released at time in her career when she was in between projects and hadn't toured or been seen in public for years as she privately sough a diagnosis for what she later learned to be late stage LYME DISEASE, THE PUNK SINGER (LONG SHOT FACTORY, 2013) is a documentary about the career and cultural impact of BIKINI KILL / LE TIGRE / THE JULIE RUIN frontwoman and RIOT GRRRL founder KATHLEEN HANNA.
in essence her greatest contribution to popular culture is the empowerment of a whole generation of girls and young women in the 1990s. her confrontational lyrics and fierce outspoken political manifestos place her in the vanguard of what PUNK ROCK is all about. in fact, i'd argue BIKINI KILL exceeded the label, pushing their listeners to organize themselves and start RIOT GRRRL support structures in their own communities and empower each other. totally DIY. absolutely grassroots.
that aspect of her influence is their in spades in the film as it goddamn well should be. in my mind she is a revolutionary figure. what made this documentary interesting beyond that is how she transcended her cult status and pursued her private life without being boxed in by her own supporters. its not unlike the premise from MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (HANDMADE FILMS, 1979), where leaders have to fight an image and new cultural paradigm that they created. well, partly created. the media has a bottom line it has to uphold and only looks for the sensationalist aspects of narrative that it wants to promote. uplifting consciousness of both women and men is not a selling point for the corporate ogre. her frustrations with her presentation on a national stage that are beyond her control are well founded by expected. the media is a circus mirror side act on the best of days.
i dont want to make too much of this but i think that just as courageous as her creative work is her ability to pursue a relationship with ADAM HOROVITZ of the BEASTIE BOYS (whose LICENSED TO ILL album is famously juvenile and retrograde in terms of gender politics) because it speaks to how we dont choose who we fall in love with. in his defense, the BEASTIE BOYS quickly dumped that shtick and sought inclusiveness and championed issues of global awareness throughout the rest of their career. if anything they were a conscientious band that had a definite evolution and you can see in this film how HANNA's influence guided them along a route they had already chosen.
i thin also just coming out and being an advocate for those suffering with LYME DISEASE is incredibly powerful and empowering. i know people that find her preachy and maybe even a bit naive, but i wish we had more artists like her right now. i'm glad she is out there doing her thing, or teaching classes at NYU or working on art and solo projects, or continuing the fight against patriarchy. god bless her.
i should also mention that a whole cadre of female musicians, artists and writers were interviewed for this film including JOAN JETT, KIM GORDON (SONIC YOUTH, BODY/HEAD), ALLISON WOLFE (BRATMOBILE), LYNN BREEDLOVE (TRIBE 8), CORIN TUCKER (HEAVENS TO BETSY, SLEATER-KINNEY), CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (SLEATER-KINNEY) and BECCA ALBEE (EXCUSE 17) as well as BIKINI KILL bandmates TOBI VAIL and KATHI WILCOX, LE TIGRE bandmates JOHANNA FATEMAN and JD SAMSON, photographer TAMMY RAE CARLAND, director TAMRA DAVIS and writers SARA MARCUS, JENNIFER BAUMGARDENER and TAVI GEVINSON.
if you are a fan of PUNK ROCK or revolutionary movements in general, this is definitely required viewing. HANNA is a national treasure.
when people consider the PUNK ROCK movement that swelled up on both sides of the ATLANTIC in the late 1970s, the bands that usually come to mind are iconic acts like THE RAMONES, SEX PISTOLS, THE CLASH and THE DAMNED. whats interesting about those bands is that in many ways they are rather conservative in their approach, basically recycling CHUCK BERRY riffs and taking back ROCK AND ROLL in essence back to its core 1950s origins with ROCKABILLY legacy acts like ELVIS PRESLEY, EDDIE COCHRAN, GENE VINCENT, CARL PERKINS and the like. i find it one of the great ironies that a cultural movement so celebrated for being transgressive was actually quite traditionalist in a sonic sense, at worst even nostalgic.
such was not the case with two bands of that period, X-RAY SPEX and especially THE SLITS. the documentary HERE TO BE HEARD: THE STORY OF THE SLITS (HEAD GEAR FILMS, 2017) interview surviving members (and former members) TESSA POLLITT, VIV ALBERTINE, PALMOLIVE and NENA CHERRY about their experience during that period. the recently deceased ARI UP (R.I.P.) appears in archival interview and performance footage.
my big takeaway from that film was how truly revolutionary THE SLITS were in context, both musically and socially. musically they blazed the way forward towards POST-PUNK by incorporating WEST INDIAN and AFRICAN rhythms into an aggressive yet sophisticated sound which sonically reinforced confrontational lyrics dealing with the VICTORIAN ideals of womanhood. and if you thought these famous male PUNK bands were supportive of their female brethren you'd be surprised. apparently while on tour with THE CLASH on their WHITE RIOT TOUR in 1977 across BRITAIN, the bus driver needed to be bribed in order to allow THE SLITS on the bus. such was the stigma against female musicians in this effective boys' club. this resulted in THE SLITS developing a sense that other bands and their manager's became extensions of the establishment.
think about that. THE SLITS were outcasts within a subculture defined by their outcast status. its quite remarkable and really puts those other bands in proper focus, since the revolution advocated at least initially had no place for women outside of traditional roles. it is almost absurd how truly conventional those bands were and how authentically subversive THE SLITS were during their prime.
and it doesn't stop there either. founding member and powerhouse drummer PALMOLIVE (later of THE RAINCOATS) was dismissed because the PUNK ROCK ethos of the band couldn't square itself with her CATHOLICISM. so even within the internal realm of a band that was the outcast within a scene of outcasts, a CHRISTIAN found herself to be the most isolated of all. if anything, her example is to follow your convictions despite societal or peer group pressure, which is by definition the essence of PUNK ROCK. funny how life works sometimes.
the larger aim of this documentary is to present THE SLITS and ARI UP (in fact, this film fulfills part of her final will) to a new generation of music fans that may be unaware of them and their influence not only on the experimental POST-PUNK scene but also perhaps on the RIOT GRRRL scene that flourished 20 years after. THE SLITS due to the misogyny of rock critics from major BRITISH and AMERICAN publications alike have been dismissed from the greater narrative of PUNK ROCK as nothing being a footnote or curiosity. this documentary helps shed light on their proper place as an equal (and perhaps maybe a little more equal than other bands) creative force in a storied, influential scene.
photo & text by nacrowe
for me SARA MARCUS' unflinching examination of the RIOT GRRRL movement of the early 1990s in GIRLS TO THE FRONT: THE TRUE STORY OF THE RIOT GRRRL REVOLUTION (HARPER COLLINS, 2010) was a challenging read.
i think part of that was the nature of the movement itself, which despite being started by a small cluster of artists and musicians in OLYMPIA and franchised out to WASHINGTON DC and various towns and cities beyond thereafter, was essentially not centralized. this meant there was no clear voice by design. it was meant to be a localized support network for women to bond over their trauma and abuse and re-channel such pain into political and creative efforts that were, again, local in scope. MARCUS gives a direct overview of the career trajectories of the major bands within the scene, namely BIKINI KILL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY and HUGGY BEAR, but only as a means of contextualizing how the brand was dispersed and ultimately transformed by those thousands of girls across the UNITED STATES that got the message. and that friction is the crux of this book to me.
what started out as a personal communal idea of a connected supportive sisterhood in the face of a culture that diminished and infantilized their role in society and objectified their physical being was commendable beyond reproach. where it all broke down, as is a familiar narrative with second-wave feminism in general, was along lines of identity, specifically race. this was pre-INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM, which essentially expanded the idea of womanhood beyond that of the white, educated, largely middle-class demographic and expanded along lines of race, education and class. and much of the conflict of this book was internal with coastal acolytes not checking their own privilege at the door. but learning is difficult even when participating in a revolution.
so basically this book is complicated because the ideas they were confronting were complicated. during this period women were in danger of losing their constitutional right to control their own bodies and were the subject of harassment and increasingly elevated levels of rape and sexual abuse as teens (1 in 4 is what the book states). so to fault their efforts as imperfect or pedantic in nature is not the point.
the point is they forced a conversation in popular culture that we are still having to this day and in essence, for bands today, male or female to do benefits or be outwardly vocal about their views against ABUSE AGAINST WOMEN should be accredited to their advocacy.
as a guy reading this book i was constantly wondering what room their strident worldview had for male allies of the cause. such was never really addressed in the book but this is fine, not a criticism. the movement can almost be described as a primal scream against male oppression and the corporate machine that marginalizes women and markets them with messages meant to minimize them down to the physical presentation.
for me i found this book to be rewarding in that it presented the worldview of this movement which still has value to this day in the work of artists and bands addressing these issues with full confidence thanks to the fearless RIOT GRRRLS and their transformation of the consciousness within the stateside PUNK ROCK and INDIE ROCK scenes nationwide.
its the type of book i will be revisiting and thinking about long after this review is published. in essence any movement, much like in MONTY PYTON's comedy LIFE OF BRIAN is subject to the whims of its adherents re-contextualizing idea and ritual into new traditions that may not square with the original intent. its like a game of telephone and the RIOT GRRRL movement was no different.
insightful read. highly recommended.
photo & text by nacrowe
ever since i saw GREGG ARAKI's stridently apocalyptic THE DOOM GENERATION (DESPERATE PICTURES, 1995) film in high school i was a fan of ROSE MCGOWAN. she really seemed to exude an inner confidence that manifested in her physical being. and really that was read on her throughout her early career. that she was this impossibly beautiful, no bullshit force of nature.
in her recent memoir BRAVE (HARPERCOLLINS, 2018) that was released in the aftermath of the #METOO and #TIMESUP movements that had a long overdue cascading effect on the male-dominated AMERICAN entertainment industry, MCGOWAN eviscerates any notion that HOLLYWOOD is not a cult that we are all subservient to in one fashion or another. and she should know, being raised as a member of CHILDREN OF GOD as a child in ITALY, escaping and then living broke on the streets with no security system until being plucked out of obscurity by a production assistant.
for me, her life details were only interesting in that they empowered her overriding thesis that any system (whether they be political, religious, regional or even personal in nature) which demeans our individual sense of identity and self-worth is inherently destructive and should be eradicated. in her case, this focus of her ire is the entertainment industry and the networks of supplicants that allow power-brokers to go on unchecked in sexually assaulting young women as had been done to her by (now newly convicted) HARVEY WEINSTEIN of MIRAMAX/THE WEINSTEN COMPANY notoriety. it wasn't just that she was raped by an influential producer of OSCAR-nominated films who subsequently black-listed her, it was also the fact that other managers, co-stars, agents, producers, directors, etc. knew about her situation (as well as other similar victims) and did nothing in fear of upsetting the apple cart. some, like former partner and director ROBERT RODRIGUEZ even had her reenact her trauma in his PLANET TERROR (DIMENSION, 2007) film.
i share her disdain for an industry that routinely cannibalizes itself. i also greatly admire her sense of courage in relating her story, even as such no doubt will expose her to professional retribution in loss roles. but i doubt she cares about that anymore. she is on a new powerful path of advocacy for the exploited. perhaps my initial reading on her was correct.
one of the really prescient observations MCGOWAN makes in the book is how as consumers of the media, we are all susceptible to its messaging. all of us. whether we consciously reject or acquiesce to it matters not at all. as a member of a media-consuming population we are inculcated with belief systems and biases that are deep at root in our ability to self-define who we are as individuals and our role in society. she takes ownership of her role in that "cult" she describes us all being subject to. i respect her for that.
you ruined my childhood.
that's what i loved hearing from my high school students after having them read ANGELA CARTER's genius feminist reinterpretation of classic fairy tales from her 1979 short story collection THE BLOODY CHAMBER (PENGUIN, 1979).
i always loved the idea of a palimpsest, which is an artwork that has layers created over time. think of a wall in NYC that has graffiti, flyers and "post no bills" scribbled and glued on top of one another. there are layers of meaning literally stacked on each other.
same with FAIRY TALES, most were written in FRANCE in the 1700s as a way of controlling young women. many of the stories are exceedingly misogynist and artifacts of their era. many got reinterpreted in GERMANY in the 1800s and then again in 1900s in the UNITED STATES, most predominantly by WALT DISNEY. in many ways the DISNEY films are relaying a similar message about what is expected of young women, namely to seek marriage and motherhood as validation in a male-dominated society. it is super interesting and most don't even give it a second thought.
that is why CARTER and her reinterpretations are so shocking to kids. if you know the basic narrative and its variations, then if you are thrown a new interpretation these new alterations become cogniscent choices and oftentimes criticisms of earlier texts. for CARTER it feels almost as though she is correcting the narrative and releasing it from its chauvinistic worldview. the fact that such is jarring really showcases the level to which our basic identity in western society is built upon such gender power imbalances.
needless to say, my students had a hard time with DISNEY films thereafter. but my hope was that they gained a critical eye towards the relatioship between a coded message and its intended audience.
ah, critical thinking. too bad they can't put that in a scantron test. american education system is screwed. good luck.