It was one of the stupider things I’ve said. I was, and am, much taken with the work of television critic Tim Goodman, currently with the Hollywood Reporter. Here in the Bay Area, we think of Tim as ours, thanks to his years of work at the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. One day, after reading a particularly good column, I emailed Tim and asked him something like, “Do you know how good you are?”
I see now that there were many levels of arrogance in that question. For one thing, there’s the impression I may have given that I was the only person in the world who recognized his excellence. This is nonsense ... Goodman is known across the country as one of our best TV critics. But even worse was the notion he might not have known how good he was. I’m not talking about an egotistic overconfidence. I’m talking about the ability to put words together in a way that informs and entertains. The underlying idea to my question was that he didn’t know what he was doing, he just did it.
One of Sleater-Kinney’s most popular songs is “Modern Girl” from The Woods. On the current tour, it usually gets played during the encores, often as the very last song. It’s seems like one of their simpler songs, with Carrie singing, Janet coming in on harmonica and then drums, Corin mostly taking a backseat. It has a pretty melody. But what gets me is the oft-repeated line from the chorus: “My whole life was/looks/is like a picture of a sunny day.” Carrie may begin by singing, “My baby loves me, I’m so happy, happy makes me a modern girl”, but by the end of the song, the singer is angry, even given her baby’s love. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though ... it’s inherent in that chorus. Her life isn’t like a sunny day, it’s like a picture of a sunny day, and the addition of “a picture” makes all the difference.
I appreciate that this isn’t exactly the deepest bit of close reading ever done. But the thing is, for a long time, I wondered if Carrie knew what she had written, or if it was “just” inspiration. Which is as dumb as thinking Tim Goodman didn’t know he was good. That lyric exists as written ... the person who wrote it knew what she was doing. It’s arrogance to think otherwise.
And this is true of all of their work. Carrie’s idiosyncratic guitar lines? They don’t come by accident, as if she were a primitive guitarist who “doesn’t know what she is doing”. Her idiosyncrasies are purposeful. The way Corin and Carrie blend their vocals, rarely using straight harmonies and often singing entire different lyrics simultaneously? They made a conscious decision to do this. The way they pretend they don’t want a bass player, then give Corin lots of bass lines to play on her guitar? Not an accident.
And yes, I know this is obvious. Or should be. Except too often, I unconsciously assume I know more than the artist. I’m not talking about some version of reader-response theory, where once a text enters the world, it becomes ours. I’m talking about the idea that the artist never knows what they are doing, never really owns their work.