Bikini Kill Discuss the Reissue of Their First Album & Feminism in the Cyber Age

Bikini Kill
Bikini Kill

If you Google third-wave feminism, the top result currently includes a photo of Kathleen Hanna.

When Hanna started Bikini Kill in 1990 with bandmates Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail, and Billy Karren, there was no Google. The band relied on fanzines and word of mouth to spread their ideas throughout their hometown of Olympia, Washington, and they recorded their first album, Revolution Girl Style Now, on cassette tape, available then only in limited quantity. Consequently, people have never heard the music, but on September 22, the album will be released digitally, on CD, and on vinyl for the first time.

It’s impossible to overestimate the social impact of the riot grrrl movement sparked by Bikini Kill, though Hanna remains modest about what effect the band may have had on women’s-rights issues. “I don’t think any of us would ever take credit for anything,” she says, “but I feel like we were definitely a part of a larger group of feminists and queer activists in the Nineties who created a groundswell of activity and excitement around issues having to do with gender and bringing politics back into punk.”

Their debut certainly sounds punk, but it also reflects the heavier musical influences that surrounded the band when they began. Bass player Wilcox observes, “The reason I think it sounds heavier is just because it was the first music that we had written, and we were really influenced by a lot of the bands in the Northwest at that time. We listened to the Melvins. We listened to early Nirvana.” Hanna concurs, saying she worked at an art gallery where Nirvana played often and followed bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and L7. “I think the demo tape sounds very much of that time period,” she says, “and it contextualizes the band less as, ‘Oh, they were these feminist activists who started a band,’ and more as, we actually lived in the Northwest and were being very influenced by the music that was being put out there.”

One of the most arresting moments on the album appears on the track “Liar.” While Hanna sings, in sweet voice, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” drummer Vail unleashes hair-raising screams. Vail remembers this as a statement connected to the Gulf War, which had begun a few months prior to the recording. “We were protesting and organizing against the war,” she explains, “and that made its way into some of our songs. In the early Nineties, the peace movement was still very immersed in the cultural symbols and protest songs of the Sixties. Part of what we were trying to do in Bikini Kill — at least initially — was to carve out a new set of cultural symbols of resistance for a younger generation.” She goes on: “By inserting the screams over ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ we were sort of adding another layer of make it sound as urgent and upset as we felt at the time.”

Hanna recalls that Vail was responsible for many of the screams that Hanna gets credit for, but sharing credit was part of how the band operated. Diplomatically, Vail says, “I’m not really too concerned with who gets credit for what, as it’s difficult for us to even break that down. We split songwriting royalties equally for that reason.” In a similar fashion, the group would also sometimes switch instruments — another earmark of the region they started in, says Wilcox. “There were lots of Olympia bands, and that was how they did it,” Wilcox remembers. “It just seemed like a very normal way to go about being in a band...It was part of the tradition of the town, and then also we just kind of felt like doing it. We all wanted to play every instrument, so it naturally happened.”

In some ways, the Nineties were a more innocent time, before viral videos about street harassment and celebrity catfights unfolding on Twitter. Hanna, Wilcox, and Vail all have ambivalent feelings about the internet and how it’s affected music and conversations about women. Vail sees the resurgence of cassette tapes as one way artists are reclaiming control over their content and creating a “corporate-free” space away from the Web. Wilcox says that for spreading ideas, “Obviously, [the] internet is about a thousand times better than a tiny, stapled fanzine...But then again, women have to put up with so much crap on the internet that it’s sort of a mixed bag.” She manages to find validation when men reveal sexist views online, albeit under the cloak of anonymity, because it confirms what she suspected they were already thinking. “There’s something kind of satisfying about that, even though it’s awful,” she says.

Hanna echoes these thoughts, saying she encourages women today to start not zines but blogs, if their goal is to reach people. Still, the reality of online haters hits close to home for her. “It’s important every so often for me to check myself. Like, am I using the internet in a way that’s helpful and not hurtful? Am I typing my name and the word ‘bitch’ in to see who’s talking smack on me, or am I reaching out to people about issues that I care about?” She seems to catch herself. “I probably shouldn’t have admitted that I ever type my name and the word ‘bitch’ in, but whatever. I did do that once. I just wanted to see! There was a lot of stuff.” She sounds a little disheartened about this for a split second, but moves on. When your photo is Google’s definition of a generation of feminism, you’re strong enough to keep pushing forward.

Bikini Kill's Revolution Girl Style Now will see its release September 22 via Bikini Kill Records. For more information, click here

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