Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna On How Mixing Music and Politics Saved Her Career

The punk icon and feminist activist revisits the artistic and political motivations and inspirations from throughout her unparalleled career

Maxwell Schiano

Whether she’s fronting bands or simply speaking out, Kathleen Hanna has long been a strong feminist voice who’s unafraid to tackle issues of gender, sexuality and equality. Hanna took part in numerous bands before breaking out with Bikini Kill, who eventually became one of signature acts of the feminist riot grrl movement during the 1990s. Hanna continued to confront prevailing social norms throughout Bikini Kill’s existence, but the effort took its toll and eventually led to the band’s dissolution.

Hanna later made a rough-edged album under the name Julie Ruin, which laid the groundwork for Le Tigre, a more electronic outfit she formed after relocating to New York City. Her new band’s sound flirted with pop and veered sharply away from the raw punk aesthetic of Bikini Kill, but Le Tigre was similarly confrontational in terms of its lyrics and political outlook, and the group’s success only expanded Hanna’s profile and influence. In 2005, however, Hanna was forced to leave the group due to health concerns, and was eventually diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which effectively kept her out of the music world and the public eye for several years.

Following numerous rounds of illness and intense treatment, her condition did improve, prompting the formation of a new band, The Julie Ruin, which has to date released two full-length albums and allowed Hanna to once again return to the stage. In these excerpts from her Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, Hanna talks about naming Nirvana’s most famous song, the trauma of quitting Bikini Kill, the personal significance of integrating her politics with her music, and how flubbing a version of “America, the Beautiful” might have pointed towards her future as a riot grrrl.

America, The Beautiful

Growing up, my dad listened to a lot of country: Hank Williams, Hoyt Axton – who people think of as an actor from Goonies, but actually was a singer who I was very fond of. Merle Haggard, and then later came Carole King. Tapestry was my whole universe for probably ten years. Those were the really big ones. My dad was big in the labor union and so I also grew up going to the George Meany Hall in D.C. and listening to union singers. I grew with up with a lot of stuff that was like Woody Guthrie, but specifically for welders.

I was into musical theater as a kid. I just wanted to do anything to be on stage. I would walk to the junior high to try to get into their talent show, even though I was only in grade school. My parents didn’t push me at all. My mom would drop me at the bus so I could go to theater day camp, but I definitely didn’t have a stage mom and my dad pretty much just made fun of everything I did.

Carole King - It’s Too Late

It was weird that I had such a drive from an early age. If American Idol, The Voice was available when I was a child, I would have been on all of that. I would have so been trying out for everything. As is, the only thing I ever really auditioned for as a kid, because we lived near D.C., was the National Children’s Choir.

I remember, I was supposed to be singing “America, The Beautiful” and I didn’t know the words. They just assumed everybody knew that song, and that’s kind of a messed up assumption, but I didn’t know it. Halfway through I kind of tried to pretend that it was the same song and I started singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” So it was like, “O, beautiful for spacious, I’m a Yankee doodle dandy.” The piano player started changing songs with me, but I could see the panel. It was literally a panel of people like that scene in Flashdance and they were just like, “Yeah, no.” If I would have gotten that gig, I probably would have then moved on to the adult National Choir and never been in a band or done any of it. Thank God I didn’t know the words to “America, The Beautiful.”

Punky Reggae Party

I got into punk in high school, but it wasn’t really the right kind of punk for me. It was this era of death metal. The long hair and the short hair white guys got together and had these two scenes, which was like the death metal scene and then the hardcore scene. I was really attracted to slam dancing, because I had a lot of pent-up rage in me. Then it started sucking because the guys just were beating each other up all the time. I sold weed at the time and I had to be friends with all of them. I stopped going to see those shows and I just started going to reggae shows all the time. It was really positive and amazing music and we had great local reggae bands. That fit my lifestyle better.

Black Flag - TV Party

Then when I went to college in Olympia, Washington, I met this girl Tobi Vail who ended up starting Bikini Kill – she’s a drummer and singer. She turned me onto what I would say is true punk. Hearing “TV Party” by Black Flag for the first time, hearing the Slits, Wire... Even Fugazi... It wasn’t an old school punk band, but they were punk in a different way. She really introduced me to all this music that I was like, “Whoa, what? I didn’t know this existed.”

Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill was super planned out, kind of. We watched Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is the Fabulous Stains and we were like, “We want to be that, but even more overtly feminist.” It just really seemed like there was this lack of feminism in music, in this genre of music. There has always been women’s music, in all different cultures. Typically, it’s been marginalized and relegated to kind of a sidebar status.

There were all these great bands happening at the time. L7, Babes in Toyland, the Obituaries, that we were being totally influenced by but we weren’t hearing... It was like nobody wanted to talk about the fact that they were female. Now I know why: “If you do, that’s all anybody ever wants to talk to you about.”

It was really important to us to have friendships with people in Babes, in L7. That contradicted what the media thought. They weren’t talking about feminism and were in your face singing, screaming, whatever, about feminism. The bands just had different ideas of how we wanted to present ourselves.

Behind the scenes, L7 gave us our bass amp and I had booked shows for Babes in Toyland long before I was ever in a band, so I knew Lori [Barbero] and Kat [Bjelland] and Michelle [Leon] and got to spend some time with them over the years. It was really great to have a community that wasn’t all in agreement. I think a lot of people don’t know that, that it wasn’t something where everybody was like, “Oh, I totally agree with that.” There was tons of competing ideas happening and I think that’s what made things fruitful and exciting.

It was a really great feeling to have L7 stay at our punk house. We were like, “Oh, look, they use plastic zip-locks for all their clothes to keep the smoke from the clubs.” Learning a little tip like that, and then reading an article that tried to pit us against each other... We were like, “Well, that’s funny, because they’re sleeping on the floor in our house.”


The Nirvana video “Smells like Teen Spirit” was on TV like every five seconds. We were like, “Wow, wait what?” It was just really confusing. I don’t think any of us really understood how to process that. I remember driving into D.C. and seeing a huge billboard with the baby picture from Nevermind on it, but it said, “Smells like Teen Spirit.” That was something I had written on Kurt [Cobain]’s wall. He had asked me if he could use it for a title of a song and I was like, “Yeah. God, why would you want to use that?”

I was like, “I don’t know who I am separate from being the bitch from Bikini Kill.”

I was like, “Does he know it’s a deodorant?” I don’t think he knew. I think the fact that he didn’t know makes it even cooler. You know what I mean? It’s not like he was walking up and down the aisles at Bayview or a local grocery store, so why would he know about it?

It’s like being a part of something historical but not... In the media, we saw from afar what was going on with them and I don’t think we really wanted that life. I found it super scary, the idea of people knowing who I was. We did it all ourselves and we liked it that way. It wasn’t jealousy. I think we were more worried.

The End of Bikini Kill

In 1996, I quit Bikini Kill on Groundhog’s Day, which was really apt because it started feeling like Groundhog’s Day in that band. Just being asked the same questions and having the same crap happen over and over... Which I could go on about, but I don’t want to, because it will just make me depressed and I’ll just end up a puddle on the floor. But it was like, I quit.

I quit the band, on Groundhog’s Day, so how are you going to continue if the lead singer quits, unless you’re Black Flag? I kind of do wish they would have gotten a new singer, because what would that have been like? I actually want to hear that band.

I was just sort of over it. I think that the tensions within the band, us being young and not the best communicators... I’m a very confrontational, intense person and can be really difficult to be around. Then there was the outside total trauma machine that was constantly throwing foil balls with rocks inside at us. You just get worn down.

When you live in a small town and you’re in a band that gets their picture in SPIN – even though we had no publicist and didn’t call SPIN or didn’t do an interview with them – it’s like, “Who’s a big star?” It’s like we’re Justin Bieber times four, even though we were nowhere near that famous at all. But in a small town, a lot of people think if you have your picture in SPIN you’re a really big deal. So, there started to be all this weird resentment where it was like, “You think you’re all that,” and “You’re ruining the punk scene,” and all the hate mail, and all the abusive stuff that happened at our shows. I couldn’t take it any more. I was really sick of being the bitch from Bikini Kill.

I mean, that’s really how I remember it. I was like, “I don’t know who I am separate from being the bitch from Bikini Kill.” Even if I was super nice to every single person I met at every single show, that didn’t work. They’d be like, “Wow, I heard you were such a bitch and so difficult, but you’re so nice.” And I’d be like, “Wow, thanks for the underhanded compliment.” It just felt like such an uphill battle and I was like, “If I want to keep being a person on this planet I need to move on. I can’t do it anymore.”

Julie Ruin

Through the Julie Ruin songs I found out who I was and that I was really in love with this guy I was seeing, who I’m now married to. I just feel like I’d really been sad for the last year. It really allowed me to express my frustrations at the co-optation of riot grrrl – the co-optation of young punk feminism by things like the Spice Girls or whatever. I was also able to deal with my frustrations with, like, “Hey, look, I’m just trying to make this work, that’s building community, don’t kick me out. Don’t make me feel like I don’t belong in a place that I helped create.” I got hate mail. That’s just how grim things were for me. I was like, “Wow, I thought I was a part of this thing and now people just totally hate my guts.”

Julie Ruin - My Morning Is Summer

But I didn’t care, because I was massively in love and I got a cat for the first time, Davis. R.I.P. I just started writing and found what I was into and got confident with production. I started having a language to communicate better with engineers and it made me more confident in the studio. That was a big move for me.

Le Tigre

People think that the first Le Tigre record got good critical response, and it actually didn’t. It wasn’t a big deal and we didn’t see it as being a big deal. It wasn’t until much later when we realized “Deceptacon” was connecting with people. Then everyone was making copy videos of it. People were doing it flash mob style at their high schools, at weddings. It was like “YMCA” or something.

Le Tigre - Deceptacon

I think our next record was kind of lackluster to people. They looked back to the first record and it was like, “Woah, that was so cool.” It’s always like, “Your first record is the best.” Part of it’s true. We were really finding ourselves. You can hear us finding ourselves and trying new things.

The second record was really about us learning the tools of electronic music and what that meant to us as feminists. It felt like a world that we were so not invited to. The electronic music scene felt very closed. Nobody liked our records after the first one. I’m not stupid, but I like them, so who cares? I do have a fondness for that first record as well.

Major Labels

I had spent a lot of time bitching about the corporate machine, but I didn’t know anything about it. It just seemed like, “How can I keep bitching about something if I know nothing about it? How far can pop music open up to include feminist thought? Could we really make some kind, have a song on the radio? Would that even be possible?”

We did handwring about it. But we were like, “If we’re going to jump off this cliff, let’s do it together.” We all held hands and jumped off the cliff. We met a lot of cool people and we learned a lot of things about how the music industry worked that we didn’t know before. It was a way to get an business education, but without having to go to school.

Ultimately, it ended up not being a successful thing for us and it wasn’t as fun. We realized that we really enjoyed touring in a van and making money instead of touring in a van and not making money. We’re so micro manage-y and we’re so in charge of all our own graphics and stuff like that that we actually didn’t like handing over any of that control. We made more money being on an indie label. Steve Albini was right in that essay that he wrote so long ago. I think it was an interesting experiment. It was something that we’re all happy that we did. We learned a lot.

Politics and Music

I feel like mixing politics with music has been what has saved my career and given it such longevity, because I get to sing about the things that are so important to me. Maybe I wasn’t put on this earth to carry a sign and be at a protest, but I was put on this earth to write music. I still very much care about the state of the world and see my feminism as something that’s beyond just equal rights for women.

I find it amazing that so many young people are probably typing, “What is feminism?” into their search engines. I’m just not cynical like that.

It’s equal rights for everyone, and taking down the gender binaries that put men in such horrible situations of expectations as well. Now we’re starting to live in a culture where men are being as objectified as women are in terms of what your body type is supposed to be like, what your face is supposed to be like, all this kind of stuff.

For me, it’s been a winning combination, and I don’t think that other people in bands need to do that if they don’t want to. I think there’s a million ways to be political. Sometimes if you’re just in such bad shape and all you can do is write a song about sunshine and lollipops to keep yourself together, do it. That can be a really political statement all in its own. I definitely found that out being sick, and sometimes writing something for myself meant a lot as a woman who has been steered in the opposite direction of self-care my whole life. To learn self-care is really important.

I do always encourage, I do lectures and stuff, I encourage students to find what they are most passionate about. For me, it was ending violence against women. Then mix it with a thing that you feel like you could just do everyday and have so much fun. Like your hobby, like gardening. It’s the thing that you’re like, “Oh, God, if I could just get off work so I could go garden or I could go do jigsaw puzzles.” Find what you really deeply care about and then mix it with what you love doing. You can find a way. I did and it worked.

Pop culture and feminism

I think it’s so amazing that so many women with so much power in the music industry, like Beyoncé, have embraced the word feminist. There’s been a lot of talk about it’s just an act or it’s just making it this superficial thing that doesn’t matter. I just want to say that putting the word feminist before your music or somehow entwining it with your identity as a performer is the worst career move that you could possibly make if your idea of a successful career is making money.

Beyoncé - Formation (Super Bowl 50)

I applaud someone who has already generated a huge amount of income and is known worldwide to be like, “I can do this and I’m going to because I can.” We did it just because it was what we wanted to do. It’s not a career move. If people think that’s a career move, it’s a really stupid career move. I applaud women who want to open and expand what feminism means. I don’t think it’s something that anybody owns. I definitely think it’s a verb and something that you do in the world. Not a t-shirt that you wear.

I understand the frustration of the rape statistics going up. “What are we going to do? Slap a “Girl’s Kick Ass” bumper sticker on like it’s a Band-Aid?” I see where people are coming from when they go down that road of speculation. I don’t think it bears any relationship to an artist like Beyoncé using the word feminist or feminism at all. I find that really refreshing. I find it amazing that so many young people are probably typing, “What is feminism?” into their search engines. I’m just not cynical like that. To have younger, more underground bands and stuff doing it, more power to you. We need support, we need community to not feel totally caught out there alone all the time.

Start asking the men in the industry how they’re going to change things and stop asking women to bare our souls.

I know that in Le Tigre, when we met Peaches and Chicks On Speed and some other women who were doing electronic music – and who are also feminist – we could recall the moments we’d spent together in our heads and that formed a community. That kept us going. I see now the sort of community that’s forming something really positive.

I would like to say one thing: I’m really frustrated about questions about sexism in music and how it’s stayed the same or how it’s changed. I want to hear men being asked that question. How is their sexism changed? How have they fought sexism in the music world? What have they done? I want James Murphy to get asked about feminism. Why is it just me? This is a human issue. I want to see men in the industry get together and find labels that are really diverse in various ways and clubs where people feel comfortable in the atmosphere and where the hiring practices are good and all these different things. How can we emulate these? I don’t want to run a venue where only certain kinds of people feel comfortable here. I don’t want to run a label that has a publicist that is groping women behind people’s backs and pretend it’s not happening. I want to change things.

People come to me and say, “Why is there sexism in the music industry?” It’s because there is sexism, racism and homophobia everywhere. Read about those topics, read about those topics from great sources and then come up with a plan of how you’re going to change things. Don’t come to me and ask me to figure it out. I can’t explain to you how to end sexism. I’m not the one doing it.

Start asking the men in the industry how they’re going to change things and stop asking women to bare our souls. It really does feel like, in a lot of interviews, I just get asked, “Tell me about the worst moment of your life.” They don’t know that’s what they’re asking, but it is.

I just get really sick of stories written about sexism in the music industry that rely on women’s horror stories being repeated over and over again. They don’t end with any kind of solution. I always just get asked, “Tell me some bad things that have happened to you.” Aren’t we past proving it needs to be changed? We already know. You can go on the internet and in 45 seconds realize it needs to be changed. What we actually need is some ideas. There are so many music conferences. Let’s get the ideas from all of those conferences and set out a game plan.

By Shawn Reynaldo on July 8, 2016

On a different note