Pioneering musician Kathleen Hanna, of punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, is the subject of an upcoming documentary, The Punk Singer, released in the UK this week. Directed by Sini Anderson, the film focuses on Hanna’s spearheading of the initial Riot Grrrl movement, offering in-depth commentary on the inception of Bikini Kill, the Olympia music scene and the ups and downs of being an inspirational force in DIY punk-rock history.
In many ways, the film’s release could not have come at a better time, with the incendiary Riot Grrrl subculture and all that it stood for currently seeming more of a distant memory. Initially born from a hardcore punk ethos in the early 90s, bands like Bikini Kill, The Raincoats and many more sought to challenge attitudes of patriarchy, addressing rape, abuse, sexuality and political activism from a feminist perspective. This willingness to openly confront these issues resulted in female empowerment that inspired a generation of women and men.
Sadly, there has been a cultural shift over the last twenty years in music and politics to distance itself from feminism. Many musicians have made a case for mobilising sexist ‘irony’ into music, while others insist the war for equality is over and that sexism towards women in music has been consigned to history.
But forget that. Switch on any music video channel and you’ll struggle to find a single woman fronting a prominent rock band. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of woman-fronted acts out there – bands like Marmozets, who utilise math-rock and hardcore, fronted by 20 year old Becca Macintyre are starting to gain some ground; as are hard-riff, stoner rockers Deap Vally; and, most surprisingly, the authentic, atmospheric melancholy of Chelsea Wolfe.
However the vast majority of female-fronted bands — Blood Command, Rolo Tomassi, Wolf Alice, Sisters, Honeyblood, Fight Like Apes, The History of Apple Pie — are struggling to find a platform to be seen or heard.
The next generation of female musicians are stylish young waifs sporting ironic band t-shirts, wafting around like Haim or Lorde. Musically, their output is over homogenised, mass-produced, pop landfill. It’s a sad acceptance that in music over the last twenty years, it is sex that sells, not opinion.
Take the most famous women in pop music — Cheryl Cole, Shakira, Nicki Minaj — what it is they stand for? Beyonce is a global superstar who contributed to the Shriver report, slating the myth of gender equality. But even she can be seen pole dancing and writhing around husband Jay-Z in videos like Drunken Love or Partition. Sigh. Let’s face it, the Beyonces of this world are merely mirrors to mass culture. They are not the women to look to for change — and yet they are the ones who dominate our TV screens and airwaves.
These are just some of the challenges faced today by Riot Grrrl bands such as Tacocat, Bleached and Throwing Up, who have received little or no media attention despite their music being loud, refreshing and intelligent. Today, the musical landscape (much like the political) is as unwelcoming to feminist artists as it has ever been.
This attitude towards women in contemporary music is a far cry from the music of my youth in the early and mid nineties. Back then there was a constant horde of rising bands fronted by women: The Breeders, Free Kitten, Pussy Galore, Heavens to Betsey, Bratmobile, Silverfish, Ruby, Veruca Salt, L7, Babes in Toyland, Skunk Anansie, Curve, Garbage, Excuse 17, Bjork, Portishead, Daisy Chainsaw, and countless others.
My musical education was shaped by strong front-women constantly seeking to educate, inspire and be heard – even when conflict was commonplace at gigs for bands like Bikini Kill. As these women battled on, both courageous and profane, their message was clear: form your own ideas, question wider problems, do what you want to do and be who you want to be.
But it falls to the insurgent Riot Grrrls of 2014 to reclaim empowerment through DIY. Most famously, it is Pussy Riot (who cite Bikini Kill as an influence) who have been a political, musical and cultural reference point of late. Using their anti-fascist tactics to attract attention to issues of feminism and social structures, both the band and movement have created a public discourse around their concerns. And there are certainly parallels between the resurgence in women aligning themselves with Pussy Riot and the Riot Grrrl community of the 90s.
While the Riot Grrrl name may have diminished in the media over the last two decades, the movement’s values never went away. Riot Grrrl taught crucial lessons about directing anger and frustration about inequality into a public sphere. The issues that existed then are as relevant today.
With the UK release of The Punk Singer showcasing Kathleen Hanna’s political diatribes afresh, it will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Riot Grrrls to fly the flag for equality, give women agency and make their mark in music and beyond. If ever there was a time to push women in music to the forefront, it is now. And if that means bands will don the Pussy Riot balaclavas to be heard, so be it!
Faye Lewis is a music writer, literature fanatic and George Carlin aficionado. Follow her @FayeLewis85.
The Punk Singer Competition
Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre, rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the riot grrrl movement. She became one of the most famously outspoken feminist icons, a cultural lightning rod. Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews with Hanna, THE PUNK SINGER takes viewers on a fascinating tour of contemporary music and offers a never-before-seen view into the life of this fearless leader.
To celebrate, we’ve got a “Girls to the front” T-shirt and set of The Punk Singer badges to give away to one Feminist Times reader. To enter simply tweet us @Feminist_Times with your favourite riot grrrl song lyric, using #ThePunkSinger. The winner will be announced at 5pm on Thursday 22 May.
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