Before my touring schedule became so demanding that I was hardly ever in my home city, I used to coach at Girls Rock Camp Vancouver every August. I loved teaching at rock camp. Not only was the focus of the week-long camp to teach girls how to play instruments, develop lyrics, make their own merchandise, learn things like self-defense and, of course, write and perform their own original song with their bands, but it was mostly about inspiring confidence in young women through music. I cried a lot at rock camp because I am a big, fat softie. Plus, when my band of teenage girls came together and wrote a song with lyrics so dark and beautiful they sounded like it came off Hole’s Celebrity Skin, I watched them perform in their glittery make-up and perfect poise at the big showcase and bawled with happiness in the wings. They all made fun of me for crying when they proudly skipped off stage.
The first thing we teach at rock camp is to not rip on other female musicians. This kind of has to be the Golden Rule at camp because camp is supposed to be a supportive and encouraging environment free of negativity and unnecessary hate.
“You can hate Miley Cyrus, but if your bandmates likes her you should respect that,” I heard myself saying to my group of teenage girls. “Don’t shit on your differences. We should support all women playing music in this camp.”
I heard myself repeat this over and over, but I don’t know how much I believed it. I support the idea of sisterhood, but I think in feminism as a whole we need our differences and we should be able to openly discuss and critique them. I don’t feel bound to another woman’s feminism simply because we both happen to share the same gender and genitals. It’s not that simple at all. Since feminism is so deeply personal as well as political, our roots (or realm of possibilities, which includes race, gender, class and sexual orientation) shape how we are able to move through the world. It fucks with our belief systems and creates differences between us. Under the umbrella of feminism sit billions of women who all have their own individual beliefs. I think that’s great even if it makes our political movement one of the most confused there is.
This is why I feel so completely torn listening to Run Fast, the new album by feminist riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna’s band the Julie Ruin. Every fiber of my being wants to like this album with the same gusto and passion I did with her ’90s band Bikini Kill’s Reject All American, but I can’t. Maybe I have changed? Maybe I’ve developed since my Bikini Kill days, when I was 16? It’s certainly not Hanna. The 44-year-old singer has always walked that line between being a sneering, tough punk with all the “whatever, dude” charm of a deep Valley girl. In Bikini Kill, she bounced around in her underwear and a half-top, exposing her less-than-model-perfect body, screaming about violence, women’s health rights or even just simply love. I wrote a lot about Hanna in university. I found power in Bikini Kill when I was a 17-year-old girl who was becoming a woman and trying to figure out my rage. When my best friend’s piece-of-shit boyfriend shoved his hand down my pants and into my pussy when I was passed out drunk at a party and then tried to make the whole thing my fault, Hanna was there for me with her songs and her feminist power allowing me to be frustrated by sexual molestation. When I wanted to fucking freak out because I was being mistreated simply because of my tits, Hanna gave me the political strength, lyrical intelligence and vernacular to speak clearly about my feelings. I will always thank her for that, however, that does not mean I like her latest musical effort.
The Julie Ruin includes Bikini Kill’s Kathi Wilcox on bass, Rock Camp for Girls instructor Sara Landeau on guitars, former Le Tigre crew member Carmine Covelli on drums and Kenny Mellman on keys. Even from the first track “Oh Come On,” Hanna sounds like her bubbly, bratty self, spitting astute yet flippant lyrics that question her place in the world. “First you walk/and then you dare to talk/in studied half remarks/that never die.” The Julie Ruin marries the punk backbone of Bikini Kill with the electronic vibe of Hanna’s later project Le Tigre. The songs are bouncy and catchy, all happy chords and lyrics that feel as though they should be sung while saying, “Nah-Nah-Nah-Nah-Boo-Boo!” But for me, the music just feels slightly dated and lacking. It’s completely personal, but it’s that lack of darkness and edge, in the most obvious sense of the phrase, in Hanna’s music that always turns me off. Like, sometimes I crave a cream soda, but mostly I just want a really big glass of whiskey, you know? In “Kids in NY” Hanna talks about the rising cost of rent and living in the city, while tracks like “Party City” sound like classic Hanna. Her strongest moment is on “Goodnight Goodbye” where she dissects herself and her position: touring with Bikini Kill, living punk and being poor, not giving a shit about radio approval, but now being perceived as an icon. “What happens when you’re not 20 but 41/And you have to sink into the you, you’ve now become/Will the teenage sneer you so cultivated/Sneer back at you and make you feel so hated?” Holy fucking shit! It’s a line like that, that will always make Hanna brilliant. She’s so self-aware it’s scary. That’s what makes her powerful. That’s what makes her a great feminist.
When listening to Run Fast, I have to employ the golden rule of Rock Camp. I don’t have to like the Julie Ruin, but I must respect it and not just because it’s women (and men) playing impactful music, but because Hanna is still asking questions of the world around her. She’s still redefining what it means to be a woman, a feminist and a punk. We desperately need her. Even though I probably will never listen to Run Fast again (sonically, it’s not attractive to me), I will go back and read the lyrics. I will think about everything Hanna is asking me to think about. And isn’t that the point? Hasn’t that always been Hanna’s aim, to facilitate discussion and critique? I think so.