Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock turns 20
When Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock made its debut in 1999, critics praised the band’s introspective shift in sound and marveled at their ability to maintain their fan base after four albums.
Unfortunately, even glowing reviews sometimes considered Sleater-Kinney’s transition from their raw and chaotic Riot Grrrl records like Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor towards The Hot Rock’s atmospheric soundscape to be little more than the collective efforts of a band finally “growing up.” Writing for the AV Club, Stephen Thompson felt the album lacked the “blaze-of-glory freshness of its justly acclaimed predecessors” but still considered the album to be a “…mostly spectacular record for a band that hasn’t delivered much else in its young career.”
I was only 14 when The Hot Rock found its way to my stere. But after all this time, I still don’t give a single fuck what Stephen Thompson thought about it. This album just wasn’t made for him.
I wasn’t old enough to drive or even purchase my own albums and it would still be a few years before Napster was available, so yeah, music choices were very limited. But good role models were even harder to find. I know there were a lot of women I aspired to be like back then, but most of them seemed to possess an unattainable cool that I wasn’t born with and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy. I would flip through my mother’s Vogue magazines, wondering what I might grow up to look like. It was so hard to imagine what I would end up doing for a living or what my life might be like in general after I finished school. I didn’t see myself in those magazines. I do remember that the first time I saw Sleater-Kinney’s video for “Get Up”, I was so intrigued by their playful and effortless style and their natural sense of humor, that I felt like I finally understood why someone would want to be an adult. I wanted to live by words like “Fall down on the world before it falls on you.” I pored over the album insert when I finally got my hands on The Hot Rock. I wanted to understand the mysteries of life.
If songs like “Memorize Your Lines” taught me anything, it’s that I’d be enduring my share of heartache sooner or later. “Won’t you tell me what are we fighting for/Do you want me here, do you know for sure?” basically reads like the transcript of a fight between two lovers – if the sing-song interplay between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein didn’t already make you feel as if you were right there in the room with them. These songs found their way into my room, like the time I was curled up in bed over a long distance breakup and “A Quarter to Three” described how I was feeling better than I ever could: “And the photo booth strip/and the letter you wrote/ they feel like nothing I could hold.” When this album first came out, a lot was made of Corin Tucker’s strong, surging voice being brought closer to a whisper, but she’s certainly not quiet on “Don’t Talk Like,” when she’s seemingly putting a friend on notice for the last time: “Don’t talk like/Like you’re nineteen/You’re thirty-five/If you’re a day.” The chord drop in the song mimics the harsh conversational style of the lyrics and really highlights Tucker and Brownstein’s exacting, flashy guitar playing. It’s an incredible marriage of mood and mettle that helped this album earn its spot at 181 on the Billboard 200, but it’s also just got a place in my heart.
I’ve been really sentimental about this album lately because I’ve been thinking a lot about adulthood. I’m 33 now and I just moved across the country, got a new job and experienced a major loss that left me parentless and reeling. I still worry a lot about how I’ll end up and what kind of person I’m going to be. On the 20th anniversary of The Hot Rock, so much about who I am has changed – but I certainly understand this album better than I ever have and the spirit with which it was made. It was made for me.