Monthly Archives: August 2014

Feels blind: Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer

Tpunk-singerhe Punk Singer is a documentary that examines the life and legacy of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the early-90s Olympia-based feminist punk band Bikini Kill.

It’s compelling from start to finish, largely down to the great charisma of Hanna herself and the passion that underlines her continuing political activism.

As a child, Hanna became politicised when her mother took her to various marches and events. Her mother also did anti-domestic violence work. Yet this was something that both of them had to keep from Hanna’s father, as he disapproved.

Nonetheless, Hanna read up on the history of women’s liberation – core texts of the struggle such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique. She became an outspoken radical feminist and activist for various other causes (speaking out against acts of police brutality and Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example).

Bikini Kill’s music pulsates with anger, quite literally screaming out to be heard, precisely because Hanna felt that she couldn’t speak out for so much of her life. This is what ultimately makes it so powerful.

She paid dearly for daring to sing about subjects that many people didn’t want to hear about. The mainstream media constantly belittled her and misrepresented her to such an extent that she finally withdrew from the public eye and Bikini Kill was disbanded.

Even so, she ventured on a solo side project, The Julie Ruin, and formed another band, Le Tigre. The Julie Ruin was particularly revolutionary as she crafted all of the music in her own bedroom. Listening to the unpolished quality of this music, you feel that you can create your own album, in your own room, using the same limited tools Hanna had to her disposal – the ultimate in punk do-it-yourself methodology.

The Punk Singer offers up an unequivocally respectful portrayal of Hanna that even verges on sycophantic, that can’t be denied. Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that she is an exhilarating, unique artist, worlds apart from the over sexualised female performers who flood today’s mainstream music scene, and who comparatively have few positive messages to convey.

Her battle with debilitating Lyme’s disease emerges as you watch the film, and this only highlights how exceptionally strong Hanna is – she still forced herself to make an album against the backdrop of her illness.

I urge you to watch The Punk Singer, for an incredible insight into a key figure of the riot grrrl movement, who, similarly to Viv Albertine of The Slits, still hasn’t fully received the acclaim she deserves.

I leave you with what has now become one of my favourite Bikini Kill tracks, Feels Blind: