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Deep dive: Down into Bikini Kill’s raw and winding discography

Deep Dive is a new seres where a seminal band’s discography and legacy is broken down. Art by Ava East.

Bikini Kill, if you clicked on this post without knowing, were the instigators of many things: the punk rock feminism movement Riot Grrrl, the cries of “Girl Power” uttered by the Spice Girls, and the sex-positive yet anti-rape culture strain of feminism that is splashed across the Instagram accounts of young feminists today.  Kathleen Hanna (singer/sometimes drummer), Tobi Vail (drummer, sometimes singer) and Kati Wilcox (bass) formed the band in Olympia Washington before adding Billy Karren (guitar). The band toured throughout the violent punk underground, demanded that girls come to the front of the crowds at shows, confronted problematic audience members in between songs, rejected traditional media coverage, and remained staunchly DIY before disbanding around 1997. They were one of America’s’ greatest punk bands who shouted down people in the pit and people in power, but until September 18th most of their catalog wasn’t available to stream.

As a young Bikini Kill fan in the late 2000s, I listened to them on Pandora before buying their music on iTunes, but even that selection was limited. Many of their songs were only online in the form of hastily shot live footage. Now the band’s entire discography is just a click away—and without the annoying accompanying Youtube comments about Nirvana and “Grunge” . 

In a time when countless Americans are reeling from witnessing the infuriating Kavanaugh hearings, are emboldened by the #metoo movement, and are enraged at the rot at the root of our country, Bikini Kill’s arrival into the streaming age smacks of cosmic timing. Here’s a full guide to easing your way into (or celebrating) their catalog.

If you’re too busy plotting to overthrow our government to read the whole thing here’s a brief rundown.  I’d recommend starting with The Singles, which has all of the polish and potency Bikini Kill has to offer. Next, I’d check out Pussy Whipped, followed by The First Two Records, Reject All American, and ending with the band’s first release Revolution Girl Style Now.

Revolution Girl Style Now

Start with: “Daddy’s Lil Girl” and “Feels Blind”

Bikini Kill’s demo tape is the band at their most primal and dogmatic. The bands’ stomp evokes a sweaty basement gig: the recordings sound like the kind of demos now found on a plucky hardcore band’s Bandcamp.  

Some songs shine through the grease: “Feel Blind,” “Suck My Left One” and “Carnival” are all stellar. “Double Dare Ya” finds the band already honing in on their mission—it’s rare to find a band who so early in their career already had a grasp of what they wanted to say. Still, I like the version of these songs on The First Two Records more. “Daddy’s Lil Girl” is the biggest treasure here: a song that mocks the power dynamic between abusive fathers and their kids.  

“Liar” has aged like curdled milk. Lines like “ear meat/ hate blacks/ beat your fucking wife/ it’s all the same thing” does that exact opposite of encouraging context and intersectionality (the holy grail of feminism today)Instead, it erases difference and suggests that all marginalized people suffer by the same hands and in the same way, which isn’t true. Fortunately, the band would hone their message on later releases.

The First Two Records

Start with: “Jigsaw Youth” and “White Boy”

The longest of their releases, The First Two Records is a combination of the songs on Revolution Girl Style Now and the band’s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah split with Huggy Bear. At 20 songs the length is a little intimidating. I’d recommend it after you’ve already decided you like Bikini Kill’s other material. The treasure trove of early songs is what set this record apart from the others.

There’s the response to rock criticism “Thurston Hearts The Who” which features Bratmobile drummer Molly Neumann reading a negative review of the band while drummer/singer Toby Vail mocks alternative culture’s tendency to follow the herd in terms of taste: “Thurston Hearts The Who! How About You!”

There are also the outsider anthems “Jigsaw Youth,” (one of my fave Bikini Kill songs ever!)  and “Resist Psychic Death” (which reminds us “there’s more than one way of going somewhere!”) that are amazing hardcore punk songs with an added feminist context. Bikini Kill’s most popular song “Rebel Girl” makes it’s first appearance here, and you can hear why the band insisted on re-recording it over and over on future releases: it smacks of untapped potential.

There’s the silly “Fuck Twin Peaks” and the sweet “Why” that captures the band in their infancy, and then a song like “White Boy” that foretold their greatness. “White Boy” is one of the first time the band unveils their brilliant sense of sarcasm, “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you! Your whole fucking culture alienates me!” Kathleen Hanna screams.

Pussy Whipped

Start with: “Lil Red,” “Blood One” and “Sugar”

The definitive album of the band’s career—Pussy Whipped makes me mourn the most for never having seen them live. Hannah sounds alternatively raw and shrill, the unvarnished howl of a front person who’s voice proudly flaunts the wear of screaming down violent men in the pit. At times it competes over other voices (band member’s wordless screams, or Hannah’s own double tracked vocal lines).

Billy Karren’s use of noise with his guitar adds to the air of barely controlled chaos, with Kathi Wilcox’s bass anchoring the songs together. The chaotic atmosphere reflects the rage and confusion in the band’s songs aimed the world around them. Often that rage is expressed in brutally sarcastic lyrics, like Hannah singing “I’m a self-fulfilling porno queen, yeah” on “Lil Red” or Tobi Vail mocking British rock critic Everett True on “Hamster Baby.” No matter how hard the band thrashes, the songs they craft are so catchy they start to turn over again and again in your mind, which is of course exactly what the band wanted: to get their feminist message stuck in as many heads as possible.

Reject All American

Start with: “Capri Pants” and “Reject All American”

All the polish that makes The Singles great is here, but the songs don’t always measure up. When the band is on they are ON: “Tony Randall,” “Reject All American,” and “Capri Pants” are all amazing. Other songs like “Statement of Vindication” and “Jet Ski” are fun, but everything else is kinda average though the sentiment is there—the song “R.I.P.” is an ode to a queer friend of the band who passed away from AIDS complications.

When I was a teen I got a lot of life from the idea that Bikini Kill was looking out for fags like me, but revisiting the song now it sounds like a collection of good ideas poorly executed. The road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions. Reject All American is the sound of Bikini Kill getting set in their ways, with attempts to break out of their already established sound resulting in more failure than success.    

The Singles

Start with: “Rebel Girl” and “New Radio”

Released in 1998, The Singles is the most polished, accessible, and potent representation of Bikini Kill. It’s a combination of three of the band’s 7″ singles: 1993’s New Radio and 1995’s The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation and I Like Fucking. At the time singles were more en vouge in the scene then full-length albums, so it makes sense that Bikini Kill’s most potent songs existed as 7 inches as opposed to album tracks. The songs sound fully alive here. Karren’s guitar work sounds the clearest and most menacing of the band’s career, and Kathleen’s vocals are finally given the studio attention they deserve. This attention to craft, combined with firecracker songs, makes it the ideal album for new listeners of the band. 

Right from the jump, the band twists together seduction, menace, and the thrill of breaking the rules with Joan Jett on “New Radio.” They follow that wallop with their anthem “Rebel Girl” here in its final phoenix form: a catchy as heck love letter to transgressive feminist grrrls everywhere. Another highlight is “I Like Fucking,” a declaration of love for sex in a world of rape that delivers its own thrill when Kathleen Hanna screams “how to LOOSE CONTROL” like her jaw is unhinging.

There are simply too many brilliant lines to list all here, so I’ll stick with two: “I am not some lame sorority queen / taking you home to meet my daddy” (“Demi Rep”) and “Just cuz my world sweet sister / is so fucking goddamn full of rape / does that mean my body must always be a source of pain? / Oh no no no. I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.” (“I Like Fucking”).   

So much of Bikini Kill’s notoriety is tied up in Kathleen Hanna, but Tobi Vail was equally key to the band’s message and music, and the album’s closer “I Hate Danger” is one of Bikini Kill’s most underrated songs: it’s both a personal tale of feeling out of place in a group of friends and a condemnation of the toxic boys club environment and the ideologies that spring out of them. Even though the album wasn’t initially conceived as a long player, simply a collection of singles, it’s the band’s greatest work.  

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