I first saw Sleater-Kinney on the Dig Me Out tour. I was 15 in 1997, so my friend Marie drove us from Greensboro to Chapel Hill on a school night, blasting the album the whole way. Inside the Cat’s Cradle we connected with some girls Marie knew from online riot grrl message boards—girls who’d driven from as far off as Georgia or Florida just to hear Corin Tucker’s live vibrato or see Carrie Brownstein smile. Girls who radiated with the palpable belief that their lives would be forever altered by one concert.
If we’re being honest, I was meh about it all. Sleater-Kinney was a little too cerebral and polished for my taste; I preferred the sloppy, confrontational thrash of Bikini Kill. But that year I’d made it my mission to own everything in the Kill Rock Stars catalog and after weeks of waiting, Dig Me Out had finally arrived by mail. I’d ripped open the package and raced upstairs to my bedroom, where I queued the album on my stereo.
The truth was that I didn’t love it then and I still don’t love it now—but seeing Sleater-Kinney live was different.
For one, I hadn’t yet attended a lot of shows, so there was an inherent electricity in standing inside a smoke-filled club on a Wednesday. The other girls and I had made a play to be right there, up front, and we’d squeezed ourselves through the crowd to press ourselves against the stage under the glaring lights. The rest of the audience buzzed behind me.
Looking around, I realized I was in a crowd of almost entirely women, and that I felt safe. Dancing often made me feel self-conscious or uncomfortable, but maybe everyone felt safe that night because once Sleater-Kinney took the stage we collectively surrendered our bodies to dance like our lives depended on it.
And some audience members’ lives probably did depend on it, a fact I was keenly aware of even then. Sleater-Kinney maintains a large queer following, and North Carolina was and remains notoriously LBGTQ-unfriendly. Still, that night we danced and screamed and when Marie’s online friends made a sudden play to rush the stage, we followed.
Propelled by adrenaline, we hoisted ourselves up. Now, I was an unruly teenager who’d suffered the parental—and sometimes legal—consequences of my impulsivities and immediately feared being dragged off stage like some hysterical groupie in a Bon Jovi video. Thankfully, that never happened. We were safe.
And we’d sparked a chain reaction. Girls and more girls hiked the stage, too, all of us dancing and screaming and shaking and going crazy alongside Corin and Carrie and drummer Janet Weiss. It was our Ed Sullivan Beatles moment, only the moment was about us—straight or gay, female or genderqueer. It was about being comfortable. It was about art. And it was about community.
These pure moments of surprise and joy happen less and less as you get older, but that night remains a touchstone, one of my earliest moments of feeling empowered, validated. Nearly 20 years since that Sleater-Kinney concert, the word empowerment can seem both twee and artificial, more a corporate mechanism than anything as spontaneous as dancing on stage or as grassroots as the riot grrl movement. When deodorant commercials tell women that their product is empowering, the meaning of the word is muddled, its agency sapped. Today, empowerment is so entangled with a beauty and fashion industry hellbent on undermining a woman’s power for corporate profit.
It should go without saying, but the world isn’t safe. I would learn that again and again as I grew up. When I wasn’t getting promoted or receiving the same opportunities as my male colleagues or when a man on the subway put his hand between my legs, I could never forget it. The lesson again reverberated through my body after learning that Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the popular vote, but not the presidency.
The world wants its women pretty and cowering. The world wants its women focused on deodorant-sanctioned empowerment rather than the attainment of actual power. Seeing Sleater-Kinney was so revelatory, in part, because Corin’s voice wasn’t “angelic.” Carrie and Janet’s rhythms weren’t “smooth.” Here was a group of people who defied convention, who refuted the factory farm of glossy and neutered anthems, and for a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, I didn’t need to be the band’s biggest fan to recognize the value and courage in that.
It’s easy to feel cynical, especially right now. But we’ve got to keep fighting in whatever capacity we can. We’ve got to keep making art and music. We’ve got to climb the stage. We’ve still got to dance.