Op-Ed: Riot Grrrl Resurgence: Bikini Kill Reunion

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If the return of nostalgic 90’s fashion hasn’t quenched your throwback thirst yet, Bikini Kill’s return to the stage should do the trick. The 90’s riot grrrl punk band, Bikini Kill just announced that they are reuniting to do a string of three shows. Two in New York and one in L.A. Although Bikini Kill hasn’t played a show under that project name since 1997, the band has collaborated on many projects including Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin. There is no doubt that Bikini Kill shaped third wave feminism in the music sphere and made a space for themselves in the male-centered grunge culture with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden sweeping the nation.

Bikini Kill hailed from the state of Washington and paved a way for female-fronted bands to shine in North-West America in the 1990’s. Comprised of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, guitarist Billy Karren, bassist Kathi Wilcox, and drummer Tobi Vali, the quartet wrote heavy punk songs with lyrics tackling issues from a female perspective regarding the patriarchy and personal relationships. Bikini Kill’s significance in paving the way for women to have their place within the DIY and Punk community is crucial to how that community operates today. Their reunion in today’s political climate is a bold statement. As all of the musicians have continued to spread their messages through different mediums, it’s interesting to see them come back in 2019.   

It’s hard to not first acknowledge what Bikini Kill has done as a band for music in general, but especially for women in music. Tobi Vali and Kathi Wilcox met through attending college at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  According to the documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna caught their eye and was asked to be a part of their band. As they started playing shows, it was clear that Bikini Kill was a force to be reckoned with. That became even more evident on their 1991 release Revolution Girl Style Now! Featuring tracks such as “Double Dare Ya”, “Liar”, and “Feels Blind” that encapsulated the rage and frustration that was triggered by the treatment the band had received from men and their overall attitude towards empowering women. In “Double Dare Ya” the first lyric is “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution, girl style now!” a bold and profound statement screamed by Kathleen as loud as she can.

The raw energy Bikini Kill has is so clear in their recordings. Their gritty, loud, aggressive and heavy hitting lyrics and instrumentals are signature to the Bikini Kill sound. It didn’t matter how well they played their instruments, it was the message that mattered. This continued on their next two records Pussy Whipped released in 1993 and Reject All American in 1996. Pussy Whipped featured Bikini Kill’s most iconic song “Rebel Girl” of which its narrative lyrics idealize, as the title suggests, a rebel girl who is “the queen of my world”, which became an anthem for feminism for years after its release. While the band members play their instrument well or are by any means great musicians, it’s more about what they had to say through their music.

Bikini Kill was grounded in DIY aesthetics and culture. Their zines, including Tobi’s Jigsaw and self-titled Bikini Kill by Kathi, Kathleen, and Tobi were circulated everywhere possible. Cut-out black and white photos that were arranged in compositions featuring poetry accompanied with drawings and writings were a big part of their zine culture and aesthetic. These were spread at shows, galleries, clinics, anywhere where they’d become accessible to those who needed it. The band mainly performed in basements and small bars, growing to perform at larger venues and rallies. Bikini Kill was heavily about doing things for themselves. It was what they wanted, not what was expected of them as a band. It became evident when Kathleen would scream “Girls to the front!” before almost every set. The band was about creating a safe atmosphere for these issues to be discussed, and to have a community for women, by women in music and the arts. In a community that was predominantly male and at times violent, the band wanted to create a space for women to be able to communicate with each other in a safe environment. The term “safe space” is still thrown around in DIY and Punk communities today. Bikini Kill wanted to carve out a section of their own to operate under, and that’s exactly what happened.

After their breakup in 1997, Bikini Kill split to involve themselves in many different projects. All of them continued their activism for women through various creative projects. Although today, the way that feminism operates is different. When Bikini Kill was in its prime in the early 1990’s, feminism predominantly included white women. A lot of the issues in Bikini Kill’s songs were very general and unique to their own experiences. However, because they are a group of white women singing about their own reflected issues, it can be said that they weren’t reaching the audience for women of color or LGBTQ+ people. It can be argued that “it was a different time” but the message that Bikini Kill made in the 90’s did have different targeted audience and demographic. It was more about women as a whole and the experiences the many women have unfortunately endured. For Bikini Kill to return to the stage, would it still mostly be about white-feminism?

The music of Bikini Kill indeed is empowering to many women, but at the same time, it comes from the perspective of a white female dominated band. The issue of inclusivity and perspective does come into play with their reunion. Music and art doesn’t live in a bubble in time, it transcends the period of creation and with that comes certain critiques that may have not been thought about in its inception. The spectrum of identity has broadened heavily since 1997 and it’ll be interesting to see how Bikini Kill’s music is received by other communities that aren’t cis-gender males and cis-gender females. It reaches a broader audience of a generation that now redefines what it means to be a woman. If Bikini Kill’s music is able to still communicate to new identities, then their message still holds true.

For the new generation of Bikini Kill listeners, it’ll be interesting to see how their music will operate today. For the fans of Bikini Kill in the early 90’s, it resonated with a lot of women. Events such as Woodstock 2 in 1994 where many women were sexually assaulted and violated, the words and musical language of Bikini Kill were a beckoning call for women who have been hurt and affected that way to fight. Even in today’s Me Too movement, the issues of sexual assault and violence against women are still being tackled and discussed. For Bikini Kill to perform again, it does seem suiting as their messages are being spoken about possibly more than ever before.

Although it has yet to be announced if it will be new music or old, we can certainly assume that their classic hits will be played. But will the message carry through to the new generation of new gender identity? It surely will be an individualistic choice, and to generalize on a group’s music taste based on their identity is unjust. However, Bikini Kill’s return to the stage will hopefully be as loud, boisterous and punk as their recordings and videos suggests. A scream of “girls to the front” will surely be a call for anyone who resonates with Bikini Kill’s message today. A challenge to be double-dared once again.  

Written by Sarah Knoll

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