There were two paths to choose from. After more than half a decade of innovative punk rock, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker were still getting treated like a novelty. They had finally settled on their most endearing lineup with drummer Janet Weiss and were cranking out some of the best rock and roll in the world at the rate of about one album every year. During a fallow period when rap-rock, boy bands, and processed pop made rock music a veritable wasteland, one of the coolest bands in the world were still trying to transcend the label of being a “girl band”. They could either directly acknowledge the idiocy surrounding this narrative, or they could ignore it and keep simply being cooler, louder, and better than all their detractors — or they could do both.
Binary thinking wasn’t really the M.O. for Sleater-Kinney anyway. There was simply too much testosterone to ignore, and inevitably their real life experiences were going to bleed into the songwriting for the 2000s All Hands on the Bad One. So why not wrap these thoughts in catchy melodies, slinky guitar riffs, a good blast of humour, and a kinetic souped-up drive?
Right from the jump, ‘Ballad of the Ladyman’ lays it bare: “I could be demure like girls who are soft / For boys who are fearful of getting an earful / But I gotta rock!” Sidestepping wasn’t in the band’s arsenal, and when every question from every rock magazine was a different variation of “what’s it like being a woman in rock?”, it’s not hard to see why most of All Hands on the Bad One takes an unflinching look at both direct misogyny and the less directly intentional (but equally demeaning) feelings of bemusement that followed every label of “girl rockers” instead of just “rockers”.
‘The Professional’, ‘Milkshake n’ Honey’, and ‘Male Model’ all excoriate the media machine that took the band’s feminist ideals and commodified them, but it wasn’t just a media narrative. All Hands on the Bad One acknowledges that their fellow bands can also be held back by some old-timey notions “It’s still seen as threatening to people,” Tucker explained to Addicted to Noise about the real life festival experience that inspired ‘Ladyman’ in 2002. “It’s not like we had this weekend where we just relaxed with everyone and just hung out. I think, in some ways, people are still a little bit guarded when they’re around us. I don’t know what they think. It was just this uncomfortable thing to recognise that it still, in some ways, can be a boy’s club.”
That boys club got its very own kickback on the album’s fifth song, ‘You’re No Rock n Roll Fun’. Just to drive the point home, Sleater-Kinney decided to make the catchiest, hookiest, and most pop-centric song on the record a denouncement of how all the “guy bands” need to catch up with them. “Your head’s always up in the clouds / writing your songs, won’t you ever come down?”.
It didn’t matter how many Christmas gifts of whiskey drinks and chocolate bars the guys would end up giving them. At the end of the show, even “the best man won’t hang out with the girl band”. These macho, boneheaded acts were nothing new: the band members saw it for themselves on every tour and triple bill they ever played, but they also saw how a very specific pent up young male rage could be unleashed in horrific ways. Woodstock ‘99 had just happened, and while ‘You’re No Rock n Roll Fun’ is more playful about the power that bands like Limp Bizkit and Red Hot Chili Peppers have over their crowds, songs like ‘#1 Must Have’ make it brutally honest for anyone who still doesn’t get it: “And will there always be concerts where women are raped? / Watch me make up my mind instead of my face / The number one must have is that we are safe.”
For the first time, all voices of Sleater-Kinney were heard blasting out these messages. Weiss got in on the backing vocals throughout the album, and her contributions are best heard throughout ‘You’re No Rock n Roll Fun’. Towards the end of the song, all three members belt out the titular creed, unequivocally unified in their clowning of the “guy bands” that can’t match them in riffs, attitude, or catchiness.
Those “guy bands” would become more prominent as the indie-rock boom exploded out of New York in the coming years. Groups like The Strokes and Interpol were being heralded for bringing back an art form that was once thought dead when the reality was that bands like Sleater-Kinney, The Donnas, and Le Tigre were keeping punk-inspired indie rock vital. No matter how good they were, ‘You’re No Rock n Roll Fun’ proved that the “girl bands” were always going to get the short end of the stick, even if they were twice as good as the wet blanket “guy bands” that were playing on the jukebox.