It should go without saying that Bikini Kill would be at the heart of a Summer of Badass Women, or any season of Badass women for that matter. After all, Bikini Kill is a large part of the inspiration for the Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women, which I dreamed up as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Riot Grrrl, a movement whose peculiar spelling actually came from Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail fucking around with feminist spellings of the word “women” (i.e. “womyn,” “wymyn” and so on). So there.
The women of Bikini Kill were Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (they were joined by Billy Karren on guitar) and as a group, they were about as badass as you can be. Hanna, according to legend, was advised by Kathy Acker to start a band because that would be the best way to for Hanna to have her voice heard. The music scene in Olympia, Washington (home of Evergreen State College, the alma mater of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, all three women in Bikini Kill, as well as Futurama creator Matt Groening) was pretty fertile for experimentation to begin with and it wasn’t long before Hanna was in a band called Amy Carter, which used to play before exhibitions at Reko Muse, the feminist art gallery Hanna had started with some friends. After Amy Carter came Viva Knievel and then, at long last, Bikini Kill, named after a zine Hanna was working on with Tobi Vail (who is still chronicling the northwest feminist punk underground to this very day) and Kathi Wilcox. The three pinched Billy Karren from a band called the Go Team (not to be confused with twee British group The Go! Team) to play guitar in their band and that’s when shit gets really awesome.
While giving Le Tigre’s self-titled debut the Great Fucking Albums treatment, Zac mentioned that Bikini Kill – and not the more singable, dance-able Le Tigre – was the band that should’ve sent your jock-prick ex-boyfriend back-pedaling as far from Riot Grrrl music as humanly possible and my esteemed colleague has a point. It’s easier to enjoy Le Tigre more on purely musical terms but let me tell you something else: on purely musical terms, I totally fucking love Bikini Kill, especially the gritty early shit on the The CD Version of the First Two EPs. But then, I also like to work out to Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (which you can almost listen to in its entirety in a thirty minute workout).
You might be tempted, when listening to a song like “Double Dare Ya” to ask, “What’s all the shouting about?” Well, I’ll tell you. Bikini Kill was providing the soundtrack for a movement that, dog bless ’em, wanted a brand of feminism that reflected their aesthetic ideas as well as their political ones (indeed, I would argue that Riot Grrrl didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, given their frequent – and spot on – attacks on the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media) and that movement was infused with a punk spirit that a lot of mainstream “punk” music had (and still has) lost. Tobi Vail pounded the drums like she was in the fight of her life and Kathleen Hanna was a hurricane on stage, whirling, screaming, and occasionally flashing the audience. Vail has compared Bikini Kill shows to a war, and for good reason: as I mentioned in my review of Sara Marcus’s excellent Girls to the Front, men came to Bikini Kill concerts specifically to try to menace the band, something that doesn’t happen at Blink-182 shows (although it probably should) (I kid) (mostly).
But it’s not just the sound of their music – which, by the way, was the sound of liberation – that makes Bikini Kill badass. If I had to choose one word to describe all of their albums that I own (and I think I own all of them), that word would be “exhilarating.” If you like raucous, real punk music, you should definitely listen to Bikini Kill. But what they accomplished goes far beyond just playing loud, angry music. The Riot Grrrl movement was already under way when Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox got the idea to play in a band together, but they galvanized it and give it arguably its loudest, proudest voice.
And it wasn’t fuckin’ easy either. They were harassed, shouted at, and called all manner of horrible name just for daring to make their grievances public. Do me a favor and ask yourself this, dear Bollocks! readers of any and all genders: why is it that we are always ready to approve of some angry dude – like your Clint Eastwood movie types and all those blowhard political pundit fucktards on the TV – but when a woman, any woman, gets upset because she has to have more education to make less money at the same position as a dude, people instantly accuse her of man-hating? Never mind the fact that the men Bikini Kill supposedly “hated” – men who relentlessly belittle, objectify, abuse, and rape women – are men that everyone should hate. I don’t hate the sadistic fuck who raped and murdered Mia Zapata because he’s a man; I hate him because he’s a fucking rapist. Likewise, I don’t hate Fred Phelps because he’s a man or even because he’s a Christian – I hate him because he’s a bigoted asshole who thinks that a being intelligent and creative enough to make (from scratch!) everything there fucking is has the same prejudices that he has.
There’s a reason you can’t have a serious discussion about Riot Grrrl without mentioning Bikini Kill and here it is: they brought the spirit of Capital-P Punk to that movement (which already had quite a bit of a punk ethos to it). For those of you who don’t know, Punk is “punk” with a purpose. It’s the kind of punk Joe Strummer was even when he wasn’t playing punk music. When the Handsome Furs snuck into Burma, played a secret show, and donated all the proceeds to their friends in a Burmese band, that was Punk. Hell, any band trying to make music under the boot of an oppressive regime is a Punk band. Bikini Kill were Punk because they played songs of liberation with reckless abandon, right in the faces of those who wanted to shut them up (or worse, physically hurt them). And they were badass women because they stood their ground and inspired a generation of young women to do the same.