Popaganda Episode: Riot Grrrl Revisited
This is a big year for musicians who grew up with the Riot Grrrl movement. In this episode, we talk with iconic musicians Kathleen Hanna and JD Samson about their new albums and writer Laina Dawes provides a different perspective with an essay, “Why I was never a riot grrrl.”
Listen to the full show above or the individual segments below.
KATHLEEN HANNA INTERVIEW:
Read our full interview with Kathleen Hanna here.
JD SAMSON INTERIVEW:
LAINA DAWES READING "WHY I WAS NEVER A RIOT GRRRL."
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Read the transcript of this show below:
RIOT GRRRL REVISITED TRANSCRIPT
All of a sudden, this feels like a big year for musicians who grew up with the Riot Grrrl movement. Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna is back on tour this fall for the first time in eight years, with her new band The Julie Ruin. A documentary about Hanna, called The Punk Singer, hits theaters nationwide on November 27. Meanwhile Hanna’s co-conspirator in the band Le Tigre, JD Samson, has a new album out with her band, Men. On this show, we talk with both Hanna and Samson about their histories in music and their new projects. Then, writer Laina Dawes reflects on The Punk Singer and her own experience not identifying as a riot grrrl. Stay tuned.
KATHLEEN HANNA INTERVIEW
SARAH MIRK: When I caught The Julie Ruin perform in Portland, Oregon, the place was packed and the performance electric. It was hard to believe that frontwoman Kathleen Hanna was just returning to the stage after an eight-year battle with Lyme disease that made her so weak, she wondered if she would ever perform again. The openers at the show were teenage bands formed at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. They made it easy to see both Hanna’s legacy as a trailblazing musician and what it means to thousands of fans and aspiring musicians that she has found the strength to get back on stage.
Hanna and I talked in September, before she set out on tour with The Julie Ruin.
SARAH MIRK: I'll start with an easy question. You have a new album coming out—can you tell us about the album and what your favorite song is off of it?
KATHLEEN HANNA: Ooo, my favorite song? No one's asked me that before. I really like the song "Goodnight, Goodbye" because it's really pretty and it's really fun to sing, but also because I feel like I said exactly what I wanted to say. I let myself be really vulnerable and personal. I always feel like I'm not allowed to talk about—you know, not private stuff, but in that song I talk what what it was like to be a band in the nineties and what it's like to look back at myself when I was in my twenties. Would I hate myself now? Like, how long can you keep that punk rock sneer going for before you end up sneering at yourself?
That's interesting, because a lot of musicians and public figures feel like they have to constantly be shaping their persona. So to look back on yourself and say, "I don't like the way I was," that's interesting. What does the song say about that exactly?
I don't know if it comes across to anyone else, but I have a line in the first verse that's, "I wielded confidence like it's a shiny knife." That was about how I feel like a lot of times the least confident people can exude the most anger and confidence, because we're so afraid. We have such a soft core that we have to have a hard shell. I feel like the people who are the most confident are able to be the most vulnerable. I feel like in my twenties, a lot of people were like, "She's so confident, she's such a strong feminist!" But that wasn't how I actually felt. I felt really freaked out and unsure of myself. And I'm sure that made for great shows, because it was like I was falling apart in front of peoples' faces. But, you know, looking back on it, I'm able to admit that I wasn't the strong feminist that people thought I was. I was very, very different in my personal life than I was on stage or in my records.
I'm sure a lot of people would connect with that idea that many people who are insecure use false confidence and performing as a shield. How has your relationship to confidence changed as you've gotten older? Do you feel more confident now?
I feel like I can walk on stage and be myself and be totally happy with that. Le Tigre is really interesting to me, where we had the artifice of a Las Vegas performance. We had matching costumes and dancing and video behind us and having that as a protective barrier—and having management, which I'd never had before—was this way to be like, "I need my own space." I need to hide behind this Vegas-y, artificial show, but by having that barrier, I was able to be more vulnerable. And now I don't even need that. I can just do what I'm going to do and, you know, it's not all up to me. Audiences create shows just as much as performers do. I can't always predict whether it's going to be a good show or a bad show. I think being older made me really come into touch with the fact that I can't control every situation the way I'd like to. That's a really freeing feeling, to not be trying to control everything. Now who I am on stage and who I am at home is more similar. I hope that doesn't come off as boring to people, because I can be pretty boring at home.
Well, I bet it will come off as honest to people. I think one reason people like you so much as an artist is they feel like what you're doing is really sincere, really real, and that the person you are on stage is the person you are in real life. So what's changed? How have you gotten to this point where those two selves are more in sync?
I aged. I also got very, very sick. The learning curve was pretty quick. I had to really change the way I was living, change my stress level, and change how much I was willing to do for people. Once I started being, like, "I have to actually take care of my health or things could go remarkably wrong," my health became my full-time job. It was hard for me to stay on top of that and not do favors for people. I was still, on email, acting like I was completely well: networking, helping people, making videos for Pussy Riot, and now I look back on that and say, "Oh my God, you can tell I was really sick." I think my illness brought me to a place where I just had to become as honest in real life as I have sometimes been able to be in a song. I felt like I was more myself, this one core part of who I am was really only there when I was on stage. Now that part of myself that I really like is around a lot more.
If readers don't know, you were sick with Lyme disease and it took six years to get a diagnosis. I think a lot of people would look at that and think it must have been a part of your life that was only bad. But it sounds like what you're saying is that getting to that point of weakness, that point where you couldn't be strong, has made you more comfortable and honest with yourself.
Yeah, you've got to be pretty serious about what you want out of life when you don't know what's going to happen the next day. Some days, brushing my teeth was like, "When's the applause track going to happen?" I was like, I wish there was an audience standing here watching me make it to the bathroom on two legs. I felt like I'd just run a marathon. I was like, "I'm amazing!" There were times when I couldn't say three sentences without slurring or saying the wrong words. So to be able to now do an interview with you and sounding, I hope, semi-coherent, and to be in the position where I've played a couple shows, it's like I've been given my life back. How could I not have changed? It made me realize what a fuckin' dick I was before. Not in every way of my life, but I didn't understand what people with invisible illnesses go through every day. Just because somebody doesn't have a cast on their arm doesn't mean that they are not dealing with serious illness. Invisible illness is especially insidious because people are like, "You look great." Before I got diagnosed, I was trying all these weird diets to see if I was allergic to something or if I had Crohn's disease and I lost a huge amount of weight. Everyone was telling me how great I looked. I remember one day somebody telling me that I was like, "You know what, I'm so skinny because I'm really, really sick, not because I want to be." They just turned and walked away. I know weight plays such a huge factor in the way people relate to women, but that really showed me. How many people told me how good I looked when I was emaciated? I was like, "Wow."
It is scary. And there are a lot of people who are super fucking happy when they're allowed to keep weight on their bodies. It's really frustrating to hear about people trying to lose ten pounds when you're like, "I wish I could just gain ten pounds!"
Do you feel like this whole experience has changed your music? Does the new album reflect the experiences you've gone through?
I have late-stage Lyme disease and I have neurological Lyme disease, which affects my brain. While recording this record, I was undergoing this really intensive treatment and when you're under treatment for Lyme, a lot of the worst parts of your symptoms come out. So when I was talking, I would say the wrong word for the wrong thing. I would say, like, "cotton ball" when I meant "close the curtains." Totally fucking random stuff. When I was on the record, I would just sing random stuff. And then I realized how beautiful some of those slip-ups were, how interesting some of the wrong choices I made became. Like we wrote a song called "Girls Like Us" and I just singing all the wrong words—I was repeating lines in a random order and stuff wasn't making sense. And then I wrote the chorus and realized it was about how there is no "girls like us." There is no unifying force. There's all these abstract random things and there's all these concrete things about privilege. We're all different. We can't have this thing that's like, "Every girl's a riot grrrl"—do you know what I mean? We can't have one kind of feminism. It became kind of a joke on that idea. I get asked about riot grrrl a lot as if it's a universal thing that everyone agreed on and everyone called themselves a riot grrrl. And you know that's bullshit. But it's interesting that this nineties nostalgia stuff can flatten everything out to ignore critique and ignore variation. I wrote that song really in the height of my treatment and then realized all these weird words I'm putting together, I'm going to put "girls like us" before 'em, and to admit that there's no unifying force. But it could easily be read, if you're just in the audience, as this kind of clique-y song and I really like that about it, that you misread it and then you have to go deeper.
JD SAMSON INTERVIEW
SARAH MIRK: JD Samson is one of those artists whose music always, always gets me dancing—sometimes despite my better judgment. In high school, I loved jumping around my house to the sounds of Le Tigre. Now, when her new album Labor, with her band Men, comes on my headphones at the grocery store, I can’t help shaking and shuffling around the bread aisle. Labor is a real keeper of an album.
Before its debut, Samson and I talked about being an activist musician and how her music has changed over time.
SARAH MIRK: Can you tell me about the process of making this new album? What do you feel good about and what parts were frustrating?
JD SAMSON: It was really hard to make honestly. It was kind of a complicated time, that band itself had kind of changed members and we were trying to find ourselves and find our meaning, I think, through the writing of this record. On the one hand, we wanted to appeal to a larger audience and stay away from being exclusive to our community, but we also wanted to stay ourselves and continue working with radical politics. But, you know, when we came up against ourselves, that was the hardest part—to get past our internal struggles. For me, that was a lot of my job versus my work, trying to make money and make work that I'm proud of. I think the album in the end shows that journey, whether through lyrics or it being okay to be experimental but also attempt to make a hit song.
That idea of making money versus making work you care about is an issue for every artist, I think, but it's not something I heard in the album, which is really fun and upbeat.
From my perspective, working with outside producers was one step toward trying to make something more poppy. That was a different thing for us and the producers we work with are people who want to make pop songs. We merged into that territory, but it was exciting and cool too.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I grew up, my family wasn't very musical; my parents did not have a stereo, we did not spend time playing music or listening to music as a family. But when I was in fourth grade, we had a band in school called Seven in Heaven and a Real Cool Guy.
Ha! That's great.
It was seven girls and then our music teacher. One of the songs on the record started out there, the song "I'm Leaving." I basically sampled a line from a song we made in that fourth grade band. Obviously the meaning has changed since I've grown up, but that's the first time I remember making music.
What's the line?
The only line in the song is, "I'm leaving, going far away. I'm leaving, I wish I could stay."
Do you remember what that meant to you in fourth grade?
I didn't write the line, but I've been in touch with all those people while writing this song. I wanted to ask permission, but they thought it was funny that I even remembered it at all. The funny thing about me and music is I have a really interesting sense of memory with it, I live my life with pop music as jumping off points for memories in my life. That song for me, I think I thought of it as a song about moving away or going to a new school, maybe missing the person you're going steady with as you move away. My experience of leaving is really intense now, because I go on tour all the time, my life is all about coming and going. So with that song, I shifted all the intention to come from there and with it being the last song on the record, it's like, this is a story and this is the end.
So you started making music in fourth grade—what were you like musically in high school? That must have been in the nineties, were you involved with punk or riot grrrl scenes back then?
I graduated from high school in '96, so before that, I was experimenting with every counterculture there ever was: riot grrrl, hippie, punk, whatever. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and all the outsiders hung out together. It was like one day you'd go to a metal show, one day you'd go to a punk show, one day you'd go to a hippie show. So my experience with music in high school was varied and just basically counterculture. Then in college, that was where I first recognized the queer and feminist parts of that counterculture and I had a huge community that I didn't have before. That's when I started focusing on my feminism and queerness, whereas before I was just a weirdo freak.
How do you think it affected your music to start thinking about queer issues and feminism?
I took classical guitar when I was in high school and then when i was in school, I didn't make music but I set up shows. I think that is a large part of where my music making and community come from now, from creating spaces for riot grrrl shows on campus and building a community. I was the Queer Student Union president and was visible that way in college. I just kind of moved from that space into my role as a musician in a very comfortable way.
When you look back on that time of being a super active person in a community, do you feel like you still take on the same role now? Like, instead of being president of the Queer Student Union, you're president of a band?
I do feel like I'm really similar. I've always lived my life similar to a politician or something in the sense that you are friends with everyone and your job is to like keep everyone happy and make sure everyone's getting along all the time. That's something I've struggled with in my life, because you can't have all the answers and sometimes you mess up, but I consider my activism to come from the same place, from trying to keep peace and understanding among different groups of people who should be hugging.
How do you feel like the music you make embodies that activism?
I think most of the time I'm really sincere and I think that's where a lot of my activism comes from, actually. If you're compassionate and sincere and you have intention with your words and feelings and you're kind and generous, that's the key. I think I put that in my music. In the end, everyone has a story to tell. As long as everyone can listen as hear that and hold it wherever they can, it's beautiful.
So you're coming from a similar place with your intention toward music compared to back when you were setting up shows on campus, but now you've got years of experience behind you and producers and professional musicians and a label. Does that make it different?
Whatever is in the core is still the core. It's great to have producers and a label and all that, but in a lot of ways I feel like I was more alive then. I know that's a weird word to use, but I feel like I was embodying the idea that there was so much out there in the world that was available to me and I was so excited to go out there and do my thing. Having producers and a label and everything sounds really great, but in the end, we paid our own money for this record and we're in debt and we have to pay our producers and we don't have that money. You know what I mean? It's kind of a bummer. I kind of wish I was the queer student union president right now.
I would look at where you are now and think, "Wow, she's so successful. She must be at least, like, making money as a musician." But what you're saying is, "It's a really hard life."
Yeah, I think that comes across in both MEN records. For me at least, when I look at it as a whole, I think "Oh, this record's so fun!" But when I look at each song individually, I'm like, "Whoa, I'm so depressed." It's a reality check for myself. I think the main thing is realizing that, for the most part, it's hard. It's hard to be a working artist in New York City. It's hard to be a working artist anywhere. It's hard to be freelance. It's hard to be an adult. It's hard to know whether or not your art is good.
WHY I WAS NEVER A RIOT GRRL
SARAH MIRK: In new documentary The Punk Singer, director Sini Anderson talks with musician Kathleen hanna about her life on and off stage and the power of the early 90s Riot Grrrl movement. Writer Laina Dawes saw the film, which comes out on November 27, and the experience pushed her to reflect on her own history within the music scene. Here, she reads her essay, “Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl.”
LAINA DAWES: A couple of years ago I saw ex-Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna speak in New York City, right before she donated her musical archives to New York University's Fales Library. I was struck by her acerbic wit, her 'I don't give a fuck' attitude.
While I was a teenager during the grunge and Riot Grrrl era, for some reason I was (at the time) more drawn to hyper-masculine, testosterone-saturated grunge and metal bands and was not that interested in what was happening on the other side of the scene. As Hanna's talk was intriguing, I took the opportunity to check out The Punk Singer, part of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
About 10 minutes into the documentary, I knew that I had made a colossal mistake.
Well, actually, as soon as I saw a snippet of 17 year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson waxing poetic about an era she was not even alive to witness, I knew that I would not be able to put my personal biases in regards to my age—and more importantly, my ethnicity as a black woman—aside when watching this documentary.
From watching The Punk Singer, I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn't for me. It was for white women.
In The Punk Singer, women I greatly admire, like Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, Kim Gordon and Tribe 8's Lynn Breedlove laud Hanna's courage and tenacity. And a great front person she is. But the film is a simplistic portrait where the flaws of both the riot grrl phenomenon and Hanna are not examined.
The film tells the interesting story of how Hanna got involved in the music scene: Hanna always knew that she was an artist, but the brutal assault of a close friend propelled her into first becoming a spoken word artist. A friend suggested that she might get more attention if she was in a rock band. Bikini Kill was anchored by Hanna's personality, her powerful voice, and—while no one seemed to mention the elephant in the room—her beauty. She is one drop-dead-gorgeous-looking woman, both as a teenager and now as an adult. I would argue that it was her physical attractiveness helped her music get mainstream attention. Some in the film point out that some women at the time (and still) had issues with Hanna showing her body during performances, arguments Hanna dismisses as being anti-feminist.
Hanna briefly notes in the film that she used to work as a stripper. Later in the film, archived footage of a panel discussion she participated in shows her blaming the media for making accusations that she is a stripper. While being a stripper is nothing to be ashamed about, own it. In reference to that that panel, she accuses female journalists of being condescending and seems shocked that "women are doing this to other women." That comes off as being oddly naïve and a great example of her penchant for navel-gazing: A woman who works as a stripper is taking her clothes off for the enjoyment of (primarily) men. It might be a stretch for women who have never been strippers to understand how a self-proclaimed feminist would willingly choose to put herself in a position where she is at the financial mercy of a man. While I didn't know this until after I saw the film, there has been much consternation with punk women working as strippers. Mimi Thi Nguyen notes the discussion in her essay"Riot Grrrl, Race and Revival" (PDF) in the feminist theory journal Women & Performance: "The 'passing thru' of some punk women into the sex industry detrimentally alters the 'class/ beauty standards' (because of lifelong access to healthcare, for instance) that others whose survival depends upon an underground economy must accommodate thereafter."
Now I remember why I never felt interested in being part of the riot grrrl scene. The film shows snippets of footage of young white women in that era, saying that the riot grrrl was a scene in which they didn't have to fight in the mosh pit, or have men sexualize them for being at a show. For me, I was in the mosh pit, getting bruised and punched because as an individual, not as a woman, I wanted to be where the action was and even back then I knew that allies, regardless of gender, were few and far between. So I was just me. I also remembered being more fearful of being assaulted because I was black than because I was a young woman. I would have almost begged to be seen as a woman back then, but my ethnicity trumped my gender.
In Women & Performance, Nguyen writes that certain forms of rebellion performed by white women were translated differently when filtered through a racial lens.
"For instance, women of color wondered out loud for whom writing 'SLUT'' across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity, where racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies, and poor or criminal-class women argued that feminists 'slumming' in the sex industry (through stripping, for the most part) as a confrontational act implied that other women in this or other tiers of the industry were otherwise conceding to patriarchy."
I distinctly remember the white women within the punk scene were capable of being just as exclusionary and bigoted as the men were, and among the white women I knew who identified as feminists, there was a strong sense that there was little to no concern as to how ethnicity made my experiences as a woman different than theirs. There was no knowledge, and more importantly no interest to know…well outside of Rebecca Walker, who was the right age, of the right class and most importantly, not 'too angry' to alienate them or challenge their naïve idealized notions about how the world works. If my ideas differed from them, guess who was wrong and who was right?
Given the lack of women of color in The Punk Singer, we were an afterthought, and from reading Nquyen's essay, this issue is nothing new – this documentary was the latest demonstration of a woman using her societal privilege to dabble in a sub-culture and while at the film's ending, even though she is happily married and has a family and insists that her feminist ideology still remains true—she has been able to exit into a comfortable life in which many, for instance women of color who strip for survival, cannot.
In addition, one of The Punk Singer's interviewees Jennifer Baumgardner proclaims some revisionist feminist history: that 'feminists' from as far back as the 18th Century were somehow responsible for promoting racial equality during the Civil Rights era. In the States the emancipation of slavery was seen as a tool for women's organizations to bolster their own rights and there was no activism specifically conducted to liberate black women from the physical and sexual abuse they faced at the hands of their slave owners. This offensive statement cemented what had bothered me about the Riot Grrrl scene: These women activists created a movement that was only relatable for them and there was no thought given to the inclusion of women of color. We were expected to be grateful that they were fighting for us because we shared the same lady parts. That was not—and still is not—the case.
In terms of providing a historical narrative of the Riot Grrl scene, The Punk Singer does an adequate, yet rushed job within an 80-minute film. Is Hanna iconic? For some people, she definitely is. Especially for those who do not want to either look too deep into the film, or for young, heterosexual, able-bodied white women like Gevinson who clearly romanticize that era and are looking for an icon. But I didn't see it.
SARAH MIRK: Like any movement, Riot Grrrl doesn’t stay static. The way we see the music, its message, and the musicians who proudly call themselves riot grrrls changes as we gain distance, perspective, critique, and new music and as new generations of musicians take the stage.
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