Thursday, March 13, 2014

Politically Radical Content That You Dance To: Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer‏

The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s profile-style documentary about the rock star, “riot grrrl” movement figure, and provocateur Kathleen Hanna, is a scrappy (but rousing) snapshot montage of someone who can be seen as embodying the best of the D.I.Y. spirit of the American punk culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s. At times, Hannah—the front woman for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre—comes across almost as the scene’s Zelig: she was a friend of Kurt Cobain’s, and she was the one who came up with the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (She actually scrawled it on the wall of his house one night, explaining that “We were so wasted. Soooo wasted. So fucking wasted!”) The movie makes a pretty fair case that Cobain was strongly enough influenced by “girl art punk” that, without Hanna and her acolytes, there would have been no Nirvana as we know it. The thought of what the 90s would have been like without Nevermind could send a chill down the spine of many folks of a certain age, not that the thought of what the 90s would have been like without Bikini Kill, or Le Tigre, should make them feel any warmer.

Hanna describes starting out as a gallery artist and spoken-ward performer. It was Karen Acker who, in what may be remembered as Acker’s single greatest contribution to world culture, told her that she should drop the poetry slams and start a band, and then maybe some people would actually come to see her. She describe her voice as “a bullet,” and that bullet’s target as “an elusive asshole male who was fucking up the world.” Although Hanna doesn’t say it—and is so committed to the idea of shared support among creative women that she probably wouldn’t, even if she felt that way—her charismatic stage presence and high-energy performances might have been a rebuke. And not just to asshole males, but the literal-minded, doctrinaire spirit of the kind of academy-friendly “feminist” art—like the work of Barbara Kruger—that she might have fallen into grinding out, if she hadn’t embraced her pop side, escaped the university, and hit the clubs. 

Sini Anderson with Kathleen Hanna (Getty Images)
The movie features a generous selection of fuzzy-looking old footage of early Bikini Kill gigs, including not just songs but footage of Hanna urging all the women in the audience to move toward the front of the stage, so that they can enjoy themselves without having to worry about being knocked about by any rampaging, slam-dancing testosterone freaks in their midst. She felt that “it shouldn't just be one person’s responsibility” whether bullying was tolerated at an entertainment experience, so she turned it into a communal responsibility. In the process, she set herself apart from some male punk pioneers, such as The Clash, who, in interviews, sometimes expressed mixed feelings about rowdy fans and being gobbed on while on stage. She just shrugged off any concerns about not seeming “punk enough,” just as she shrugged off doctrinaire concerns about playing in bands with men or having a Beastie Boy for a romantic partner. (Meeting her husband, Adam Horovitz, taught her that “you can’t legislate who you fall in love with.”)

Not content to serve as a role model for women through her work onstage and on record, Hanna also created zines designed to carry the riot grrrl gospel—a logical next move for an independent spirit who no sooner became a public figure than she learned to distrust the mainstream media, which she accuses of covering her and her friends’ activities in a “condescending” way and getting the facts wrong to boot. (This film feels like a family affair, which it is: One of the producers was filmmaker Tamra Davis, who, like Hanna, is married to one of the Beastie Boys, Michael “Mike D” Diamond. At one point, Davis is interviewed while sitting next to Kim Gordon, who was one of the performers as a benefit concert that Anderson staged to raise money for the movie, which was also partially funded through Kickstarter.) Hanna imposed a “media blackout” after a Washington Post reporter wrongly reported that she had been raped by her father, and it’s telling that one of the things that forever cooled her on the media was seeing so many articles describe the work about rape and sexual assault that she and other riot girrrl artists were making as if it were strictly autobiographical. She felt that their imaginations were being impugned by the suggestion that they could only produce work based on their personal experiences. Hanna is willing to talk about the pain in her life, but part of what makes her such a stirring figure is that she has no interest in depicting herself as a victim.

The Punk Singer is punk-rock quick, just an hour and twenty minutes, and the last twenty minutes are mostly a break in the fun. Hanna “retired” in 2005, announcing that she had nothing left to say; here, she confesses that she had begun to show the symptoms of Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for six years, and she didn’t have the heart to admit that she could no longer do what she most enjoyed doing because she couldn’t trust her body. There’s a happy ending—after finally getting proper treatment for her condition, she takes the stage again with her new band, The Julie Ruin—that’s also a plug for The Julie Ruin’s debut album, which is well deserving of the plug. People who don’t like to give newspaper interviews have to get the word out there however they can.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment