September 9, 1998
Woman vs. rock
Kathleen Hanna rises from the ashes of Bikini Kill with Julie Ruin
By Johnny Ray Huston
THE DAY I CALL Kathleen Hanna she's excited, because The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has just been released. This detail is interesting and frustrating. If Hanna wanted to, she could be Hill's rock equivalent -- a strong, politicized female star, one whose art extends beyond a narcissistic fascination with her own celebrity. But while Hanna -- like Hill -- has a powerfully distinct voice, the music she's made has always been too messy and cheap-sounding for mass appeal. She isn't a pop icon; she's an anti-pop icon. Or as she puts it, "I am an artist strategic who makes decisions about what I put in and what I leave out."
During Hanna's eight years with Bikini Kill -- the group most associated with riot grrrl -- one thing she chose to "leave out" was the media. Bikini Kill's refusal to do interviews with nonzine publications stemmed from a desire to define themselves -- and develop their (and their fans') feminism -- away from male- and money-dominated forums. Though purposeful, the stonewall approach left them mute in the face of attacks in Spin and distortions in Newsweek, and it limited the number of listeners they reached. Riot grrrl ended up being commercially exploited (the Spice Girls' "Girl Power" is the most blatant example) anyway. "I did begin to get frustrated, thinking, 'Oh, did we just show record companies there's a market they can tap into without our function?' " Hanna says.
This year Bikini Kill officially broke up (and shortly after released their best album, the 7-inch compilation The Singles). Using a tactic associated with male performers such as Prince, Hanna has moved on to a new persona: Julie Ruin. The music on Ruin's "self-titled" debut album resembles that of Bikini Kill in its reactive tone -- in particular, in its hostility toward criticism, which manifests formally (the album's in-progress feel) and literally (on "Crochet" Ruin tells writers responsible for "women in rock" tomes that they make her want to take up the hobby mentioned in the song's title). But whereas Bikini Kill's false starts and loose ends in the studio conveyed inner conflict and self-destructive impulses, Ruin uses sounds like finger paints -- there's a newfound sense of freedom mixed into the album's struggle.
The freedom stems from Hanna's shift to solo electronic music making; she made Ruin with lo-fi recording equipment ("I don't believe in God, but I believe God invented four-tracks"), including a broken sampler she bought for $100. Tracks like "Tania" -- a posttrauma ode to an imaginary friend -- almost fuse the writing-recording process into real time. "With 'Tania' I didn't know what the song was going to be until I sang it," Hanna says. "I was in a little closet in my apartment; I turned off the lights so I was in the dark, pressed Record, and did the song in one take." She tells a similar story about "I Wanna Know What Love Is": "I was scared in the middle of the night and I thought, 'I'm not going to just lie here and feel this, I'm going to write it down and record it now.' "
Recording as Julie Ruin, Hanna "compounds mistakes until they become songs." Looped, rudimentary guitar riffs are central to the album, a playful, rule-breaking approach sure to irritate snotty purists on both sides of the rock-electronic divide. With repeated listens, little vocal "mistakes" (coughs, burps), craftsy instrumental decorations (patty-cake and typewriter rhythm tracks), and radio channel-surfing effects gradually begin to function like hooks. If the result doesn't fully realize one of Hanna's goals -- to make dance music for women -- she's aware of its limitations. "The one thing missing from the album is the feeling of people playing together and locking into each other," she says. "That's something I love about Sleater-Kinney -- live, they're incredible, because they have a dynamic."
(Not) on the radio
Julie Ruin is the latest audio document of Hanna's individual, imperfect feminism. "When I found feminism, I came to it with a fucked-up religious attitude," she says, referring back to the early days of riot grrrl's youth outreach. "When you come to something with the idea it's going to save you, you think, 'I'm going to get all the knowledge so I can stop learning and I can go heal others.' It's a very American, Polaroid, instant-gratification attitude. I've had to investigate how the idea of feminism itself being a body of knowledge that I can consume and spit out has messed with my head."
Julie Ruin's investigation focuses on women's problematic relationships with each other. "She says it's for my own good / Smashes my face into the car hood," Hanna/Ruin sings over the layered surf guitar of "Radical or Pro-Parental." After listing a series of restrictive ethical binaries, the song describes a solidarity-gone-sour scenario:
Who is real and who is false now
Pick the scabs to see who falls now
And when they kill each other off now
We'll find the cure for their first flaw now
Hanna currently lives on the East Coast, and "Radical or Pro-Parental" is just one of many alienated, angry, irrational love songs that might be addressed to her former band and the broader female-motored Northwest scene it emerged from. "There's something amazing about living in a close-knit community, and there's something amazing about not," Hanna says with a laugh, going on to emphasize the support within the hothouse environment of Olympia, Wash. "When you have to move to a new apartment or house in Olympia, people will crawl out of the woodwork to help. I couldn't have made the album anywhere else. I just called people and said, 'I don't know what this gadget is, can you come over, can you explain?' Everyone was more than willing to loan and share equipment."
Julie Ruin's compressed AM-radio exile is most potent on "A Place Called Won't Be There," cocrafted by Paul Schuster. Though Hanna says the track's sound was inspired by the Olympia-based duo the Need, its hip-hop beats and electric-melodic shocks would stand out on a Beck or Beastie Boys album. "You use your coplike tactics / Say it is for our own good" complains to a "fake feminist police force"; the buildup to the chorus -- a tense struggle that ends in defiance -- is a prime example of Hanna's catchy contradiction. If its instrumental tracks were doubled and its distorted vocal polished clean, "A Place Called Won't Be There" could easily rule modern-rock stations. But instead it occupies the space implied in its title.
Julie Ruin makes troubled, solitary music out of a female community's fault lines. The unconventionally blunt breakup song "Apartment #5" is more honest ("I'm not always truthful ... I'm happy being me and I don't wanna be you") than insightful. Elsewhere, influenced by l'écriture féminine -- French feminist Hélène Cixous's theory of a distinct female writing that refutes linearity and logic -- the album consciously strives to be subconscious. As its title suggests, "My Morning Is Summer" is the aural equivalent of a half-formed thought on a hot day. "On Language" combines a classic Kinks riff with a voice that sounds like an adult from a Charlie Brown special.
"I've always been frustrated by language because I feel like it's a way to separate our minds from our bodies, to intellectualize situations without really feeling them," Hanna explains, launching into a speech about ... speechlessness. "You can turn an experience into a product -- for example, when you talk about a relationship, it's as if the relationship is a thing. But in a relationship, you and the other person bring your history, privileges, and who you are at that moment into every conversation. You're constantly becoming a different person in different situations. With one friend you may have an 'older brother' personality. With another you may be a 'little brother.' You're always changing according to context.
"But what if you agree with five different opinions at once and you recognize everyone has their own idea and you can't really pick one? I just couldn't argue anymore, I couldn't just come from one standpoint. I wanted to come from ten different places at once. Language won't let you do that because it's all about having a subject, verb, and predicate. What happens if you have a song that's all predicates -- does that not mean anything? What if everything hits you all at once and you can't even stammer? What if you can't explain all the things that have happened to you, and you don't want to, because you don't want to go back to the pain?
"Instead of writing a song about crying, I want to create the feeling of crying. I want to stutter eloquently. I want to make my stammering into a really beautiful song."
Jewel had a bad relationship
Whether or not Julie Ruin is wholly successful in this regard, its songs definitely offer a welcome antidote to airbrushed, conservative, middle-class Lilith-fare. "When critics write 'Jewel had a bad relationship,' I want to know why Jewel needs to write about that bad relationship," Hanna says. "I want to know what marketing concept wants female singer-songwriters to write about love gone wrong. I never want to disrespect other women who are making music. But I also want to be able to talk about other women's work and say 'This is ridiculous, this has nothing to do with my life, Natalie Imbruglia does not represent me.' I'm insulted by the management teams, stylists, and major label people who figure out what the market is and then assign people to play the part."
With Bikini Kill and now as a solo artist, Hanna has made a practice of sabotaging apolitical, packaged pop sentiment. Julie Ruin's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" changes the chorus of a Foreigner hit from a conventionally feminine romantic sentiment into a feminist distress call; the song's verses -- dealing with rape, racism, homophobia, and police abuse of power -- offer an increasingly rare instance of direct political lyricism. "Pop music surrounds us -- even if you weren't listening to the radio when that Foreigner song was popular, you heard it," Hanna says. "But love songs don't have to be about an individual. They can be redirected so they're about health care, or a community that you feel has been fractured and splintered in a way that isn't helpful."
Though in a typical Bikini Kill song Hanna might shift from scared girl to angry dad, throughout Julie Ruin she uses her arsenal of vocal characters to emphasize the disobedient undercurrent of "sexy" '80s new wave singing. With its dinky Digital Hardcore drones and stings, "Aerobicide" is the punk Madonna that Ciccone Youth tried to imagine. One of the album's lighter moments, "V.G.I." ends with what sounds like a Fran Drescher imitation, and its words -- "I'm not a genius I'm more like a genie / Granting girls wishes from my stone-cold bikini" -- reimagine an old TV icon as a contemporary consciousness-raiser. A number of female filmmakers, including Sadie Benning, are collaborating with Hanna on videos for Julie Ruin; in the clip for "V.G.I." she'll make typewriters and fax machines appear and disappear with the blink of an eye.
Proud of the fact that she lives in a building lorded over by Mason Reese ("He's probably downstairs right now"), Hanna would rather (ab)use pop culture than allow it to (ab)use her. "I got a letter from Disney, and they wanted to audition me to be the voice of an animated character, a mermaid in a band," she says, when asked about a rumor that she'd been asked to play the character the Little Mermaid. "I also got asked to sing a Frank Sinatra song for a Microsoft commercial. And a Nike commercial. I turned them down. But a couple of years ago people thought it was my voice singing 'I wanna piece-a piece-a pizza' in a Little Caesar's commercial. The truth is ... I wanna be the voice of the Snuggles bear [she proceeds to do a frighteningly precise impression]. 'What happened to Kathleen Hanna?' 'Oh, she became the voice of Snuggles.' "
PHOTO: TAMMY RAE CARLAND