bikini kill’s 90s feminist punk is still radical and urgent in 2019
Revolution girl-style now!
Bikini Kill live in Brixton, 2019. All photography Abbey Raymonde
“Suck! My! Left! One!” Kathleen Hanna growled, death metal style, to an ecstatic, sweaty sea of fans at their sold-out Brixton Academy concert on Monday night. The two-night show was OG Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill’s first UK live show in 23 years – something many fans assumed they would never get to see, after the band split in 1997 to focus on other projects (notably Hanna’s later bands, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin).
Formed in Olympia, Washington, in 1990 by drummer Tobi Vail, bassist Kathi Wilcox, singer Kathleen Hanna and guitarist Billy Boredom, Bikini Kill are a seminal feminist hardcore band. Active for just seven years and without much commercial success, they nevertheless inspired generations of women-driven bands, zine-makers, DIY scenes, activists and community organisers. Plus they served as a direct influence on Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana, Huggy Bear, the (then pre-hip-hop) Beastie Boys, the Gossip, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pussy Riot and more.
For fans inured to the empty ‘feminist’ sloganeering of corporate brands in 2019, Suck My Left One (from 1991 self-released demo tape Revolution Girl Style Now!) may seem a pretty impotent threat; but listen to the lyrics and you will find a livid, lurid depiction of incest, a dissection of male power and violence, and of the complicity of polite society: “Daddy comes into her room at night / He's got more than talking on his mind / My sister pulls the covers down / She reaches over, flicks on the light / She says to him / Suck my left one, suck my left one / Mama says: You have to be a polite girl / You have got to be polite / Show a little respect for your father.”
The song, inspired by Kathleen Hanna’s experiences working at women’s shelters and with a group of teenage sexual assault survivors, illustrates the fire and intent of Bikini Kill. Their willingness to make people uncomfortable by speaking the ugly truths of oppression and subjugation was informed by feminist politics and their lived experience as young women. It represents the radical act of giving themselves permission to do -- or say, or be -- things girls weren’t "supposed" to be. Living your politics was the crux of riot grrrl, and selling out for fame, money and mainstream acceptance represented death (the death of ethics and of art, as expressed in the song Resist Psychic Death) -- a position that is still radical three decades later.
In Brixton, following support sets from local bands Big Joanie and Child’s Pose, Kathleen, Tobi, Kathi and new bassist Erica Dawn Lyle took to the stage, did a few lunges to limber up, and launched into New Radio, a mantra for the unapologetic feminist hardcore: “I'm the little girl at the picnic / Who won't stop pulling her dress up / ... What the fuck! Is written / All over your pretty face / The gaps in teeth / The dirty nails / Baby boy, you can't kill what's fucking real.” It’s the perfect introduction to the band, and their pioneering embrace of both ‘girly’ aesthetics, and the transgressive potential of disobedient female bodies.
It might seem un-feminist to write about what women musicians wear, but in Bikini Kill’s case their appearance is political too. In stark contrast to the denim-leather-and-studs style of other (mostly male) punk bands, Bikini Kill were (and are) pointedly girlish. Wearing brightly coloured, sometimes childlike mini skirts and party dresses -- and sometimes just a T-shirt and pants (revealing the pubes on her inner thighs) in Kathleen’s case -- the band’s appearance is a challenge to the categorisation of girly, feminine things as less valid, serious, relevant or cool than masculine-coded things.
It is also a challenge to preconceptions about the meaning, intent and importance of what a woman is wearing. (If you think it’s inappropriate for a girl to show her pants, you are forced to ask why, and then to consider that perhaps the paedophilic, violent urges of male-centered sexual domination -- or ‘rape culture’ as we now call it -- is the real problem, not the pants.) The band’s confrontational style sends a message: you can be a punk musician and wear a puffy pink dress. You can be a full person, with something serious and important to say, while wearing just your pants. And, for that matter, you can be in a band even if you can’t play.
“I still don’t know how to play bass,” Kathleen told the crowd just after storming through the industry-shading Hamster Baby (it rhymes with ‘masturbate me’). “It’s exciting in a way. I play only two strings on bass, and I like how it sounds -- bouncy!” she adds, unselfconsciously untechnical. Throughout the show, band members change positions, with Kathi taking over the drums, and Kathleen switching to guitar when Tobi takes to the mic. It’s about the “impetus of imperfection,” Tobi explained -- of not needing to be perfect at something before giving yourself permission to do it.
“[At the beginning of riot grrrl,] there was some idea that we were playing our instruments badly on purpose,” Tobi said. “But we weren’t. We swapped instruments on stage -- playing the ones we weren’t the best at -- to show the process of learning. Because you didn’t see it,” she said, noting the lack of opportunity and support for women musicians, then and now. “You don’t really have to be good at an instrument to write a good song,” Kathleen agreed when she returned to the mic, and ended their main set with an ecstatic performance of Rebel Girl -- a totemic (and undoubtedly their most famous) song about the cliché of female bitchiness that is an ode to sisterhood, solidarity and love.
Unlike your average pumped-up rock posers, Bikini Kill were never going to end on a hit. After a quick costume change for Kathleen (from a pink party dress to a white one with a silver sequins, over electric blue tights), the band returned to rip through Double Dare Ya (which starts: “We're Bikini Kill and we want Revolution Girl-style Now,” and dares women to do whatever they want), followed by the furious Suck My Left One. After another exit, and with fans screaming for more, Kathleen opened a second encore with the story of how the band got back together.
In 2017, Kathi called Kathleen ahead of the launch party for Jenn Pelly’s ‘33 ⅓’ book on The Raincoats (a trailblazing London punk band, and the first to call themselves feminists). She wanted Bikini Kill to reform to play a song at the book launch. “I said no, and hung up the phone,” Kathleen says. “And then I thought, ‘Hang on, it’s the fucking Raincoats! And they’ll be playing!’” Closing the Brixton show with the song they relearned for the book party (an early track, For Tammy Rae), Kathleen thanked The Raincoats for inspiring them in London decades ago, and for bringing them back together so many years later.
“It didn’t feel like a punk rock retro thing,” Kathleen said of that 2017 reunion. “It felt like: This is alive! The lyrics we wrote years ago are still relevant, still living.” At a time when women’s rights and services are under attack worldwide, with conservatives trying to ban abortion in the US, and women in Northern Ireland still not having the right to it; and with late capitalism destroying the planet and its people, while corporations co-opt civil rights movements -- the message and ethos of Bikini Kill is all too relevant.
Bikini Kill always believed that “if all girls started bands the world would change”, because their art would be a form of cultural resistance. “We hope we can inspire you,” Kathleen said before the band left the stage a final time. “Keep making your fucking art!”