Dig Me OutSleater-Kinney’s Newfound Gen Z Audience is No Accident

Corin Tucker, left, Janet Weiss, and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney (Photo credit: Sleater-Kinney)

Sleater-Kinney released their first album in 1995, the year I was born. When they announced their indefinite hiatus in 2006, I was 11 years old, my favorite album was the soundtrack to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and I knew nothing of punk music, Riot-Grrrl discourse, or feminism. Nearly a decade later, following the release of their 2015 album, No Cities to Love, I joined listeners of all ages to watch the band perform in Columbus, Ohio. Now, with a highly anticipated album and tour forthcoming, Sleater-Kinney has very much come out of hiatus. In fact, they’re experiencing a renaissance with a new audience: Generation Z.

Sleater-Kinney fandom comes in waves. Formed in 1994, the Olympia-based group—composed of Corin Tucker (lead vocals and guitar), Carrie Brownstein (lead guitar), and, until recently, Janet Weiss (drums) spent their first 12 years building a devoted fan base comprised largely of Generation X and older Millennials (those born, respectively, between 1965–’80 and 1981–’85, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study). But with their current resurgence, the band has found a somewhat unlikely new following in a generation whose ironic appreciation of older music comes largely via memes, and who grew up following young YouTube virtuosos like Shawn Mendes to stardom. Instead of the expected teary reunion with an audience of original die-hards, Sleater-Kinney met a whole new wave of listeners. Commenting on their 2015 tour, Weiss described the renewed fandom in a 2019 interview for The Fader, “There were tons of young people there, which I think surprised us the most. Kids in the front, you know? It wasn’t a nostalgia trip at all. It felt like kids knew the new record.”

I’m one of those kids. Admittedly, I learned about the group via Portlandia, the IFC sketch comedy that Brownstein cowrote and performed with Fred Armisen from 2011 to 2018. Portlandia is one avenue by which new fans found Sleater-Kinney: During their hiatus, each member created and/or played with other groups, including The Shins, Wild Flag, and Filthy Friends. And music-streaming platforms and apps have made it exponentially easier for Gen Z listeners to browse an extensive collection of artists, learn about related groups and their histories, or simply stumble into music at the whim of algorithms. Regardless of how “old” the music is, it’s well within reach of a demographic who otherwise might have never found it on such a large scale.

With their return, Sleater-Kinney integrated effortlessly into the zeitgeist. Contemporary indie and female-fronted Waxahatchee, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s project formed in 2010, opened for the band at that 2015 Columbus concert. The same year, Sleater-Kinney’s label, Sub Pop Records, released an animated music video featuring Bob’s Burgers beloved Tina Belcher for No Cities to Love’s “A New Wave.” In 2017, Brownstein wrote a series of mock interviews for her friend Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, ahead of the latter’s album Masseduction. Clark, in turn, produced Sleater-Kinney’s forthcoming album, The Center Won’t Hold. These collaborations weren’t coincidental, but rather were an intentional choice: the fandoms of Waxahatchee, Tina Belcher, and St. Vincent are all very similar, and all very likely to also gravitate toward Sleater-Kinney; by making space for themselves in each of these spaces, Sleater-Kinney managed to increase their following of engaged young feminists.

Who are Generation Z? According to the aforementioned Pew Study, they’re those born in 1997 onward. Much of this generation entered high school and college in the wake of Donald Trump’s election; among their well-known peers are 21-year-old Malala Yousafzai, 19-year-old Gavin Grimm, 18-year-old Emma González, 16-year-old Rowan Blanchard, and 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Each one represents a present-day issue: equal education, trans rights, gun control, #MeToo, and climate change, respectively. The study assessed Generation Z’s values, and found that of the five living generations (Silent, Boomer, X, Millennial, Z), members of Generation Z are most likely to know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns, most likely to believe that society should be more accepting of those who don’t identify as a man or woman, and most likely to think that housework should be equally distributed between partners regardless of gender.

Together, Gen Z’s coming of age and Sleater-Kinney’s return create the perfect storm.

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In short, Generation Z is the most feminist and politically immersed so far, and Sleater-Kinney is an ideal avatar to voice their experience. The band formed in the dwindling years of Riot Grrrl, which was an answer to the male-dominated punk underground of the 1980s and ’90s; their return is in part an answer to the 2016 election. In that same Fader interview, Tucker noted that “In terms of the culture around us, we were being told in 16 different ways to take up less space. We’d watched this older woman who was super accomplished run for President and just be ground down in the most misogynist ways possible.” Sleater-Kinney, too, is activist-minded; they attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and that night played a benefit concert.

Gen Z’s brand of feminism comes with a heady disposition toward activism facilitated by social media, as these platforms not only teach them about political issues but offer communities where they can learn how to push for social change offline. Apps like Instagram and TikTok provide forums, especially for queer teens, to find and build activist communities in a way that isn’t always readily heard and respected by older generations. In fact, these spaces mirror the underground riot grrrl scene that Sleater-Kinney came up in; while the tools and delivery systems have changed, music has been a path into activism for every modern generation. Together, Gen Z’s coming of age and Sleater-Kinney’s return create the perfect storm. One doesn’t necessitate the other, but they do rely on each other: Sleater-Kinney is a voice Gen Z needs, and Gen Z is the new wave of listeners for Sleater-Kinney’s comeback.

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Elana Spivack is a writer based in NYC. Her humor, criticism, and personal essays have been published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Alma. She is a cat person who is pro-Oxford comma.