Girls To The Front: THE PUNK SINGER And The Enduring Vitality Of Kathleen Hanna

A look back at an essential movement through an essential Riot Grrrl's words and sounds.

For those who didn't come of age during the Riot Grrrl movement of the '90s, Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer could serve as a sort of anthropological primer. But it's also a doorway into Kathleen Hanna's bedroom, where she fashioned zines and transformed her painful experiences and anger and resentments into lyrics that resonated with the women who were often pushed to the side or left standing awkwardly in the back. It's an aching love letter to Hanna, whose music crashed onto the shores of punk like the evolving waves of feminism. Riot Grrrl arrived during the Third-Wave Feminist movement, taking broader societal and political ideas and marrying them to music to make intimate statements – it was We, but it was also I, embracing the diversity of the individual experience. Our past is our own, but our pain, frustration, and resentment is shared.

For every girl who was abused, catcalled, raped, spatt upon, diminished, broken, silenced, forgotten, strategically boxed up and conveniently put in her place – Riot Grrrl was there. And like some of the best movements, Hanna and her Bikini Kill bandmates rejected the reductive labeling of Riot Grrrl, which implied that they were all of one mind, one body, one choice. They rejected the myopic view of feminism, as Bratmobile's Molly Neuman once said, "We're not anti-boy, we're pro-girl," echoing a familiar pro-choice refrain.

It was during this time that feminism shifted to become more inclusive and embrace discourse, paving the way for the modern intersectional feminist movement. Perhaps it's unfortunate, or somewhat painfully romantic, that these ideals and discussions and calls for discourse and acceptance remain just as vital today. There's a comfort somewhere deep inside, knowing that there's a network of women all over the world fighting for equality and acknowledgement – that there are still women fighting for a space and trying to make their way to the front.

Riot Grrrl introduced the concept of Girls to the Front, a necessity instigated by male-dominated punk shows where men thrashed violently in the mosh pit, and any girl who dared to enter was forced to prove that she belonged there by behaving aggressively – and doubly so, if she really wanted to establish her right to exist in the front.

As you might imagine, punk rock boys didn't respond well to the idea that their space was being invaded by the girls they treated as accessories and afterthoughts. How shocking that the women they viewed as elaborate, realistic sex dolls had revealed themselves as sentient beings with Ideas and Opinions and Needs. Here's Bikini Kill's Kathi Wilcox responding to a fan and ruminating on Girls to the Front:

Hanna evolved just as feminism evolved, though she never betrayed herself and her ideals. Though her music may sound less aggressive, it's still imbued with that familiar anger and pain – it's just sharper, more finely honed and nuanced now than it was before. Hanna began her career with spoken word performances in which she rhythmically spilled her guts, a pre-cursor to Bikini Kill:

What you don't see in The Punk Singer are Hanna's Riot Grrrl-era side projects, like Suture with Sharon Cheslow of Chalk Circle:

Or Wondertwins with Tim Green of Nation of Ulysses:

These projects were like pieces of a fragmented psyche, and Bikini Kill was the whole. "Feels Blind" is Bikini Kill – and Hanna's state of mind – perfected. It's a righteously indignant demand for acknowledgement and empathy, a portrait of womanhood that is both melancholy and angry, both vulnerable and fiercely independent all in one raging breath:

Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, and most of the Riot Grrrl bands had broken up, splintered, and moved on, thanks in part to the media's inevitable misrepresentation – like the punk scene at large, Riot Grrrl was being misappropriated as fashion and vastly misunderstood. As Sharon Cheslow explained in Riot Grrrl Retrospective:

There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn't handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing 'slut' on their stomach.

A movement had been tragically – but not surprisingly – reduced to a fashion statement instead of a political one. Whereas men in punk bands who could barely play their instruments were praised for their commitment to corporate rebellion and embracing the primitive soul of music, women in Riot Grrrl bands were perceived as a cutesy sideshow, as if it were so adorable and precious that these girls worked up the nerve to do what the men were doing. Here's Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney for the Riot Grrrl Retrospective:

I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear. They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say, they would take our articles, and our fanzines, and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.

Sleater-Kinney is the most enduring of the bunch; initially active from 1994 to 2006, the band reformed in 2014. In 1998, Hanna joined forces with Johanna Bateman and Sadie Benning (later replaced by JD Samson) to form Le Tigre, a feminist electro post-punk statement pop group that used a synthy, danceable sound to deliver its message – a spoonful of pop sugar helps the medicine go down.

"What's Yr Take on Cassavetes" is a monotonously dance-y invocation of feminist discourse, punctuated by a call-and-response debate between voices dueling in volume:

While much more melodic and pop-inspired, that old Riot Grrrl rage remained intact, particularly on "The Empty," in which Hanna rattles out verses like she's impulsively emptying a necessary train of thought before jumping into the insistent refrain, "I went to yr concert and I didn't feel anything":

"Eau D'Bedroom Dancing" (my all-time Le Tigre fave) shows that intimate side of Hanna – the part of her that holed up in her bedroom to make personal music all by herself:

You can basically hear the origins of The Julie Ruin, Hanna's current band – a name that plays on the solo project she started in 1997 after the disintegration of Bikini Kill. Le Tigre was originally conceived as a back-up band for Julie Ruin, the name under which Hanna independently released an album filled with lo-fi electro-punk with a blend of Hanna's rhythmic spoken word, melodically sweet sing-song and Valley Girl attitude. It was that attitude that made Hanna so deceptive and relatable, punctuating sentences with "like" and "you know," using those reductive female identifiers as weapons.

There's such a specificity and individuality to Hanna's style and sound, and though she may be something of the Riot Grrrl's unofficial poster girl, she's also an artful display of empathy. Through The Punk Singer we learn exactly why Hanna stepped out of the spotlight following the dissolution of Le Tigre in 2007. Hanna has been struggling with Lyme disease, which had been incorrectly diagnosed for six years. But The Punk Singer isn't a pity party, and Hanna's illness doesn't define her in the same way that she refuses to let her past traumas define who she is and what she's worth. It's this unwillingness to allow herself to be represented by a collection of painful moments and diagnoses that makes her so damn heroic.

Hanna takes these very personal experiences and – like all great artists – translates them into words and sounds that convey her individuality while reinforcing a shared emotional existence. Maybe you never had to pay for an abortion with money you earned at McDonald's, but you can identify with those feelings. Hanna practically demands that you do.

The Punk Singer is a primer on Riot Grrrl culture, a love letter to Hanna, and an intimate confessional for fans, but it's also a coming out party for The Julie Ruin. Hanna released a new album with her band in 2013, featuring a familiar synth-pop post-punk sound with lyrics that are rowdy, romantic, propulsive, and – ultimately – fun. "Girls Like Us" is sublimely traditional Hanna:

But Hanna isn't done. The Julie Ruin recently announced plans to release a new album this summer titled "Hit Reset":

From spoken word poetry slams to Bikini Kill, and from zines to The Julie Ruin, Hanna has endured and remained just as vital to music and feminism as she was in 1991. The Riot Grrrl scene deteriorated before it could be fully deconstructed, misappropriated, and commercialized – and that's all for the best, but the ideals and goals and subjects of debate remain every bit as relevant now as they were then. Women may have more space. There may be more of us at the front. But we're still fighting for that space, we're still fighting for people to acknowledge that we belong there, and that we're not there just because of some equal opportunity mandate or because someone felt kind of bad or because we knew the right person at the right time. We're there because we took that fucking space for ourselves. Because it belongs to us just as much as it belongs to some privileged white dude.

Riot Grrrl never really died or went away. Like Kathleen Hanna, it is still very much here. It was just a way to describe a particular time and place in an ongoing, enduring movement, the way album and song titles and band names denote creative moments in time. It was just shorthand, you know?