This Is Your Life: Kathleen Hanna

Cortney Harding

By Cortney Harding

on 09.03.13 in Interviews

Kathleen Hanna has a 20-year-long career of writing smart, incisive, political music, yet she still runs up against the stereotype that she’s “that riot grrl chick.” If she is, then Dylan was just “that anti-war dude,” Woody Guthrie was just “that Communist guy,” and Ian McKaye is “the dude who doesn’t drink.” But Hanna has done more for many, many young women (including this one) than she’ll ever know. Her impact on a generation of girls who came up in that sweet spot of the ’90s and went forward is profound, and even if she’s not the most famous face of third-wave feminism, her work has the most lasting meaning of any of its most important documents.

But the more people try to box her in, the more Hanna pivots, going from raw punk with Bikini Kill to busted DIY synth pop with Julie Ruin to electroclashy dance-pop with Le Tigre. After taking some time to work on other projects, including a film about her called The Punk Singer, Hanna is back to making music with a new Julie Ruin record, Run Fast. Cortney Harding met up with Hanna to talk about her life in punk through the songs she wrote.

Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl”

I was living in D.C. and spending a lot of time at a house called the Embassy House, where my bandmates and a bunch of other musicians lived. I can say I wrote it there, in the basement, but the song almost wrote itself. It’s like there was something in the air in 1992 in D.C. and I just reached out and grabbed it. In a way, I don’t even feel like I can take credit for it. It was never meant to be a song about “riot grrl,” necessarily; we didn’t use that term, the press named it that. It’s really about this mix of envy and excitement you feel towards certain women.

Bikini Kill, “Thurston Hearts The Who”

There was an incident where a magazine wrote a negative review of our record, then after they heard that Thurston Moore liked us, went back and wrote a different, more positive review. Then there was another situation where we played a show in Hawaii and a woman wrote a terrible review — she said that I was confused and acting out abuse I had suffered on stage and she made us sound really stupid. But one of the points I was trying to make was that you can talk like a Valley Girl and still be a smart person; it’s all about recognizing the contradictions you have to live with if you’re any sort of marginalized person.

I had been wanting to do a more spoken-word-, performance-art-type of piece and doing this was also an opportunity to respond back and take control of this bad review. It was also a way to work through everything that was happening with Sonic Youth — they loved us and supported us and I appreciated the attention and help, because for a while it seemed like everybody hated us and it’s hard to be on stage and just be hated. But there was also the idea that we needed the stamp of male approval to be liked by anyone. The idea that men are the arbiters of taste; I remember for a while in Olympia if Calvin Johnson danced at your show, it meant your band had made it in some way. So while Thurston helped us and we appreciated it, I always wondered why it had to take a man’s approval to change how people thought.

Bikini Kill, “Reject All-American”

I was in Olympia, and it was a really difficult time period for me. I had three deaths in three days, two of which I found out about via my answering machine. So I honestly don’t remember much about writing the lyrics; I had a deadline for going into the studio and I basically just went to a hotel and wrote all the lyrics in 48 hours. This was in 1995 or 1996 and things had just gotten really shitty. And the funniest part of all this was that people hated this record and called us sellouts because we recorded it in a studio and we had gotten better as musicians. It’s like, first we were awful because we weren’t professional enough, and then we were awful because we were too professional.

The Julie Ruin, “I Wanna Know What Love Is”

Julie Ruin overlapped with Bikini Kill; Bikini Kill was coming to a close and around the same time I got a drum machine and Slim Moon gave me a broken sampler. The sampler didn’t have any memory so I couldn’t redo things and it was basically a three-step process to record anything. At the time, I was also dealing with a stalker. It was the end of 1997 and I was living in Olympia, and getting people coming up to me on the street and handing me zines, some of which were about how terrible I was. I would go work in this jock coffee shop because I didn’t know anyone there and the guys at the counter never talked to me and no one bothered me. One day, this guy who worked in a shop across from my apartment came in and asked the owners of this coffee shop if I was a prostitute; the guys at the coffee shop, who had never talked to me before, were so freaked out by it they told me they were worried. This guy would watch me and eventually he moved into the store across from me and would look in my apartment all the time. I was mostly sleeping other places because I felt so unsafe, and I didn’t feel OK wearing headphones to record music because it meant I couldn’t hear if he was coming in the door or the window. One night at 3 a.m., I happened to be in my apartment and I recorded this song, having to take off my headphones every 30 seconds to check the door and the window. Eventually he was arrested for another domestic violence charge and I found another apartment.

Le Tigre, “Bang Bang”

I had moved to New York and I was on Mott Street at the time. I think Moby lived in the same building, because I would see his mail in the lobby sometimes [laughs]. When Amadou Diallo was shot, I wanted to write a song about it, but I felt as a white person I couldn’t speak from a personal point about racism. I remember Fugazi singing “Suggestion” and Ian getting shit for that, but I also wanted to stick my neck out and say something.

Le Tigre, “New Kicks”

I wanted to document everything that was happening around the anti-war protests in 2003, to take a snapshot of that time. I think movements need music. I also remember we got permission from Al Sharpton to use a sample of him speaking in a song, and I was really excited and grateful. A little while later I met him at an event, and went up to him and thanked him and told him how much I appreciated it, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I’m sure our sample request was one of a hundred papers he just signed every day.

The Julie Ruin, “Oh Come On”

The singing style on this was inspired by Lydia Lunch, and I’m talking about being a feminist performer and talking to other feminist performers. There’s a pressure for female performers to be angry and sexy at the same time; you’re also supposed to be some sort of representative of your gender. There’s a feeling that if you make a mistake it’s the wallpaper for the rest of your life and career. I’m just saying, “Oh, come on,” do we really have to keep living like this? Can’t you just represent yourself?