In Tamara Davis’ 1994 short film No Alternative Girls, a survey of women in bands, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna appears only briefly to talk about dressing less femme—short hair and baggy clothes—and how that shit doesn’t actually work as a deterrent for male attention. However: “If I wear pajamas and carry a handbag, everyone leaves me alone,” she says, while wearing a bright-red, full-face ski mask and looking down on the camera from a fire escape. “But that’s pretty sad.” It’s confrontational. It’s threatening. It’s part of the anti-media position her band Bikini Kill had taken after never once being given the benefit of good faith in the press. It’s also pretty fucking funny.
“I mean, even in Bikini Kill, I felt like we were hilarious. But yeah, not that many people did.” Hanna has always been funny, and in conversation is even funnier. (Just watch her 2020 Dan Rather interview, one of the pandemic’s stranger artifacts.) She’s always made work that is really incisive, funny, and sad, and rarely, if ever, has been given credit for it. Every story she tells is full of punchlines, her face is expressive, her stage presence is physical; she’s always dancing. Traditionally she’s been either a third-wave feminist Che Guevera or a straw-man argument or an “icon,” more an avatar of righteous female rage than a person.
“I feel like humor is such an important part of life for people who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. Because how are you going to get through the fucking day? We want to speak back to the people who fuck with us and make us feel like shit, but you can’t always do that. And so you end up making jokes at home with your friends about it. I just feel like I would rather laugh than cry sometimes. So humor has been really valuable to my mental health.”
I have seen God and his name is John WaterS.
She says a lot of her humor came from her mother. “I’m lucky to have a very funny mother. My mom came home after watching Polyester and was like, ‘I have seen God and his name is John Waters.’ She’s a mental health nurse with no college history. [She] was a housewife for a long time that nobody would think of as, you know, fucking having a brain in her head or being super funny. But because I saw her every day, I knew that she’s a fucking crazy genius and was able to, through her example, use humor as a way to deal with trauma. And I hope that comes out in the stage performance.”
You’ve heard it a million times before, so here’s a million and one: Olympia’s Bikini Kill emerged from a fully DIY ethos in 1990, a feminist culture with its own private zine network, a band that existed to provoke a masculine punk scene in every possible way. Their shows were antagonistic, and Hanna’s lyrics were about sexual assault, misogyny, sex work, and incest. No one seemed to listen past that to the sophistication of the songwriting. “I know that it’s just going to be that—I have an amazing scream and you know that I’m doing something that isn’t really music, it’s more political activism,” she says. Their most popular song, “Rebel Girl,” is about envy, desire, confidence, negative clichés as heroic qualities, queerness, friendship, sisterhood—and it’s only a sliver of the depth available to this band. It also rips as a rock song. From the despondent “R.I.P.” to the soft-boy revulsion of “Star Bellied Boy,” Hanna represented doing things anyway to a certain kind of person, regardless of any permission or notion of authority. A friend described riot grrrl’s core ethos to me as “Why can’t I?”; a more complicated and nuanced question than the “Why the fuck not?” of most punk.
The band released two EPs and two albums, all essential. They declared a media blackout. Kathleen Hanna still danced like a star in a Sonic Youth video, a taunt if there ever was one. Years after Bikini Kill dissolved (first in 1997, then reuniting in 2017), Hanna made a bedroom pop masterpiece (the first Julie Ruin record, 1998's self-titled release). She declared she was “just too cool” to appear on Mike Watt’s solo record but collaborated on a song with German digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot (be still my heart). She changed her style from sex-posi baby-doll provocateur to hyper-tailored glam, and tossed vintage ideas of punk authenticity in the garbage with the electro-pop group Le Tigre (which, in many ways, was more revolutionary than Bikini Kill, bringing attention to a legacy of feminist and queer art but first and foremost being fun as fuck to dance to). She donated her riot grrrl zine archives to NYU. She started a T-shirt company that gives all of its proceeds to put girls in Togo through school. She grappled with late-stage Lyme disease that made her worry she would never perform again. She performed again.
Throughout the pandemic, Hanna has been collaborating with her bandmates (singing the banger “Mirrorball” on Bikini Kill bassist Erica Dawn Lyle and Vice Cooler's North East Farmers of Color benefit album Land Trust, among an all-star list of collaborators—it’s Hanna’s first new song in four years) and writing with her husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, in their COVID pod. “That was one of the positive things that happened to me in COVID. I learned how to jam. I finally was confident enough as a guitar player to just play and make stuff up,” she says.
Bikini Kill will embark on a reunion tour two days after we talk, and Hanna has complicated feelings about the anger in her work being so of the moment. A leaked Supreme Court majority opinion draft suggests that the U.S. intends to strike down Roe v. Wade. There’s been a wave of racially motivated mass shootings, and a series of laws and rulings restricting bodily autonomy for trans children. “Targeting trans children is like, why don’t you just put lighter fluid on puppies? Light ’em on fire,” she says. Being the house band for femmes and queers right now has an additional edge to it. “I feel a little bit like I’m a psychic or some shit. Some of the songs feel more relevant now. That’s awesome as a performer, because I’m not bored. I’m not just going through the motions. There’s no way I could be.”
Targeting trans children is like, why don’t you just put lighter fluid on puppies? Light ’em on fire.
“I always am nervous about saying anything involving our music being therapeutic in any way just because, you know, as a woman, everybody says of your shit, ‘It must be great therapy for you. You’re so brave,’” she continues. “But I like being on stage right now, singing these songs. I feel very lucky because hopefully the audience gets something out of it. But like, I’m actually the luckiest person in the room. I’m getting to dance and sing my way out of a real bad situation. Like, I’m getting to actually express my frustration with my whole body and my voice. That’s something that I did not realize how much I needed until I wasn’t able to do it.”
The Bikini Kill shows are all ages, with the intention of getting people together regardless of their demographic bracket. Kathleen Hanna’s performances are meant to be cathartic, but she sees herself as cultivating a community of disparate marginalized groups.
“At this time period, we can’t afford to be turning against each other instead of learning from each other. I need the 15-year-olds and the 35-year-olds and the over-50s to be communicating,” she says. “And if all I can do is get them in the same room and they’re having a good time and looking at each other’s outfits? For right now, that’s enough.”
Despite revolutionizing punk music, Hanna often appears in rock history books as a footnote—and the anecdote is almost always the same. In the early ’90s, she once got very drunk with her pal Kurt Cobain—they defaced a “teen pregnancy center” designed to trick women out of having abortions (Kathleen wrote “Fake abortion clinic, everyone” on the facade, Kurt wrote “God is gay”)—and later, when they returned to his apartment, she broke out a black Sharpie and wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his wall. The rest is history, and the person who tells it best, of course, is Hanna herself, once performing it as a cabaret piece.
“You know, the one frustrating thing about that story for me is that, quite often, there’s a sexist component to it. There’s this part of it that’s very wrong that keeps getting repeated. And that’s that Tobi [Vail], my bandmate in Bikini Kill, who dated Kurt—the lie is that she wore Teen Spirit [brand] deodorant, and when I wrote that, I was referring to, like, Kurt smelling like her or her putting her scent on him and him being, like, pussy-whipped,” she says. “That is totally false. I would never say something so gross. If Tobi wore Charlie perfume, I wouldn’t be ‘Kurt smells like Charlie.’ That's just personal and weird. I wouldn’t make bodily references to my good friend like that.
“We were young people getting wasted and doing graffiti on a fake abortion clinic,” she explains. “It feels like I found Benjamin Franklin’s glasses in the trash. Like, ‘Oh, you're the one who found Benjamin Franklin's glasses in the trash.’ And I’m like, ‘Stop talking about Benjamin Franklin.’”
Hanna hasn't wanted to fully disavow the story, even as it’s made her uncomfortable to appear in every garbage grunge history book (especially when no one calls her to verify the truth). She’s come to expect it. But her relationship with Cobain is still important to her. “I feel very proud of my association with Kurt because he’s one of the only songwriters that I actually shared lyrics with and talked to about lyrics. And that was a really important time for me as a musician,” she says. “I felt very validated by him. And I think he felt validated by me, too. So I’m always, you know, down for that. We just never wanted to be the Nirvana-ettes.”
I feel very proud of my association with Kurt. We just never wanted to be the Nirvana-ettes.
Bikini Kill never were—especially not now, decades into her career, when Hanna fufills the role of feminist martyr for so many. “You go out on stage and I don’t want to be retraumatizing people by talking too much about certain things. I want to give people a place of relief. And I do keep thinking about Kurt and the line: ‘Here we are now. Entertain us,’” she says. “The rock star machine and the idea that things are all entertainment and now they’re in a world of infotainment—it’s a more complicated statement. I think it means something to entertain people who are typically left out of most media. I don’t think it’s preaching to the converted. I think the converted don’t get jack shit.”
She continues: “And not like my lyrics speak to everyone, but the vibe of our shows definitely is celebrating all of us in our different stages. It’s hard to know if this is the night to be like, ‘Let's celebrate what we do have!’ and when it should be littered with speeches about how fucked up shit is, because that’s also powerful.”
Therein lies the problem with canonizing her for sainthood: “People expect you to be who you were yesterday. And I don’t want to be who I was yesterday. I want to be smarter and better.”
Feminism is such a complex and fraught compass to live your life by, but Hanna assures that it does not have to be—if you allow yourself to be wrong, allow yourself to grow. Intersectionality comes up again and again for her. “People’s bodily autonomy is being put in peril, and it has been for a long time. As a woman and as a cisgendered woman, I have always worried about my safety for a variety of reasons, whether it’s stalkers and death threats, being a feminist in public, or, you know, rape and murder and stuff like that. And then constantly there’s all these Black and Brown people being murdered by police and being murdered by white supremacist vigilantes. We don’t give a shit if you live or die here.”
As the real heads know, Bikini Kill came out of working at a domestic violence counseling center. The music also came out of a desire to be a writer, to be listened to: When she was 19, Kathleen Hanna attended a workshop with queer experimental novelist Kathy Acker, who told her it was boring to be a spoken-word artist and to start a band instead. Hanna describes Acker as “a real hard-ass” teacher who helped her navigate the harsh learning curve of French feminist theory (Hanna is the only rock star you will ever meet to have an opinion on écriture féminine). "I love that Kathy was writing from multiple vantage points,” she says. “Part of what she was doing is admitting that there's the victim [and] there's the abuser in all of us. It’s not like anybody, regardless of their situation, is all one thing. All hero or villain or whatever. I like the way that she challenged binaries in terms of having her writing fade in and fade out. [It’s not] always this authoritative, singular voice. [That] really influenced the way that I sing. It influenced me taking on several different characters in certain songs, not singing from a solid viewpoint.”
Apart from Acker, in our conversation, Kathleen mentions James Baldwin at least three times, as well as French writers and philosophers Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. I ask if calling attention to other artists or thinkers was a priority for her. She says it, in part, was a response to Bikini Kill being routinely (and incorrectly) described as the “first feminist band.” It was also about viewing her work within a continuum of artists, feminist or otherwise.
"Part of my mission has always been sharing stuff that I’ve learned. Pre-internet, a song like [Le Tigre’s] “Hot Topic” [which name-checks many famous feminists] was very important because we were also coming on the heels of the riot grrrl movement disintegrating because racism was not a part of the discussion in a productive way,” she says of the lack of intersectionality in certain punk feminist circles. “And we were like, ‘What about the good things that have happened? Let’s celebrate the people whose work we continue to be inspired by instead of just sitting in our depression.’ It’s important to pass on great, overlooked artists to people.”
We don’t give a shit if you live or die here.
Kathleen Hanna’s life was the subject of Sini Anderson's 2013 documentary The Punk Singer—from the get, it’s clear that Hanna is a woman who has clearly spent a considerable amount of time thinking about her legacy. Not as a product of ego, but as a job that needs to be finished while there’s still time. What Hanna has accomplished in her lifetime pales in comparison with what she still feels the need to do. And she refuses to allow herself to become a lounge act or rest on her reputation, let alone be comfortable enough to coast and stop challenging herself. She will not be a museum piece.
“I’m a living legend. It’s like you’re dead and your best work is behind you,” she says. “That’s the thing that’s very hard or weird about my band. There’s this whole feeling of this historical reunion tour. ‘Look at the statues moving.’” She pauses. “[But] we’re actual people, making work."