FEATURE: In for the Kill: The Return of the Riot Grrrl Pioneers




In for the Kill


IMAGE CREDIT: @theebikinikill  

The Return of the Riot Grrrl Pioneers


HOW much has the music industry changed...



since 1997?! That is the year when Bikini Kill disbanded and I remember it like it was yesterday. This was the year we saw epic albums from Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers; Missy Elliott and Blur. It was an incredible time for music and so many inspiring records came out in that year. It was a bit of a strange years where Britpop has sort of waned in the U.K. and Grunge was a diminished force in the U.S. A lot of great female artists were releasing music but I feel like there wasn’t the same balance as we would see in future years. Bikini Kill are pioneers who helped shape music but, by 1997, that run was over and they headed their separate ways. It seemed like, more and more, the media were misrepresenting the Riot Grrrls movement and Bikini Kill were being vilified by so many people. They were being attacked and abused and, after their final album in 1996 (Reject All American), it seemed like they had no choice. Reject All American is just under thirty minutes but it is relentless Punk and a great way to end their career. Although the band released only three albums, they helped put Riot Grrrl music to the mainstream. The movement was an underground feminist Punk scene that began in the early-1990s in Washington state and combined feminist consciousness alongside Punk politics. Its musical roots sort of came from Indie-Rock and came around at a time when movements like Grunge were taking hold.

That movement was male-dominated and a lot of the mainstream music being favoured in the early-1990s was male-driven. Riot Grrrl was a response to that and allowed female artists the chance to have their voices heard and talk about something more important than what was being said – a lot of the male bands of the time were recycling cliché lines and not adding anything substantial to the world. Although darker and controversial subjects were talked about by Riot Grrrl acts – including rape, domestic abuse and racism – Bikini and bands like Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney (who are back with a new album this year) were adding something radical to music. It was a new eave of Punk that, unlike the first movement, put women first. The Riot Grrrl movement has an underground subculture of D.I.Y. ethics, zines; art, political activism and action. Led by Kathleen Hanna (vocals), Bikini Kill would soon epitomise Riot Grrrl and published their own fanzine, Bikini Kill, for their debut tour of 1991. Bikini Kill would urge women to come to the front of the stage at gigs and they would present them with lyric sheets. Tickets were cheap so the audiences picked up as their name spread. At a time when the popularity and focus was going the way of male bands, Bikini Kill would see protest and abuse at their gigs – a lot of male concertgoers would abuse and attack Bikini Kill.



The band’s first recordings were quite minor and D.I.Y. They released the Bikini Kill E.P. on the Indie label Kill Rock Stars that has Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi). The debut L.P., Pussy Whipped, was out in 1993 and cemented their reputation and fanbase. The debut album was packed with intensity and great songs but the anthem, Rebel Girl, soon exploded. It was performed as early as 1991 at concerts and all four band members wrote the gem. Hanna wrote the lyrics and (the lyrics) override and attack the male tropes that they hated. The song’s narrative gives light to a lesbian perspective and is a frank song; a love song for another woman and an anthem of the Riot Grrrl movement. Rebel Girl became this anthem and the most identifiable expression of what Riot Grrrl was. Reviews for Pussy Whipped were positive and this one, from Entertainment Weekly in 1994, made some interesting observations:

Take ”Rebel Girl,” a highlight of their first full-length album, Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars). In some ways the song is utterly conventional, from its introductory kickoff drumming to its punky bass line and lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s exclamation that her friend is ”the queen of the neighborhood!” We’ve heard all these elements before, in rock songs too numerous to mention. Yet it has been a long time since an all-woman rock band sounded this unaffected-in other words, Bikini Kill simply, to spout another cliche, rocks out. (The band does include one male member, guitarist Billy Karren.)...


When it swings into the chorus, Hanna sings ”Rebel girl/You are the queen of mah world!!” with one of the most impassioned wails in recent years. With the possible exception of L7’s more commercial ”Pretend We’re Dead,” ”Rebel Girl” may be the first riot-grrrl anthem. Pussy Whipped, the first great riot-grrrl album, has plenty of moments like that. As with many of its peers, Bikini Kill sticks to throbbing bass lines, breakneck-speed drumming, crude production, and songs that, in true punk tradition, average about two minutes each. Unlike other grrrls, though, they know something about tight song structures, and Hanna doesn’t just scream. She can taunt, mock, and blare with the best of them (”These are my ruby red lips/The better to suck you dry”). At other moments, though, she can sound as girl-group poppy as a younger, angrier Belinda Carlisle”.

After the demo album, Revolution Girl Style Now, of 1991, the band was hitting new heights and their music was inspiring women around the world. If they were on top of the world in 1993, it would not be long until the negative attention and objections formed cracks in Bikini Kill. One can credit Bikini Kill for crediting the term ‘girl power’ – they got their before the Spice Girls! – but not everyone loved what they were doing. Men would bring chains to their shows and lob them at them; threaten to stab them in the hearts and kill them.

The fact Kathleen Hanna talked about sexual abuse she suffered connected with female fans and she would join fans to the band. Fans would come up to her and share their experience; breaking down barriers and giving these women/girls common and accessible idols. Bikini Kill also made gigs a safer space for women at a time when there was a lot of sexual abuse and sexism. They made sure women could dance and come to the pit – rather than hanging at the sides and fearful of being attacked. The influence of Bikini Kill spread to both men and women and even inspired some big bands. Everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Kim Gordon hail Bikini Kill as an influence and the fact the band fought oppression and took risks – Hanna would often perform in just her bra; men were shirtless so, as she said, it was only fair! – meant they picked up a passionate and huge following. One can look at modern Punk and feminist bands of today and hear Bikini Kill in their D.N.A. The history of Bikini Kill is quite brief but definitely huge and vitally important. It was wonderful when they announced they’d return to the stage for some U.S. gigs. Pitchfork provide some details:

Feminist punk pioneers Bikini Kill will reunite for three shows this spring in New York and L.A. Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox will be joined by guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle for the shows, replacing guitarist Billy Karren. These will be Bikini Kill's first full shows since the band broke up in 1997. (In late 2017, Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox played one song together at the Kitchen in New York City, during an event celebrating the release of the 33 1/3 book about the Raincoats by Pitchfork Contributing Editor Jenn Pelly.)...


IMAGE CREDIT: @theebikinikill  

No further information was made available about new music or more touring.

Bikini Kill were the most prominent figureheads of the 1990s riot grrrl movement, inspiring a generation of women to pick up guitars, form bands, publish zines, and get involved in politics. After the band called it quits, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna went on to form Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin. Last year, Bikini Kill’s discography was added to streaming services. Their 1998 compilation The Singles was also reissued in 2018.

Bikini Kill:

04-25 Los Angeles, CA - Hollywood Palladium
05-31 Brooklyn, NY - Brooklyn Steel
06-01 New York, NY - Terminal

I asked, at the top, how much the industry has changed since 1997. Definitely, in terms of sounds and genres, things are a bit different. The mainstream is not quite as solid as it was back then but, in many ways, more female bands and artists are leading the way. One can definitely credit Bikini Kill with breaking barriers and making it easier for women to speak about their experiences and talk openly about abuse. In many ways, things have not changed. I doubt many female bands are getting the same threats and violence as Bikini Kill did back in the 1990s! In terms of the way women feel at gigs and how safe they are...have we actually gone backwards?!


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Look at the allegations of sexual abuse at gigs and big artists like R. Kelly being uncovered as this predatory and unseemly figure. There is still so much perversion and danger in music and, whilst Bikini Kill did help bring about changes and dialogue, a lot of male artists are tarnishing that legacy. We have corrupt and unpopular politicians like Donald trump out there and sexism is still rife! There are small changes coming in different areas of music but in terms of pay and equality at gigs, can we really say there has been as much progression as you’d expect?! I feel there is still a preference for male bands and, whilst there are great female groups everywhere, festivals still go after the men. We do need to proffer those bands who stand against authority and, in a bleak time, can make gigs a safe and secure place for women. Riot Grrrl burned bright and captured a spirit that was desperate to be free and understood. That seems to have fallen away and we need to rekindle that spark! I am not sure whether the new Bikini Kill gigs will translate into fresh material – let’s hope it is not merely nostalgia and a way of revisiting their past work. It seems like there is a good spirit in the band and they feel like it is a good time for them to come back. There are a load of great female artists and bands who are speaking out and talking about subjects like abuse (including Halsey) but there is nobody quite like Bikini Kill.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @theebikinikill/Getty Images

I do feel like they can inspire a new generation and bring about some fresh movement. Even though there are minor evolutions regarding festivals – slower than one had hoped – and improvements here and there, what better way to provoke awareness and protest than a new wave of Bikini Kill magic?! They still have that impetus and reputation and are coming back into an industry that will be more accepting of their music. They will not face the same threats and disgusting behaviour as they did in the 1990s and I feel their voices are sorely needed. Things are black and troubled in many ways and I do think many female artists and fans do not feel comfortable talking about certain subjects or fear being persecuted. Eyes are open but very few minds seem to be. I do fear the sexual abuse claims we are seeing now will only intensify and more and more artists will find themselves being named. It is the unflinching sexism and comparative lack of opportunities for female artists that should spur new Bikini Kill work. Maybe they cannot come up with something as revolutionary and genius as Rebel Girl but there will be so many people looking their way to see what they can come up with! There are some changes afoot but there is a long way to go. With the promise of new Bikini Kill shows, it seems like the Riot Grrrl pioneers are back to...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Bikini Kill performs during Rock for Choice 1993 at The Palladium in Hollywood/PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

KICK some serious arse!