Monday, 30 March 2015

The Punk Singer

On Saturday I re-watched Jamie Babbitt's amazing Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a film inspired by the energy of riot grrrl, starring Melonie Diaz. The first time I watched it the Nicole Vicious character, Sadie, really annoyed me but, watching it again, I think I appreciated much more the role that her character plays within the group.

The film proved to be a good companion piece to The Punk Singer, which is the Kathleen Hanna story. Watching it made me realise just how much the Bikini Kill songbook is seared into the patterns of my brain. The film began with footage of Kathleen performing a startling and absorbing piece of spoken word in 1991, then went on to discuss her meeting with Kathy Acker when she was at Evergreen College, and how Kathy Acker effectively told her to form a band instead of doing spoken word. It was great to see so much archive footage of Bikini Kill, it really brought home what a force of nature she was in that band, similarly, the footage of her performing as part of Le Tigre displayed her ability to command an audience and own the stage.

The later stages of the film concern Kathleen's life after 2005, when she contracted Lymes disease, which went undiagnosed for five years, and her retreat from performance and from music as she dealt with what were very serious health problems. This part of the film reminded me, to a certain extent, of parts of Viv Albertine's memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, specifically those chapters where she described battling cancer. Both women were pioneers, but very different characters I think.

I really liked the moment when Kathleen was talking about her post Bikini Kill, pre Le Tigre solo project, Julie Ruin. The Julie Ruin album was a bedroom album, and Kathleen talked about how girls have traditionally created art in their bedrooms but that most of the art goes undiscovered, unreleased, and never sees the light of day. This is because each bedroom is like an isolated satellite with no connections, so the girls get discouraged and destroy their work rather than share it. By releasing the Julie Ruin album, she was hoping to inspire such girls. I really love this observation because it directly challenges the idea held by cultural historians and sociologists that girls consume culture but do not create it, and I love that Kathleen was challenging this, perhaps unwittingly.

Perhaps the most moving part of The Punk Singer was Kathleen's return to performance, leading The Julie Ruin Band, as part of a Kathleen Hanna tribute night. Even though she seemed frailer, once onstage she showed she still had the energy and the voice, and she was able to own that stage and be inspirational all over again.

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