Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Grrrls With the Bad Reputation

Bikini Kill were one of the first and most famous bands to be associated with the riot grrrl movement that sprang out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. Riot grrrl was a feminist reworking off punk rock that took the confrontational, anti-establishment, DIY attitude of punk and focused it on women's issues and empowerment. Riot grrrl was a response to and refuge from the sexism and boys-only mentality of both punk and mainstream music, and a venue for young women to express their nascent explorations into feminism.

Early Bikini Kill was very adolescent both in sound and philosophy, taking a "1, 2, Fuck You" approach to feminism. They were awkward, messy, full of energy and heart but lacked songwriting chops, and were overeager and undersubtle. Their first tape came out around 1990, and then they had a split LP with Huggy Bear in 1992, which were later paired around 1994 into "The CD Version of Their First Two Albums". There are some great songs on this disc, which was partially produced by punk legend Ian MacKaye. "Carnival" is a great punk song, and "Double Dare Ya" kicks things off with a healthy dose of anger. Mostly though, the songs are more full of possibility hindered by a lack of musical ability and maturity. Case in point: The chorus of "White Boy" : "White boy/don't cry/Just die!" It just doesn't quite work as either a chorus or a philosophy. This is the sound of a bunch of excited and pissed off girls (and a guy) in their garage furiously trying to put all of their thoughts into songs, and getting it a little mixed up in the process.

However clumsy their first release is, though, it is full of unrestrained energy. 15 years later it is still hard not to get caught up in their excitement when singer Kathleen Hannah screams "I double dare ya, girl-fuckin'-friend!!"

In 1993 they recorded their first proper album, Pussy Whipped. Pussy Whipped was a step forward for the band, showing off improved songwriting skills. The basic 1-2 punk off their earlier work was replaced with a dirtier, grungier sound, and the lyrics were a little less obvious. My favorite track is the chaotic, manic "Star Bellied Boy", which seems to be an attack on a date rapist. Hannah starts the song off screaming "He said he wanted to/just touch you" before hitting the chorus of "Star bellied boy different from the rest/prove you're different from the rest/you're no fucking different from the rest!" before yelling the final refrain "Why do I cry/every time I cum?/I can't I can't I can't cum!"

It's both heavy and empowering. Here is someone laying out sexual abuse while calling the fucker out for it.

In 1996, the came out with their masterpiece, "Reject All-American". The noisy chaos of their earlier work was replaced by better, cleaner production and actual hooks. It was a little like a punkier Go-Gos, catchy, fun, and smart. One of the highlights was the two-minute blast "Capri Pants" , a declaration of The Love That Cannot Be Named that has Hannah declaring "It feels so good it must be wrong!" The album was followed with a ton of singles that were eventually collected as 1998's "The Singles", which is a must-have. It features one of Bikini Kill's best songs, "I Like Fucking". This song shows how far the ladies came since their days as angry riot grrrls dealing with the darkest sides of gender relations, seeing males as adversaries, and recovering from inequality and abuse.
"Just cuz my world is so goddamn fucking full of rape/Does that mean that my body must always be a source of pain?" Hannah asks, before declaring "I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure!" It is a truly empowering song, and hints at the sex-positive feminism embodied by artists like Peaches. The fact that this has largely been degenerated in the mainstream into sluttiness-as-feminism just makes the whole thing that much more bittersweet.

By the late nineties Riot Grrrl was being used to sell everything from the spice girls to lipstick, as Madison Avenue jumped on the opportunity to use empowerment to sell the same tired stereotypes to women. Bikini Kill was distracted by multiple side-projects and celebrity, and drowning in scene politics. Like all punk bands, Bikini Kill was more focused on issues in the scene than issues in the larger world, and eventually caved into the pressure and broke up in 1998. Kathleen Hannah went new wave, replacing hooks and sincerity with keyboards and boring irony. The other ladies went on to form several superfluous indie rock bands that drowned in their own jadedness. Still, I can't be that disappointed by the Frumpies or Le Tigre. Bikini Kill left a large legacy, and I think they've inspired a lot of young women to form bands of their own, and have helped make feminism a more acceptable concept. Plus, they fucking rock, which is why they are and will forever be one of my favorite bands.

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