Every punk or punk-adjacent American woman born between 1975 and 1985 has a relationship with Bikini Kill; it is a requirement. There comes a point in every girl’s/femme’s* life where they need to decide whether they’re going to shit or get off the pot. I was a late-bloomer. I remember hearing of them when I was in early high school. I had a concept as to what they were all about and in that spirit thought their name was clever and their album title Pussywhipped was even clever-er, but given how they were generally thematically and musically radio-unfriendly, they were fairly inaccessible for a cash-strapped teenager.
*Other genders can play, too, it’s just hard to imagine being a teenage boy and feeling like they have to make a decision regarding Bikini Kill.
Before ever really hearing their music but understanding the general plot, I very much wanted to like Bikini Kill, but I don’t feel like they made it super easy. Some of the more accessible Riot Grrrl/Riot Grrrl-Adjacent acts like the Lunachicks, Babes in Toyland and to a lesser extent Hole appealed but I craved the authenticity and radicalism I sensed from Bikini Kill. When I had my opportunity to actually hear them, I was looking for catchy tunes with inspiring lyrics about sticking it to the man. What I got was bass-heavy low-fi sludgey punk with barely audible moan-screams. It was both unappealing and intimidating. With limited resources to embark on a Getting Into Bikini Kill project, I guess I kind of gave up.
When Pete and I first started talking in the spring of 1996, I mentioned along the way that in addition to enjoying punk rock music, I identified as a feminist* and, all about it, he started pushing Riot Grrrl on me**, even though by that time Riot Grrrl was a little passe. I remember a a zine-friend who wrote a rant about not being taken seriously as a woman musician and using the words “ugh, I sound like a Riot Grrrl,” which lead me to impatiently tsk and wonder why the hell we were promoting the concept of being a social change agent as geeky somehow. The late 90s and early 2000s were the absolute worst.
*As much as identifying as feminist is a basic measure of human decency today, I will be dead in a cold cold grave before I forget long stretches in my teens and 20s when many of my peers refused to. They’d go into this “of course I believe in equal rights but,” which: there’s no acceptable way to complete that sentence.
**I told you I have the best husband.
Well prior to any of this, Pete had purchased the 1991 Kill Rock Stars compilation album because Nirvana was on it and there was a stretch before I knew him during which he automatically purchased everything with Nirvana. The comp also included “Girl Germs” by Bratmobile* and “Feels Blind” by Bikini Kill. As part of his efforts to get me interested in the genre, he included “Feels Blind” on the compilation tapes he used to make me and almost instantly, I understood Bikini Kill.
*I think I made an error on my post about Bratmobile’s “Shut Your Face” at #47 on this list. I mentioned that “Girl Germs” was on The Real Janelle, and it isn’t, it’s on the KRS comp. This was my introduction to Bratmobile, a great one.
This is probably a terrible, terrible admission for Bikini Kill originalists, but my favorite by them is the Singles collection, released in 1998, a year after the band broke up. The production is like night and day and basically delivered exactly what I was looking for in Bikini Kill when I found them to be sludgy and screamy. It wasn’t the songwriting, it was that they hadn’t yet had Joan Jett as a producer. This collection doesn’t include “Feels Blind,” but does include “Demirep,” a very close second favorite song by them for me. The whole thing is fucking spectacular and it, along with Kathleen Hanna’s then-current project Le Tigre, which was naturally much more my speed, turned me into a lifelong Bikini Kill fan. I’m pleased to report that even Pitchfork agrees with me on this, naming it the year’s best reissue and heaping huge praise on the bright production value.
I bring this up because the version of "Feels Blind" that appears on the Kill Rock Stars compilation, released a year before it appeared on the self-titled EP in 1992 is mixed SO WELL compared to the later version, which is maybe slightly crisper. In the KRS comp version, the vocal performance is featured, which I think is how it should be because it is to my ear one of Kathleen Hanna’s highest degree-of-difficulty accomplishments. In the EP version, the guitar is so fucking loud, it’s like an assault. Listen to them back to back and the difference is palpable, which I think further proves my point about the production quality having this ridiculous impact on one’s ability to enjoy recorded Bikini Kill songs. ANYWAY, as I’ve intoned, the best part of “Feels Blind” is the vocal performance. The power, range, and force of Kathleen Hanna’s voice is to me what elevates Bikini Kill from just-another-riot-grrrl-band to their rightful status as rock n’ roll legends. It’s insane. I don’t know where it comes from, she’s like fucking Aretha Franklin. I don’t get it.
I mentioned earlier that what I wanted out of Bikini Kill was something to get my fist pumping in the spirit of sticking it to the man. I was a very early feminist and have to credit my mom for instilling a native sense of gender equality. My well-meaning aunt bought me a copy of the now very dated late-70s feminist book for kids, Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Fucking Klein.* My mom proudly told me that she never gave it to me, which kind of pissed me off. My mom, one step ahead, said that she didn’t want to suggest to me that girls *couldn’t* be anything before the world actually did, which I completely loved. In “Feels Blind” I got the least-specific empowerment message Bikini Kill ever put out. There’s stuff about sexuality, violence, body image, issues with food, exhibitionism, it’s like a sampler pack. I ate it up, still get goosebumps, still pump that fist.
*Norma Klein, you guys! She wrote very scandalous and sexy young adult novels which I ate up in junior high school
They played Honolulu in 1994 and 1996. I went neither time because as mentioned, I didn’t really get hooked until ‘98-’99. This isn’t something I specifically regretted for a long time, but for years I did yearn for a reunion and last summer, I got my wish. Pete and I planned the trip around the Bikini Kill show before even finding out that L7 was playing a smaller venue the night before. I just--I have no idea why--but for some reason, we booked bus tickets that would get us into Manhattan in juuuust enough time to grab a Lyft into Brooklyn, drop our overnight bags at Josie’s and grab another Lyft to the show in Bushwick. Of course, our bus was delayed like two hours and we missed L7 completely. We did get to see the members of L7 the next day at a signing and there’s a very cute story about how Pete and our friend Kevin introduced themselves as having met them 25 years prior which I will share on request. Later that day, we saw Bikini Kill play in front of 3,000 people and they were *so happy* to be there. It was really pure because every person in that theater knew they’d earned it. Legends dragged out from the basement.
When I write these, I usually do a rough outline of what I want to say and the placeholder I left three days ago for the final paragraph of this post is “Being mad at Kathleen Hanna,” which makes me laugh today. Once you get into Bikini Kill’s music, it’s really difficult to not see Kathleen Hanna as a role model. Beautiful, flawed Kathleen Hanna. With that territory comes the reflex to expect her conduct throughout her 30+ year career to be perfect. She’s a victim of that pesky feature of western culture, drawing from the bible: “to whom much is given, much will be required?” I’m very guilty of this, finding myself alternatingly unsympathetic and impatient with her excuses for having done X or Y to piss off her fans. The best example is what she said about having married a Beastie Boy whose most sexists songs from their early days are actually pretty fucking sexist. But before they’d even gotten together they’d all done quite a bit to atone for that and most of all, it’s kind of a personal thing, right? Falling in love? I’d seen her quoted as saying essentially: yeah I’m sickened by his past conduct but “you can’t legislate who you fall in love with.” Honey, no. How about “he did shitty things before, but I didn’t know him them and that’s not the man I fell in love with. Look at all the ways in which he and his bandmates have gone out of their way to be inclusive and great men in the meantime?” The Punk Singer documentary left a bad taste in my mouth and I don’t even remember why. I’ve also seen some criticisms for her not having apologized hard enough for playing a festival associated put on by TERFy feminist groups*. I decided to cut her a break shortly after Le Tigre put out that awkward and PAINFULLY bad video for “I’m with Her” shortly before the 2016 election**. A friend in a political group put it nicely in response to my asking god and the universe what the fuck was wrong with her once and for all. She suggested I cut Kathleen Hanna a break--she’d become very famous and the voice of a non-hierarchical and evolving movement at a very young age. She should be allowed to make mistakes and occasionally crack under the pressure. Ultimately I’m rooting for her to keep it together but I think either way history will forgive her errors and she’ll be remembered as the feminist icon she deserves to be.
*She did not know of this dimension to the group’s politics when she played it, which I think is a legitimate explanation. Besides, even looking at that with the most cynical possible lens, do you really think Kathleen Hanna is interested in being pigeonholed as a 3rd-wave dinosaur? Come on, she wants nothing more than to remain relevant. She’s tweeted multiple times in support of trans rights and causes. I think this is ok.
**Watch it here if you like pain