The new documentary The Punk Singer opens with some archival footage of a pre-riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna swaying back in forth and screaming into a mic, “I’m your worst nightmare” as a small crowd looks on. It’s a ballsy performance that reminds you what a force Hanna has been, both on stage and off, since she her days with Bikini Kill in the early '90s.
As the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the feminist punk band that told the dudes to retreat so the women could take over the mosh pit, Hanna was one of the most outspoken and recognizable founders of the riot grrrl movement. She’s still a force, but during the course of filming the doc (by first time feature director Sini Anderson), Hanna was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, and in the movie the vulnerability she lets you see proves to be just as ballsy as any of her most outspoken, impassioned moments on stage with Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, or the Julie Ruin. Anderson’s film (which is dotted with great interviews with Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, Horovitz, and Joan Jett) looks at the origins of the riot grrrl movement, the trajectory of Hanna’s career, her marriage to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, and her struggle with the illness that forced her to retreat from two things she’s always been most passionate about: music and activism.
She’s back with a new Julie Ruin album and tour, and the film, which opens this week, premiered at South By Southwest last spring. I talked to Hanna about getting the guts to speak out, the creative power of girls’ bedrooms, and where she sees the stamp of the riot grrrl movement today.
I’m sure you’ve gotten this reaction often from people who’ve seen the movie, but I had no idea you’d been so sick. How’re you feeling now?
I’m definitely on the upswing but right now I’m talking to you from my bed because I’m sick. I’m in one of my very last weeks of treatment and the treatment is actually worse than the illness. They’re just trying to get rid of the very last bits of it that are still in my system. It’s stressful. It sucks. I do have good days and good weeks. I had two weeks when we were on tour and I was doing a lot of different things so that was really great. I’m going to be out in two weeks and doing things for the film and really enjoying it and celebrating it, so I’m excited.
Unless you’re Kim Kardashian or a Real Housewife, most people think it’s a scary prospect to invite someone in to document their life on film. What made you trust Sini? It seems like there would need to be a huge amount of trust there.
I’d known her for a long time and she felt like family from the first time I met her. She wanted to be a director and I wanted to be a part of helping her fulfill that dream. I was really sick and that was another part of taking that leap of faith. When you’re chronically ill and you’re not getting better and no one knows what you have and you’re just getting worse, archiving the things that you’ve done starts to become paramount in your mind. Not to say that Sini isn’t great, but I probably would have trusted my dog at that point to make a movie, you know what I mean? It was just like I have to do this now or it’s never gonna happen. It seems like the stars kind of aligned in that way.
I love the old footage of you doing spoken word that’s in the movie. You’re screaming to a room full of people and I loved it because it’s just so ballsy. A lot has changed since then for you, as far as going from Bikini Kill to Le Tigre to the Julie Ruin, getting married, and dealing with illness. Recently you said that watching that footage now makes you feel kind of nauseous. Has your worldview changed that much since then?
I’m in New York City now, and it’s a whole different life for me than it was when I lived in a small town and I did crazy awesome spoken words in coffee shops. It’s difficult; I didn’t realize how intense I was. I didn’t realize that people always say, “She’s so intense,” and I didn’t realize that when I’m performing I get really intense. Seeing it [on the screen] is really difficult—that intensity is really jarring. It’s jarring for people in the room and it’s jarring for me when I watch it. That doesn’t mean I’m embarrassed. I might misuse that word. I’m proud of myself that I had the guts to do that.
What gave you the guts to stand up and speak out?
I was really fueled by the fact that I worked at a domestic violence shelter and I answered crisis calls—and this is in a small city. I’m answering rape crisis calls like every night. That’s really intense and then I’m having guys in the punk scene asking why I was doing this stupid spoken word that has to do with women when it’s totally not important, like women are totally equal. So I was mad. I’m not in that scene anymore. I’m in a totally different scene full of top-rate performers and visual artists and singers and performance artists who aren’t telling me I’m stupid and that I don’t know what I’m doing, so I don’t have that kind of wall to react against. I don’t need to push in the same way I did then because I’m surrounded by love and support. I can make stuff that isn’t just in opposition to a bad situation.
In the movie you talk about holing up in your bedroom and recording that first solo Julie Ruin album, and about girls’ bedrooms being this safe space for creativity and self-expression. After all the music you’d recorded up to that point, what made you shut yourself in to make that album?
It came out of necessity. I’d already been in a recording studio, so I went from the situation of business to aloneness on purpose, because I was alienated by a lot of male engineers I’d worked with and I didn’t know how to communicate with them. I needed to get used to the sound of my own voice, and I think that’s what makes a girl’s bedroom special. You can make whatever you want when you’re alone in your room. The thing that’s interesting to me about the mention of it in the film and the way it was structured is that there are all these different girls' bedrooms and all these girls are making their stuff, and then they’re throwing it away, and how can we connect these bedrooms? We’ve seen today that we can connect these bedrooms through the Internet. That’s one of the positive things happening. To be honest, the Julie Ruin record, the first solo one, I was really freaked out about it.
Why freaked out?
I thought it was terrible. I mean, I liked it, it was important to me, but I thought everybody was going to think it was garbage and not understand it. So I just shoved it under the door. It was this feeling of, “I’m doing this bad thing.” I felt like I was putting something into the world that was going to get me in trouble, even more than Bikini Kill, because at the time it was a very weird record. I was expected to be this hardcore feminist who wrote these anthems and freaked out on stage and yelled at everybody, and it was like I just wrote these songs and I didn’t know what was gonna happen. Some of them didn’t make any sense at all, and I loved them.
Did you always think about what critics or audiences would think about what you were putting out there?
I try not to think about it. Because of my illness we held the new record back for a little while, even though at the last minute I made everybody go back into the studio and record this thing I wrote which became the song “Lookout,” which I love, so I’m really happy about it. Most of my records are never going to be commercial successes, and I don’t expect that. It’s just all a learning process to me. If something appears as a failure, fine. If there’s success, fine. I like the record, and my friends like the record, and that’s kind of all I can really care about, you know?
It seems like there’s always some kind of backlash where women are distancing themselves from the term “feminism” and it’s seen as this negative, embarrassing thing to be associated with. When you look around now, do you see anything or anyone that you think is a direct result of the riot grrrl movement?
Girls Rock! Camp. They have these camps all over the country and girls can go and they also have a Ladies Rock Camp for women to go to. They do a two-week camp and they join a band and they learn to play a song and they have a show. I taught at one of the camps in Brooklyn a few times and I actually met our current guitar player when we were putting the band together. When I walked in I was like, “The promise of Riot Grrrl has been fulfilled.” I just felt like it was all worth it.
There’s not necessarily a direct link, except a lot of people who have been involved in riot grrrl have been involved in the camp. The group of girls is really diverse, and that’s something that not all riot grrrl groups achieved. You see so many kinds of girls and something like 50 percent of their campers are on scholarship and everybody is running on volunteer energy. It’s not something that’s like bankrolled by AT&T or something. To me that’s definitely DIY. To be even a drop in the bucket that had to do with that makes me feel extremely proud.
What did you think of that Goldieblox ad for an engineering toy for girls, where they change the lyrics to the Beastie Boys’ “Girls”? [Ed. note: Interview took place before the Goldieblox-Beastie Boys lawsuit was announced.]
When I first saw it I was like, “Oh my God.” I loved that game Mouse Trap. I thought the ad was such a cool concept, and I thought the idea of using that song and changing the lyrics was really interesting. To take something that originally had kind of a sexist meaning and then turn it into something that’s very much about, “I don’t want to be a princess, I want to be an engineer”—that’s pretty intense. At the end of the day I have to say, though, it’s a corporation. You know what I mean? The people who make those toys are a corporate entity. It’s not just like these kids did this crazy thing and this feminist band took over the lyrics to this song. I made a recording that was that song with witch laughter all over it, before I knew Adam. I didn’t end up putting it out. I was like, “Oh, bad idea.”
You’re still outspoken about issues that piss you off, like the antiabortion insanity that’s been happening in Texas. Since you’re not channeling your anger by screaming into an open mic at coffee shops anymore, are you finding new ways to channel that kind of rage?
I haven’t been able to channel anything since 2006, to be honest, just because my illness has been a full-time job. I haven’t been able to do much besides go to a Planned Parenthood rally here and there. I couldn’t go to Occupy Wall Street because I had a pick line in my arm and if it got ripped out because everybody was running or whatever it would have been a really bad situation, and I couldn’t get arrested because I had to have my medication. Things like that have been really frustrating because I haven’t been able to channel my anger into positive forms of activism. All I could do is make a video for Pussy Riot or make some phone calls behind the scenes just trying to get people involved. Even when that situation first happened and they got thrown in jail, I was sick in bed. I was getting all these calls and people wanted to talk to me about it, and I did the very best I could when I was sick.
I think that has been the hardest part—that I haven’t been able to channel my anger. But just you wait.
The Punk Singer opens in New York and Los Angeles on 11/29. Photos courtesy IFC Films.
Dina Gachman is a writer in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Forbes, the LA Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Marketplace on NPR. She's on Twitter @TheElf26.