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The original riot grrrl on Katy Perry, '90s revival

By Abbey Goodman, Special to CNN
"Just because you're wearing a goofy hat doesn't make it performance art," Kathleen Hanna says of modern music.
"Just because you're wearing a goofy hat doesn't make it performance art," Kathleen Hanna says of modern music.
  • Kathleen Hanna was a member of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre
  • Her new documentary, "Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour" is out on DVD June 7
  • Hanna also coined the phrase "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for Kurt Cobain in the '90s

New York (CNN) -- Kathleen Hanna is the poster grrrl for feminist punk music.

From the seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the '90s to her electro-punk group Le Tigre and her new album with the band Julie Ruin, due out in January, she has inspired countless women to rock their way to gender equality.

CNN recently spoke to Hanna about her new documentary "Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour" (out on DVD June 7), why she can never hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" without cringing and which current music is "the worst thing that has ever been created on the face of the Earth."

CNN: You've spoken about your fear of erasure of the '90s feminist movement. Is that why you made "Who Took the Bomp?"

Kathleen Hanna: Yes. I was in a band in the '90s called Bikini Kill, and we were so freaked out about documentation then, and there was the whole thing, not just about the male gaze, but that people were going to misrepresent you ... a kind fear of the mainstream that a lot of us had. I felt it was really, really important, not just in the vein of feminist erasure or whatever but also just as an artist that I honored my work. The three of us (in Le Tigre) had gone from using a broken sampler and a s----y slide projector to having a monitor person, a lighting person, costumes, dances, videos for every song. We really upped what we were doing musically, and it would be really sad if we were like, "we're not going to play shows anymore," and that was it. I wanted to say to myself as much as anyone else that we made art. We were making good art, and I wanted other people to be able to see it besides the kids who were able to come to our shows. I felt like in Bikini Kill, we didn't really honor what we did very much. We were just living in the moment, but we were too busy doing everything ourselves to document it properly, and now there's just a bunch of crappy YouTube videos.

CNN: YouTube didn't exist in the '90s, so there was more grass-roots documentation.

Hanna: My friends and I always talk about with all the '90s resurgence, would riot grrrl be able to happen in the current climate with the Internet? I kind of think it wouldn't. I think it made it really special that we all communicated through letters and that we didn't have cell phones. It didn't seem hard at the time, but in retrospect, it wasn't as easy to communicate, and I think it made it more special. It's like you go a thrift store and you find that weird one of-a-kind thing, and it means more than going to Marc Jacobs and buying this $500 dress that anybody who has a lot of money could get.

CNN: In "Who Took the Bomp?" you say that you wanted to become the person who you wanted to have there for you. Seeing something that seems very obvious once it exists, but noticing the hole and then creating the art that fills that hole is an interesting process. What's an example of a song you wrote specifically because it didn't exist yet?

Hanna: "Keep on Livin'." I was writing it originally about coming out as a sexual abuse survivor, but it can really be about any kind of emotional trauma, and you're like, "I'm totally over it" and then you get reactivated about it. You're like, "Jeez, I worked so hard. How am I back in the same place?" But each time you revisit it, it's a little better. So many women have experienced horrific forms of male violence throughout their lives, and why isn't there a song about how you get depressed because of it? And you don't know what to do, and you don't know how to talk to your friends and how weird it is to be a feminist in that situation, where there's sort of the expectation that you're super-strong superwoman but you're just, like, eating pizza in your house avoiding talking about it. I started writing it, and (Le Tigre bandmate JD Samson) was like, "I see a real link between what I felt like as a kid when I was trying to come out as a lesbian." As we were writing it, we were like, how does this song not exist already? It sounds really specific, but if you think about how many people a song like that would actually cover ...

CNN: The thing that's always so striking about Le Tigre is that you're covering these serious or heavy themes, but the music is so happy.

Hanna: We really came of age as a band in the horrible Bush era. We started right as that Woodstock '99 thing happened and the rapes and all that stuff. For us, it felt really radical to be positive. We were like, we could write all this angry stuff, we're totally pissed off, f--- men, f--- rapists. But we were like, you know what we need to do way more than talking to straight white men who are clueless? We need to talk to people who are in our actual community and hang out with them and get closer to them and write songs from us to them.

CNN: Speaking of Woodstock '99, I remember watching the Beastie Boys accept an MTV award, and your husband, Adam Horovitz, interrupted the group's own speech to speak out against the violence against women that happened there. I'll never forget that. What were you thinking in that moment?

Hanna: I posted that on my blog a little while ago. I was there when it happened. I haven't seen anything on television like that in forever besides the Kanye West "Bush hates black people" thing. I was a kid in the '70s, so I remember weird stuff happening on TV and it being really exciting and that moment, in the actual room, it felt like (Horovitz) was going to get killed. As soon as he did that, we were like, we gotta get the f--- out of here. It was like, you are not supposed to do that. You're not supposed to break the fourth wall. I was so proud of him. I remember when we walked out, we tried to act normal, but as soon as we hit the door, we started running. It felt like people were going to beat us up. It felt so creepy. It was like Andy Kaufman performance art. It's so late, late '90s.

CNN: Is the '90s spirit of music and politics still alive for women in music today?

Hanna: I think it's not as overtly political. We were really pretty militant and obvious and didactic, both in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. A lot of female performers, the way they're being political, is really wearing those influences on their sleeves, and those other influences are other female artists. It doesn't sound that radical, but when I was making music, you didn't even want to say another woman's name, because you didn't want to be compared to them. Women didn't want to be on the stage with other women because they didn't want their bodies to be compared. They didn't want another female act opening for them because of this weird competitive and tokenistic attitude. So to see these bands that are so obviously influenced by the Raincoats and Bratmobile and being like, "I love that" and not hiding it, to me that's kind of a cool political statement in its own. Maybe I'm overly optimistic.

CNN: In making "Who Took the Bomp?" did you learn anything surprising about yourself?

Hanna: I was always hiding from the camera and not wanting to be filmed, but the best stuff we got was when I didn't want to be filmed. I wish there were more moments in the Le Tigre movie that were controversial, because the fact of the matter is, we had a lot of f---ed-up s--- happen to us, but the camera was never rolling. Like, going to small towns and having promoters yell at us or not give us our money. But one of the things I like about the movie is that we're just another band. There doesn't have to be someone falling off the top of a roller coaster for it to be a movie, and there's something satisfying about showing feminists just on tour just like everyone else. We're just a part of that musical landscape. We were always struggling not to be normal, but to be asked questions about our guitars or how we program our beats because everybody wanted to focus on our gender. In a way it's great because it gives us a soapbox and talk about things that are important to us, but we were always just sort of looking for camaraderie. We also just wanted to be an American band.

CNN: What do you make of singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha who are seemingly touching on themes of gay empowerment in their music, but for some reason it doesn't quite resonate?

Hanna: I mean, is it really that different when it's a skinny white woman in a bathing suit singing these things? None of these women ever wear pants, first of all. Second of all, just because you're wearing a goofy hat doesn't make it performance art. I mean, that's just my feeling about it. A lot of the music just sounds like bad Euro disco, though that first Ke$ha song "TiK ToK" was good. But (Katy Perry's) "I Kissed a Girl" was just straight-up offensive. The whole thing is like, I kissed a girl so my boyfriend could masturbate about it later. It's disgusting. It's exactly every male fantasy of fake lesbian porn. It's pathetic. And she's not a good singer. I don't want to trash other women. I mean, I think Jason Mraz is horrible. It's not just like I hate other women performers. Jason Mraz, and the new James Blunt song is the worst thing that has ever been created on the face of the Earth.

CNN: There's a ton of bad performers, male and female, but what's different in the women's narrative is that you see them perform, then you see them in their bathing suits in magazines, and people have at them there, too.

Hanna: People have always had these weird things about how you have to be really good looking to be a singer. I mean, it's not like Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt were dogs. It's not like this is some new thing. But there was at one point a larger variety, but now the catchphrase is "the whole package," the "American Idol" reality that you're a model first and a singer second. The Go-Go's were one of the biggest all-girl bands ever. What other all-girl band has ever been really famous? There's never women playing instruments. There's Grace Potter, who plays guitar, maybe? Kelis had an all-girl band on tour, and Beyonce did, too. But it's not like those bands started in a garage.

CNN: Why is that? Why is it so tough to have women play instruments?

Hanna: It's something I get asked a lot, and it's like one of the answers is sexism. That's it. That's the answer. But I don't know what it is further than that.

CNN: Both in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, we saw you actually learning your craft, which is so unusual.

Hanna: I was lucky enough to learn about punk music when I was 19, because my bandmate Tobi Vail told me about it, and I was like, oh, wow, you don't necessarily have to have talent, you can just get up and do something and see where it takes you. I always tell girls who say they want to start a band but don't have any talent, well, neither do I. I mean, I can carry a tune, but anyone who picks up a bass can figure it out. You don't have to have magic unicorn powers. You work at it, and you get better. It's like anything: You sit there and do it every day, and eventually you get good at it.

CNN: Yes, but your music is what led me and so many other girls to finally pick up an instrument and start a band. It was a revelation. I grew up listening to music, loving music and knowing I wanted to do something with it or around it, but it was more like, that guy is hot; I love music. Never did I think, oh, I can actually be that guy.

Hanna: Me, too. I was making stickers for guys' bands. I was in the front row photographing bands, booking bands, doing all of the kind of backstage stuff, and I didn't even think for a second I could do it, and then I saw Babes in Toyland, and all that changed.

CNN: Let's talk about the new documentary that you're filming.

Hanna: It's called "The Punk Singer," which was a Julie Ruin song. That was my solo record in 1998. It follows a year in my life. It's four different seasons. It's interviews with me and other people, and there was a tribute show that we filmed. I quit playing music for five years and did the Le Tigre movie and did this riot grrrl archive at NYU and the Bikini Kill archive and other projects, but I've been pretty much out of the public eye. So it answers the question of where I went! What I've been doing. My secret robot I've been building. It will all come to light in this movie. There's actually a myriad of reasons and there's one reason in particular that I've never discussed. I'm able through this process to be honest publicly because I've always been pretty private. It's not like people are following me down the street like, "where have you been, Kathleen?" But I did kind of disappear for five years, and now I'm back with a new band and getting back into it.

CNN: What kinds of songs are you writing or themes you're exploring with the new album?

Hanna: Anger. A lot of anger about things I haven't been able to express and how anger is usually just hiding sadness so after I write an angry song, I usually write a really sad song. Family, personal stuff, vulnerable stuff, my friendships with other women, and I'm sure there'll be a love song for Adam (Horovitz).

CNN: For "The Punk Singer," you recently told the story of coining the title "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for Kurt Cobain in the '90s. What did that feel like?

Hanna: That was really cathartic to me. I walked off the stage and was like, OK, that was just like 20 years of therapy. It was really great because it was one of those things that I've just avoided for so long. Or I tell it in a way just to get it over with, and it was really nice to be able to just tell the story in the way I wanted to tell it. I hate when things become overly historicized. It's just a story, the way anyone tells a story about anything. The thing that's really weird for me is, everyone has their own story about how that song interacted with their lives and, for me, I cringe every time I hear it. Not because it's a bad song, I just remember being hopelessly drunk and acting like an idiot.

CNN: What part of the '90s revival are you happy to see come back?

Hanna: Young girls getting into feminism.

CNN: And what part do you hope never ever comes back?

Hanna: Stretch pants. And rap-rock.