Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Punk Singer

Kathleen Hanna at 17 from her blog

THE PUNK SINGER         B+                       
USA  (80 mi)  2013  d:  Sini Anderson 

BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US.  We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… BECAUSE we need to talk to each other.  Communication/inclusion is the key.  We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed.  BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.

We want and need to encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can't play our instruments, in the face of 'authorities' who say our band/zines/etc are the worst... Because we don't wanna assimilate to some else's (boy) standards of what art is... Because we are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reactionary 'reverse sexists' AND NOT THE TRUEPUNKROCKSOULCRUSADERS THAT WE KNOW WE we real are... Because I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.
—Riot Grrl Manifesto (excerpts), early-90's

Girls to the front. Boys to the back.  Back, back.  All boys be cool for once in your lives.
—Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kills

An exhilarating, all-in look at Kathleen Hanna and the early stages of girl power in punk music in the early 90’s, where Hanna’s earliest musical interests were unleashed through fanzines, homemade booklets with creative artworks celebrating particular music acts and the power of expression.  Eventually she got the attention of one of her underground heroes, Kathy Acker, the writer of Blood and Guts in High School, one of the original underground, mixed-media feminist publications that challenged social taboos, giving voice to subjects that were largely silenced or severely limited by mainstream media, such as rape, abortion, incest, pornography, and domestic violence.  Acker believed in challenging the male-centric power structures by continually giving voice to this restricted territory, by taking ownership of these issues.  An art student at Evergreen State College from Olympia, Washington, Hannah was angry from the dismissive media coverage of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against a sitting (for life) Supreme Court justice, the Tailhook scandal, the William Kennedy Smith trial, and an article in Time magazine that asked if feminism was dead, all happening at a time when she was trying to process the rape and murder of her roommate.  In 1991 Hannah entered Slam poetry festivals where she’d wail at the top of her lungs “I am your worst nightmare come to life.  I’m a girl that won’t shut up,” stomping onstage and shouting “I’m going to tell EVERYONE!”  It was Acker who told her that nobody comes to Slam fests but other performers, that “if you want to be heard, start a band,” which couldn’t have been better advice, as her screaming angry defiance onstage perfectly fit the profile of a punk rock lead singer, where she literally fused feminism with punk rock.  Gathering around her best friends, girls she could trust, they quickly formed Bikini Kill, where her badass onstage performance was inspiring to other young girls, where she’d scrawl “slut” in lipstick across her stomach, adopt a Valley Girl accent, dance aggressively and stomp around the stage in underwear or a miniskirt, while bringing girls in the audience to the front and sending boys to the back, where most importantly she was defining herself on her own terms.

The band actively sought to create a physical safe space for women at shows, making this a policy of bringing them to the front at their performances, where they could even sit onstage, as this was the boy era of mosh pits and crowd surfing, which could get excessively physical, intimidating and often injuring girls who came anywhere near, developing a Riot Grrl Manifesto, “We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak,” a revolutionary call to action refusing to assimilate to male standards that was published in a Bikini Kill fanzine in 1991, which showed early on she was a force to be reckoned with.  “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me," sings Hanna in "White Boy" Bikini Kill - White Boy - YouTube (2:15), a song that still resonates with a fury, as some twenty years later the music industry continues to generate rape culture lyrics and imagery, while a subject the newscasts still routinely omit is the prevalence of rape in the military, where according to Kirby Dick’s eye-opening film The Invisible War (2012), more than 20% of currently serving female veterans will be sexually assaulted, while less than 3% of the identified rapists will ever be convicted.  It’s enough to make anyone angry, and from 1991 – 1999 it was a glorious era for Riot grrls, where Hanna insisted “I’m not going to sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s boot around my neck,” berating men in the audience from the microphone for behaving like jerks, literally daring other young girls to follow.  She was sexy, she was angry, and she was defiant as she strutted the stage with a supreme confidence, proclaiming “We want a revolution!”  One of the best pieces of archival footage shows Hannah as a full-throttled frontwoman for Bikini Kill singing at the top of her lungs to Mohawk-cut punk boys who are literally inches away from her staring her down, confessing “Every show we played was like a war.”  Her uncompromising spirit has had a tremendous influence, even if her bewildering mixture of overt sexuality and confrontational anger, not to mention her insistence on the word “girl,” has been tamed and co-opted by today’s consumer market.

While there’s really not a negative word heard anywhere in this picture, becoming something of a love fest, the mostly female cast of supporting voices includes Hanna’s Riot grrl sisters-in-arms Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, and several music and culture critics, including Ann Powers and Jennifer Baumgardner.  While the unadulterated praise is unanimous, it also appears genuine, which is the prevailing theme throughout, without which this would be just another ordinary profile.  Hannah is credited with coming up with the title of Nirvana’s 1991 rock anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” spray painting it on Kurt Cobain’s wall, which he reinterpreted with a revolutionary meaning for an apathetic generation.  Hole’s Courtney Love, Cobain’s eventual wife, sucker-punched Hannah backstage during Sonic Youth’s performance at Lollapalooza in the summer of 1995.  Hannah filed charges against Love, who remembered nothing as she was high on drugs at the time, and prevailed in court, challenging Love to “a feminist debate at the university of her choice.”  Hannah dropped out of sight in 2005, officially retiring from the music industry, where many felt she abandoned the very issues she was advocating.  But the film reveals a mysterious illness sidelined her literally for years before it was finally diagnosed as late stage Lyme disease in 2010, causing chronic neurological symptoms, an illness that can be managed, but often gets worse before it gets better.  Her resilience has been impressive, as this debilitating illness has taken nearly a decade out of her life, where half that time the worst part was living with the fear of not knowing what was causing her to be so sick.  But Hannah is a woman who has pushed personal crusades into worldwide movements, who has fought to overcome antifeminist ignorance in the mainstream press, where early in her career she had to stage a complete press blackout due to negative depictions that belittled and distorted her activism, refusing to allow the media afterwards to frame her message targeting bullied teen girls and young women.  Hannah is seen as surprisingly intelligent, introspective, and tough, where her impact is perhaps most felt with similarly smart middle class white girls, but her message of empowerment has grown since the Riot Grrl days, broadening her field of vision to include battered women, rape victims, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered.  Her influence has spread to Russia and the jailed Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, an anti-Putin punk rock feminist sentenced to two years in prison for defying the established male order, a political expression of women’s liberation rooted in the Riot Grrl movement.

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