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Kathleen Hanna Up Front: On THE PUNK SINGER

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by Violet LeVoit
December 4, 2013 12:41 PM
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This is what a feminist looks like: a young woman in a white t-shirt at the center of someone's crowded house party in Olympia, Washington, 1991, her dark hair tied back in a sloppy ponytail, all eyes on her; she holds the room's attention with the magnetism of a movie star as she chants a poem in railroad-train rhythm, in the voice of a little girl realizing she's been sexually abused: "I am your worst nightmare come to life/I'm a girl who can't shut up/There is not a gag big enough to handle this mouth/Because I'm not going to shut up/I'm going to tell EEEEVVVVVEEERRRYYYYOOOOONNNNE!"

This clip of Kathleen Hanna mid-performance opens Sini Anderson's documentary The Punk Singer, an unprecedented feature-length portrait of the radical icon and "leader" of the leaderless '90s riot grrrl movement whose music, while spanning a range of styles from angry punk to danceable electronica, has always been built on a core backbone of no-compromise feminism; Hanna admits her impetus for pursuing an audience is because "nobody has ever listened to me my whole life," a personal manifesto balanced perplexingly with her 2005 declaration that she had nothing more to say, ever.

That declaration was hard to believe. Hanna's gift was always her ability to distill feminist theory into accessible, chantable soundbites: "I eat your hate like love." "We are turning cursive letters into knives." "In her kiss I taste the revolution." (She famously penned the phrase "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit," a drunken graffito that became an anthemic catchphrase of the grunge era.). Those soundbites sprouted barbs when flung out in her distinctive singing voice: unpolished, babyish, high-register without ever becoming true soprano, and yes, objectively, "shrill", if there's any objectivity left in a word that's to women what "uppity" is to African-Americans—I do not like the timbre of your voice disguised as I do not like the content of your words.

Add to that Bikini Kill's insistence that women come up to the front rows of their shows, pushing men to the back, and Hanna's push-and-pull sexual presence onstage, luring and rebuking hungry eyes by undressing and scrawling words like "SLUT" in black Sharpie on her baby fat, doing bump and grind moves (learned during a stint as a stripper, back in college in Olympia) with uncalculated, ungraceful sprawls and tantrums as she caterwauled and grinned. You want me, you hate me, you will listen to me. And there is nothing stopping you from being me.

This wasn't an easy concoction to swallow. I'll admit I choked on it when I was a teenager in suburban Baltimore, a mere 50 miles up the road from the place where Bikini Kill was carving out its revolution, grrrl style,  but ideologically many more miles away, our discoherent punk scene forever in the shadow of uber-principled Dischord Records. I rejected the reverse discrimination of pushing men to the back so that the women could enjoy the music without being battered by the mosh pit they dominated. How stupid. Women didn't need someone to tell them to come to the front. Wasn't that the point of punk? That if you were a woman and wanted to come to the front, you did it, with hard shoulders and gritted teeth, and you took the consequences like the outlaw girl you were? In D.C., I slipped in the pit and someone landed on my head. I got hit in the eyes and saw stars. In Boston I got punched in the face so hard by some guy's flailing fist I couldn't open my mouth for the next 48 hours. This is how I embraced punk rock's anti-pretty. This was its promise to me: eat our fists and you too can get everything we do.

But isn't that the nature of privilege? That those who don't fight for it get it anyway? Sheryl Sandberg wears the ethos in boardroom suits that I wore in combat boots in 1991. "Lean in", the argument goes, "and you can run with the boys too." Hanna saw it another way, a smarter way: girls up front and boys in the back, even the timid boys who never crowded anyone out on purpose but still managed to win without knowing. Try it, just for tonight, so you can remember what it's like to have someone's bigger (or smaller) piece of cake, while you hear a woman sing about how no one believes what her body's been through, a real-life version of Corinne Burns in Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982). She warned the women in the crowd, "They've got such big plans for the world but they don't include us." Then carry that feeling, plus or minus, into the night air after you leave the show, while your ears are still ringing, and let it change you.

When Hanna's own ears began to ring, however, things began to fall apart. After successful post-Bikini Kill projects The Julie Ruin and Le Tigre, Hanna started experiencing baffling symptoms: numbness, fatigue, ear ringing, and most traumatizing, loss of control over her singing voice. In a lifetime full of brave gestures, The Punk Singer's second act may be Hanna's bravest, as she drops the veil of her own cult glamour and confesses that she lied to her fans about the truth behind her 2005 withdrawal from music. Late stage Lyme disease, contracted after an inadequately treated tick bite, was making her chronically ill. (Worse, again no one was listening—her real symptoms were being dismissed as psychosomatic, with one nurse dismissing her near-collapse at a rally as just a panic attack.) In the most moving sequence, she allows her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, to videotape her as she's taking some of her brutal treatment regime. The scene is full of pathos, but its meaning cuts both ways. Is exposing her weakness (in body and spirit) a penance, addressed to her fans, for not telling them the whole truth? Or is it once again a rebuke to the doctors who've wronged the woman who once shouted: "I'm not going to shut up/I'm going to tell EEEEVVVVVEEERRRYYYYOOOOONNNNE!"

Hanna's recovery is messy and uncertain, and The Punk Singer doesn't tie things up in a neat bundle. But director Anderson leaves an optimistic gap that suggests there is room for a third act in Hanna's life. At the end of the film, she's steeling herself to perform again with her new band The Julie Ruin. Offstage she's nervous and frail, waiting in the wings while Bikini Kill tribute bands perform her songs and friends like Kim Gordon praise her spirit. There's a stiffness in her stride that makes it look as if her joints hurt. But onstage, something in her bones uncoils, and she is once again that fearless girl with the mic in her hand, right where she belongs, where people listen.


Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.


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