A 90s-era radical feminist punk band whose scream-along sound became a girl-power call to arms, Bikini Kill was a beacon for a generation of activists striving for a world more hospitable to women.
Now, as an American political battle over reproductive rights rages more fiercely than it has in years, the group known for their catchphrase “Revolution Girl Style, Now!” is back, reuniting to spread their message of empowerment and equality, protesting violence against women and normalizing female anger.
The group — including frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and newcomer Erica Dawn Lyle — broke up in 1997 but recently delivered a thunderous series of performances in New York after playing shows in Los Angeles, and will rock London on Monday.
“The world needs them again. I feel like they’re like Captain Marvel, and we’ve flashed the Bikini Kill sign to bring them back to earth, because it’s just messed up here,” said Evelyn McDonnell, a pop culture writer whose bibliography includes the book “Women Who Rock.”
“They just expressed this new energy of feminism in such a wonderfully direct, emotional fashion,” she told AFP.
“That was what was amazing about seeing them live again — this crowd full of thousands of fans, predominantly women, and of multiple generations, people who had seen them the first time around and people who weren’t born the first time around,” she said, calling it a release of “all this pent-up energy.”
‘Girls to the front’
First formed in Washington state in 1990, Bikini Kill pioneered the provocative “riot grrrl” movement that became a dynamic force across the then male-dominated American punk scene, blossoming in the underground before quickly garnering national attention.
The subculture fueled by abrasive rock became a haven for girls and women who formed bands and reading groups nationwide as a form of cultural resistance, taking on themes of sexual violence and misogyny.
Beyond concerts much of the movement was founded on a culture of zines — small-circulation, self-created publications — that saw subscribers to the ethos espouse their grievances and goals.
Sara Marcus, the author of a riot grrrl history entitled “Girls To the Front” — another Hanna motto, encouraging women to occupy the front of concert venues during shows — began attending meetings of the Washington, DC chapter in 1993.
“Everybody was a feminist. And not just a feminist — I had a feminist club at my high school, but nobody was as mad as I was,” Marcus, who grew up in suburban Maryland, told AFP.
“At riot grrrl, everybody was as mad.”
‘Taste the revolution’
Friends of Nirvana — legend has it the title for the band’s signature hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came from graffiti Hanna scrawled on Kurt Cobain’s bedroom wall — and an inspiration for scores of bands including Russia’s Pussy Riot, Bikini Kill eschewed the mainstream music industry eager to sign them.
That independent spirit is perhaps what lead to the seminal band’s downfall; without the support system of even a manager or booking agent, they succumbed to infighting and burnout.
But for McDonnell, the cultural moment they cultivated “got picked up on in mainstream forms, like Alanis Morissette or The Spice Girls.
“I started my band because of them,” said Nadya Tolokonnikova, 29, of the anarchist feminist collective Pussy Riot, calling seeing Bikini Kill live at a recent LA show “mind-blowing.“
“It just gave me this beautiful feeling that probably I’m doing the right thing.“
As the band — whose members are now in their 40s and 50s — tore through their trademark track “Rebel Girl” at a Brooklyn show, the stage lights flooded the theater in rainbow colors — an overt nod to June’s Pride Month celebration — as Hanna sang: “In her kiss / I taste the revolution!“
Marcus said she hopes both old guard Bikini Kill comrades and those encountering the movement for the first time will draw inspiration under a White House she dubbed “nakedly repressive.“
“We need a million Bikini Kills,” she said. “Girls, women, trans people, non-binary people, races, ethnicities — we need to be making culture that helps us understand the moment we’re in and helps harden us to just go another day.”