It’s hard to believe that iconic feminist, riot grrrl and punk singer Kathleen Hanna celebrated her 45th birthday Nov 12. Hanna has spent the past few years under the radar, which has perplexed her fans and admirers. Le Tigre, her most successful band, which contained the trio of Hanna, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson, went on hiatus in 2005 after three jam-packed albums. In The Punk Singer, a fascinating new documentary directed by Sini Anderson, Hanna reveals that the reason for her absence has been an ongoing battle with Lyme disease, which has put her life in a tailspin.
Le Tigre has not been Hanna’s only contribution to popular culture. She was also a part of the fanzine craze — Hannah’s first art show in college, with Aaron Baush-Greene, dealt with AIDS and sexism — and her repertoire includes spoken word. Hanna also made money as a stripper before founding the seminal punk band Bikini Kill.
Bikini Kill was a game changer in the 1990s music scene. Based out of Olympia, Washington, the band’s songs were full of rage and addressed sexism, political outrage and feminist ideologies. Hanna’s close friendship with the members of bands such as Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys — she is married to the Boys' Adam Horovitz — and Kurt Cobain meant her influence was filtered down to the mainstream. She is credited with coming up with the name of Nirvana’s album Smells Like Teen Spirit when, while drunk, she spray-painted the words “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on Cobain’s apartment wall one day. But it is for her politically charged works that Hanna remains a legend to her peers and fans.
As director Anderson told Daily Xtra during this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, “It’s kind of hard to have a really great time . . . when you talk about really serious issues.
“Some of the issues around feminism . . . sexism, and abuse and rape, and how do you take this and have it energized and have people also having a good time but, you know, identify with these politics. And that's who Kathleen is. I can’t think of anybody who does it better,” Anderson says.
This year, along with the documentary The Punk Singer, Hanna released a new album — and band. The Julie Ruin is Hanna’s welcome return to music, and it’s a sensational one.
The Punk Singer premieres on Nov 29 in theatres and video on demand.