In a genre dominated primarily by brash nihilistic males, Kathleen Hanna is one of punk and indie rock's most respected and affecting figures. As a photography student at Washington's Evergreen College in the late 1980s, Hanna didn't consider herself much of a musician. If anything, she thought of herself as a writer with a feminist bent, set on making her voice heard.
Born on June 9, 1969, Hanna grew up in an abusive home on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. She eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, during high school and began to express her repressed feelings through art and writing. While at Evergreen, she became a regular reader at spoken word nights; it was at one such venue that she met underground poet Kathy Acker, who became her mentor.
Hanna told Hilary Frey of The Nation, "[Acker] asked me why writing was important to me, and I said, 'Be-cause I felt like I'd never been listened to and I had a lot to say.'" "And she said, 'Then why are you doing spoken word—no one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band.'" Hanna took her advice and formed the band Amy Carter less than a week later.
In Olympia, Washington—a breeding ground for the groups that would later comprise Seattle grunge—Hanna found many other feminist artists, musicians, and kindred spirits. She started the band Viva Knieval and booked shows for a feminist art collective across the street from the women's shelter where she worked as a counselor. Bands such as Nirvana played benefits to help the organization.
Along with Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox, Hanna formed the much-ballyhooed Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, at a time when many other politically minded female bands were sprouting up. Men, however, not only dominated the Olympia punk scene, they also formed the bigger half of the crowd at area concerts.
"I think we really did have the goal in mind that we wanted to change things, at least in the music scene," Hanna told Frey. "It was also really selfish … I wasn't making music at that time for a bunch of white, suburban male teenagers. The lyrics weren't about them, they weren't for them. It was frustrating when those were the people showing up at the shows because it was like, 'These aren't even the people I'm trying to talk to.'" Slowly, though, a larger female contingent emerged, building Hanna's confidence that her message was being heard.
Hanna and her friends Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe of the East Coast band Bratmobile founded the Riot Grrrl movement, appropriating feminist ideas and giving them an artistic sensibility. The movement was named for the Bratmobile fanzine of the same name. While the Riot Grrrl faction was political, music and art were as important as writing in disseminating their message.
It didn't take long for the press to catch on, drawing national attention to Washington's burgeoning punk scene. Once the band learned about the mainstream media's penchant for twisting words, however, they opted to speak only with members of the independent and overtly left-wing press. Using the do-it-yourself model that independent record labels and zine (independent magazine) publishers followed, Bikini Kill ran their business on similar principles.
"We book our own shows all over the country," Hanna told Andrea Juno in Angry Women in Rock. "Wetalkon the phone to the person who's going to be paying us so we have contacts all over the country with the actual people who know our voices when we call on the phone. We also try to challenge the idea of specialization where everybody has their own little job and you're not connected to one another. We all switch jobs. One time Tobi will book the tour then I'll book part of the tour and later maybe she'll be doing more graphics."
In 1991, after touring extensively with Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill recorded their first self-titled EP with Fugazi's Ian MacKaye in Washington, D.C. They took up residence there for the next year or so, while they toured to promote the EP. Soon after, though, the band headed back to the West Coast to produce Pussy-whipped, released in 1994.
Bikini Kill's live performances were a departure from the usual mosh-happy punk shows of the 1990s. "Slam dancers were forced to mosh at the fringes of the stage so that women could remain at the front of the crowd, for example, and female audience members were often invited to take control of the microphone to openly discuss issues of sexual abuse and misconduct," noted Jason Ankeny of All Music Guide.
In an interview with Laurie Weeks for Index, Hanna recounted that "[p]art of the thing that made Bikini Kill get a lot of attention was that we were confrontational, that I was seen as a confrontational personality on stage, whereas I didn't feel confrontational at all. I mean, if a guy was taking a picture of my a** the entire show and I told him to stop, and he wouldn't, and he's a frat guy with a backwards baseball cap, and I walk up to him and I'm like 'Please, can you stop taking my picture? Please,' and he smiles right in my face and takes a picture—I'm gonna grab him and throw him out the door. To me, that feels totally normal, but to everybody else it's like, 'She freaked out for no reason, and she punched this guy.'"
In late 1994 Bikini Kill split temporarily to give its members room to experiment. Hanna's short-lived project, the Fakes, included Tim Green, Sue P. Fox, and Rachel Carnes. Soon, however, Bikini Kill was back in the studio recording 1996's critical success, Reject All American. They continued their rigorous tour schedule, but the band desperately needed a break and by early 1998, decided to go their separate ways.
After a collection of their singles was released in 1998, Hanna wasted little time in getting back to the studio. This time, though, she recorded in her Olympia apartment, now furnished with a 4-track recorder, that gave her the freedom to experiment with new styles of song writing and (albeit somewhat outdated) technology.
She recorded her solo album under the name Julie Ruin and put together a small band to perform the tracks live. Comprised of Hanna, zine editor Johanna Fateman, and film maker Sadie Benning, the band turned into Le Tigre—taking their name from an off-brand label of department store clothing.
After playing the Julie Ruin project live, Hanna took up residence in New York, where Le Tigre began writing their songs together, experimenting more and more with electronic music and gear such as samplers and synthesizers—instruments that rarely factored into Olympia's raw punk sound. Admittedly, Hanna wanted Le Tigre to have a more danceable sound, owing a stylistic debt to 1960s girl bands. Their 1999 self-recorded, self-titled release for Mr. Lady Records was a huge success. A tour followed, but Benning soon left to continue her filmmaking pursuits.
For the Record . . .
Born on June 9, 1969. Education: Attended Evergreen College, Olympia, WA.
Began as spoken-word performer at Evergreen College; formed Viva Knieval and Amy Carter, c. 1989; formed Bikini Kill, 1990; founded the Riot Grrrl political movement with Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, c. 1991; recorded self-released cassette Revolution Grrl Style Now, 1991; recorded Bikini Kill EP for Kill Rock Stars, 1991; released Pussywhipped on Kill Rock Stars, 1994; released Reject All American, Kill Rock Stars, 1996; performed as Julie Ruin and released Julie Ruin, Kill Rock Stars, 1998; formed Le Tigre and released Le Tigre, Mr. Lady, 1999; released Feminist Sweepstakes, Mr. Lady, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Mr. Lady Records, P.O. Box 460956, San Francisco, CA 94146, phone: (415) 701-1150, website: http://www.mrlady.com. Office— Le Tigre, 51 MacDougal St. #227, New York, NY 10027; e-mail: [email protected]
J.D. Sampson replaced Benning on 2001's Feminist Sweepstakes, which took a more serious tone and marked Hanna's return to hard-line political lyrics. The band also received a great deal of recognition when New York's electroclash scene exploded, but where electroclash's stars seem more obsessed with fashion and marketing, Le Tigre stood as torchbearers of the do-it-yourself punk ideology.
With Bikini Kill
Revolution Grrl Style Now, self-released, 1991.
Bikini Kill EP, Kill Rock Stars, 1991.
Pussywhipped, Kill Rock Stars, 1994.
Reject All American, Kill Rock Stars, 1996.
As Julie Ruin
Julie Ruin, Kill Rock Stars, 1998.
With Le Tigre
Le Tigre, Mr. Lady, 1999.
Feminist Sweepstakes, Mr. Lady, 2001.
Juno, Andrea, editor, Angry Women in Rock, Juno, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, April 12, 1996, p. 68.
The Nation, January 13, 2003, p. 27.
New York Post, August 27, 2001, p. 41.
"Kathleen Hanna," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 24, 2003).
"Kathleen Hanna, 2000," Index, http://www.indexmagazine.com/interviews/kathleen_hanna.shtml (September 23, 2003).
Le Tigre Official Website, http://www.letigreworld.com (September 24, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from Kill Rock Stars publicity materials, 2003.
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