"The songs for people after the protest": Kathleen Hanna makes clear she's a "musician not activist"

In her memoir "Rebel Girl," the singer of Bikini Kill writes about finding joy in music, despite all the oppression

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs during Riot Fest at Douglas Park on September 15, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Daniel Boczarski/Redferns/Getty Images)
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs during Riot Fest at Douglas Park on September 15, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Daniel Boczarski/Redferns/Getty Images)

It can be hard to imagine — now that we are in the era of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé — but in the 90s, the idea of female artists exerting control over their music was subject to "talking dog"-style press coverage. This was especially true of Riot Grrrl, a female-dominated punk scene that flared brightly and burned out quickly, in no small part because the press treated the movement like a circus sideshow. But Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, kept plugging, kicking off the early aughts trend of synth-heavy indie dance music with her band Le Tigre. 

"I've been playing music for over 30 years and I'm still called an activist and not a musician. It's ridiculous."

Hanna has a new memoir, "Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk," that is at times hilarious and other times incredibly dark. She is unflinching in her descriptions of the staggering amount of male violence women endured in the 80s and 90s. (And sadly, too often still.) It's a well-realized document of the youth of the often-overlooked Generation X, at least the progressive, hipster version that flourished artistically in an era of cheaper rents and thrift store fashion. Hanna spoke to Salon about lingering joys and traumas of the era, and how the lessons resonate in ways good and bad today. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Interesting coincidence: Stormy Daniels just wrapped her testimony in Trump's trial. Her story echoes themes in your book like how people look down on sex workers and the fear of male violence. Have you been following this?

I haven't, but I did see a headline today about how [Trump] told Stormy Daniels that she reminded him of his daughter. It's not news to anybody, after the stuff that he's already said about his own child, like how he'd date her if he wasn't her dad. It's absolutely despicable and so crazy-making. This guy can go out there and be like Incest Dad and people are like, "Go, Incest Dad, go!" I think it's because a lot of people have incest dads. They're still waiting for their dad to change and get better.

That's the only thing that I really know about it because I honestly have reached my saturation level with him. That's just the frustration. He basically owns the Supreme Court. He's got Clarence Thomas and that horrible spitting, spewing, "I love beer" guy whose name escapes me right now. I think I'm blacking it out for safety. It's really hard for me to keep updated on the court because it just makes me incredibly angry and I start feeling helpless and hopeless. Definitely, people were triggered to all the racism in their lives, when one of the first things he ever said as a candidate was that Mexicans are rapists. He just continued to be a huge trigger machine to anybody who deals with actual trauma and oppression.

When you say "saturation level," I felt like so much of your book was really talking about that for yourself and for so many people that you've met along the way who endure this constant drumbeat of male violence toward women. It's exhausting and yet you have to deal with it. You not only dealt with it yourself, but as you say in the book, you were often trying to help other people get through their own horrible experiences.

I dealt with it in a lot of really unhealthy ways. Finally, writing this book, I think I've started to get healthier coping mechanisms. I've stopped asking why. I've really stopped asking why did this male violence visit my house on this day. I can't control what creepy men think or what their motives are. Or I can't think about what I could have done differently to avoid their bad behavior. That question of "why" is really like arms out stretching for some words that I can hold on to. So I don't fall off a cliff. But they just don't really exist beyond the fact that people like to maintain their position of power. If anything threatens that, they lash out.

I have come to notice, throughout the book and also through processing some stuff this past week, a common theme swirling around my brain and my body in a bad toxic way: There is a large swath of the male population who really gets turned on by the look of humiliation and fear on women's faces. And I don't understand it. I'm not gonna try to understand it and I'm not gonna try and figure out why it is a thing. Like guys who jack off in their car while they're looking at you. They want you to see them and see your face humiliated and angry and fearful all at the same time.

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Just thinking of how much sexism that I've dealt with at almost every venue I've ever played, up until the past couple of years, I kept trying to ask myself why. While I'm not gonna ask that question into infinity, I did start to see this pattern where these dudes really wanted to see a look of fear, anger and humiliation. I'm gonna steal the phrase "the constant drumbeat of male violence" because I think the cumulative effect that it's had on me has been really awful. It got associated with what I love doing most, which is singing and being on stage. Being dehumanized by people who work at venues on a constant basis and being told I don't belong there, that I'm not a real musician, being physically threatened,  the cumulative effect has made performing stressful and dehumanizing. It shouldn't be that way. I'm just climbing out of that hole and I don't appreciate being pushed into it.

"There are a lot of really positive things on the horizon musically that give me a lot of hope."

I was just writing something the other day about how, when I was younger, I really loved water skiing. And I had this uncle who was a creepy child molester kind of guy. In order to water ski, I would wait on the dock for hours for my drunk uncle to show up and drive the boat. I was 12 and he would drive me around the lake. But then, whenever I would get in after skiing, he would grab my *ss and he would let his d**k hang out of his shorts. He also took me to a party and got me drunk when I was 12 years old and passed me off to a 20-year-old. Obviously despicable behavior, but when you're 12, you don't really know. But I do remember thinking I don't like this, but this is the price of admission to do the thing I wanna do.

When bad stuff started happening on stage. Or when every venue we went to was a different kind of psychotic expedition into the land of male cruelty. I was feeling that same way, like this is the price of admission and I just have to take deal with it. And #MeToo actually really helped me feel this shouldn't be the price of admission.

It helps me understand why, back when I was going to a lot of punk shows, I would just have this incandescent rage at men who scoffed at the girl bands. It was well out of proportion, my anger. I've never really thought about how it was of a piece of something far scarier. It sounded like just contempt but you were often on the receiving end when that contempt turned into violence or it turned into harassment.

I've definitely had oversized reactions to things as well and then had to investigate it. Like that guy who told me the only reason my band is even here is because we're girls and they needed to "fill a quota." That hurt my feelings, but I would get overly upset in my head about it. I would cling to it and spend too much time on it. I had to ask why am I having oversized feelings about this. It was because it made me feel unworthy and brought me back to other things from when I was a kid.

"It's important that we publicly engage with our bodies, as goofy and weird as they are, in group settings. I needed joy."

If you grew up with a drunk dad who belittles you and then you go out into the world and you finally find the thing you love, then you're met with many versions of your drunk dad who belittled you every night, it does start to feel like you're in a hell maze that you can't get out of. That the world is just "drunk dad, drunk dad, drunk dad." I really had to look for the support in my life, look for the people who were there for me, look for the places where I found joy. Getting a cat was huge for me because he gave me this unconditional love that I wasn't getting in the outside world.

One of the things you write in the book that really stuck with me was your realization that you're not an activist. You're a musician. That distinction, you write, is important to you. Why?

I was feeling like it was belittling what real activists do. I haven't started an organization that is actually making political changes. I'm not organizing protests. I'm not starting community groups. I may have been an instigator in the loose-knit thing that was Riot Grrrl. But I'm a musician and I'm an artist. I'm socially conscious and I care about ending oppression for all people and being a part of that process. But that makes me more of a cultural worker. I wanna support what real activists do. I also don't have to feel imposter syndrome about that particular thing.

Also, I've been playing music for over 30 years and I'm still called an activist and not a musician. It's ridiculous. How many more records do I have to put out? How many more songs do I have to write? How many more shows do I have to play?  Literally, "musician" is on my tax form. We write actual songs and we actually perform them and they are real. Being called an activist and not a musician over and over for 30 years really made me wanna make the distinction.

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Both obviously have their value.

A big part of what we wanted was to write the songs for people after the protest to come see us. That's how we pictured it. There'd be a big protest and then people would be like, what do we do now? Most protests we went to, there was no community gathering afterward. Being at a protest or even a vigil can feel really connecting and really wonderful on a lot of levels. But we should also be celebrating the fact we're all out in the streets and we're together. Let's have the party keep going on. We were always disappointed at the end of the protest that we had to go home just as individuals.

In the nineties and 2000s, one of the constant things that I heard was, "You're just preaching to the choir." Well if you're saying I'm making music for people who give a s**t, then yes, you're absolutely 100% correct. Correct. If you look at popular culture, there's not much music or art or TV shows directed at people who give a s**t. Who was making music that addresses sexism? In the mainstream? Typically not a lot. I'm perfectly happy to make music for people who give a s**t about ending worldwide oppression. If that's the choir, I love preaching to them. They're usually the last, people that are given anything.

At the risk of sounding like a massive fan girl, I remember the day that the first Le Tigre album came out, and what a revelation it was. I loved Bikini Kill, no doubt about it. But with Le Tigre, I loved how danceable it was. How, like you said, joyous, how fun. It was party music. It's hard I think to convey to people now how truly dramatic of a turn that was.

Part of it was I just didn't wanna keep having people try to beat me up at shows. And honestly, I just didn't see that happening when I went to dance music events. I didn't see people trying to hurt each other or be mean to each other. I also felt like writing more danceable songs was a way to have people engaging with their own bodies. It's important that we publicly engage with our bodies, as goofy and weird as they are, in group settings. I needed joy. I really felt like, in Le Tigre, we were turning our gaze directly at the audience that we wanted to have and singing songs for them that were more joyous and less angry. People had lived vicariously through my rage for long enough. I don't wanna have to be rageful on stage all the time. I can have a couple songs like that, but I don't wanna have that be my brand or my schtick. I was ready to sing in a different way, that didn't damage my voice as much as it had been damaged by Bikini Kill.

It's been 25 years since the first Le Tigre album came out. Right now, when you look at what's going on in music, it's just so many women and queer artists that I see just owe so much to Le Tigre. From Chappell Roan to even Olivia Rodrigo. How do you feel about that?

I feel like everybody is so full of so many influences, especially with the internet. I can never really tell who's influenced by what. I'll listen to Lana Del Rey and I'm like, oh, this sounds like a Chris Isaak record, but redone in this beautiful way with these amazing lyrics. I can hear Joni Mitchell in her. There are certain artists where I immediately hear Wire. It's fun, as a musician, to play that game. But I do feel like that first record did have a lot of influence and it's something that people still listen to, which is great. But I don't spend time thinking about how I've influenced anybody. I just wanna keep making stuff. I never want to see myself as like historical.

Back when that album came out, I felt like we just had almost nothing in that vein. Now, there's so much out there that's scratching that urge. So, that's great. That's what I feel satisfied about. There are so many more interesting people making really good music. There are a lot of really positive things on the horizon musically that give me a lot of hope. When it does seem like we are heading towards an authoritarian mainstream landscape and everything's going backward and things are really terrible, we still find sites of resistance on the underground.

For me, music is the ultimate. I also love visual art, but music creates a room. It creates a sonic space that you can live inside and be surrounded by someone who is like funny and like-minded and has these influences that you also hold dear and is doing something brand new. When I'm driving my car around, I just feel really inspired, like I wanna keep going. It's full circle. I get to be inspired by people who may have been inspired by something I did. They inspire me and then I make something else. That feels pretty cool. That makes me feel very successful.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Bikini Kill Interview Kathleen Hanna Le Tigre Male Violence Protest Music Rebel Girl Sexism