Kathleen Hanna and riot grrrls
Political activist, riot grrrl, feminist agitator, indie goddess, renowned musician, record label owner. There are many reasons to admire Kathleen Hanna and her accomplishments. When I first heard the song Rebel girl she became the queen of my world. Ever gone into a music store to try out a guitar only to have the chauvinistic dimwit behind the counter ask you if it’s a gift for your brother or boyfriend? Ever played a gig when the amp brakes down and the sound engineer says: Baby, show us your tits instead. No? Well, I did and it pissed me off. This is a story about a woman who refused to accept derogatory treatment and how she became my feminist heroine. Growing up in Sweden in the early 90´s was in many respects utterly depressing. Sweden was no longer the socialist Promised Land our parents knew; we now had our fare share of racism, crime and economic cut downs. The Swedish music scene was equally depressing with Roxette, The Cardigans and Ace of Base climbing the charts. Needless to say, cool feminists who played aggressive punk rock were in short supply…
I started to play the guitar when I was 15
I started to play the guitar when I was 15 and my first band was called Lipgloss (as the name implies our music was really cheesy). The next band I played in was also an all-girl band called Disco Volante. My guitar skills had now developed and we were just as good as any other local rock band. Still we constantly faced discrimination in forms of remarks about our looks or the typical – Hey, you guys are actually good! As if it was a fundamental fact that girls couldn’t play rock. I didn’t know you needed a penis to play the guitar, that’s all…Being a woman in the music business can sometimes be a lonely and frustrating experience if you don’t have someone to guide and inspire you. Luckily, I did.
Kathleen Hanna was born in 1968 November 12th in Portland, Oregon. When she was in college studying photo she opened up her own gallery with some friends. The gallery was open for about three years and put up rock shows between art exhibitions. Before forming the legendary punk band Bikini Kill, Hanna played in different punk/rock bands in Olympia. When Hanna went on tour with her second band Viva Knievel she met Toby Vail and the rest is, as they say, history. Together with Kathy Wilcox and Bill Karren they formed Bikini Kill. The name was taken from the fanzine Hanna and Vail had previously created.
Bikkini Kill and the pioneers of the riot grrrl movement in the 90’s
Olympia rings a bell? It was also the hometown of Nirvana. Allegedly Nirvana’s mega hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was inspired by Kathleen scribbling down the words “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” (a brand of deodorant) on one of his bathroom walls. Cobain and Vail were dating at the time. Bikini Kill was the pioneers of feminist punk in the early nineties. Kathleen Hanna became the spokesperson for young angry girls wanting to brake the gender barriers by playing feminist punk with a DIY attitude and in-your-face-lyrics filled with sexual and political meaning. Their lyrics talked about rape, suicide, feminism, sexual harassment and female empowering. The band became closely connected to the riot grrrl movement because of their outspoken feminist agenda.
“Revolution Girl Style Now!” and the creation of a girl friendly culture
Riot grrrl was a grassroot punk feminist, cultural movement of the nineties with the slogan “Revolution Girl Style Now!” taken from the title of another fanzine. A key factor in this movement was creation of a girl-friendly culture that included encouraging young women starting up bands, with, or particularly, without musical training, expressing themselves through zines, and creating an environment where this is tenable. Other bands connected to this movement are Bratmobile, Sleater Kinney, Huggy Bear. The riot grrrls movement has been highly criticised despite its positive influence on many young female musicians like me.
Kathleen Hanna describes riot grrrl with her own words:
“Riot Grrrl was, in part, a response to male dominated punk/hardcore scenes. As much as it reacted to and critiqued certain misogynist values and structures of punk rock, it was intrinsically connected to the DIY, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist values of those underground scenes (as well as intertwined socially and aesthetically with them). The way that punk music mocked notions of rock ‘n’ roll virtuosity and traditional stardom, the bands that were associated with early Riot Grrrl questioned the posturing and conventions of a boy-ruled punk scene by making stripped down punk music paired with feminist subject matter and performance strategies.”
( source: www.letigreworld.com” www.letigreworld.com)
Le Tigre and electronical pop-punk Bikini Kill lasted about 9 years before splitting up. Kathleen moved to New York and started a solo career. In 1998 the first album with Julie Ruin was released. Hanna’s music had now taken a step towards electronical music. Her new band Le Tigre has with their major hit Deceptacon moved the revolution to the dance floor and made it accessible to a new generation of young feminists Music wise, Le Tigre is the electronical pop-punk equivalent of Bikini Kill. Guitars have been replaced by samplers and drum machines. The lyrics are less aggressive but still focus on political issues. Together with present band mates Johanna Fateman and J.D. Samson, Kathleen Hanna claims that she is still proud to be called a feminist and defines feminism as not only opposed to gender based hierarchy but also fighting racial, class and other injustices and forms of oppression,
Meeting Kathleen Hanna and Le Tigre for the first time
I no longer play in a band. Today I have found other manifestations to express my feminism. . I work as a teacher where I try to fight all forms of discrimination. However, I am still a music lover and I still listen to both Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. I had the chance to see Le Tigre for the first time in 2001 when they played in Lund, Sweden. After the gig, which was nothing short of excellent, Kathleen and the girls stayed for over an hour to sign autographs and to talk to their fans. This is a woman, who is immensely popular, has played thousands of gigs and still she finds the time and energy to talk to her fans face to face.
My boyfriend at the time was too embarrassed to ask for an autograph so I ended up going up to Kathleen myself. We talked for a good twenty minutes about feminism, music, my thesis and Sweden. What I remember most is her complimenting my English. Coming from her it was really one of the nicest things anyone could have told me at the time. That praise together with their modest behaviour really impressed me and that is one of the reasons Kathleen Hanna still has a special place in my heart after all these years. I still pick up my beautiful pink Gibson guitar sometimes and my dog is named after it. Even if I don’t play in a band anymore, I still have a soft spot for girls with guitars. And the words from Bikini Kills Rebel girl still make my nostalgic heart skip a beat.
Lyrics of “Rebel Girl”
That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood
She’s got the hottest dyke in town
That girl she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend
Rebel Girl, Rebel Girl
Rebel Girl you are the queen of my world
Rebel Girl, Rebel Girl
I think I wanna take you home
I wanna try on your clothes
When she walks, the revolutions coming
In her hips, there’s revolution
When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her kiss, I taste the revolution