If Miley needs someone to shake off the last vestiges of the brand-nurtured good girl, Kathleen Hanna will take her to more interesting places than Terry Richardson
When Miley Cyrus Instagramed a photo of riot grrrl doyenne Kathleen Hanna in all her glory over the weekend, captioned “the coolest ever”, I knew in my fluttering punk heart that great things were afoot. Sure enough, Hanna replied to Cyrus on Twitter: “I have an idea for an album that only you are daring enough to make.”
As the news of this potential collaboration spread, the differences between these two women were brought into sharp relief: Hanna is a punk icon from another era, a grunge-age feminist hero from a working-class background who started her career screaming spoken word poems about rape. She came of age fronting Bikini Kill, one of the most confrontational bands in punk history, launching a movement of DIY feminist activism. Miley is the talented but frequently exasperating child star of moneyed, country-pop lineage, riding the charts with slick, big-bucks ballads and a tiresome brand of raunch rebellion, leaving in her trail a litter of serious faux pas: cultural appropriation, women of colour and dwarfs exploited as stage props, comically awful music videos, the degradation of that “honorable icon”, the foam finger.
Last night, I watched as my Facebook feed filled up with heated comments about the proposed collaboration. I understand the cynicism: Hanna is revered, a woman with true battle scars; Cyrus is a goofy, tongue-out girl-woman with a growing list of fuck-ups to her name. But give this collaboration a chance, friends: it could be a wonderful, paradigm-shifting thing!
Miley is at an impressionable age. She’s embarrassingly desperate to shed the wholesome Disney image that’s been cultivated for since childhood, desperate to stake out some individuality and agency for herself. The results so far have been provocative but ultimately inept, messy. We can assume this is partly down to the company she’s been keeping. Instead of being photographed in her underwear by mega creep Terry Richardson, Cyrus could be schooled by one of the most badass feminists of the 90s. Hanna is the rebel grrrl older sister many of us millennials dreamed of having – someone who could show us how to navigate girlhood’s profound, ubiquitous challenges head-on, with fire and grit. I can’t think of a better mentor for Cyrus right now.
And the music they could make! Hanna’s punk politics and songwriting skills plus Cyrus’s undeniably great voice could yield some mighty feminist anthems for our age. Imagine the impact of this on a million teenage Miley stans, girls who’ve been told they’re only pretty when they don’t know it. Furious debate was ignited earlier this year when respected academic bell hooks called Beyoncé a terrorist. Whether hooks was right or wrong about Beyoncé, there is a truth here: women who make pop at this level are powerful, and underestimated at our peril. Pop airs on mobile phones, tablets, laptops, front room TVs, in big screen soundtracks, on car radios and club sound systems. Pop songs soundtrack everything from first romances to election campaigns. They find their way into our homes, our hearts, our collective subconscious. Pop has influence and power. Pop can be weaponized. Imagine the woman responsible for radical queer electro crew Le Tigre accessing this power. Imagine.
Hanna carved her own path with very few safety nets, a firebrand on the violent frontlines of a misogynist US punk scene, while Cyrus was born to wealth, groomed for stardom before she’d started her first period. But they have some common ground. Both have had to face the scorching gaze of the media: Hanna, when riot grrrl imploded under the scrutiny of the mainstream press, and Cyrus, pretty much her whole life. They both know the weight of that gaze, and the stakes at risk when you’re pinned by the spotlight. Two decades before Cyrus shocked parents by writhing on a stripper’s pole atop an ice cream van to Party in the USA, Hanna had been doing the same work in less glamorous circumstances, and out of necessity, in order to feed herself during her punk rock salad days. As she points out in the recent documentary The Punk Singer, SWERFs [sex work exclusionary feminists] should think twice before any prudish finger pointing:
“If people don’t allow this contradiction to exist in musicians lives, the only people who are gonna make music and art are people who can afford to be pure, and that’s gonna be kids with trust funds.”
This is why this pairing could be so dynamite. Hanna doesn’t speak for the pure – she speaks for Dirty Girls. She wasn’t destined for the privileged but problematic platforms that Cyrus commands. Yet here she is, ready to team up and take over the airwaves. Likewise, Cyrus has been at the mercy of the corporate pop machine since forever. She’s ready for liberation, for that “punk rock shit”. If she can get her politics right – no more exploited dancers, no more endorsements of dubious men, no more appropriation – this is the kind of collaboration the patriarchy should fear.
Cyrus may provoke outrage, but she’s yet to challenge the status quo in any meaningful, lasting way – something Hanna has ample experience in. At this point in her career, Hanna would be entirely justified in resting on her laurels, but she still has something to say. And doing so in collaboration with Miley, who’s so obviously trying to find her power on a very public stage, could make for some truly potent pop.
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