Sleater-Kinney remains music’s vital feminist voice

Punk rock band Sleater-Kinney released their ninth studio album, “The Center Won’t Hold,” on Aug. 16. The record discusses aging during the surreal, apocalyptic Trump era. Courtesy of Bennett via Flickr.

“Do you feast on nostalgia?” asks Sleater-Kinney vocalist Corin Tucker on “RUINS,” perhaps the most experimental track on the legendary feminist punk group’s ninth LP, “The Center Won’t Hold.” The track is emblematic of all the reasons longtime SK fans are weary to embrace the band’s new sound: Producer and indie icon Annie Clark a.k.a St. Vincent’s art rock influence is palpable, from its eerie electronic aura and apocalyptic lyrics to Tucker’s macabre screeches. Also notably absent are Tucker and guitarist Carrie Brownstein’s signature back-and-forth vocals, urgently battling each other against drummer Janet Weiss’ unbridled ferocity.

The lyric indicates that perhaps Sleater-Kinney anticipated the mixed reception that “The Center Won’t Hold” has received from fans and critics alike since its Aug. 16 release. The album was, in a way, doomed from the start—Weiss announced her departure from the band just weeks before the record’s release, citing Sleater-Kinney’s “new direction” as her impetus. Many have blamed Clark for Weiss’ decision, labeling her as the Yoko Ono of Sleater-Kinney—a ridiculous and sexist statement, especially considering the group’s progressive fanbase. But although Brownstein stated on Instagram that Weiss “raved about this album to [the band] and Annie,” it’s nearly impossible to listen to “The Center Won’t Hold” and not try to put the pieces together.

It’s not difficult to find justifications for Weiss’ exit in “The Center Won’t Hold.” It is noticeably less drum-heavy than any other record in their discography, and does have some tracks that don’t quite work: “RUINS” and “Bad Dance,” most notably. But considering it’s their first attempt at an entirely new aesthetic—one that was inspired by Rihanna’s “Stay”—it’s to be expected that the record would be a bit uneven. Whether Weiss really left due to dissatisfaction in the record or for personal reasons is impossible to know. But I’m disappointed that fans are labeling her departure as the end of Sleater-Kinney altogether; after all, the band’s first two albums—1995’s “Sleater-Kinney” and 1996’s incredible “Call the Doctor”—succeeded without her. I think that many are reluctant to accept that Brownstein and Tucker, who are now 43 and 46 years old, respectively, can continue to redefine Sleater-Kinney decades after its formation.

Sleater-Kinney are self-aware of the public’s reluctance to let a band of women in their 40s and 50s evolve as musicians. On “LOVE,” Brownstein laments, “Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end…There’s nothing more frightening and more obscene/Than a wellworn body demanding to be seen.” Fans likely keep suspecting that each Sleater-Kinney album is the last due to the rarity of women their age in rock music. They are virtually peerless; no all-female rock band of their influence and longevity exists. But it’s quite obvious that Brownstein and Tucker are not past their prime as musicians, which makes fans’ disbelief in their ability to innovate and continue sans Weiss frustrating.

Some also point to the record’s title as an indication that “The Center Won’t Hold” is their last album—i.e. Weiss is the center of the group, and the band won’t stay together without her. Certain song titles, such as “Broken” and “Can I Go On,” also hint at this. Yet this interpretation ignores how fundamentally political the record is. These songs are not myopic, self-indulgent reflections by the band about themselves, but rather snapshots of the apocalyptic, surreal nature of living through the Trump era.

Take the song “Broken” for example; Tucker sings, “She, she, she stood up for us/When she testified/Me, me too/My body cried out when she spoke those lines.” It’s a clear reference to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. While not all of the record’s lyrics are as explicitly defiant, Sleater-Kinney’s anxious musings about aging, desire, technology and loneliness are far-from-subtle criticisms of our terrifying cultural moment. After all, the personal is always political.

On “The Center Won’t Hold,” Sleater-Kinney at once tackle ageism, sexism and the impending end of the world. Such bold aspirations require a bold record, and the result is understandably weird, unsettling and messy. Yet while Sleater-Kinney are pioneering sonic encapsulations of the tumultuous moment in which we live, music critics seem reluctant to embrace an imperfect result—especially from an aging, all-female band.

But of course, defiance and controversy are nothing new for Sleater-Kinney. They wrote groundbreaking critiques of the War on Terror on “One Beat,” and continued their history of rebellion yet again on “The Center Won’t Hold.” As long as Sleater-Kinney’s space in our culture is unfilled—there are no other provocative, all-female bands of their talent and status—they’re bound to continue their decades-long tradition of being the feminist, articulate and incendiary voice that is sorely needed.

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