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I Wouldn't Have Survived My All-Boys School Without Sleater-Kinney

I Wouldn't Have Survived My All-Boys School Without Sleater-Kinney

I Wouldn't Have Survived My All-Boys School Without Sleater-Kinney

A gay fan thanks Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss on the 20th anniversary of their Dig Me Out album.

I wasn't present for the most epic fight of my adolescent years. No, the fight wasn't in the locker room or in the hallways outside of class. It was on the "senior grass" -- a term we used to describe the perfect square of finely trimmed turf in front of my hierarchical all-boys school in New England. In the unwritten rules of our institution, only students in their senior year could walk on this elevated patch. All others, even visitors, had to walk around it.

Per tradition, the seniors held a barbecue for themselves on the senior grass on the last day of class, with a boombox blasting "School's Out" and other machismo-fueled celebratory tunes. However, one year was different. Two classmates hijacked the stereo, slipped Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out into the CD slot, and then held off the outraged jocks for five minutes before being physically forced to cede control of the music back to their cultural overlords.

Now that was punk rock. And yeah, I did take indirect credit, because I was the one who first evangelized Sleater-Kinney to them. It was "uncool," for sure, to listen to female bands at my school. You risked being called "fag." But here I had converted a couple of fellow outsiders.

I was first exposed to S-K from a snobby and sexist review in Entertainment Weekly. I was intrigued. However, at the time, I couldn't find them on radio or MTV. So I spent my allowance money on the 1999 album The Hot Rock. On first listen, its budget recording style and off-kilter dynamics left me so off-put that I nearly smashed it with a hammer -- but I refrained, and gradually, its seductive solitude enveloped me.

Nothing, however, could prepare me for the big one: Dig Me Out, a record that made few commercial waves at the time but is now consistently included in lists of the greatest albums ever. This April marks its 20th anniversary.

In Dig Me Out, Corin Tucker's ululations and disarmingly direct lyrics flared up like a clenched, pumping fist above a mosh pit. The music itself was the whooshing riptide of an unmanageable and unkempt sexuality. For a repressed gay teenager in a school that was both homophobic and strangely homoerotic, S-K was the outlet of choice for a bubbling surge of physical energy and pining emotion.

Yet, every bit as much as the music was a release for these emotions, it could also crank them up to a level that obliterated everything else -- when "Turn It On" hits its violent and ecstatic acme, and when "Things You Say" crests to its "warm desire." But step back, and you'd realize how colossal and expansive an achievement this is from such bare elements: words and guitar, and a pummeling thump from Janet, somehow scrawled in flames to "fill the sky."

What was I to do with this impossible flame rush? It was forbidden to come out of the closet in my high school, and I wasn't going to act on impulses I couldn't even talk about. Coming out was a bridge that had to burn, and it had to fall once you had crossed it.

I heard my own story in their music. "The Drama You've Been Craving" was about having your feet planted in a shithole of a situation and your head leaning toward a transgressive future. Waiting for something more, punching the clock, "work till I can't give." Nearly all the songs on the album deal with transgression, but this song lays out the stakes most clearly, and why it's necessary when the basic elements of your life feel barren. The guitars barrel in at the beginning like the climax of a normal band's song, and still, somehow, the members of S-K manage to deliver above that, revving, crashing, and lacerating their way to heaven knows where.

Just as soon as we might accuse the band of abusing the speed limit, songs such as "One More Hour" show S-K can melt your heart in the middle of a riot, with a fraught, wistful harmony, and a liftoff from note-by-note verse into a chord-propelled chorus so effortless, it's easy for the listener to miss the extraordinary situation this song captures: two women who were lovers, singing together about the lingering emotions and things "left behind" after the relationship, ruminating about the choice to "let it go," while silently committing to sing together for years to come, in public and on stage after stage.

When Corin Tucker moans, "Don't say another word about the other girl," you can't help but think of the indispensable new drummer daring these other two women onward. She too has been granted space in their intimate world, and her relentless rhythm is both the heartbeat that animates them and the bruises that remain.

Throughout the album, deceptively simple objects paint the contours of attraction and relationship, across lines of gender and sexual orientation -- from the abandoned shoes of "One More Hour" to the speeding car of "Not What You Wanted." Or look at the grade-school crush of "Buy Her Candy," a song for scribbling in a notebook at the back of the class, making eyes at the handsome boy a couple rows over when he's not paying attention, trying to derive warmth from coldness, grasping at togetherness in the shadow of anonymity. Barely two minutes in length, the song has a restraint that almost conceals its spaciousness and scale.

But as soon as that chorus comes in and the song dilates, old moments rush back: school scenes in their full shape, the color of the walls, the sun in the window, aloof posture and fidgety hands, and above all the sense that an attraction far beyond my control would remain maddeningly unrequited. Dig Me Out spoke a queer language indeed.

Alternative rock had been the greatest commonality I had with my classmates, but indie rock was the contiguous branch that I had to hazard mostly on my own. Alt-rock was the definite domain (man cave, perhaps?) of these straight males, and it was a distinctive time in popular culture, when unmitigated rage and sullen distraction were the currency of coolness -- when we could shout along together to "despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage."

Sleater-Kinney, on the other hand, as with much of LGBT entertainment from this period, couldn't garner mass appeal. Their music was not welcome in the man cave or on the senior grass. But still, they reached me from 3,000 miles away. It's weird now to see Carrie Brownstein as a celebrity. I used to get made fun of for listening to her, when she was a pouty unknown rocker rather than the cool comic she's become. Times have changed (and I hear my school has too), but to me she's still the consummate creative genius she always was.

There were no gay role models I found at this time, and the few figures I could see were hyperfeminized and in a retrograde sense of femininity. Instead of show tunes, Sleater-Kinney gave me an entirely different kind of obstinate insubordination in the face of manhood and straightness. This insurbordination was neither "feminine" nor a reclamation of butch male behavior and attitudes in order to one-up the opposition.

The band flipped everything inside out, and somehow it made sense to find myself furtively dancing in the bedroom to an ironic song about peeling potatoes and washing the floor, or to the penultimate track, "Dance Song 97," a flippant counterpoint to the sad antipodes of dance music back then -- the peak of Backstreet Boys on the one hand and drum and bass on the other.

When I'd collapsed to the floor after shaking myself stupid, the final song, "Jenny," was that haunted closure of a droning pace, one that dared us to take a glimpse into their infinite handle on music's gravity, and love's gravity: a limitless bound when it's time to jump, and an irresistible force to pull us back down into the clutches of their hard-earned embrace. For that bitter end crosses over to the other side -- the girl, the ghost, "sometimes so bright / your heart just stops."

Thus has this defiant record clawed its way into music history. However, we also need to celebrate it as an essential moment in LGBT history -- as with other key moments that were marginalized or underappreciated in the past but amplified over time by love, recognition, and an evolving culture. Virtually none of the books or anything else I was assigned in those 13 isolated years of schooling ever made reference to our existence, and so I cherished this totem as one of the few connections I could find to another dimension. In their music, I heard a familiar voice -- people who heard me, and shouted back.

On New Year's Eve in 2004, Sleater-Kinney was a lesser-known opening act at Madison Square Garden. I found myself 30 rows back in the underpopulated floor seats, at my first real concert. Corin, Carrie, and Janet Weiss sauntered onto the stage with little fanfare, so I hollered at the top of my lungs with my fist in the air, "Corin Tucker, I love you!" She spun around and threw her fist up, too. No one could stop us from rocking this place to the ground.

SEAMUS KERNOCHAN is a lifelong fan of Sleater-Kinney.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Seamus Kernochan