Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 5 - 1992 (The Punk Singer)

August 06, 2021 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 5
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 5 - 1992 (The Punk Singer)
Show Notes Transcript

Don't Call It Nothing Episode 5 now live! We revisit 1992 by paying homage to one of the unsung heroes of the year (let alone decade), Kathleen Hanna. We dive into the documentary about her life and career, The Punk Singer, revisit Bikini Kill, take a trip to 1995 Alabama to learn about British punks Huggy Bear (it'll make sense once you listen), and even have time to embrace the "budget rock" of The Mummies.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we’re going back to 1992. But first, I wanna give shout outs to two people who just joined the Don’t Call It Nothing family. Mike Nolen, proud Oregon Duck, Gourds enthusiast, and Richmond Fontaine completist. I see you, good sir. Also, much love to Mike Manson who is definitely not regretting his move from San Francisco to Austin. You know those cool evenings, brisk walks in North Beach? Pffft. Who needs that stuff when you have the surface of the sun at your disposal? No seriously. Thank you gentlemen. You are seen. If you dear listener wanna support DIY musicology at the $5 / $20 / $50 a month level go to or just go to and sign up.

OK, so last week I finally saw The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson's 2013 documentary about Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I saw it for the first time last week, saw it for the second time a day later because I had the 48 hour rental from Amazon. So, why not? And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I watched it again earlier yesterday morning. Good God, Lemon. What a movie, what a life. I’m so impressed by Kathleen’s evolution and her, all things considered, normality. She’s totally relatable, she’s funny, sympathetic, empathetic, and a couple moments really, really resonated with me, that echo in spirit some of the things I’ve been saying here on the podcast.

The first is a quote from Tammy Rae Carland, who is currently provost of California College of the Arts up in the Bay Area, but in the late ‘80s was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia with Kathleen. So, they were friends who started an art museum together called Reko Muse, started a band together called Amy Carter, and Carla later did artwork for Bikini Kill. Very politically motivated, very feminist, which is where the first quote comes into play. 

Tammy Rae says:

"A very clear memory I have of Kathleen is her showing me a copy of a copy of an article from Time Magazine. 'Is Feminism Dead?' We both got really emotional. It couldn't be dead because we were living it. We were doing it, thinking it, and feeling it. How could it be dead?"
—Tammy Rae Carland in The Punk Singer, 2013

That issue was published on June 29, 1998, and featured, from left to right on the cover, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally McBeal. NOT Calista Flockhart, the actress who played Ally McBeal. No, the Time cover specifically says Ally McBeal. I’m sure as Flockhart waded through the hate mail and angry emails from long since discarded AOL accounts blaming her for killing feminism, she just chuckled to herself. “Oh you guys. This is a total misunderstanding. You’re gonna laugh when I tell you that I’m not actually the person on the Time cover.”

Anyway, think about the Time cover from Hanna’s perspective. She spent nearly a decade touring her ass off, fighting the good fight in dingy bars and clubs, youth centers, ballrooms, college campuses, and in front of the goddamn US Capitol, spreading the gospel to and for women and girls when there was no cultural incentive to do so. The band’s notoriety throughout the decade certainly helped spike their fanbase. But, there was a dark side to that notoriety in that Kathleen’s outspokenness invited vicious attacks by mediocre dudes feeling threatened — and sometimes Courtney Love. But, men would intimidate, harass, talk shit, try and take upskirt pics near the stage, and do you think she had Metallica’s security crew to help her out??? Ok, she was tough and yes, there was safety in numbers to a degree. The Punk Singer makes it clear there was a collective mentality. But, these were still combustible, potentially dangerous environments, especially for a woman, and that kind of constant hostility is eventually gonna break you down emotionally and physically. So, to have Time basically say, “Oh that’s cute you were in a band. But, the adults in the room are talking about real feminism,” with a little pad on the head. It’s a fucking kick to the crotch, right? 

So, that leads me to the other quote. It’s near the end of the movie when Kathleen says:

“I just think there’s a certain assumption that when a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. And when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived. Like there’s always suspicion around a woman’s truth. The idea that you’re exaggerating. There’s this whole fear that I’m gonna finally have fucking stepped to the plate and told the truth and someone’s gonna say, ‘Ehhhh, I don’t think so.’”
— Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer, 2013

Kathleen is absolutely talking about patriarchy, but both of these quotes illustrate a separate but equal glass ceiling that everyone in the ‘90s ran up against. No matter how fucking hard you were working to figure out who you were and expressing yourself artistically, it was never enough. Gloria Steinem? Now she did it right. That’s how you act like a rebel girl. I’m afraid Kathleen’s “stripper antics” aren’t gonna cut it. Gen X might be the first generation to be criticized for not rebelling correctly. “Oh, you think that’s non-conformity? That’s nothing. Abbie Hoffman once shit his pants to protest the Vietnam War. Sure, he was in a Howard Johnson’s, but it was the symbolism that mattered.”

Riot grrrl was as anti-establishment as anything in the ‘60s rock malescape, but Bikini Kill’s limited musicality was weaponized against the band, as if Hanna’s deeply personal lyrics couldn’t possibly be taken seriously if they didn’t even take their music seriously. Nevermind our previous conversation that when dudes talk up the Stooges their “limited musicality” is a virtue. “Dude, ‘1969’ is only two chords, brah. Punk rock!” But, when women are involved, oh no that’s a bridge too far. Tobi Vail evolved into a seriously bitchin drummer by the time Reject All American was released in 1996, but Bikini Kill improving and evolving isn’t an interesting story. What is an interesting story? Glad you asked.

A week or so ago I wrote about HBO’s upcoming Woodstock ’99 documentary. Correction. SIX PART documentary. HBO wants it both ways. They want to critique shitty whiteboy rap rock culture while giving it a multi-part platform. I like that The Punk Singer comments on the festival. It addresses Woodstock ‘99 and moves on. Why? Because watching The Punk Singer is an implicit criticism of the festival. It’s an implicit criticism of shithead whiteboy rap rock. And it’s obviously an implicit and explicit criticism of idiot dude culture/patriarchy. Why do we need to give this nothing burger six fucking parts??? I’m sure Sini Anderson would’ve loved the marketing budget of HBO’s dumb documentary. YOU’RE RANTING, I’M NOT RANTING!


HBO gives it six parts for the same reason Bikini Kill became a media fetish totem for a spell in the early ‘90s. Trauma Porn. It’s a curious mutation of objectification because press coverage can code sympathetic. But, like an uncle who stares a little too long at somewhere he shouldn’t, the members of Bikini Kill started feeling like journalists were at best exploiting their past trauma for circulation numbers — what we now call clickbait — and at worst getting off on their stories of sexual assault. Hence, their semi-famous media blackout. And what’s the common denominator in the blackout and my discussion points? These women weren’t being taken seriously. As polemicists, as survivors, as victims, maybe. But, as musicians and artists they were and still are in many respects virtually invisible. What did Tammy Rae Carland say when she saw that odious Time cover? "We were doing it, thinking it, and feeling it. How could it be dead?"

That was Bikini Kill live at the Sanctuary Theatre in Washington DC on April 4, 1992. That is not on an album, but go to Bandcamp and the entire Bikini Kill discography is on there. The Julie Ruin, Kathleen’s band after Le Tigre, is also on Bandcamp. Le Tigre itself is not, but I’m pretty sure those albums are still pretty available. I guess what I’m saying is Kathleen Hanna is a national goddamn treasure! She’s the electro-punk Dolly Parton, not some “colorful footnote.” Can we get some respect for this woman??? 

That was Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill's British allies in gender politics and punk rock righteousness with "February 14th." That’s the final track on the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear split LP that was released on Kill Rock Stars in ‘92. The Bikini Kill side was Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and as I said before you can find that on Bandcamp. The Huggy Bear side was called Our Troubled Youth and good luck finding that these days. In fact, the entire Huggy Bear catalog is sadly out of print and will cost you a decent chunk of change on the used market. This is too bad because their songs, as you just heard, are also primally intense and a little advanced musically compared to early Bikini Kill.

Back in 2015, a writer from Alabama named Matt Kessler wrote a fantastic essay that ran in Pitchfork, “Searching for Huggy Bear: Riot Grrrl and Queerness in the American South.” I’ll link to it in my transcript, but here’s an excerpt that I think puts the band’s value into a proper sociopolitical context. He writes about discovering the band in 1995 from a mixtape given to him by his friend Aaron. You don’t get much more ‘90s than that. Suck on that boomers. [nerd voice] “Hey guys, let’s smoke grass and listen to my Mamas and Papas soundtrack. In stereo.” Lame. Kessler writes:

I’d heard about riot grrrl that summer on MTV. Courtney Love had socked riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna in the face at Lollapalooza. That’s how MTV’s Kurt Loder described her – "Riot Grrrl" Kathleen Hanna. MTV treated riot grrrl like a cutesy coven of witches: dangerous, but too frivolous to be taken seriously.Riot grrrl, I was told, happened in Seattle, Portland, Olympia, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. According to the older boys at my high school it was a bunch of girls "singing about their periods", and Birmingham (Alabama) punks were "too smart for that." Supposedly, a couple of riot grrrls had tied a boy to a tree and "sucked his dick till he started bleeding." This was the lore.Aaron’s mix tape was my first exposure to riot grrrl, my initiation. I was so curious about what girl rage sounded like but MTV only showcased major label bands, and the Internet was not yet a proper place for music. Anything underground required an enlightened elder passing you a tape, a zine, or a flier.The band at the end of Side A and the beginning of Side B sounded different than the other riot grrrl bands on the tape. The singers had English accents. The songs were more militant, violent even. Being gay had never sounded so punk, and being punk had never sounded so tough. Who was this mysterious English riot grrl band of witches and fagboys?
 --Matt Kessler,
“Searching for Huggy Bear: Riot Grrrl and Queerness in the American South,” Pitchfork, September 28, 2015

Btw, did you notice the obsession with blood from the older boys at Kessler’s high school? Riot grrrl was songs about periods and riot grrrls supposedly punish boys by sucking their dicks until they … bleed? What??? Is it any surprise we have dumbasses now talking about Jewish space lasers? Here’s an idea. Shut yer mouth.

That was The Mummies with “Shut Yer Mouth,” a track from their only LP, Never Been Caught. They called it "budget rock." How awesome is that? Stripped down, two (maybe three) chord rock 'n' roll with Larry Winther spitting out brief, gnarly guitar solos, Russell Quan's drums spilling into the mix, and Trent Ruane's vocals in the red. This is a band who actually dressed up as mummies on stage and so loathed the concept of clean audio production that they refused to release their records on CD until the early 21st century. Classic, I love these guys. Needless to say, this album is not on Spotify and if you wanna buy a copy of Never Been Caught it’s gonna set you back a few bills. The album is about half originals (“Shut Yer Mouth” is one) and half covers. Of the covers my favorites are "Shot Down" by The Sonics, a massive influence on the band, "Justine" by Don And Dewey, and this bad mamma jamma, "Sooprize Package For Mr. Mineo," a cover of Supercharger, fellow contemporaries of the primitive. 

That’s The Mummies covering San Francisco’s Supercharger, another band whose catalog is way out of print and costly. I wanted to play them because they put the lie to the idea that White Stripes brought rock back to the garage in the late ‘90s. Nah. Badass garage rockers existed all along, the gatekeepers just weren’t paying attention.

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Talk to ya next time when we revisit 1993!