“Don’t stop fighting! We need all of you to keep fighting,” said the iconic riot grrrl matriarch Kathleen Hanna at her show as The Julie Ruin in Irving Plaza just two days after an election that devastated so many of us to our very core. Hanna has been one of the loudest voices in modern feminism for the last 25 years, and she saw, as we all did, the de facto first female president of the United States (a competent, compassionate, battle-hardened, and extremely experienced bureaucrat in Hillary Clinton) get somehow shanghaied, and we were instead left with a Cheeto-faced misogynist (the billionaire liar, bigot, racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic, snake oil salesman that is Donald Trump) who had actually confessed to sexual assault in the past. It was undoubtedly hardest for survivors of sexual assault to suffer, as the election results could very well be felt as another form of molestation by the American society in large. It was also undeniably hard on parents of girls and young women to somehow explain to them that this is what a majority of Americans wanted in their choice of leaders and how they feel about women at large, but still somehow express that despite all that, they’re still powerful. It has left a feeling of dread among many of us that we would see (and have seen already seen) racial and religious violence, as well as a radical turn backwards in views and treatment of women, even including violence. In myself, I found the anxiety so great, I couldn’t even imagine enjoying the things that had brought me pleasure in the past, including seeing live music. So, it turns out, the show I’d already planned on seeing long before the election became the show that not only brought back that love of concerts, but also brought back the will to fight on.
A garage band of high school-aged ladies with a determination to rock called Harsh Crowd opened the show openly embracing feminism with a cool soul rock sound and classic punk rock authority. They’re obviously extremely well-trained and classically-educated musicians, and it’s wonderful to see them explore getting gritty and raw with their music. It was brilliant of Kathleen Hanna to open the show with a group of young female rockers, as there was now more reason than ever for young women (of which there were many in the audience) to see feminine youth bravely own the stage and powerfully kick ass.
Kathleen Hanna has been through it all (and then some). Rising up as an artist of fanzine and DIY brilliance in the Pacific Northwest, she came to national prominence as one of the leading radical feminist figures among the riot grrrl scene of the early 1990’s in her band Bikini Kill. Going head to head with the often violent and misogynistic punk scene of the day, she gave innumerable women the courage to break into a battlefield few females dared to tread until then. After that punk project fizzled, she came back to her beginnings by recording in her bedroom on a simple tape recorder and calling the solo effort Julie Ruin. She then spent the late 90’s through the early 00’s in a much more electro-pop oriented project called LeTigre, but still kept her eyes, mouth, and fists firmly on social issues surrounding feminist, left-wing, and sociopolitical issues than concerned her. As well chronicled in the documentary The Punk Singer, Hanna was then locked in a long health struggle after which she was diagnosed with a very serious case of Lyme’s disease forcing the titan of female empowerment to fall away from the rock scene, even as she stayed active in the causes she fiercely believed in. Now, after over a decade locked in a serious battle with her health, and only a couple days until she turned 47, she has risen once again like a phoenix from the ashes to take back her warrior punk queen crown. In the last few years she has built her new band, The Julie Ruin, with bassist Kathi Wilcox, keyboardist Kenny Mellman, drummer Carmine Covelli, and guitarist Sara Landeau. Their second LP since the reformation, Hit Reset, has quickly became one of my top 10 albums of the year, and may well be the finest work yet of her career. It’s a profound treat hearing an amazing artist come back strong after many years, inspiring me (and others) to continue striving.
Their set was mostly off the new disc with only a couple songs from the previous two Julie Ruin efforts that were nearly a decade apart. They also played a surprise cover of Courtney Barnett’s stunning “Pedestrian at Best,” and much to everyone’s delight, an encore of Bikini Kill’s classic feminist warrior anthem, “Rebel Girl.” Along the way Kathleen shared many diatribes from the incendiary to the silly, with stories and antidotes of their collective pasts and relationships that would make you want to laugh and cry. Also, Kathleen and Kenny Mellman (formerly of Kiki & Herb) offered many suggestions along the way on how to keep fighting and who to give donations and time to. There were especially touching recollections between Hanna and Mellman about how hard it was to get through similar periods of hostile conservative swings in the late 80’s and early 90’s. That’s where I take quite a lot of the hopefulness that I have right now.
If you look back on the history of our country, there have always been powerful swings in the opposite direction after massive social, political changes. Even after one of the bloodiest periods in our history ending after the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln, finally freeing people of color from systematic oppression; came President Andrew Johnson, commonly known as one of the most racist leaders of our entire history. After two terms of our first African-American President, there’s a blow-back by many that never considered Barack Obama their president (or even an American citizen, conspired by the President-elect himself) because of the color of his skin. I find comfort that despite a cycle of major setbacks of social evolution, we have always managed to fight our way back to progress. We have a hard fight ahead of us, but our battle for equality and love to conquer division and hate will always be a battle worth fighting for.
Article: Dean Keim