WORDS: EMMA MURPHY
In 1989 Kathleen Hanna boarded a bus from Olympia to Seattle to meet her hero, feminist writer Kathy Acker. When Acker asked Hanna why she wanted to do spoken word she replied, “Because no one has ever really listened to me before in my life and I have a lot of things I want to say.” Acker replied, “Then why are you doing spoken word? Nobody goes to see spoken word but people will go to see bands.” So she went home and she started a band, Bikini Kill, and that band changed the world.
Forming in 1990 and based in Washington and Olympia, Bikini Kill was formed of lead singer Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail on drums, Billy ‘Boredom’ Karren on guitar and bass player Kathi Wilcox.
Bikini Kill was the catalyst for an entire feminist art movement. Riot Grrrl is more than a sub-genre of punk, it’s an entire subculture. It’s a community. It’s a rebellion. The group released zines, created record labels, made art, music, protested, raised money for women’s charities.
“Because no one has ever really listened to me before in my life and I have a lot of things I want to say.”
For young women no other genre of music was quite as accepting. Most female musicians before this had been singers in country, folk or jazz bands. Even in glam rock where femininity was embraced, men stood at the forefront. Punk rock, however, had the likes of Poly Styrene, The Slits, Joan Jett and Siouxsie Sioux, strong women who didn’t give a damn about their bad reputation. However, punk rock had evolved since the 70s and 80s, many hardcore shows were violent and women spoke of being pushed to the back to let the big boys mosh. And so Riot Grrrl was born.
With Riot Grrrl women could play their own instruments, dress how they wanted, draw on themselves, scream, take centre stage. They could mosh and not break a rib. Women were no longer the coat racks and beer holders at a show.
But there were issues, mainly with media. It seemed that no one wanted riot grrrls to succeed.
“Bands like Bikini Kill gave many women the strength to speak out”
Carrie Brownstein, fellow riot grrrl and guitarist in Sleater-Kinney, had her sexuality outed by Spin magazine before she had even come out to her family and friends. Bikini Kill had their musical ability, sexuality, politics, just about everything they stood for, ripped apart by various magazines.
Trivialised and highly criticised by the media some bands in the movement, including Bikini Kill, decided to not speak to any member of the press, refusing them access to gigs or interviews in order to safe guard their information and reduce the exploitation of band member and fans alike. This media blackout could be said to have stunted the growth of the movement, however, and so the musical development of the bands within it.
Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997.
So why is Bikini Kill’s return so important now? Because the president of the United States thinks it’s acceptable to “grab a woman by the pussy”. Because Theresa May was happy form a coalition with the anti-LGBT, anti-abortion DUP. Because the #MeToo movement has to exist in the first place. Because the statistics explicitly say that women are outnumbered in the music industry and not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
Bands like Bikini Kill gave many women the strength to speak out, and they still do and hopefully they will for many, many more years. Strong women empower women and Kathleen, Tobi and Kathi are strong women.
Bikini Kill are playing TWO shows in London. June 10th & 11th, both at the O2 Academy Brixton. June 10th is sold out but tickets are still available for June 11th