Friday Night Fun and Culture: Bikini Kill

This week an article in The New Yorker reminded me of Bikini Kill, of the band that started the Riot Grrl Movement some twenty years ago.

From The New Yorker:

Hanna and Her Sisters

Bikini Kill sparked the riot-grrrl movement. It also made great music.

by
November 26, 2012

In May of 1989, a junior at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, named Kathleen Hanna traveled to Seattle to meet Kathy Acker, a forty-two-year-old author she admired. Acker, who had written about abuse, incest, and other forms of sexual extremity, was conducting workshops at the Center on Contemporary Art. Hanna, then nineteen, bluffed her way into an interview. As reported in Sara Marcus’s carefully documented history, “Girls to the Front,” when Hanna explained that she was interested in spoken-word performance and in writing, Acker told her that she should be in a band: “There’s more of a community for musicians than for writers.”

Hanna felt rebuffed at first, but she ultimately took the advice. In 1990, after touring with a band called Viva Knievel, she formed a new group, eventually called Bikini Kill, with a drummer named Tobi Vail, whom Hanna knew from Olympia. Vail had been publishing and writing a feminist zine called Jigsaw, which Hanna admired. Hanna and Vail found bandmates in the bassist Kathi Wilcox, who had never been in a band before, and the guitarist Billy Karren. This led to both a small catalogue of recordings and the birth of the very sort of community that Acker was referring to. People often use the phrase “riot grrrl” as shorthand for the feminist music activism of the nineties, but sometimes they use it simply to refer to Bikini Kill. The group’s first two vinyl recordings are being reissued, twenty years after their initial release, on a label set up by the members to preserve their output. Even though the riot-grrrl community has come to dwarf the songs in historical memory—that was the point, really—the music is still a pungent tonic.

Bands like Gossip, who became pop stars (in England, at least), cite the influence of Bikini Kill and the riot-grrrl movement. Members of the Russian political collective Pussy Riot, two of whom are currently in prison for hooliganism, also cite the band’s impact. (Pussy Riot is known for wearing balaclavas during public actions; is it coincidence that Hanna wore one in “No Alternative Girls,” a short film, from 1994, by Tamra Davis?)

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