I could sit here and write a few hundred words about how the reunion of the legendary punk rock band Bikini Kill, announced on Tuesday for later this year, couldn’t have come at a better time. It is, after all, a good point. What better phoenix to rise from the still-flickering (never not-flickering) ashes of the last couple of years in women’s collective history than this group, whose heartbeat has always been our rage?
In their screams, their guttural cries, their 'SLUT's scrawled in marker on bellies, Bikini Kill are one of the most potent musical symbols of defiant femininity in the annals of punk rock, and at this moment, their return feels especially necessary and particularly justified, it’s true. But to leave it at that would be to attempt to pinpoint Bikini Kill’s significance in the now, perhaps even to contain it here, when it’s really much messier, and much better, than that.
For almost 30 years, Bikini Kill’s music has been a talisman for people who have had their femininity held against them. In 1990, drummer Tobi Vail and bassist Kathi Wilcox’s furious, deliberate rhythms and vocalist Kathleen Hanna’s unmistakable, undeniable howl came together to make a noise that refused to be cowed by the patriarchal Washington punk scene it formed against. Their music (created amid the work of other bands like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear, who all grew the influential scene we now know as riot grrrl) is special because it is built on the premise that the very traits used as reasons for marginalising femininity can be weaponised as tools for insurrection. On the chorus of “Double Dare Ya,” from the band’s 1991 cassette Revolution Girl Style Now! Hanna rattles:
Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry, cry out loud
I get so emotional, baby
They’re some of the most famous words in Bikini Kill’s catalogue for a reason; they feel like a manifesto for everything the band – and riot grrrl in general – was about. Long after their 1997 breakup, these lyrics have continued to ring in the ears of young music fans: the sheer fury emanating from them, and from all the other pained things Hanna gave wailing voice to, has never waned in its power or electricity.
We need Bikini Kill in 2019 not just because of our current cultural moment, but because we never stopped needing them. Their music is a dynamic, breathing thing that has accompanied so many of us throughout our lives. The #MeToo movement was (and is) characterised by a realisation of the fact that the battles people were fighting against patriarchy in their own lives, in what have become known as our whisper networks, were now safe to talk about publicly, without shame. As such, it has changed the world. Before it, though, there were bands like Bikini Kill, who could say for us so plainly the shadowy things we could often not articulate, offering their lines as conduits for the confusion and anger produced by a hard world that did not care and would not listen.
Bikini Kill’s notoriety and relative fame as the high priestesses of riot grrrl also means that they were and are easily discovered by teens hungry for alternatives to male-dominated rock, and that they’ve acted as a gateway drug to a whole new way of seeing the world in so many lives. Loving them, for a lot of people, lead to getting in touch with other music which understood like theirs did, to learning more radical gender politics (riot grrrl, while desperately exciting, definitely had its limitations), and to generally becoming the people we are.
It is a strange thing to feel like you are being given permission, and that’s what Bikini Kill did in my life, backlighting the boy-heavy hardcore punk scene I grew up in and telling me that my feelings – though different to what I saw all-male bands expressing on stage all the time – were worthy, maybe even more worthy, of exploration in whatever ways I saw fit. I don’t think I am the only one.
We need Bikini Kill now because we’ve always needed them; always needed more girls to the front, always needed more femininity on stage, always needed less machismo in rock, always needed the label of “woman” to be bigger in every possible way. Bikini Kill showed it’s possible in 1990 – and even if they hadn’t reformed for 2019, they’d still be showing it today. Revolution Girl Style Now, sure. But Revolution Girl Style Forever, too.
You can find Lauren on Twitter.