The Punk Singer

Long live Kathleen Hanna

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sini Anderson’s razor-sharp The Punk Singer profiles the career and impact of Kathleen Hanna, a feminist rock icon (via bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) who abruptly dropped from view in 2005. This exciting assemblage of archival and interview materials recalls the considerable influence (and sometime public trivialization) of the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement while showcasing the role of its cofounder and most charismatic leader.

Leaving behind a problematic family background, Hanna arrived as a freshman at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash., and almost immediately began shaking things up in the local artistic and feminist communities. Initially focused on spoken-word performance as her outlet, she took the advice of experimental-fiction writing idol Kathy Acker and started a band as a means of reaching a wider audience.

In 1991, various circumstances—the scorn heaped upon Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas; Christian Coalition attacks on legal abortion; and the pervasively testosterone-driven, often violent atmosphere at punk music shows—provided an ideal incubator for the activist, angry-yet-positive energy of Riot Grrrl bands, zines and other endeavors. Hanna’s band, Bikini Kill, became the movement’s flagship, her distinctive voice, stage intensity and thematically punchy songs inspiring many while also ticking off more than a few boys’ club punks. (The band demanded that women be allowed up front near the stage, and that male patrons refrain from rough-housing mosh-pit behavior.)

Once the Riot Grrrl movement captured national press attention that tended to focus on invasive personal rather than political or artistic aspects—like Hanna’s brief past tenure working at a strip club—she simply called for a “media blackout” and refused to be interviewed further. The heavy scrutiny Bikini Kill endured while its members still lived hand-to-mouth took a toll.

After they broke up in 1997, Hanna made a solo record under the pseudonym “Julie Ruin,” then formed “feminist party band” Le Tigre, which reframed serious topics as danceable electronic music, complete with multimedia live presentation and even ensemble dance moves. Despite (or because of) their relative high-profile success, however, Hanna called it quits in 2005, saying she had “nothing left to say” in music. In fact she was in denial that her body was forcing her to quit; she’d contracted Lyme disease, which, due to poor initial treatment, had become seriously debilitating over the years. The documentary ends with her finally recommencing her musical activities, however.

Dynamic performance footage and input from a variety of collaborators, colleagues and admirers, as well as Hanna herself, make the tightly edited Punk Singer a vivid watch even for those with no interest in or experience with the music itself.

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