The Riot Grrrl elder stateswoman opens up to columnist Nicole Brodeur about Bikini Kill, Beyoncé and her Beastie bestie.
None of the NYU students sitting before Kathleen Hanna last spring were even born in the early ’90s, when she was screaming “Suck my left one!” from stages around the country.
And yet, 25 years after Hanna co-founded the Riot Grrrl movement and fronted the seminal band Bikini Kill, she is an elder stateswoman. A study subject for Women’s History Month.
“The audience is in an academic setting, so they’re so young and they don’t know who I am or have seen my band play live,” Hanna said the other day. “Many of them aren’t even sure who Bikini Kill is.”
Kathleen Hanna: Riot Grrrl Then and Now
8 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, The Neptune Theater, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $23.50 (stgpresents.org).
It will be different on Wednesday, April 29, when Hanna, now 46, appears at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre for a lecture she is calling “Riot Grrrl: Then and Now.” Hanna expects some who have only seen the band on YouTube, or in the 2010 documentary, “The Punk Singer,” about Hanna’s life.
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But there will also be those who were there, in Olympia, where Hanna went to The Evergreen State College, when Bikini Kill was the house band for Riot Grrrl, a revolution pushing for increased femininity and female involvement in the punk scene.
It was angry, and relentless, but also energetic, wry and optimistic. Hanna’s lyrics were about girls who did and wore what they wanted, despite societal expectations.
Onstage, Hanna exposed her breasts and rear-end with lust-killing bluntness; she wore a girlish ponytail and danced around with “Slut” written in lipstick across her midriff. And she ordered the men who had taken over the front of the crowd to move back and let the women stand by the stage. Those who dared to argue were chewed out by Hanna in a surprisingly sweet voice.
“I think our lyrics were pretty out there for the time period,” Hanna said. “And our performance was pretty frenetic and almost falling apart. We didn’t want to be the perfect, slick MTV band that played the album in order or never talked.”
These days, Hanna lives in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood with her husband, Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz.
They met on tour in Australia 19 years ago, and married on their 10th anniversary “when my health insurance was about to be taken away,” Hanna jokes.
It was lucky timing.
In 2010, after years of depression and fatigue, Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Her illness cost her a lot of things, including making music with her second band, Le Tigre, which she formed after moving to New York in 2000. She also shelved a solo project called The Julie Ruin.
Her disease is now in remission, which has allowed her to re-form The Julie Ruin, which released its first album in 2013. Hanna is writing songs for a second album, to be recorded in June, and there are plans to tour.
The new songs will be sad ones, Hanna said, brought on by the emotions around her illness. She is digging deeper, rather than just trying to cheer herself up.
“The joke was, the next record is going to be like Leonard Cohen,” Hanna said. “I am so happy to be here, but I am also writing the sad songs.”
She is in constant fear that her illness will return.
“I feel like I am out of the woods, but I am writing about it.”
She is also writing back to fans who want to talk about feminism, about abuse that they have suffered (Hanna was raped at 15), and about Lyme disease. They appreciate her transparency about her struggles.
“An invisible illness is what I have,” Hanna said. “There’s this feeling when you’re on the subway and you can barely make it up the stairs or then you’re finally on the subway and you’re forced to stand up because you’re not handicapped.
“I started to want to wear a T-shirt that said, ‘I have an invisible illness. I need a seat.’ ”
It’s tough to imagine Hanna in such a state, when you watch footage of her chaotic performances, screaming a barrage of lyrics that demand women be reckoned with.
At the question-and-answer sessions that follow her lectures, Hanna sees how the Riot Grrrl movement has been reinvented by a new generation of young women.
“Not every girl is a Riot Grrrl,” Hanna said. “Not every girl has to be into it. They can hate it, and hate it so much that they create something else that’s great.”
Hanna sees echoes of Riot Grrrl in Beyoncé, who has done lustful dances in a bodysuit with the word “feminist” in mile-high letters behind her.
“You can have those contradictions exist and it doesn’t mean your feminism is invalidated,” Hanna said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist because you expose your legs and wear a leotard … I’m just happy there’s more of a conversation about feminism now.”
She mentioned last year’s Gamergate controversy, ignited when media critic Anita Sarkeesian received violent threats for criticizing the game industry’s depiction of women. She had to cancel speeches and leave her home. Other women were accused of sleeping with people to get good reviews of their games.
“This is the exact same thing you go through as a musician,” Hanna said.
To that end, Hanna is writing songs, rehearsing, going to voice lessons and trying to find a manager.
She and Horovitz have written and sold a pilot to Comedy Central, starring provocative downtown performer Bridget Everett. (“Hopefully, the show will see the light of day.”)
As for her visit to Seattle, well, she once spent a summer here, “and it wasn’t the best experience.”
“The Northwest is always a mixed bag for me,” she said. “It’s stressful. It’s also seeing how things have changed. I remember taking pictures for a heavy-metal band in high school, and just remembering that excitement as a kid. And now I’m giving a lecture here.”
She pauses to remember.
“I was just a scrawny kid, trying to get a free way into the show,” she said. “And now I am the show. So I will think of it as more of a triumphant return.”