Monday, 25 May 2015

Kathleen Hanna a feminist criterion | Ye Nuns Revisited

Read this if you’re a Ye Nuns fan, a feminist; a student of music journalism; interested in media representation of women or/and the Riot Grrrl movement; the woman who wiped the lipstick off my face in 1983 and told me I couldn’t be a feminist. 

You may also: appreciate my humour (not the spinning top, slick verbatim of my old Melody Maker colleagues, it’s still on the self-deprecating stage); understand the feminist politics behind lateral thinking and writing with that response; be a fan of 90s bands Silverfish and The Faith Healers. 

I have written about Ye Nuns twice now, in the girls are and at Louder Than War. There is often a political element to the review because that is what these women are about – they are informed, angry and busy. But I have missed the point: the feminist viewpoint. And it’s my own fault, I got very excited about Ye Nuns having overcome number one of Kathleen Hanna’s manifesto for the case of Riot Grrrl What is Riot Grrrl? (The Riot Grrrl Collection, The Feminist Press, 2013)

Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill (Pic from Rookie mag, from Bikini Kill) 

Number 1: Because we will never meet the hierarchical boy standards of talented, or cool, or smart. They are created to keep us out, and if we ever meet them they will change, or we will become tokens. 

So let me tell you, returning to the Big Smoke, and tracking down women I’ve been reviewing since the 90s, it was a wow that they could play their instruments. But hang on, that is weird, because I have championed bands that these women have been in: Curve, Echobelly, Toxic Shock Syndrome, The Frantic Spiders, Mambo Taxi, A-Lines, to name just a few of this group’s herstory, with adoration and belief for years. I have always loved the way they played their instruments. 

Now I realise that the difference is, I got confirmation (I was right all along) by the reaction of the men: the place was rammed with cool guys from my generation, old faces from various Camden bands in my 90s days as norf London girl, writing for Melody Maker. Even Gary, from Wiiija Records had travelled from Germany – though something odd was going on there because he did not seem to have aged one bit.

Here’s the thing: I think the cool guys are Ye Nuns fans because they play songs from The Monk’s repertoire, a cult band and part of the white middle-class male popular music canon, BUT they play the music better than they could themselves. 
As explained in my first Ye Nuns review (TGA)
“The Monks were an avant-garde German band from the 1960s. You can hear the timeline in the keyboard’s random gestures. Bands like The White Stripes and The Fall have cited The Monks experimental sound as an influence. The original line-up even went as far as adopting the monk’s tonsure hairstyle, wearing a uniform of black, with nooses worn as neckties and coining the very apt phrase “gallows rock”. Yes, there was a UK punk band, of the same name, but this particular crew were originally American GI’s, based in Germany, who developed a 60s sound, but with a difference.”

I was proud of myself, being able to put all that info into a review, a girl who simply responded with original phrasing and used to panic if my flat mate Push (who went on to create magazine of the year for many years, with MM postboy Ben Turner:  Muzik Magazine) was not around for checking/providing reference points. At the time I didn’t realise that the popular music cannon belonged to the white middle class male, I just thought I was right down the bottom of the pile, an uneducated idiot who didn’t even know all the millions of conspiracy theories boys and boys in bands liked to whiter on about. The only thing that felt good was being in the middle of gig. Then I belonged. 

To be honest: I Googled all that info. I was excited that I could do this – catch up on the child rearing years and this male middle class canon and no body would know. I was truly independent of my male peers.  I felt that the Internet had given me the opportunity to overcome one of the barriers to being a working class, heterosexual girl: getting a life back after children.

It's interesting to read Lucy O'Brien's (The Catholic Girls) account of arriving at the N.M.E. in a 2009 Guardian piece - her experiences seem to mirror exactly mine at the Melody Maker some years later. 

What I failed to say about Ye Nuns and Kathleen Hanna’s Number 1 reasoning is that they are far from a copycat version of The Monks, they do brave, cheeky and entirely delicious things with the songs because they can, they have the skills to do it. It’s that old chestnut: learn the rules so you can break them. They have reclaimed the hierarchical boys standards of cool, alternative musicality and given it back to them all twisted and full of feminine sexuality and they haven’t noticed! Whammy and I didn’t mention it. I was too busy being excited that I could be one of the boys and blab the history all by myself. (Thinking, subconsciously, this was needed to support a comeback?)

Number 2: Because I need laughter and girl love. We need to build lines of communication so we can more more open and accessible to each other.

This comes from the inherent sense of competing with other women, which is worse of course if you are heterosexual and horny. (From penetration some hormone – oxytocin, produces this need to nest – OMG.)

Reference to No. 2 is one thing – hooray – I did mention in a Ye Nuns review (TGA).
“If there is a feminine language it’s in the attitude of the band, in terms of flexibility; there are Ye Nuns stunt doubles, when real life gets in the way of billings, no hierarchy, only a mutual obsession to play music they love, with a wild abandon.”

I don’t know the ratio of gay: not gay in Ye Nuns, it may even change from week to week. They may all be gay- who cares? I never think about how people have sex unless I want to have sex with them.  There is certainly a difference in career progress without the children, perhaps even within the band (another unknown) – child-care is still a major issue for feminism, sexuality doesn’t divide us and I think we have to thank Riot Grrrl in part, for that.

Why we mustn’t forget Riot Grrrl:
90’s media representation of women
Girl love is not the same as girls having sex, well, not always. During the 90s I truly loved Lesley of Silverfish (now Ruby, an electronica artist), and Roxanne of The Faith Healers. There was no competing; there was much laughter and gossip. Lesley took me to Scotland, with the rest of the band, in a silver bus (not glamorous, dangerous toxic fumes filled the bus) to her mum’s bed & breakfast in Scotland’s unique countryside. We rolled down green hills together – well raced, the only element of competition in our friendship. Roxanne made me a badge that said Girl Power. I wore it religiously. I declared how Roxanne of The Faith Healers had given it to me because that was a feminist statement: yeah, we talk, laugh, and encourage each other. Be afraid.

Writing about women in bands in the 90s
The only other way I got to write with a feminist perspective during those times for a national music paper was to avoid mentioning what they were wearing, avoid putting them on a pedestal, absolutely avoid the word seminal. (When Bikini Kill came along I had lyrics to hold close to my heart and regurgitate.) I wasn’t given the opportunity to write about women like Kirstin Hersh, (Throwing Muses). She was the second phase for me: I am angry and that’s OK. Unfortunately or fortunately, probably both, she was captivating even in full-flow of hysteria and put on a pedestal by my male colleagues keen to review, also because the lyrics allowed analysis and male theorist references – the music wasn’t alienating, angry in the way of Bikini Kill or Babes In Toyland, although it was about those things.

Like me, Roxanne and Lesley were open and enthusiastic. We had no idea how beautiful, aesthetically, we were. We were clumsy and loud and forgot to look in the mirror before we went out. (When I did Transmission regional TV programme – introducing/interviewing indie bands -  I literally got up from what I was doing, went to the loo and then left. It was my feminist statement, but I forgot to tell anybody and one which I regretted, briefly. Had I played the game – learnt words for an intro, styled my hair, outfit, thought about the sexy, would I have moved on to a career in presenting and not been poor all my life?)

Lesley and Roxanne were absolutely nothing like the front women I had grown up with, such as Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie, Crissi Hynde, women who seemed really in control of their sexuality and the men around them. 

I was unaware of the legacy from which these beautiful women (Lesley and Roxanne) came because until recently no one has written about the hardcore, punk scene. (SeeGirls Who Make Noise, edited by Julia Downes, 2012, Supernova)

Number 6: Because a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day-to-day bullshit.

I admired Josephine Wiggs, from That Perfect Disaster or Bilinda Butcher from My Bloody Valentine from a distance, well as much of a distance as you get crammed into the tiny, dark place that was The Falcon, Camden Town, but they were lo-fi cool, probably I realise now, shy, awkward in the space. And the reason women only spaces, based on music, not sexuality was imperative and for which we have Riot Grrrl to thank.

I am appalled that collectives like the GLC funded Ova Music Studios, founded by the feminist band Ova (1976-1989) were active on in my patch and I didn’t know about them. It is my job to know about them, as a feminist music writer 2015, but I am sad they never knew about me. I would have loved to have learnt about sound engineering in a safe space – thus my fascination for women in electronica (I now write for the app Electronic Sound); the next musical hierarchy to reclaim and return in a different shape. Viva la difference!

Space is still a political issue
The issue of space still exists for women: the lack of affordable housing for single women, the bedroom tax taking away a study, workroom or studio for probably thousands and thousands of working class creative women who may finally, actually have affordable housing, and know all about the importance of a Room Of One’s Own whether they have read Virginia Woolf or not. Not least there are women out there denied their own personal space due to abuse, emotional or mental. 

Number 7: Because we need to acknowledge that our blood is being spilt; that right now a girl is being raped or battered and it might be me or you or your mom or the girl you sat next to on the bus last Tuesday, and she might be dead by the time you finish reading this. I not making this up.

One thing: Katheeen Hanna/Riot Grrrl sometimes appear to presume is that we understand we are victims, that we know we need to shout, scream, tell tales - and that there's a safe space for that to happen. In 2015 we are aware more of the manipulation of young women and men, alone in their rooms, on the internet; unable to distinguish between evil intent and friendly banter and worst of all, thinking they are in control. Space – or having personal space can mean danger in the 21st Century. It’s almost a conspiracy. 

Number 4: Because in every form of media I see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialised, pushed, ignored, stereo-typed, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed.

What do you think when you look up and there's a bunch of women, in nuns habits, having the time of their lives, holding chaos to ransom, and making it dance? 

I forgot to mention the Ye Nuns outfits. Avoiding this issue is ingrained although recently I have resolved that a bit, after two years as live editor at the girls are, since music, fashion is all about artistic expression. Ye Nuns wear nuns habits customised with fave accessories, but nuns habits all the same. What could be more non sexual! The nuns’ habit not only covers the parts at which boys like to peek (at) but it represents chastity – no sex at all. They have offered up a collective stereotype, which gives no one anything to chew on/over. It also stops them having to think about what to wear (what’s clean). But just when you think you have Ye Nuns worked out they throw you into confusion - open the debate, bow, and leave. Here's the 2015 video of 'Complication' (Nun More Black, Tuff Enuff Records, 2015).

The point of this blurb
This article (?) came about because increasingly I interview talented young boys and girl artist/musicians, who were too young to be inspired by Riot Grrrl – they found out about the movement in retrospect.

So we must not restrict the name of Kathleen Hanna and all her glorious Blurbs to just be under the umbrella of Riot Grrrl or alternative/indie women in music. This is a valid feminist criterion on which to base writing, any review, interview. 

I do not think Kathleen Hanna puts her Because in any particular order, in a traditional linear sequence. It is just how it counts in paragraphs, on the page. On another day she may have put things in a different order. 

Full Because at The Riot Grrrl Collection, The Feminist Press, 2013, page 168.
Also read Susan O'Shea's thesis The Art World's of Punk Inspired Feminists.

More reading: the french feminists Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Juliet Kristeva, who talk about coming from the inner to the outer world, who go right back to Freud and reinvent everything  – the same as Ye Nun’s - returning in a different shape. 

Have fun.

Footnote: this is not the complete revision of my perspective of media representation of women in bands in the 90s. Obviously. Personal is political but the really personal is in pink.

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