Just over 20 years ago, one of the most influential bands in the riot grrrl movement released its first album. Bikini Kill was three women and one man who helped define a movement that grew up in the early 1990s as an offshoot of punk, when many girls felt marginalized by society, and in some cases, even by the punk rock community.
Late last year, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and her bandmates took up that thread again by founding their own label, Bikini Kill Records, to reissue their discography.
“When we started our band a big part of it was to encourage more female participation in the punk scene,” Hanna says. “Selfishly, we wanted more women and girls to play music with when we went on tour. We wanted more women and girls to talk to about the experience of being in a band because we were constantly encountering sexism and having no one but each other to talk to about it.”
Carrying that conversation to a wider audience was one of the reasons Bikini Kill was so influential, according to Molly Neuman. She’s another riot grrrl musician, who played in the bands Bratmobile and the Frumpies.
“They were speaking about subjects that were specific to women and girls and sort of the just general disenfranchisement that a lot of us felt but maybe hadn’t articulated in that way,” Neuman says. She clarifies: “But then the music was, is, incredible. And I think it completely stands up.”
Sara Marcus is the author of the book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. She still remembers the first time she heard Bikini Kill; her introduction was the song “Double Dare Ya,” the first track on the band’s 1992 self-titled debut.
“The first thing that I heard starts out with a ton of feedback on an amp and Kathleen’s voice saying, ‘Is that supposed to be doing that?’” Marcus recalls. “So already it begins with this sense that everything’s provisional; you’re learning this as you go along.”
“Double Dare Ya” continues with a declaration that would become iconic: Hanna kicks off the song by shouting, “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution, girl-style, now.” Marcus says she took it as a challenge.
“To have somebody sort of being like, ‘All right — put your money where your mouth is. You wanna do something? Go do it. You wanna be someone? Go be it.’ Its just this marvelous encouragement,” Marcus says. “It was huge for me.”
It was huge for a lot of people — and not just women. Mark Andersen is the co-founder of a Washington, D.C.-area punk activist group called Positive Force.
“Immediately, I was transfixed, because it was such a powerful, passionate female voice expressed through the music,” Andersen says. “And they were not scared at all about taking political stands — of confronting people, of challenging people.”
While mainstream music often works hard to sound polished and flawless, Kathleen Hanna says her goal was exactly the opposite.
“I always thought that putting tons of reverb on my voice was kind of, you know, the equivalent of airbrushing,” Hanna says. “And I wanted other girls and women to hear a real female voice that wasn’t completely manipulated.”
Bikini Kill’s first record was produced by Ian MacKaye, a punk musician best known for his bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and for the label he co-founded, Dischord Records.
“I actually think Bikini Kill and riot grrrl,had a huge cultural impact on our society,” MacKaye says. “I know it did. Because I know that when I first started seeing shows in 1979, if there was a band that had a woman member, it was notable. And that just doesn’t exist anymore. I feel like that women taking the stage had a huge effect on the way culture in this country worked.”
And while fans who first heard Bikini Kill 20 years ago are excited to see the music reissued, so are the band’s more recent converts, Hanna says.
“I get so many letters from girls from 13 to 17 who just found out about Bikini Kill for the first time, and they’re experiencing it as if it’s happening now,” she says. “The thing that I really love is thinking of girls in high school who are organizing themselves around our music and a lot of other girl bands’ music. That they can make, like, a Bikini Kill jean jacket instead of a Motorhead jean jacket — which is what I had — is pretty great.”