The thing about Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 books is that they are a lot like the vinyl records they are named after– you don’t know what the quality is going to be like from one press to the next. Sure, when you find a label that you love, you generally go back to it for more of the same, but the 33 1/3 books tend never to be authored by the same person twice. Every time you pick up one of the slightly-over-pocket-sized books, it’s a bit of a gamble, in terms of how the content is going to be transmitted to you. It could be a highly personal account or loaded with fun trivia tidbits. It all depends on the author’s approach and style.
Jovana Babović crafted her 33 1/3, a meditation on Sleater-Kinney’s iconic Dig Me Out album, to reflect her personality and work – she’s certainly a historian through and through. With a PhD in modern European history, it is no surprise that the album’s text is not only thorough, but also highly contextualized within the historical moment of its creation.
The amount of attention spent on the time period of Sleater-Kinney’s flourish is exacting and useful to a person who might just be a casual fan of the band. They are certainly a trio that emerged during a very specific time in history (late 1990s), and in a very specific place (within the feminist punk scene, riotgrrrl), though I’m sure any historian would argue that all culture-makers are privy to the same contextual rises. By giving the reader insight into what exactly the riotgrrrl scene was, it places the album in a larger conversation that solidifies its overall impact.
The book begins by detailing the birthplace of the riotgrrrl scene: Olympia, Washington. It’s important to fully understand all aspects of the locale to determine how such a fearless and seemingly feminist (though that is complicated within the text) movement could have grown to such un-ignorable heights. The city really was unique in that it provided women the chance to unabashedly communicate their ideas and create their own culture.
While the book provides in-depth insight of the scene, the record making, the media’s patronizing response, and the rise of Sleater-Kinney’s significance despite it, there is an element that I love in the 33 1/3 series that is missing from this particular investigation – the author’s personal investment in the chosen album. I would have loved to see more of Babović’s personality surface in the text, though I’m sure that the idea might give a historian the heebie-jeebies.
If you are looking for the concept of “voice”, though, you need not look any further than the hilarious quotes provided from interviews with both Corin Tucker (the band’s singer) and Janet Weiss (the band’s drummer):
Weiss: “Everyone thinks of this image of the drummer as a technical person . . . the image has to change; not everyone has to play like [Rush drummer] Neil Peart.”
Tucker, playing at a show in Los Angeles: We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”
Interestingly enough, the most intriguing part of the book has less to do with the band’s formation and recording of Dig Me Out, and more to do with the way the band handled the opposition by men in charge of setting up the concert venues. The chapter, “Hey Soundguy: The Dig Me Out Tour,” is a chapter dedicated to the zine that Janet Weiss created as a response to how the “soundguy” at each location would react to the band. Because they were an all-female group, they were often treated by many club promoters and sound technicians as unknowledgeable on how to properly mic their instruments or how to create the best sound for themselves. Time and time again Sleater-Kinney had to push against what the club seemed to want in terms of acoustics, and what aesthetic they were trying to achieve as a musical group. The chapter is just one piece of the gendered world of musicianship that Sleater-Kinney had to push against, and how that related to the issues of sexism dealt within their music. As Babović puts it, “The confrontations Sleater-Kinney had with the sound technicians were analogous to those many of their fans experienced in their lives.”
If you are looking for some crazy, punk-girl antics that seem to coincide with the stereotypical rock & roll lifestyle, however, you’re going to be disappointed. Tim Holman, who helped the band with setup (and in dealing with the soundguys) elaborates that he doesn’t remember a lot of partying, but “I remember Corin doing her vocal exercises and drinking a lot of tea.” As Babović contests, “Sleater-Kinney showed that they weren’t invested in elevating themselves above the crowd but rather in elevating both the band and the audience above predictable stipulations of celebrity.”
In the end, even though elements of personal touch are missing from the book (and Babović’s academic use of the word “hierarchies” seems to wear out its welcome in the text), she nevertheless does an impeccable job of relating just how important the band was to the cultural milieu of the 1990s, and the overall impact Sleater-Kinney had (and still continues to have) on today’s American female youth. She states, “Sleater-Kinney’s growing fan base was desperate to hear the band and to connect with a youth-positive, girl-positive, and queer-positive community.” Though I’m 30 years old myself, I can’t imagine that doesn’t resonate with the young women of today, given our particular political climate.
But more apt, perhaps, in displaying the band’s cultural significance, is this quote that Babović was able to snag from one adoring fan:
“They were our Beatles, our Hendrix.”
33 1/3’s Dig Me Out
by Jovana Babović
Bloomsbury Press (May 2016)
For purchase of this book and more on Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series please visit https://333sound.com/33-13-series/
*Photo of author found at http://jovanababovic.com/
*Photo of Sleater-Kinney by Fally Anfani