As hundreds waited patiently in jackets and scarves outside Pasadena Presbyterian Church, it felt like Sleater-Kinney front woman Carrie Brownstein brought a little Pacific Northwest magic with her to the Southland. Brownstein was in town Tuesday evening promoting her new memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl in a talk hosted by comic Amy Poehler and organized by Pasadena based Vroman's Bookstore. The scene outside felt more like a line to get into a DIY punk show, with old friends catching up, strangers swapping stories, and fangirling over the recent work of the 41-year-old Riot-Grrrl-legend-turned-comic.
The event was emotional for some: including a newly eloped couple and one young woman who told me that Brownstein changed her life by inspiring her to pick up guitar. After our hand-printed tickets were checked and signed copies of Brownstein's memoir were distributed, hordes of people clad in vintage Sleater-Kinney t-shirts, earth tone knit hats, denim, and faux fur were ushered into the beautiful cathedral, organized into pews overlooked by giant pipe organs and stained glass windows. Amy Poehler and Carrie Brownstein were about to take hundreds of riot grrrls, queers, punks, feminists, music fans, and book enthusiasts to church.
Brownstein opened the event by reading a tale about sleeping on floors in dorm rooms and even an S&M dungeon while on tour from her memoir, and established a theme that would permeate and carry itself through the entire night: a woman's transition from being an observer to a participant - something host Amy Poehler could relate to. "I knew you from your music," she said, commenting on how her relationship to Brownstein changed from an inspired fan at Sleater-Kinney shows in the 1990's to hosting the book talk as a professional comic and friend of the musician. In what felt like a candid moment, Poehler elaborated on how music helped her "find [her] tribe," she locked eyes with Brownstein and thanked her for being part of that experience for her and so many others.
Brownstein shared personal stories of her journey from observer to participator, starting with her need to feel seen as a young girl in the 1980's, and eventually as a young woman watching bands like Sonic Youth in the Pacific Northwest. Brownstein felt isolated as a kid in her quiet family in suburban Washington. She first felt seen after writing and sending lengthy personal fan letters to Soap Opera stars from General Hospital, who actually wrote her back. She described it as being "seen from outer space," the polar opposite of feeling invisible in her family.
The talk was very different from a Sleater-Kinney show. The band's live set is known for energy and galvanic power, which Poehler compared to "catching two people in the middle of an argument." It was refreshing to hear Brownstein audibly embrace her own narratives, speaking as herself instead of one of her sketch comedy characters. In addition to personal stories about transformation and feeling whole, Brownstein and Poehler talked about the processes of being a creator. Brownstein talked about her love of reading, language, and vocabulary, and how her process of writing involved staying "open and confused" in order to produce meaningful work.
"What's in your head is a mansion," she said regarding writing about vivid experiences that feel tangible in your memory, "when you put it on the page its flat and you have to built it back up again."
The conversation found itself at the topic of gender and the press, and the frustrating reality that being asked questions about a women's marginalized experience now can't be separated from the actual lived experience of a woman in music or comedy. Both women concurred that having to constantly re-explain the experience of women "can feel exhausting and tedious." Poehler vented that "its like the race has started, everyone is running, but you're stopped" just to catch people up to speed. "It takes up a lot of real estate when you could talk about a lot of other things." Despite the serious nature of some of the conversation, there were a lot of laughs throughout the night, brought on by both Brownstein and Poehler. In addition to necessary conversations about gender and visibility, Poehler was able to sneak in a few good jokes about money and blowjobs.
The night ended with a Q&A, which turned into an impromptu wedding after audience member Kendall Oshiro-Hernandez asked if Brownstein would be comfortable officiating a ceremony between her and her wife-to-be Genevieve Hernandez that night. After raucous and encouraging cheers from the crowd, and an encouraging look from Poehler, Brownstein agreed. After a few more questions from the audience about fame, radical "pro-tips" for self-care during fits of anxiety, and praise for Brownstein's commitment to bi-sexual visibility, Poehler and Brownstein invited the couple down and delivered a feminist fantasy wedding that felt somewhat like a lucid dream and 1980's movie combined. Brownstein delivered a moving speech, and Poehler added hilarious drama by performing "Greensleeves" and clanking away on a piano near the stage while the couple exchanged words and flowers that Poehler had broken off a near by wreath.
Two powerful women in comedy transformed themselves that evening from icons to relatable members of a community. By the end of the night, the entire audience hung on every one of Brownstein's words at the impromptu wedding, which transformed everyone in the room from observers to participants. The address sounded like it could have doubled as a love letter to anyone's angsty and depressed younger self, especially Brownstein after hearing her reflect on her journey. "Love and life and togetherness involves a lot of stumbling, mistakes, humor, and clumsiness," she said. "All of us here are rooting for you in the way that we root for ourselves, in the way we root for love to win out over despair, for hope to win out over fear, for joy to win out over sorrow. We route for you to never feel small, impartial, less than, for you to feel the biggest, strongest, and most special that you've ever felt."
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In case you were curious, here's how the whole wedding thing went down, caught on video by writer Candace Hansen.
Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is available on Amazon and in book stores now.