Review: The Punk Singer
It seems that the fundamental flaw of music documentaries made up of more talking heads than live performance is that they put life and legend before music. Taking their cues from Pare Lorentz and Ken Burns, these types of docs employ an unapologetically didactic approach to their audiences: “This band was the first to…,” “This band changed history,” “You’re now part of the club that understands their importance.” (In the worst cases, you’ll get a Behind the Music–style bloodletting and recitations of the mantra, “Life is really, really, really hard.”) Despite that these biography-burdened films acknowledge the distinction between musicians’ lives and their creative processes, their approach is ultimately too simplistic and uniform—kind of like being stuck in a room decorated in perfect monochrome.
In the riot grrrl movement, biography—or at least, stories about women and their often previously unrevealed experiences of sexual abuse—was commonly given priority over music. So it’s fitting that Kathleen Hanna, co-author of the Riot Grrrl Manifesto and former lead singer of Bikini Kill, should get this type of treatment. In the same way that she broke through the moshing all-boys club of hardcore punk and grunge with the rallying cry of “girls to the front,” she now gets her very own hagiography. Sitting in her pristine, vintage-decorated lakefront home, Hanna details her relationship with her parents and her struggles with the scandal-happy media; other, all-white members of the late-Eighties/early-Nineties Seattle, Portland, and Olympia scenes speak about Hanna’s cultural contributions as the camera lovingly tracks across her college selfies. Snippets of archival concert footage merely illustrate points rather than be given room to speak for themselves. (In fact, the temptation arises to leave the theater and seek out Tamra Davis’s No Alternative Girls instead.)
The contradiction between status-quo film style and punk-rock subject never comes close to being resolved, but then Hanna herself is a bundle of contradictions. Deeply committed to feminism, she (perhaps paradoxically) supported herself at one point by working as a stripper—and it certainly shows in some of her musical performances—yet is seen complaining at a 1995 panel that certain media had labeled her as one. (She later half-heartedly addressed her time on the pole by likening it to a vegetarian working at McDonald’s—something she also did.) On a more basic level, because Hanna is and has always been an incredibly attractive white woman, her message and image was made more palatable to those both inside and outside of the mainstream. It’s unlikely you’d find audiences in the Nineties applauding a 300-pound woman for getting topless and writing “SLUT” across her stomach, and even now Beth Ditto’s boldness isn’t fully embraced. But why should a woman have to “reclaim” exhibiting her naked body in the first place? Don’t we, as women, have better things to do? Why does the “radicalness” of this gesture feel exactly the same when done by a teen pop star transitioning into an “adult” performer, and why does it feel so different for white women than it does for women of color? While this is certainly not to diminish Hanna’s importance to her fans or to somehow dismiss her for being beautiful, her multiple layers of privilege is something that neither she nor the documentary truly deals with.
The second half of Hanna’s musical career—Julie Ruin, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin—is pop in the purest sense: sample-based, synth-heavy songs that focused on the “positive things about life.” With stage choreography reminiscent of the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” video (Hanna is married to Adam Horovitz), her early Aughts anthems led to her greatest visibility and financial success. Though Hanna argues that this turn toward the upbeat was political, it’s hard to imagine someone writing lyrics like “For the ladies and the fags yeah / We’re the band with the roller skate jams” during the beginnings of the War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The documentary does show Le Tigre wearing matching “Fuck Bush” dresses on-stage, a gesture that doesn’t really help rebut the charge of superficiality that's been levelled at Hanna.) Because director Sini Anderson has clearly created The Punk Singer as a primer for the Tumblr-activist generation—who will undoubtedly identify with the frustrations, closeness, and infighting of the riot grrrl community—it will be interesting to see whether they view Hanna as a hero or just a woman who had some good things to say.