Bikini Kill Rises Again, No Less Relevant

Jan 5, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 2:24 pm

Just over 20 years ago, one of the most influential bands in the riot grrrl movement released its first album. Bikini Kill helped define a movement that grew up as an offshoot of punk in the early 1990s, when many women felt marginalized by society, and in some cases, even by the punk-rock community.

Late last year, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and her bandmates — two other women and a man — took up that thread again. They founded their own label, Bikini Kill Records, to reissue their discography.

"When we started our band, a big part of it was to encourage more female participation in the punk scene," Hanna says. "Selfishly, we wanted more women and girls to play music with when we went on tour. We wanted more women and girls to talk to about the experience of being in a band because we were constantly encountering sexism and having no one but each other to talk to about it."

Carrying that conversation to a wider audience was one of the reasons Bikini Kill was so influential, according to another riot grrrl musician, Molly Neuman.

"They were speaking about subjects that were specific to women and girls and sort of the ... general disenfranchisement that a lot of us felt but maybe hadn't articulated in that way," says Neuman, who played in the bands Bratmobile and the Frumpies. "But then the music was, is, incredible. And I think it completely stands up."

Sara Marcus, the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, says she still remembers the first time she heard Bikini Kill. Her introduction was the song "Double Dare Ya," the first track on the band's 1992 self-titled debut.

"The first thing that I heard starts out with a ton of feedback on an amp and Kathleen's voice saying, 'Is that supposed to be doing that?' " Marcus says. "So already it begins with this sense that everything's provisional; you're learning this as you go along."

"Double Dare Ya" continues with a declaration that would become iconic: Hanna kicks off the song by shouting, "We're Bikini Kill and we want revolution, girl-style, now." Marcus says she took that as a challenge.

"To have somebody sort of being like, 'All right — put your money where your mouth is. You wanna do something? Go do it. You wanna be someone? Go be it.' It's just this marvelous encouragement," Marcus says. "It was huge for me."

It was huge for a lot of people — and not just women.

"Immediately, I was transfixed because it was such a powerful, passionate female voice expressed through the music," says Mark Andersen, co-founder of a Washington, D.C.-area punk activist group called Positive Force. "And they were not scared at all about taking political stands — of confronting people, of challenging people."

While mainstream music often works hard to sound polished and flawless, Hanna says her goal was exactly the opposite.

"I always thought that putting tons of reverb on my voice was kind of, you know, the equivalent of airbrushing," Hanna says. "And I wanted other girls and women to hear a real female voice that wasn't completely manipulated."

Bikini Kill's first record was produced by Ian MacKaye, who is best known for his punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and for the label he co-founded, Dischord Records.

"I actually think Bikini Kill and riot grrrl had a huge cultural impact on our society," MacKaye says. "I know it did. Because I know that when I first started seeing shows in 1979, if there was a band that had a woman member, it was notable. And that just doesn't exist anymore. I feel like women taking the stage had a huge effect on the way culture in this country worked."

While fans who first heard Bikini Kill 20 years ago are excited to see the music reissued, Hanna says, so are the band's more recent converts.

"I get so many letters from girls from 13 to 17 who just found out about Bikini Kill for the first time, and they're experiencing it as if it's happening now," she says. "The thing that I really love is thinking of girls in high school who are organizing themselves around our music and a lot of other girl bands' music. That they can make, like, a Bikini Kill jean jacket instead of a Motorhead jean jacket — which is what I had — is pretty great."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A little more than 20 years ago, one of the most influential bands in the riot grrrl movement released its first album. Bikini Kill consisted of three women and one man and helped define a movement that grew up in the early 1990s as an offshoot of punk when many girls felt marginalized by society and, in some cases, even by the punk rock community. Sarah Ventre reports that Bikini Kill has re-released its iconic first record on the band's newly launched label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL GIRL")

SARAH VENTRE, BYLINE: Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" is a riot grrrl anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL GIRL")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood. She's got the hottest trike in town.

VENTRE: In it, you can hear so much of what makes up the core of Bikini Kill's music: themes of camaraderie, rebellion and an unwillingness to be complacent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL GIRL")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) When she talks, I hear the revolution. In her hips, there's revolution. When she walks, the revolution's coming. In her kiss, I taste the revolution. Rebel girl. Rebel girl. Rebel girl you are the queen of my world.

KATHLEEN HANNA: When we started our band, a big part of it was to encourage more female participation in the punk scene.

VENTRE: That's Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of Bikini Kill.

HANNA: Selfishly, we wanted more women and girls to play music with when we went on tour. We wanted more women and girls to talk to about the experience of being in a band because we're constantly encountering sexism and having no one but each other to talk to about it.

VENTRE: Carrying that conversation to a wider audience was one of the reasons Bikini Kill was so influential, according to Molly Neuman. She's another riot grrrl musician who played in the bands Bratmobile and The Frumpies.

MOLLY NEUMAN: They were speaking about subjects that were specific to women and girls and the general disenfranchisement that a lot of us felt but maybe hadn't articulated in that way. But the music was - is incredible, you know? And I think it completely stands up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE DARE YA")

BIKINI KILL: Is that supposed to be doing that?

SARA MARCUS: The first thing that I heard starts out with a ton of feedback on an amp and Kathleen's voice saying: Is that supposed to be doing that?

VENTRE: Sara Marcus is the author of the book "Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution." She still remembers the first time she heard Bikini Kill.

MARCUS: So already, it begins with this sense that everything's provisional. You're learning this as you go along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE DARE YA")

BIKINI KILL: OK. Sorry. OK. We're starting now. We're Bikini Kill, and we want revolution. Girl-style now.

MARCUS: To have somebody sort of being like, all right, put your money where your mouth is. You want to do something? Go do it. You want to be someone? Go be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE DARE YA")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) Dare ya to do what you want, dare ya to be who you will, dare ya to cry right out loud, you get so emotional, baby.

MARCUS: It's just this marvelous encouragement. It was huge for me.

VENTRE: It was huge for a lot of people - and not just women. Mark Andersen is the cofounder of a Washington, D.C.-area punk activist group called Positive Force.

MARK ANDERSEN: Immediately, I was transfixed because it's such a powerful, passionate female voice expressed through the music. And they were not scared at all about taking political stands, of confronting people, of challenging people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIAR")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) You profit from the lie, you prophet from the lie. You profit from the lie, you prophet from the lie, yeah. You profit from the lie, you prophet from the lie. You profit from the lie, you prophet from the lie.

VENTRE: While mainstream music works to sound polished and flawless, Kathleen Hanna says her goal was exactly the opposite.

HANNA: I always thought that putting tons of reverb on my voice was kind of the equivalent of airbrushing. And I wanted other girls and women to hear a real female voice that wasn't completely manipulated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELS BLIND")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) All the doves that fly past my eyes have a stickiness to their wings. In the doorway of my demise I stand encased in the whisper you taught me. How does it feel? It feels blind. How does it feel? Well, it feels blind. What have you taught me? Nothing. Look at what you've taught me. You've taught me nothing.

VENTRE: Bikini Kill's first record was produced by Ian MacKaye. He's a punk musician best known for the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and for the label he cofounded, Dischord Records.

IAN MACKAYE: I actually think Bikini Kill and riot grrrl had a huge cultural impact on our society. They - I know it did, because I know that when I first started seeing shows in 1979, that if there was a band that had a woman member, it was notable. And I feel like women taking the stage had a huge effect on the way culture in this country worked.

VENTRE: And while fans from 20 years ago are excited about the Bikini Kill reissues, so are the band's more recent admirers, says Kathleen Hanna.

HANNA: I get so many letters from girls from 13 to 17 who just found out about Bikini Kill for the first time. And the thing that I really love is thinking of girls in high school who are organizing themselves kind of around our music and a lot of other girl bands' music, that they can make, like, a Bikini Kill jean jacket instead of a Motorhead jean jacket - which is what I had - is pretty great.

VENTRE: Kathleen Hanna thinks it's also great that these young fans are experiencing the music as if it's happening now. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Ventre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELS BLIND")

BIKINI KILL: (Singing) As a woman I was taught...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes and on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs, scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a good evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.