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For feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna, the re-formation of Bikini Kill after 22 years is an exhilarating vindication of her early career. By Shaad D’Souza.

Punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna

Black and white portrait photograph of Kathleen Hana – a smiling, middle-aged woman wearing her dark hair tied in a bun matched with a necklace that is attached to a lion pendant. A heart is tattooed on her right shoulder.
Kathleen Hanna.
Credit: Jason Frank Rothenberg

Kathleen Hanna is teaching me how to breathe. On the phone while on holiday in Hawaii, the 54-year-old punk icon is explaining the right way to do it and how, years after disbanding her foundational, hard-on-the-lungs punk band Bikini Kill, she found out she had been breathing incorrectly.

“When you take in a breath, your belly and your lungs are supposed to expand,” she tells me. “I was doing the opposite –  I was like, caving in my chest when I took a breath in.

“A lot of people who are trauma survivors or have been through abuse as children do this thing called inverted breathing. They hold this tension in their body – I wasn’t ever really taking a full breath in. I found that out and I was amazed that I was able to sing as hard as I was in Bikini Kill and not completely, like, trash my voice.

“Breathing is the most natural thing in the world. It felt so embarrassing, in my 30s, to find out I wasn’t breathing correctly – and I was a singer. Like, that was just intense. And then I had to practise – I walked around New York City, practising breathing for months until I started to breathe naturally.

“Now I’m singing really well, and I’m feeling connected to something way bigger than myself – it almost feels like I’m flying. I’m 54 years old and I’m singing better live than I was in my 20s. That feels like a big ‘fuck you’ to all of the assholes who messed with me. But even more than that, it feels like a big ‘hell yes’ to myself.”

Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997 and reunited as a touring band in 2019, after 22 years apart. Hanna’s new mastery of her vocal technique is one of many reasons that this new run of Bikini Kill shows is a vastly different affair from any of the band’s shows in the ’90s. This month sees the band’s first Australian tour in 26 years. It ends on March 13 with a show at the Sydney Opera House and includes a talk on March 12 as part of the Opera House’s All About Women festival.

Hanna and her bandmates – original members Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, as well as new touring member Sara Landeau – still shred and scream, and still inspire intense, profound devotion from their fans, many of whom remain enamoured with the community-minded Riot Grrrl movement that the band helped catapult to global – and conflicted – fame in the ’90s.

Now the shows are bigger and come with less threat of violence for Hanna, who was often harassed and abused onstage during the band’s original run. Some of the group’s songs have even more resonance now, as many of the things the band fought for initially – such as reproductive rights and gender and sexual equality – are being wound back by conservative social and political forces. And, on a purely functional level, the band now has years’ more experience – both personally and musically – and more confidence.

“I’m not the same Kathleen I was when I was 26. It’s weird – I think [back then] I bought into the shitty things that people said about us – like we didn’t write real songs, or that our music was just therapy, or we were just screaming political slogans,” Hanna says. “When I revisited the material, I was really surprised at how many different ways there were to come at it – there are lyrics in there that are so pertinent to what’s happening right now that I feel almost more attached to them as Kathleen Hanna in 2023 than I did back then.”

Hanna was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1968. Her mother was a feminist, inspired by publications such as Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine, and would take Hanna to rallies when she was a child, a sharp contrast to her father, whom she has described as a “violent alcoholic” who fostered a toxic environment in their home. After high school, Hanna moved to Olympia, Washington – the punk enclave where DIY artists such as Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain lived at various points – and became an artist and activist, working as a stripper and volunteering at domestic violence crisis centres.

In 1990, Hanna formed Bikini Kill with Vail and Wilcox. They quickly became figureheads of the emergent Riot Grrrl scene, which codified the politics of third-wave feminism through community organising, self-made zines and intense, righteously angry punk music. The band fought against “troll guy reality”, extolled the virtues of female rage and female sexual pleasure, and invited the women in their audiences to both take up space at their shows – “girls to the front” became an iconic rallying cry – and to question received wisdom about the role of women in society.

They became a profound influence, not just on a future generation of feminists but a previous one, too. I recently interviewed Gina Birch, founder of groundbreaking ’70s punk band The Raincoats, and she described Bikini Kill as a perfect mix of “compassion and anger” – a vibrant tonic to the spirit of ’70s feminism.

“What made feminism exciting for me was probably Riot Grrrl – Kathleen Hanna. She was so amazing,” Birch told me. “She was so gorgeous and so feisty. She’d been a stripper for a while, she could do the splits, cartwheels. She wasn’t your archetypal feminist – she was like, this fucking amazing young woman, just like a fireball of joy and anger.”

Hanna was a figurehead of ’90s feminism, and Bikini Kill made an indelible mark on popular culture. But at the time, being a band of outspoken young women made life hard for Hanna and her compatriots. “Every night on tour with Bikini Kill in the ’90s, it would be a different sound person, and nine times out of 10 it was a man who hated us. I was threatened to be stabbed, I was told ‘I’m not going to set up your monitor unless you tell me if you’re single or married, I’m going to shock you on the microphone whenever I want’,” Hanna says. “To play shows in that kind of atmosphere … Literally as a feminist, there’s a man controlling my voice, there’s a man who hates me controlling my voice, so they’re turning me down, so I have to scream, which is hurting my vocal cords, which is meaning the show tomorrow is not going to be as good.”

Bikini Kill faced harassment from their audience, too – men who would come to shows just to heckle and demean. Eventually, people began coming to their shows just to get a rise out of Hanna. “About halfway through being a band, the things that guys would yell at us were so similar – it was like they had a script. It started to feel like they thought that our band was a part of a play, like we were actors being a feminist band, and they were actors in the audience being the assholes,” she recalls. “It felt like these guys had a network or a script. And that was actually more painful to me than in the beginning, when men were just threatened and they were just yelling stuff like ‘Shut up, take it off’.

“That felt extremely weird – like Groundhog Day, like I was a puppet who was pantomiming the experience of being a woman performer reacting to abuse. That, to me, was one of the weirder Bikini Kill experiences that I don’t miss at all.”

Since re-forming, things have been a little easier – they can afford to bring engineers and assistants on tour, they’re no longer playing “punk clubs with shitty sound”, and although “there’s still men who grope women at our shows, we deal with it, and it’s not as bad”. Hanna, Vail and Wilcox have also sifted through their history and retired songs and slogans that they feel aren’t relevant anymore – including, controversially, Hanna’s invocation of “girls to the front”.

“People have expressed disappointment at the fact that I’m not saying ‘girls to the front’, and I’m trying to express that in a more complicated way. You have to live in the moment, and even in the ’90s there were times where I didn’t say it because I walked out and it was all girls in the front, and then it would just be some empty schtick,” she says.

“When there’s only three women in the whole entire club, and they’re in the back holding their boyfriends’ coats, it’s kind of important to say, ‘I’m inviting you up to the front.’ But I don’t feel comfortable asking men of colour to stand in the back – I think it’s a bullshit move, I think it’s racist to have a white woman on stage saying ‘Girls to the front’ and not acknowledging that there’s non-binary people there, that there’s men of colour there enjoying the music. We’re allies – I’m not kicking you in the back, that’s bullshit. If people don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves. I don’t really care.”

Similarly, they’ve made a conscious decision not to play a song like “Liar”, which includes the – admittedly extremely ’90s – lyric “Eat meat / Hate Blacks / Beat your fuckin’ wife / It’s all the same thing”. “For me, ‘Liar’ wasn’t necessarily one of our best songs – and those lyrics are incredibly offensive, so I don’t want to sing them. There are some lyrics, like in ‘DemiRep’, I used to use the word ‘lame’ and now I say ‘tame’, because that can be a really ableist thing to say,” she says. “But that’s one letter, and I don’t think it changes the meaning of the song – it says exactly what I want to say. With ‘Liar’, it’s like, I don’t think we really wanted to do that song anyway, and I feel like it could bring up bad feelings in people who have spent a lot of money and time and energy to come see us. I don’t want to put that in their face.”

Hanna says there’s something “very healing” about reuniting with Bikini Kill years after they disbanded. When the band first broke up, relationships were beginning to fracture and Riot Grrrl had become “very toxic”, Hanna says: a scene where “white women were attacking other white women, saying that they were racist as a way to not deal with their own racism”.

Hanna, Vail and Wilcox coined the phrase “girl power” in a 1990 zine, and by the mid-’90s the Spice Girls had commodified it, turning it into an easily saleable slogan. Throughout her career, ideas instituted by Hanna and her bandmates have been commodified and turned into hugely commercial enterprises – Le Tigre, the band she formed after Bikini Kill, provided an early blueprint for electroclash; their song “Deceptacon” has recently become a TikTok hit, in line with the Gen Z revival of “indie sleaze” culture. Although Hanna has made her peace with it now, she says it stung at first.

“It was definitely difficult for me then, as someone who couldn’t pay rent and was super-broke, to feel ripped off – but I’m not the only person this has ever happened to, and that’s both a terrible thing to acknowledge and something really humbling,” she says. “I definitely sometimes felt with Riot Grrrl, ‘Oh, God, I created fucking Frankenstein’s monster.’ Like, I didn’t actually create that – a bunch of people created it.

“But the bitterness is gone about all of that stuff, because I’m really happy that I’m able to make work, I’m really happy that I’m alive, I’m really happy that I can just write another song. These businesspeople who steal shit from artists, they don’t have anything interesting going on – they’re just trying to make money, and that’s really sad. I wouldn’t want to be on my deathbed knowing that my contribution was ripping off independent artists and putting their work on Taco Bell tray liners.”

She is grateful, she says, that she is one of the rare people who made a name through Riot Grrrl. “When you think of that movement, you think of my name – that means I can go on lecture tours when I’m not able to play music anymore, I can disseminate ideas and talk about my experiences and enjoy it,” she says. “I’m a feminist artist who’s had an almost 40-year career – that’s just unheard of, and pretty rare. How lucky am I?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "After the riot".

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