A tiny girl in a silver beanie, blond bob peeking out from underneath, stands on a plush red chair a dozen or so rows from the stage, an act that is strictly prohibited here at the King Theatre in Flatbush, and screams: “Four seconds was the longest wait, four seconds was the longest wait, four seconds was the longest – !” She’s wearing a black and white plaid skirt and black boots, reminiscent of the band on stage in their younger years. Now, of course, Carrie Brownstein performs in sequined dresses.
The girl’s hands are in the air, fists pumping. There is a look of absolute abandon in her eyes, of unqualified joy in her smile. She is the loudest fan in the room, rivaled only by the amplified drumbeat and guitar riffs emanating from the speakers. She does not care that people – grownups – are staring at her; there is not a hint of self-consciousness in the way she throws herself into this experience. She is at her first concert, she is there to see her favorite band, and she is not about to turn down for anything.
That’s my daughter. It’s a week before her eighth birthday, and we’re seeing Sleater-Kinney live for the first time, together.
You’re No Rock ‘n Roll Fun
My first concert was New Kids on the Block; I got the tickets for my birthday too. My mom, my friend Brenda, and I had nosebleed seats at a generic arena and gushed over our relative closeness to these heartthrobs. I marveled at their coordination, crisp and machine-like, and their uniformity. At how closely these live songs matched their recording studio equivalents. Music, if that’s what we’re agreeing to call it, was secondary to the performance of their choreographed identities. Identities wrapped up in adolescent sexuality, impossible promises, and a carefully constructed façade of connection and emotion. All anchored by synthesizers, falsetto, and sappy love songs.
This started a decades-long trajectory of paying money to see men play (or, in this case, lip-sync) music onstage. There was a break that comprised my mall rat middle school days, between NKOTB and The Violent Femmes. When I started seeing shows in high school, I’d graduated to “alternative” music, hitching rides with older friends to see Cracker, Soul Coughing, Rage Against the Machine, and Wu-Tang Clan. After that came a few years filled with Phish concerts and hip-hop shows in various East Coast cities and an eventual return to what is now called indie rock/folk/punk but is certainly the descendant of alternative rock that got me through the early and mid-90s.
While my musical tastes evolved quickly and blossomed in numerous directions, my feminist sensibility remained embryonic. I came to feminism slowly, on my own, gathering whatever resources I could grab. In my life, there wasn’t a cohesive narrative of empowered women I could look to. It simply wasn’t part of the culture of my youth, and I saw my strength and intelligence as my masculine features. For a long time, I preferred books by men, art by men, philosophy by men, and conversations with men, unconsciously denying my own embodiment and female experience.
Mostly I preferred music by men. I made a list recently and was shocked to count more than 75 male acts (either entirely male or predominantly male bands (i.e. just one female) and male solo acts) to the roughly one dozen female performers I’d seen (including the lone female members of male bands, like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth), most of which were at the Lilith Fair back in 1997. I didn’t even want to consider the discrepancy in actual dollars that I’d given to male over female musicians.
Hole’s the Size of this Entire World
Like Ramona Quimby, another famous Portlander she adores, Pema is a girl who longs for glorious surprises. So often, though, life disappoints. Most of the time, there is no exciting something to pick you up from a miserable, or simply boring, day, and you resign yourself to doing the next thing, regardless of the way monotony stings. Children like Pema (and adults like me) feel that as a deep injustice.
The ultimate birthday gift, then, must be unexpected. Something so astonishing that she’d be transported from her ordinary existence and allowed to enter a space that matched her intensity. I can only imagine this is what normal parents are thinking when they surprise their children with a trip to Disney World.
Pema herself was something of a glorious surprise. I didn’t have a lot of expectations about what she would be like; when I pondered our future, my musings were about my potential identity, not hers. In what I believed to be typical pregnant woman behavior, I read a lot of Kathy Acker and listened to a lot of Sleater-Kinney. Of course, at that point, Sleater-Kinney was no longer a performing band; it wasn’t clear whether they’d broken up or were on hiatus, but I was pretty sure listening to The Woods on my headphones while I read about perineum stretching exercises or mixed herbal concoctions to balance my hormones would be the extent of my interaction with them going forward. I consoled myself with my copy of Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, which contained a Corin Tucker interview that I read over and over again, and visualized my cervix opening.
She was sick the day before the show, and I was scared we wouldn’t be able to make it. Luckily, she bounced back quickly and was easily cajoled into the car for a ride up 95 to Brooklyn. We lied and said we were going holiday shopping at a fancy mall. When we finally told her the truth, her head practically exploded from the thrill, and she didn’t stop buzzing around the entire time we waited in line to enter the venue. The feeling of unmediated pleasure, the mystery of a brand new experience, the humming anticipation of sensing that you are about to be forever changed. All of this was palpable; it radiated from her being and I was breathing it in.
Take Me to the Source of Chaos, Let Me Be the Butterfly
I wonder what it would have been like to see women like these on stage as a child. To hear women play instruments and sing until their voices crack, to see them break guitar strings and whisper to each other. Women who write music and lyrics and rock the fuck out. Women who call all the shots.
Brooding over Donnie Wahlberg, listening to “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You Forever,” my own empowerment was the farthest thing from my mind. I was caught in the manufactured preteen experience of Tiger Beat, celebrity crushes, and teen idol worship. A smart kid, I learned quickly how to behave but lacked the critical consciousness to evaluate the messages I was absorbing. I never truly saw myself as capable or strong or independent; I never cast myself in those roles. I have to question what I learned from committing to memory lyrics like, “I get up in the morning and I see your face, girl. You’re looking so good, everything in place.”
Pema listens to songs about the power women feel when they build something together, about speaking your truth, about breaking the rules and then making your own. She draws pictures of Carrie Brownstein, blasts No Cities to Love in the car, and hates to brush her hair. Opting for comics over teen magazines, she can’t imagine having a crush on a boy. Her band and her bakery are more important right now. She writes books and aspires to be a comedian. She’s learning to play the guitar.
She can already cast herself in those roles because she can’t imagine that they were ever closed to her. And she can’t imagine that she can’t be all of them. No one has ever told her otherwise.
This is not just about feminism; it’s about authenticity. At the NKOTB show, I saw smoke and mirrors, a carefully crafted veneer, an image, a marketing strategy. Theirs was a realm saved for gods and boy bands, and I could only aspire to be an onlooker. But Sleater-Kinney is something real for Pema, not some shallow attempt at entertainment. At the King Theater that night, Pema watched three women interact without pretense, share their naked truth, and create something meaningful for all who witnessed it. It was transformative for her, for us both.
Let’s Destroy a Room with this Love
An accomplished young musician, I played the piano every day for many years. I picked it up easily and was devoted to perfecting my instrument. Looking back now, though, usually from my couch when I’m plucking out songs on my acoustic guitar, I don’t know if I found joy in the music or in doing what I was supposed to do. They were inseparable in my mind; that’s the kind of child I was.
Pema and I do not have that in common. For her, there is little, if any, sense of “supposed to” – that’s just not the way she relates to life. Whereas I learned quickly how to make things easy for adults, she is, as most of her teachers have consistently bemoaned, a challenging kid. Stubborn, impetuous, noisy, messy, temperamental, intense. So singularly focused on her creative vision that sometimes you can’t get through to her. Reactive, mercurial, defiant. Too much for people. An unrelenting need to be seen, noticed for the original that she is; its flipside, a crippling fear of being ignored.
At the Sleater-Kinney performance in Brooklyn, Pema attracted a lot of attention. The two women to our right had come from San Francisco to see the last run of shows on the East Coast because Sleater-Kinney held a special place in their relationship. Another fan told us her wife was home in New Jersey with their son. We’d inspired her; she’d never considered bringing her kid to a show until she saw how much fun we’d had together.
The things that make her difficult to parent, I always say (half joking, half hopeful), are the things that are going to make her a stellar human being and an unabashed badass. I remind myself that her strong will and fierce determination could one day change the world. That she will eventually stand up to injustice with the same passion she currently reserves for arguments about vegetables. Her critical thinking skills, while a nuisance to anyone trying to assert parental authority, may well serve to topple oppressive regimes and take down inequitable institutions.
Or: you can’t have the kid who’s bold enough to scream along with Sleater-Kinney without also accepting the kid who’s bold enough to scream about going to bed from time to time.
When we come to terms with the fact that we can’t actually control much, parenting becomes less about orchestrating situations for ideal outcomes and more about creating space in which a child is allowed to be and explore and become herself. Pema’s first concert was a testament to the power of this approach. A rock and roll show turned out to be the perfect context for me to behold her as she is, to relate to her on her own terms, and to deepen our bond. I am a fiercer feminist for her; I am bolder and braver because of her. I will carry that experience, and what I saw in my daughter, forever. We expected to be entertained; what we got was a most glorious surprise.