SXSW Review: The Punk Singer


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I was a teen during the riot grrrl heyday, but I didn’t start listening to bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, or Bratmobile until I started college. It’s just one of those things I missed the first time around, and it makes me realize how shut in I was in my South Bay suburb. Maybe I shouldn’t hold this against my younger self, but looking at it now, I wish I was more with it.

To listen to riot grrrl and know its roots is to view the alternative boom of the 90s through a political lens: it’s a reaction to pop music misogyny in the business and at shows, a shout against the pervading sexism of the time, a sonic primer in third-wave feminism.

At the head of the movement was Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, whether she wanted to be there or not. (Charismatic leaders rarely have a choice in the matter.) The Punk Singer, a documentary by first-time director Sini Anderson, is her story.

And it f**king rocks.

Kathleen Hanna is....The Punk Singer, a documentary

The Punk Singer
Director: Sini Anderson
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

Even though the alternative explosion of the 90s gets associated with Seattle, the real stuff was going on in Olympia, WA. That’s where Kurt Cobain would go to see shows, and also where Bikini Kill was born. As The Punk Singer notes, Cobain’s ties to Bikini Kill can’t be understated. Not only was Cobain dating band member Tobi Vail (their relationship would inform much of the lyrical content on Nevermind), it was Hanna who helped name Nirvana’s breakthrough hit: she spraypainted on the wall of Cobain’s apartment “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” For Hanna it was a joke about Cobain and Vail’s relationship (Teen Spirit was Vail’s deodorant of choice), but for Cobain it was a kind of call for revolution.

It’s almost like a divergent history of the 90s alternative scene. While Cobain went on to megastardom and the fatal pains of celebrity, Hanna and the rest of Bikini Kill went on to the punk grind of critical recognition, barely making money, and crashing on people’s floors. She was anointed that head of riot grrrl as a movement, but she was also treated like some kind of oddball cult figure who could be dismissed because she was a woman (or, given the condescension, just a girl). After playing a show with Fugazi on the Washington Mall in 1992 as an act of political protest, the press dismissed the whole group and its message simply on superficial matters — looks rather than content. They derided the music as mere teenage angst forgetting that there was a legitimate cause for the angst and an adult brain behind it.

It’s to be expected, though. As a punk icon and feminist icon, Hanna had the difficult position of being situated in the center of third-wave feminism and also outsider at the edges of the mainstream. But that’s the right place to be if the target of your rage, sarcasm, and artistic expression is the mainstream. At the grunge and punk shows of the time, pits ruled and male aggression reigned. Women at shows could get seriously injured or sexually assaulted simply for showing up. (A friend of mine said she got groped at a Bauhuas show of all places when she was in high school. She socked the guy in the face.) Hanna from the stage does the supreme punk fuck you to the status quo through empowerment, ordering the women to the front and the men to the back. Any harmful bullshit won’t be tolerated.

The message: this is our scene and we can make it any way we want; we can make a difference.

Anderson grounds all this material with solid overviews of the culture that made riot grrrl happen, from Anita Hill to Rebecca Walker. There’s some great rare home video footage of Bikini Kill shows and Hanna in art school, but what’s most revealing are the candid interviews with Hanna today. She looks back on some of that era a little astonished and sometimes fed up given the scrutiny that she received. One example are reports that she was raped by her father, and she sets the record straight on what happened in the film. Another example is the criticism she faced for getting by at one time as a stripper, as if sexuality and paying the bills is something to automatically be ashamed of; as if sexiness and punk rock weren’t part of riot grrrl (or, hell, music).

At the time the idea of sex-positive feminism was just taking root, so the notion of empowerment and sexuality may have been foreign just 20-ish years ago. But it does highlight another difficulty for real or perceived leaders in a serious movement: the notion of ideological purity. It’s as if any potential contradictions to an ideal need to be weeded out or a person falls short of the ideal. Hanna even brings this up when she talks about her relationship with Ad-Rock from The Beastie Boys. Sure, they wrote “Girls,” but there’s more to attraction than slips in ideology. (And anyway, that song is a teenage boy’s fantasy about girls, not an adult’s views on women.) To that, it’s Hanna who’s responsible for Ad-Rock bringing up the rapes at Woodstock 1999 during the MTV Music Awards, which was a call to take action make things better for everyone.

Getting back to the media’s perception of Hanna, I can still see similar things happening today. Hanna mentions how some outlets will try to start conflicts between women in the arts since the whole atmosphere of a catfight seems to sell; many times these are wholly invented. Earlier this year, some entertainment sites tried to drudge up a beef between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence over the Oscar for Best Actress. When asked about it, Chastain mentioned that she thought it was sad these reports were trying to create some kind of unhealthy competition between women where one didn’t exist.

That invented enmity between women in music and questions of ideological purity continue still for Hanna. In a recent interview, Hanna said she digs Taylor Swift’s music, and some people are giving her flack for it. A few years back, she got hate for not liking Katy Perry’s music, and of course she got flack for it. The cycle won’t end, which is why the third-wave keeps growing and evolving, and which is why it seemed so weird that Hanna would put the band Le Tigre on hold and stop making music around 2007. As one of the interviewees states at the beginning (and I’m paraphrasing), what awful thing did we do to make her go away?

Turns out it wasn’t anyone’s fault per se  (or least not an active fan or detractor). Hanna really opens up to Anderson over the course of The Punk Singer, which includes her own confession about why she had to take a break from music. Even though the reasons for it have been reported in a couple of places recently, I’m not going into it here because I think part of the power of The Punk Singer is seeing Hanna say it herself and watching her and Ad-Rock (her husband since 2006) fight the disease. I’ll just say that it’s a serious health condition that’s been getting lots of attention lately since it often goes undiagnosed for years. It’s heartbreaking, but there’s a sense that she’s not going to cede control to this or to anyone; it’s not something she does.

The ethos of political punk is always about empowerment, whether it’s calling for annihilation of existing social structures or telling the girls in the audience to come to the front and not be afraid. It’s the shared ethos of third-wave feminism, which is more open and more inclusive than the feminism of the previous generation. This is all connected together with great skill by Anderson as she tracks Hanna’s life from her upbringing until the present date. She’s not done for, you can’t stop her, she’s coming back again because you can’t keep a good woman down.

The message: we can make a difference; nothing is going to change that.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.