May 21, 2004

Aural Pleasure

A letter to my friend Ruth Martin (after receiving the copy of Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out that she mail-ordered for me)

Dear Ruth,

After sleeping through Italian yet again, the first thing I did after waking Monday morning (at 12:30 p.m.; I guess it was technically the afternoon) was check my e-mail. To my surprise, I saw that I had received one of those package notification messages from the front desk here at Pierce. I looked to see where the package was from and saw "kill rock stars" entirely in lowercase letters, and I thought of you. I know that Kill Rock Stars is Sleater-Kinney's (and I think Elliott Smith's, at some point) label, and I remembered how I had burned their album The Hot Rock from you recently (and subsequently not listened to it very much). I didn't remember ordering anything from Kill Rock Stars and thought the package might be a mistake—but secretly hoped it was a gift from someone. Since you were the first person I thought of, I have to admit that I suspected the package would contain a Sleater-Kinney CD. As you already know, I was right. Thank you, Ruth: first, for the gesture of sharing your music with me, knowing that I would take it seriously as an act of exposing part of yourself to me (not like that; don't be crude); and second, because, despite previous biases against the band, I actually enjoy the damn thing.

The first thing I noticed about Dig Me Out—and I noticed it when I saw the album lying around Ex Libris—was the cover art. I don't really know what to say about it, except that I don't think cover art is Sleater-Kinney's strong suit. It's plain and kind of uninteresting, but I guess it could be a lot worse (i.e. actually offensive or inane). At least there are some pictures, and they're all clear enough to let me know what the band looks like. But all the artwork really does is lead me pretty quickly to the music. "Quit staring at lyrics you haven't heard yet, and pop the CD in. Go on. Get on with it. Cut to the chase, and get to the music," the booklet says to me.

So I get to the music, and I discover a similarity to the cover art: the elements of the music (especially Corin Tucker's abrasive vocal vibrato and the distortion-laden guitars that demand to be played loudly) are laid out in plain sight. This is music that does very little to hide itself, even its own weaknesses. Despite the sheer balls (for lack of a better idiom) with which Corin sings, her singing is volatile. She is literally screaming her pain. I think the reason Sleater-Kinney (and especially Corin's voice) bothered me before was because I was a little bit intimidated by them. I couldn't get past the abrasiveness of the singing to hear the sensitivity with which the lyrics tackle personal frustration and heartbreak.

Now that I am starting to get past the surface of Sleater-Kinney's music, I think I understand a little bit of why you like them so much. Even more than that, I think I see why you wanted me to give them another chance to get under my skin. I feel like I am hearing a musical version of some important parts of my own personality. We both know that I am not the kind of person to hide myself from others. I try to use my words to reveal rather than conceal, and I come on strong to some people to the point of repulsion. They hear not what I'm saying but the uncomfortable candor with which I say it. Whether or not you were trying to get me to see my reflection in Corin Tucker's vocals and lyrics, I found it there, and I think that's what will keep me listening to this album. It might be arrogant to say that I'll keep returning to Dig Me Out because of the mirror it provides, but the facts are that it is not an exact reflection. I am looking less for vanity's sake than for a much-needed validation of feelings—and maybe even to learn something from the way those feelings are dealt with on this album.

Finally, Ruth, don't let what I said about the abrasiveness of Corin's voice (and how I'm getting past the surface of Sleater-Kinney's music) fool you. Now that I have seen the emotional infrastructure underneath their music, I know that Sleater-Kinney's outer layer is indispensable. Despite the real pain of the lyrics, a lot of the actual music is really fun. It's intense, and it rocks. It's the music I have been searching for to satisfy my hunger for loud, angry rock when I'm frustrated, a position formerly held by Andrew W.K.'s I Get Wet. In fact, by rocking so hard, Sleater-Kinney keeps my ears glued to the speakers—which, in turn, keeps me paying attention to what they are saying. The abrasive quality that I once found distracting is now exactly what keeps me focused on their music. When Corin sings, "It is brave to feel," in "Things You Say," I not only agree with her, I feel like it is brave of her to get me to feel. Thanks again, Ruth.