by Ethan Stanislawski
When I saw that Julie Ruin was finally touring, immediately I knew I wanted to go more than just about any concert that would come around in 2013. Kathleen Hanna is one of my key influences, not just in my outlook on music, but in life as well. Discovering Le Tigre in college, and going back through the archives of Le Tigre and her writings, was a game changer. Hannah's honesty, willingness to admit her flaws, and unbridled positivity and demand for respect, all flies in the face of negative stereotypes of radical feminism that exists to this day. Pretty much any strand of feminism I feel today owes itself primarily to Hanna.
But since college, my relationship to feminism and music has changed. First off, I am no longer an aspiring rock critic, but an aspiring comedian. When you're a rock critic, it's not at all out of line to love and respect Hannah's work, both musically and culturally. In the layman's world however, fandom of Hanna is a bit trickier to explain, particularly to a straight male. There isn't necessarily a stigma; most comedy fans aren't as strongly informed about indie rock, and the ones that are you find to be usually sympathetic. It's more that when describing the band I was going to see as “feminist electornic indie rock, arty side project of one of the founders of riot grrl," I got dozens of confused stares, uncomfortable grins, and silent nods. This confusion crossed genders; arguably, it was the female comedians who seemed a little more skeptical.
Furthermore, certain circumstances of my life have left me frustrated with feminism in general, much more so than I thought I'd ever be. This ranges from the personal frustrations. The plights of attempting to date feminists in your 20's are a well documented struggle (see, for example, just about every male character on Girls).
The frustration has also seeped into my new profession of choice: certain assholes within the both the feminist and comedy communities have completely botched a crucial discussion of the role of talking about sexism and sexual violence in comedy. What should have been a careful, thoughtfully debated discussion has turned into an inflammatory, Crossfire-like screaming match that, like most Internet controversies, raises the writers profiles, but hurts the discussion overall. As a comedian, I'm naturally inclined to defend my friends, especially when they are misrepresented, even if my politics and personal comedic tastes align me with feminists. Regardless, I'm not sure the discussion can ever be raised again within this generation of comedians and feminists, and after a year of this, I was left pissed off and disillusioned, not inclined to open my mouth about feminism ever again.
One issue Hanna has been frank in discussing (and openly admitting to her past faults in handling) is the contradiction of inclusiveness in feminist rock acts--and feminism in general. Feminism by definition demands equality and inclusion, but simultaneously wants to create a space free of male dominance. After years of turning away men from Bikini Kill shows where not enough women were able to go to the theater, she's softened on this issue as she's gotten older. As a guy, I've learned to adjust to and respect this divide, but when it comes to me simply attending shows and finding a non-critical community that supports the music I love, this has resulted in a little more frustration.
All this was on my mind as I planned to go to this show, and with a +1 in tow, this problem was an active concern of mine. If I had been attending the show in Chicago or New York, I could find more than a few friends who I would be comfortable asking to go to the show without any reservation. New to Los Angeles however, it was unclear if my new acquaintances and friends would be as receptive. I first asked a couple of female friends, both of whom I became friends with after they turned me down after dates. Both said they wanted to go but couldn't. I've heard this dozens of times in my 20's.
Eventually, I was able to go with a comedian who, like me, was a fellow veteran of the Chicago indie rock scene of the previous decade. When I offered him the +1, he readily obliged. Furthermore, a co-worker, who shares many of my more bizarre comedic and music tastes, was also planning to attend on his own. Going to this concert with two other dudes immediately alleviated some of the pressure, most of which was purely imagined on my part.
I arrive at the show two drinks in with work at 6AM the next day, debating whether I should have a third. I anticipated feelings of immediate estrangement and isolation upon arrival to the concert, but what I saw was, in fact, a refreshing surprise. First off, unlike when I've attended previous concerts for riot grrl and feminist bands, I did not feel isolated as a male. There were several male attendees there with groups of friends in thoroughly mixed genders, and the percentage of those males who fit the profile on looks as flamboyantly gay men was less than I expected. There was one man in his 40's trying to impress a pack of girls by how many people he new in the band, which, while creepy, is pretty much no different than what you'd see and expect at any other indie rock concert (and unlike at a lot of other shows, he knew when to back off; this was still a Kathleen Hanna concert). My inner monologue started to swarm, with the words “trendspotting," “mansplaining," and “asshole" all immediately popping to mind. At this point, I ordered my third drink.
I ended up meeting up with my friends at the end of the opening act, the fantastic La Sera. One was a comedian who, like me, was a fellow veteran of the Chicago indie rock scene of the previous decade. The other was a co-worker, who shares many of my more bizarre comedy and music tastes. After we talked about music and comedy for 10 minutes, I immediately lighten up. They both identified with the mild unease of being a dude at this show, as well as the immediate relief at how chill things were. I bond with my co-worker over the fact that, while we're in a room surrounded by women who are totally our types, this couldn't be further from the time or place to hit on them. Immediately, I shift into my natural comic persona, outgoing, social, confident and much more dynamic than pretty much any other iteration of my being. I talk about bombing at an open mic earlier in the night, though in my comedy parlance, completely normal within comedy circles, I describe it as “eating a dick on stage." I get a few stares, and I laugh as I remember where I am and what I just said.
And then, Julie Ruin took the stage. Coming out in a one piece and playing Julie Ruin songs that almost no one in the crowd knew, Kathleen Hanna drew screams the likes of which I've only heard before at a Hanson concert (and these screams were more full-throated). My passion for Hanna was by no means out of the ordinary, and her crowd banter, making fun of herself and simultaneously acknowledging her ego, was funnier and more confident than that of most much more successful rock bands.
Julie Ruin has one recording in the last 17 years, an E with 5 tracks, and an album from 1997 that before this year was largely considered a footnote in her transition between her two more famous projects. It's safe to say that a good 60% of the audience there had not heard a single Julie Ruin song. Yet, that didn't matter. Hanna's a known entity, and her songwriting chops are never in question, so fans danced, cheered, and strutted like they would if they knew all the lyrics. When she played a few lesser-known Le Tigre songs, several fans did sing along to every word, myself included. Perhaps it's better she waited; Julie Ruin is much more celebratory than any other Kathleen Hanna project, and unlike This Island, which had festive elements, it seems a natural extension of her character, not a grab for the big time.
Furthermore, while JD provided Hanna with a sensitive, softhearted foil towards the tail end of Le Tigre's run, she's never had one who can match her wit like Kenny Mellman. Former partner of Justin Bond in the legendary drag act Kiki & Herb, Mellman is by far the most prominent performer to have ever shared the spotlight with Hanna, ranting about his ex-boyfriend (with a faint cry of “fuck him!" heard in the crowd), Christian personality tests, and other general silliness provided a venue for what clearly sounded like the most fun a Hanna project has ever been.
All in all, it was a glorious victory lap, a celebration of where Hanna has come from, of who she's become, and the world she's produced. And it was crucial for me. All of a sudden, my dating foibles seemed trivial and temporary. The squabbling between feminists and comedians seemed like an outdated relic perpetuated by petty people who don't know how to do either feminism or comedy right. Rather than getting these issues stuck in my craw when I think about them, I was suddenly willing to shrug it off, to not let it affect me. Furthermore, I was reminded to trust my judgment and remember that I am incapable of not respecting women or demanding fair treatment, in spite of myself and how I'm perceived. Basically, things were the way they should be.
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