Audio/Q&A: 'The Punk Singer' subject Kathleen Hanna

The influential singer talks to RedEye's Matt Pais about feminism, her relationship with the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and what a Hillary Clinton presidency would and wouldn't mean for American women.

Recently at a New York deli, a woman called the employees idiots and said both they and the way they cooked her food were disgusting. Kathleen Hanna, long a powerful voice for human decency as frontwoman for influential ‘90s punk band Bikini Kill, was there. And she couldn’t stand by in silence.
 
“I actually got up in this woman’s face and called her some really bad names,” says Hanna, now the singer of the Julie Ruin and the subject of the documentary “The Punk Singer,” opening Dec. 6, by phone from New York. “Her behavior was horrifying, and we ended up not getting our food because she was acting like such a jerk that we just left. As we were walking away, I just walked right up to her and told her what I thought of her. It was partially because the people working behind the counter maybe couldn’t say, ‘Hey, I think you’re a real jerk’ because they could lose their jobs. But I wasn’t working and I had the ability to say that, and if I worked there I would want to see somebody walk up and tell that person what an asshole they were. And I did; I told her she was an asshole.
 
“And some other choice words which I won’t repeat.”
 
That social action won’t be surprising to anyone who sees “The Punk Singer,” which charts the life and career of the now 45-year-old Hanna, focusing on not just Hanna’s bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre but her role in the Riot Grrrl movement, her marriage to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and her friendship with Kurt Cobain that led to her inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by spray-painting “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on a wall.
 
Something depressing that came to mind watching “The Punk Singer” is the fact that the movie deals with some things that happened 20 years ago, yet a lot of the women’s issues are still very prevalent and the music industry is not better. How should I feel about that?
 
[Laughs] I think you should be pissed, and you should start a petition on Change.org. No, you should go out in the street and scream! I don’t know. I mean, I feel totally crazy. I feel the same way I did in the ‘90s. I’m like, “Really, you’re challenging abortion again? What other amendments are we going to just go after?” It’s absolutely insane. I hear these young girls who are in bands talking about the sexism and the racism that they’re experiencing and I’m just like really annoyed, but at the same time I go to shows and there actually is female participation. There’s way more women in bands; there’s way more women in audiences. When we first started playing there’d be like three women, maybe five women at a show. And that’s something positive that’s really changed. And the other thing is just that women in bands are talking about what they’re experiencing. They might not be writing songs about it, but when they do press they’re like, “I am experiencing this sexism on the Internet” or “I feel as a woman of color I’m put in this one box, and I don’t want to be in that box.” So it’s great that that’s happening ‘cause I didn’t see that happening in the ‘90s. I wanted to end on a positive note with that question. [Laughs]
 
On the overall spectrum of how far there is to go, between some of the stuff in the movie and how far we’ve come since then, have we covered a lot of the ground or are we maybe only 25 percent of the way toward what needs to change?
 
I think that it’s always one step forward and [two steps] back. History really is not linear. It goes through waves, especially with feminism, where people are really interested in it again and I think now is one of those times. I mean, Miley Cyrus just came out saying, “I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world.” When does it happen when a young pop star does that? Whether you love her or you hate her, it’s pretty interesting that she’s using that word and that’s such a mainstream context.
 
Were you happy or unhappy when you heard that?
 
Yeah, I think it’s really great. Like I said, I don’t know how I feel about her as a performer. I like that “Party in the U.S.A.” song a lot, but I haven’t really heard anything else from her really or paid attention. I didn’t see the VMA performance, so I don’t really have any comment on that. I just think that people are talking and girls are seeing this film or reading the Riot Grrrl collection book that came out or Sara Marcus, this woman wrote a book about Riot Grrrl [“Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution”]. They’re getting interested in punk rock feminism and reading other books, getting interested in women’s studies, and it really does come in these 20-year waves where people who were super-active maybe in the ‘90s are now older and hopefully wiser [Laughs] and are able to step back and write books about what we were doing, and then younger people are able to benefit from that and be like, “Oh, here’s the great stuff they did, and here’s the ways that they messed up” and try to do something better.
 
I’m not sure what Miley Cyrus meant by that, and I didn’t know if you thought it was a good thing for anyone with that amount of attention to use the word feminism and try to represent something, or if it can be a bad thing if what you think that is or what you think she’s standing for is going in the wrong direction.
 
Yeah, I mean I’ve always thought that there’s just as many different kinds of feminism as there are people in the world. So whatever. If she thinks she’s a feminist, she’s a feminist. I’m not the police. I’m not going to say she’s not a member [Laiughs] of the secret club, ‘cause there is no secret club.
 
So there is no feminist police that anyone should be watching out for?
 
No [Laughs], we are not coming after you any time soon that I know of. And hopefully no one is coming after Miley Cyrus. I know she was slut shamed about whatever she did with Robin Thicke on TV. Again I didn’t see it so I can’t really comment on it, I just heard people saying she was slutty or whatever. But any time a girl or a woman who’s that much in the mainstream even uses that word, now we’re having a conversation about it, and that’s what’s really great. People start having conversations. People started having conversations about gay marriage. I never ever thought I would live in my life to see gay marriage be legal anywhere, but it started with a conversation and now it’s happening. So that’s kind of how I feel about the word feminism being in the mainstream. There was an episode of “Scandal,” which is such a hugely popular TV show--and I love it because I love watching Kerry Washington do that weird thing with her face that she does [Laughs]. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it and her crazy clothes--but there was this whole thing where they talked about sexism, and I was really blown away because you just don’t see that, except for maybe once in a while on like MSNBC.
 
There’s been so much attention on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” incident; I’m wondering if there’s a story you haven’t told about that friendship that might resonate with people.
 
I mean, I guess the thing that was really interesting to me was that there was a time in Olympia, Washington that things felt very electric, and Nirvana was very much a part of that. We were there when Dave [Grohl] first showed up and became the new drummer and was sleeping on Kurt’s couch. Kurt was a hard nut to crack. He could be really quiet, and he got pissed at me a couple times. [Laughs]
 
About what?
 
I don’t want to say because I feel like it would be disrespectful to him to talk about the argument.
 
Sure.
 
I will say this: There was a time where we shared lyrics that we were writing with each other that was really special to me because I had never done that before. We actually played … it’s the game where you take a piece of paper—exquisite corpse—and one person draws the legs and they fold it over and then another person draws the torso and they fold it over and another person draws the head, and then you pull out the paper and then you see what person you guys drew. You don’t see what the other person is drawing when you’re drawing your thing. You just do the last line. We did that with lyrics one day, and it was really fun. Where he would write some lines and fold it over and I would just see the last line that he had written and then I would write. I had these weird little mini-writing workshops with them that were the first time that I put myself out in that way in front of somebody, like showed them my [bleepin’] journal.
 
Do you remember anything specific that came out of there, even if it was just one line?
 
Oh, I have no idea. I don’t remember what the lyrics we were working on were, the songs or anything like that. I just remember sitting in an apartment and playing that weird game and talking about lyrics and him showing me some stuff and me showing him stuff and it being the first time I had ever done that with anybody, and so that was a special memory. We really lost touch before he passed away a lot because I don’t do heroin, and it’s really hard to be around people who are users if you’re not a user.
 
You said recently, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is just walk right past a person and have a great day, but sometimes you feel like you really need to say something.” At this point in your life, how do you feel like you know the difference between when you need to step up and speak out and when you need to hold your tongue and move on?
 
You know, I’m still really bad at that. I actually got up in this woman’s face and called her some really bad names today because she was yelling at these people behind the counter at a deli, calling them idiots. And she was being totally awful and telling them the way that they were cooking her food was disgusting and that they were disgusting and they were idiots. Her behavior was horrifying, and we ended up not getting our food because she was acting like such a jerk that we just left. But as we were walking away, I just walked right up to her and told her what I thought of her and then walked away. It was partially because the people working behind the counter maybe couldn’t say, “Hey, I think you’re a real jerk” because they could lose their jobs. But I wasn’t working and I had the ability to say that, and if I worked there I would want to see somebody, another customer, walk up and tell that person what an asshole they were. And I did; I told her she was an asshole. And some other choice words which I won’t repeat.
 
Was there any reaction? Did everyone start applauding?
 
No, no, no, no. I actually had a meeting, and I was supposed to be there in five minutes, so I didn’t stick around to see what happened afterwards. I really felt like at that point they should have called security on her. I kind of wanted to go back after I was done with my meeting and see what had happened, but I was so grossed out by her behavior and I’m still—even right now, I’m thinking of her face. You know people who go to Starbucks and they treat the people who work there like total crap and they’re like (in whiny, nasal voice), “I said a double tall skinny latte with foam!”? I just find those people insufferable.
 
I think it would be difficult to find someone who’d say, “I love those people!”
 
[Laughs] I know. But if I think somebody might have a weapon on them, I don’t say something. Or if I think they might be really crazy. She wasn’t really crazy; she was just an asshole. If it’s somebody who’s really crazy and might have a weapon on them, that’s when I don’t say anything.
 
On the subject of intervening and expressing your opinion, I really found it interesting in the movie, your relationship with Adam and what happens at the ’99 MTV Video Music Awards. I’m wondering if you think he would have made those comments about sexual assault at Woodstock if not for your influence.
 
Oh, absolutely not. I mean, absolutely not. [Laughs] I was like, “You are lucky you get to make this speech. You’re probably going to get this award, so you should say something.” He totally agreed with me. He was angry about it; it wasn’t false. But it was my idea that he say something. He did. But there was another time that a writer called his band out on something homophobic they had done when they were much younger, and he took out a piece of paper and wrote a letter to the magazine and apologized for being homophobic when he was younger and apologized to the gay community. And that was him. So we are a team.
 
I totally appreciate what you said in the movie about how people can’t decide who you fall in love with, but obviously you had opinions about things that the Beastie Boys had said. Was that something that became a conversation topic here and there between you two?
 
Yeah. Of course it had to be acknowledged. It’s been joked about; it’s been acknowledged. It’s been painful to have to see or hear some of that stuff that he did a long time ago and just kind of feel grossed out for a second. But then I’m like, “That’s not who I fell in love with. That’s some weird whippersnapper bratty dude who din’t know any better.” And I’m really really proud of him and I’m really proud of his band. They in a way were king of the dudes, and they made the decision to change and to change publicily and to say, “Hey, we made mistakes and this is who we are now.” And I think that’s really positive. And I think it’s really great. Think of all the frat dudes who were so into “License to Ill” or whatever and then got into “Paul’s Boutique” and then maybe saw Adam make that speech about Woodstock and kind of reconsidered some things that they thought about women. I think it’s really positive that people change in public. It’s not hypocritical that you once were like this, and now you’re this different person. We age and we change and we grow, and that’s a good thing.
 
And you can’t blame someone that you’re together with for their past, or hold that against them necessarily.
 
I mean, it can annoy me! [Laughs] The one way that I think about it is if someone was filming me and I was writing songs when I was 17, I’m sure there would be tons of [bleep] I would be embarrassed about too. If he didn’t feel weird about it or embarrassed, there’d be a problem. But I didn’t tell him to feel that way. They had already stopped doing certain songs in their set because they felt they were sexist. They were confronting sexism in other bands as well, and they did that without my prompting. I met Mike D actually before I met Adam, and he was really really interested in Riot Grrrl and feminism and wanted to know more, and it was really great to have a guy that was so interested and wanted to know, “How do you think we can make our crowd safer for women?” We had a lot of really nice talks about it, and I appreciated their interest early on. It wasn’t like I brought this thing to them. They were already in the process of change.
 
Obviously we can’t predict the future, but I have to ask: You talked about the way women’s rights have still come up in politics and the Republican party has gone after that stuff. If you ask people who’s going to win in 2016, Hillary Clinton would probably be toward the top of their list. That would be a humongous moment for the country and for women. Do you think that would have a long-lasting impact on femisnism? I know that’s a pretty large question.
 
You know, I probably maybe before Obama was elected would have said yes, but seeing how his presidency has been completely blocked--and knowing that actually I think the first black mayor in Chicago, the same identical thing happened, where everything he tried to pass was filibusters. They’re basically making it like he’s not really the president because they won’t let him do anything. They just tie his hands, and I would be worried that they’d do the same thing with Hillary. When Hillary was running in the primaries here, there were a lot of really sexist posters all over New York City. And that really disturbed me greatly. But I would just be worried that the same thing would happen and Republicans would just block everything that she did so that they could later do what they’re going to do to Obama and say that she was ineffectual. I hate to be a downer [Laughs]. I voted for Obama, but I would definitely like to see Hillary be in the White House more than Chris Christie or any Republican, but I’m not sure what would happen. It’s not like Obama being president made racism go away, so I don’t see why Hillary being president would make sexism go away. I think in a way it does a disservice because it makes people say, “Well, look, there’s an African-American man who’s president, so how can you guys complain anymore about racism?” That makes me really sad because there’s so many conversations about race that really really need to be taking place, especially today with recent events that have happened. Like that girl looking for help after a car accident and being shot in the face. I don’t know if you read about that.
 
I think that’s a fantastic point. I interviewed Forest Whitaker about “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I was making the case for why I didn’t think it was right that the movie makes people walk out and feel great about where we’re at, and he was asserting that it ends at the election of Obama and that was great and people had hope and that was OK. I was like, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen yesterday.”
 
Yeah. You’re right, and things have taken a real sharp turn. Like Sarah Palin’s back on TV now? What?! Go away! [Laughs]
 
Plus:
On Chicago: “My favorite [thing] to do is to go to all the thrift stores ‘cause you guys have amazing thrift stores, and I love to get really wet burritos in Chicago. [Laughs] There’s this one place that I always go to that makes these really wet burritos. In New York you get these really dry burritos. I can’t describe it. They put extra cheese and extra sauce and extra everything in ‘em. I guess the other thing I really love about Chicago is I love all the signs. The signage everywhere, like funeral home signs and drugstore signs. There’s a lot of old-fashioned signs there. I don’t know if you notice that because you live there, but I’m always amazed by it.”

 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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