Kathleen Hanna's Fire
On the self-titled debut record by punk/dance band Le Tigre, there's a short song called "Eau d'Bedroom Dancing" that pays tribute to the timeless tradition of spinning around one's bedroom, alone. "There's no fear when I'm in my room/It's so clear and I know just what I want to do/All day bedroom dancing," confides lead singer Kathleen Hanna, her girlish voice ringing over a soft synthetic drumbeat. If the words sound like a poem you (ladies?) might have scribbled in your notebook at 14, consider these lines: "No one to criticize me then/No one to criticize." Sounds like a pop song, reads like a lament.
"I've always felt frustrated listening to a band and dancing, and there's some knucklehead who comes up and says, 'Oh, hey, I love how you dance,'" explains the 33-year-old Hanna, who's been the reigning feminist of the indie-rock scene since it exploded ten years ago. "I think, 'Did I ask for that because I was standing in front having such a good time?' And then, 'Maybe I'll stand in the back and dance,' or 'Maybe I'll stay home and listen to the record and dance in my room by myself.'... It's that sort of feeling that even in leisure time you're still on the clock and being looked at through the male gaze--to turn a little Feminist 101 phrase on you," she adds with a laugh.
For Hanna, who formed Le Tigre in 1999 with painter/writer Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning (who left the band after their debut album and was replaced by JD Samson, co-founder of Dykes Can Dance), the personal has long fueled the political, and the political has long fueled the music. From her early days with bands like Amy Carter, Viva Knieval and the hugely influential (and angry) punk quartet Bikini Kill, to her current work with the very fun, and very feminist, Le Tigre, Hanna has consistently sought to bring the issues that have affected her and her friends and fans--including domestic violence, unequal pay and the right to choose--to the fore of the indie scene.
But Hanna's path to the stage was hardly direct. As a student at Washington State's Evergreen College in the late 1980s, she studied photography and did spoken word performances of her writing--an avenue of artistic expression she was persuaded to abandon by one of her favorite writers, countercultural icon Kathy Acker. "[Acker] asked me why writing was important to me, and I said 'Because I felt like I'd never been listened to and I had a lot to say,'" she remembers. "And she said, 'Then why are you doing spoken word--no one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band.'"
In the small city of Olympia--in many ways the nerve center of what is now thought of as the Seattle explosion--there was ample opportunity to get onstage. Hanna knew the music scene intimately. As part of a feminist collective art gallery, she frequently booked bands for fundraising concerts and used the proceeds to keep the gallery open for business. (This space was across the street from a women's shelter where Hanna worked as a rape counselor--an experience that had a huge impact on her. "I got a better education there than I did from college," she says.) Following Acker's advice, Hanna put together Amy Carter, her first group.
A short time later, in 1991, Hanna started Bikini Kill, just as the Riot Grrrl movement was attracting young women across America. In interviews, Hanna has denied being a Riot Grrrl "founder," but the feminism espoused by that movement is very much in sync with her own--one that builds awareness from the personal experiences of oppression and unfairness that every young woman goes through and turns that awareness into action. In a way, Riot Grrrl meetings were like consciousness-raising sessions updated for the 1990s--and so were Bikini Kill shows. "I always saw performing as an advertisement for feminist activity," Hanna explains. Concerts didn't erupt into rallies, exactly, but following Hanna's example of what a young woman can be--loud, smart, political and sexy--girls and young women started to speak out. Though vastly outnumbered by boys and men in the crowd, they would wait for the end of a show and then, inspired by the music, confide in Hanna. "Stories I heard from girls at the show--about incest, rape, domestic violence--were a little too much emotionally," says Hanna. "But I was able to write songs about them."
"The music is a way for women to validate what they're going through," says Hanna. "That was the era in the early '90s, when all this work that had been done was getting pushed under the rug and there was such a big backlash--I didn't even know the word backlash, I just knew what it felt like."