Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, 20 Years On

April 13, 2017

Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out changed the course of my life.

During the summer of 1997, I was an intern at Rolling Stone through the American Society of Magazine editors. The ASME program seemed great–two and a half months of paid work at a magazine, with promises of clips at the end. I was thrilled first to be accepted into the program, and then ecstatic to be matched with Rolling Stone. Everything was coming up Elizabeth!

Except it wasn’t. It turned out that Rolling Stone was the only magazine in the program that didn’t allow its ASME interns to write anything. And then the editorial assistant started a class war between me and the other interns at Rolling Stone by mentioning casually I was getting paid, while they weren’t. And then I attended an editorial meeting where someone called Gwen Stefani “fat.” And then I got stuck in the research department with little to do, and only 1997 internet.

I spent my days feeling isolated and like my life’s dream was crashing down around me because I was utterly failing to impress people who didn’t notice my existence. So one afternoon, I skipped out of interning early and did the only thing that would make me feel better: I went CD shopping.

Somewhere on St. Mark’s Place, I picked up Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, which had been released two months earlier. I’d never actually heard them before that moment. I’d only read a few reviews—Ann Powers’ in Spin, probably others—and read an article (though not the notorious Spin profile that outed Carrie and Corin as a former couple). They were feminist, a major point in their favor, since my internship kept feeling more and more sexist. I’d heard people around Rolling Stone describe them as “grown-up” riot grrrl, which felt equal parts condescending and intriguing. The final factor in my immediate decision to purchase was the cover of Dig Me Out. The members of Sleater-Kinney looked dorky-cool, and not too far off from the way I dressed.

Back in the dorm, I put Dig Me Out into my Discman, headphones on. The opening guitar riff of the title track sounded like nothing I expected: propulsive, crunchy, and catchy almost despite itself. It relied on none of the old, tired tropes of punk or blues hooks, instead pushing forward with an almost linear urgency closer to post-punk but far more powerful.

A cool riff alone might have drawn my attention, but “Dig Me Out” (again, just the song—we’ll get to the rest of the album in a second) set up the Sleater-Kinney formula. A second guitar joined the other, buzzing up and down and around the lead. That second guitar defied the easy description as “rhythm” guitar. Instead, it established a counter melody that pushed the lead. Finally, more than support, the drums formed the third leg of the trio, sophisticated and powerful at times and restrained at others with perfect instinct.

And above it all was Corin Tucker’s voice, a buzzsaw of perfection in the sense that her voice could cut through any musical texture with precision. She could project, damn it.

This band I’d taken a chance on was fucking amazing. They didn’t sound like anyone else I listened to. They weren’t derivative of anyone! I hadn’t wasted my tiny intern income on a crap album!

And then I listened to “One More Hour.” A lot of rock journalists at the time buzzed about the lyrics, which concerned the end of a same-sex relationship, in a way that felt a little gross and crossed from “this is progressive to talk about” into “let’s fetishize lesbians.” (Again, it was 1997.)  It might have been Corin Tucker’s voice, which sounded on the edge of despair, or it might have been that the song perfectly explored the end of a relationship, but although I wasn’t in a relationship with a girl, I felt that song. Before heading to New York, I’d been mired in an “Are we friends or are we dating?” thing with a guy friend, and, at the same time, I felt like I was losing my best friend to her new boyfriend, with whom she spent every waking (and sleeping) moment. Because I didn’t have her wise counsel to rely on, I ended up spending even more time with the problematic guy, and everything exploded in a big mess.  

By the time I got to the catchier, less-heavy songs on the album–”Words and Guitar,” “Little Babies,” and “Dance Song ‘97”–I welcomed the emotional respite. “Words and Guitar” gave me a different kind of inspiration, though. As one of Sleater-Kinney’s meta-rock songs (as in, it’s a rock song about rock music), “Words and Guitar” carved out a place where women could make music and they didn’t have to sound exactly like dude-bands, but they could also be technically proficient and original.

It made sense with my feelings about my internship at Rolling Stone, too. It became clear to me over that summer that I did not fit in the standard shape of “rock journalist,” or even “rock critic.” And if Sleater-Kinney didn’t try to change their music to be something more mainstream, I could find a place where I wouldn’t have to change myself in order to write about music.

Of course, I’m still looking for that place.

 

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