like a picture of a sunny day
My baby loves me, I'm so hungry
Hunger makes me a modern girl
Took my money and bought a donut
The hole's the size of this entire world
My whole life
Looks like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life
Looked like a picture of a sunny day
My baby loves me, I'm so angry
Anger makes me a modern girl
Took my money, I couldn't buy nothin'
I'm sick of this brave new world
My whole life
Is like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life
Is like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life
Is like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life
Is like a picture of a sunny day

Once again, the song wasn't directly about being trans... but that line "My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day" WRECKED ME. I started sobbing in my spartan dorm room at Colorado State. The song was about inauthenticity and the incoherent storm of sadness and rage living inauthentically can create within a person. At that moment, I was living a life of sad artifice. I remember going to Sonic with my friend Natalie and seeing a visibly trans woman drive up to the restaurant. For reasons I didn't understand at the time, I started to panic. One thing was clear: Something had to change. There was never a single epiphany-type moment for me in coming out to myself as trans. It was more like waves slowly eroding a rock formation until it crumbled. In that long process of attrition, "Modern Girl" was a bigger wave than most. Only a few months after that near-tsunami, I finally came out to myself as trans.

Then they broke up. While they were fronting the Corin Tucker Band, and forming Wild Flag, and starring on Portlandia, I was finally starting my transition. When I first got into the band, I was a callow college boy who was mainly only attracted to their music because it "rocked." By the fall of 2014, I had completed my transition and was finally living authentically. I understood the lyrics to their songs in ways I really didn't before. I felt personally connected to them in a way I couldn't before. Corin and Carrie were openly bisexual women from the northwest who came of age in the 1990s, just like me. Their perspective was my own as well: Righteous anger, but rage leavened with a sense of optimism that since we are all connected, we can also make change happen by working together. Their lack of ironic detachment and cynicism won my undying devotion long ago... It also doesn't hurt that they DO INDEED rock, and that their songs are catchy as FUCK.

Then they came back. More accurately, they ROARED back with the triumphant comeback album "No Cities To Love." As if they were attempting to prove they were INSIDE MY HEAD, they made a video in conjunction with one of my favorite television shows...

This wasn't a money grab by a 90s act looking to just play their old, familiar favorites for long-time fans who now had disposable income. It was new, vital material that didn't suffer from comparison with the band's previous work. To trot out a tired cliche.. They've still got it! Importantly, they proved that they had a second act in them, and what is my transition other than the second act of MY life? I can look back now and realize that part of what drew me to them was that they were who I wished I could have been had I been born a cis woman. They are my role models, and they have touched my life in ways that I don't yet fully comprehend.

Thanks, Corin, Carrie and Janet! :)

Please share your thoughts on Sleater-Kinney and their larger significance (or personal significance to you) in the comments!