Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock: Bikini Kill - Rebel Girl
This week has been unofficial Kathleen Hanna week on Badass Digest. Meredith and I both loved The Punk Singer, a doc about Hanna that played at SXSW, and this week we've run a review and an interview, both by Meredith. Now it's my turn.
A lot of the punk I've been featuring in this column is super old, so this week let's get just kind of old. Bikini Kill was one of the most important and one of the best bands to come out of the early 90s collision between punk and metal and alt rock, and while Rebel Girl is sort of the easy 'greatest hits' choice it's easy for a reason: this song is amazing.
On a purely musical level Rebel Girl barrels along at stomping speed. But it's the lyrics - and the way Hanna delivers them - that really sends the song into the stratosphere. The lyric:
That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood
I GOT NEWS FOR YOU - SHE IS!
is one of the most exciting, immediate and electrifying declarations of sisterhood I've ever heard. When getting into feminism it's very easy to get caught up in the problems - the systemic sexism in our society, the rape culture that goes almost unnoticed, the way women internalize negative images of feminity - and so it's refreshing when you hear a battle cry for togetherness and friendship. One of the ways that the patriarchy combats feminism is to pit women against each other (see how many of the female-oriented blogs alternate feminist writing with snotty celeb coverage aimed at shaming female celebrities), but Bikini Kill refuses to go down that path. And even if you're not big on feminism*, the song's message of having a local hero and being friends with her is kind of stirring on its own.
Bikini Kill's impact was astonishing. There was something really cool happening in certain segments of the grunge/punk revolution of the 90s, and it was very concerned with feminism. I think part of it came from the fact that my generation was raised by single moms. Part of it came from seeing how hateful stadium buttrock treated women. And part of it came from internalizing the true meaning of punk, which is a musical form dedicated to the outcast and the marginalized.
Bikini Kill formed in Olympia, Washington in 1990 (the site of a radical punk scene that would later be satirized by Courtney Love in Hole's Olympia, a really good song all on its own**), born out of a local feminist movement that looked to make art by and for women. Rebel Girl first appeared on record in 1993, on a split LP with the awesome London band Huggy Bear, and it was about artist Juliana Luecking (who has a YouTube channel full of videos she made five or six years ago, all of which feel very ahead of their time), who was instrumental in creating the riot grrl movement.
Which, I guess, brings us to what might be Bikini Kill's biggest cultural legacy: riot grrrl. Exploding out of third wave feminism, punk rock and Sassy Magazine, riot grrl was a conceptual movement that included activism and art and was summed up in a manifesto that Hanna wrote which is still inspiring and powerful today:
BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other's work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.
BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings.
BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.
BECAUSE we recognize fantasies of Instant Macho Gun Revolution as impractical lies meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of becoming our dreams AND THUS seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.
BECAUSE we want and need to encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can't play our instruments, in the face of "authorities" who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and
BECAUSE we don't wanna assimilate to someone else's (boy) standards of what is or isn't.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reactionary "reverse sexists" AND NOT THE TRUEPUNKROCKSOULCRUSADERS THAT WE KNOW we really are.
BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock "you can do anything" idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.
BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-heirarchical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad categorizations.
BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.
BECAUSE we see fostering and supporting girl scenes and girl artists of all kinds as integral to this process.
BECAUSE we hate capitalism in all its forms and see our main goal as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profits of being cool according to traditional standards.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.
BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.
It's sort of bittersweet to read that now because it's twenty years later and not much seems to have changed. The riot grrl movement made a big noise on the fringe - and produced some of the best music of the 90s, by bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, Team Dretsch, Heavens to Betsy, 7 Year Bitch and many more - but societally it seems like we're not in a very different place than we were in 1989. Women are still shouted down, rock (or what's left of it) remains a boy's club and our female pop stars sing only about boys and breakups and dancing.
But just because we haven't come as far down the road as I'd like - I mean, we're still debating transvaginal ultrasounds and whether women dressed provocatively deserve to be raped, for Christ's sake - there has been progress. Women's issues are being taken seriously. Women have a voice in culture unlike any time in the past. Maybe we just need another Kathleen Hanna and another Bikini Kill to help push that progress along a bit further.
* please reconsider this stance. Feminism, as the bumper stickers say, is the radical belief that women are equal to men.
** And yes, Courtney would later punch Kathleen Hanna in the face for no good reason backstage at a show. Courtney obviously had a problem with the whole scene, likely caused by the fact that husband Kurt Cobain was an acolyte, and had been intimately connected with Hanna.