Bikini Kill Still Breaking Norms 30 Years Later
It’s 1991 in Olympia, Washington, and you’re watching one of riot grrrl’s pioneer bands perform and yell their iconic slogans against hyper-masculinity in the hardcore punk scene. Kathleen Hanna comes on stage and exclaims, “We’re Bikini Kill, and we want revolution! Girl-Style now!” except it’s not 1991; it’s April 6, 2023, and you’re at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, after a long-awaited performance that had been canceled multiple years in a row due to COVID-19.
The female rockers performed each short song with immense energy that captivated the audience. The most unique aspect of the performance was how the band members frequently switched roles. I had never seen a band make so many switches and display each member’s raw talent. Bassist Kathi Wilcox started drumming as drummer Tobi Vail took Kathleen Hanna’s place as frontwoman, moving Hanna to the bass.
Bikini Kill would not be who they are without engaging with their audience and expressing their opinions. I knew Hanna had lived in the DMV area when she was younger and contributed to the D.C. hardcore scene later in her life, so I was anticipating a sort of homecoming show. She met my expectations when she mentioned local spots like the Montgomery Mall or bands like Fugazi.
On the topic of feminism, Bikini Kill stays relevant and prominent. Hanna mentioned the recent conversation surrounding abortion and how she had shared the same message at shows 30 years ago. She spoke with a tone of disappointment; decades after her band established a voice against injustice, they still needed to use it. In my opinion, Hanna’s most important conversation between songs was about intergenerational feminism. As someone surrounded by college-educated feminists, I notice the elitism within the movement. Hanna pointed out that, no, to be a feminist, you don’t have to read complex feminist theory and use fancy words. She pointed out that in the audience, all people, no matter what gender, were represented. She acknowledged that feminism is nothing without black feminism and trans rights. I enjoyed how Hanna went beyond the surface of feminism and preached inclusivity on all levels—something I think is a significant issue within white feminism.
Despite Hanna’s necessary conversations with her audience, the band’s peak performance came at the concert’s end. After telling a story about Hanna’s sister, who constantly dealt with harassment because of her physical features, the band sang “Suck My Left One.” Hanna’s sister made up the titular comeback to combat the perverse men on the streets or boys at school. When the band yelled, “Suck! My! Left! One!” everyone in the audience unleashed their pent-up anger. As I’ve gotten older, I have realized that, unfortunately, almost everyone has someone they can yell “suck my left one” at.
After Bikini Kill left the stage, the crowd encouraged an encore. Finally, the band returned, and we immediately heard the chords of “Rebel Girl.” “Rebel Girl” and Bikini Kill have a complicated history. Some could compare it to Kurt Cobain’s relationship with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Thom Yorke’s relationship with “Creep.” In some older interviews, Hanna explained that they were tired of the hit song and didn’t want to be known solely for that one hit. However, in more recent conversations, Hanna explained that the song became an anthem. I will admit that “Rebel Girl” is one of my anthems. A song about wanting to be best friends with the cool, punk girl, “Rebel Girl,” reminds me of how great female friendships can be and ultimately made me happy to be a woman when I listened to it for the first time in high school. So, of course, when Hanna yelled, “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood,” the crowd joined together and sang every word of the song.
After hearing the whole set, including Hanna’s engagement with the audience and the hit song “Rebel Girl,” I knew I had witnessed something special. Bikini Kill will always impact punk history and remains essential for newer conversations in feminism and inclusivity. When I was 17, Kathleen Hanna taught me–someone who grew up in Catholic schools where the word “feminist” had radical connotations–that I should be proud of being a feminist. At concerts, Hanna used to encourage all girls to the front of the venue, so whenever I go to a show, I shamelessly get there early and make it up to the barrier. Female representation is not a massive issue in punk rock anymore. Still, Bikini Kill reminds us of the great music and meaningful messages that made punk rock inclusivity possible.
Carolina Permuy is a Sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics. She will admit that she did in fact write about Kathleen Hanna when asked who she would want to meet in a college essay question during her senior year in high school. She is the INDY’s Spotlight editor.