Pity Party

Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl” Is Still a Parable for Life in Your Twenties

The simple, sad track was released in 2005, but pretty much eternally maps the insecurities of early adulthood.

by Lauren O'Neill
18 April 2018, 9:50am

Photo by Jason Williamson via Sub Pop Records

This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.

“Modern Girl” stands out about a foot tall on Sleater-Kinney’s seventh album, The Woods. On it, Carrie Brownstein is, in her own words, “happy,” then “hungry,” then “angry.” Despite its upbeat tempo, the song is wistful, and then dreadfully sad. It could double as an elegy.

“Modern Girl” is not complicated. It is formed of two guitar parts played by Brownstein and Corin Tucker, the shrill but melancholy whistle of a harmonica, and, later, Janet Weiss’ pounding, reliable drums. Over three verses, Brownstein sings about the things that make her a “Modern Girl." And this progression – mostly an emotional one – gives the song its quality of loss, staying so sharp and potent that, 13 years after its 2005 release, it echoes around the halls of a new era.

Whew, that loss – at first, it can feel hard to pin down. Maybe it’s as straightforward as a loss of innocence: “Modern Girl” acts out the gradual realisation – which, in our lives, can sometimes take our entire twenties to fully unfurl in our brains – that the world is not what you had hoped. Maybe the loss is something deeper and more specific (a person, a time, your ideals). Regardless, it’s almost certainly something that every listener can feel keenly in their own life, ringing in the ears like the swipe of a papercut. But it doesn’t begin that way: it starts, as we all do, with a real sense of hope. On the first verse, a buoyant Brownstein sings:

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

The song opens with desire. This verse is your wide-eyed first steps into the world as a young person – it’s making out, and yelling in the street at 2AM when it’s freezing and your friend can’t find their keys, and smoking weed and then eating cheese that you are slicing off the block as you go, literally for no other reason than because you are an adult now, and you can. It’s taking in culture, and forging closeness with others, and a hard want to know everything with immediacy. It’s youth, and learning, and joy. It’s also a place none of us know well enough, conceived better in memory than we ever knew it at the time – somewhere most of us passed through too quickly to look at the wallpaper. We were too inexperienced to understand its specialness, and that’s the point. Youth is wasted on those of us who will probably never afford to buy property, etc.

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The second verse paints a picture that sticks around a little longer:

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

Being in your twenties frequently feels characterised by a double bind of ambition and hopelessness. It’s a time that often leaves you suspended like David Blaine in the box: you have ideas about what you want, but reality and breakups and “We’re sorry but we’ve gone with another candidate for this role” happen. After the rush of discovery, represented by the first verse of "Modern Girl," its second verse feels like the onset of a familiar malaise, and it’s where the song’s acute sense of loss begins to seep through.

Hunger is absence, where the stomach is a gaping, empty chasm that aches to be filled (indeed, fulfilled.) And what, too, is the donut hole if not total abjection, if not the most absolute opposite of the sugary abundance that surrounds it? Brownstein narrates an attempt to enjoy and nourish herself, only to be flooded by the reality of lack. Hers is a perfect imaging of an all-too-human phenomenon: the realisation of all you don't have or maybe all you've actively lost, even while receiving something good. Because it’s in possessing – in taking a bite of the dough, in digging her teeth into what she is holding, in trying to lay claim to something – that she realises that there is so much else that she will never clasp in her hands. Maybe it’s like Sylvia Plath’s fig tree, or a Jonathan Safran Foer quote I think of a lot: “Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

Carrie Brownstein wrote “Modern Girl” around 2005, before social media had fully taken the world in its grip. As with many simple, sad sentiments, however, it’s quite something to see how its words still manage to sting in a new context. It’s almost a cliché to say that right now, because of social media, we’re extremely attuned to the lives of others, and therefore also aware of all the things we aren’t doing or seeing or loving. In 2018, the donut hole is bigger than ever, and “Modern Girl” captures a mood – loss, missing out, never having in the first place – felt so widely with a disarming directness.

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

Along with the lyrics themselves, Brownstein’s delivery is what makes this song feel like it hardens over time. When she gets to this final verse, where jadedness and frustration at material constraints truly manifest themselves, she’s gone from the open-throatedness of the early part of the track to spitting each word out like it tastes rancid (see: “I couldn’t buy nothin’!” billowing with rage). We’ve all been there: it’s an extension of the envy that social media breeds, spilling out into a larger comparison between the self and others, and a fury at the barriers the “brave new world” inevitably puts in place on each of us – for millennial listeners, this rings especially true with the economic position we’ve collectively found ourselves in. While advancement always breeds a level of alienation, it feels like Brownstein is singing this line especially for us, directly to our aimless, furious generation.

“Modern Girl” is a mournful song. That it begins so optimistically is probably part of what makes it so heartbreaking: we have all dreamed, and we have all felt dreams slip through our fingers like handfuls of sand at some point. That’s life. And you deal with it, you cope, you carry on – but “Modern Girl” says there’s another option. In taking you through the stages of loss, and indeed of life, Carrie Brownstein’s words encourage you to live through your experiences and to fully embody the emotions that go with them: happy, hungry, angry. They’re fundamental to all of us, especially in the bin fire of our twenties, but it’s sometimes hard to admit you’re feeling such messy emotions when you are a young adult with the overwhelming sensation that you’re being held together only by by the polyester necktie or uniform you’re forced to wear for work.

And its this dichotomy, the outward smile and the inward panic, that we’re reminded of throughout “Modern Girl.” Sung by Brownstein from her red gut after each verse, the song’s chorus, wrapped up in obvious façade and cloaked in subtle, difficult past tenses, is its most crushing blow. The chorus does what the verses do not, while speaking conspiratorially to what most of us, in our twenties, are doing all the time. It pretends:

My whole life
Was like a picture of a sunny day

My whole life
Looked like a picture of a sunny day

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