“We are Bikini Kill, and we want revolution girl style, now”, screamed lead singer Kathleen Hanna on the band’s 1991 debut album, announcing the Riot Grrrl movement had arrived.
The reissue of Bikini Kill’s first album, which includes tracks that have previously been unreleased on CD, reflects renewed interest in ideas from 25 years ago that have re-emerged in recent times.
This was America in the early 1990s, George Bush senior was in power and the first Iraq war had just begun. Bush’s Republicans were launching a vicious attack on abortion legislation; sexual assaults and rape on university and college campuses were rife; and the music scene was dominated by macho, misogynistic “hair bands”.
But bubbling under the surface was a new subculture. Influenced by postmodern, poststructuralist feminist theory, a new generation of young women was discovering feminism. Riot Grrrl was an expression of this but not the only outlet. Thousands of zines were published, women came together in regular meetings for discussion and debate, chapters were formed and Riot Grrrl conventions were organised.
Bikini Kill were at the heart of this phenomenon. They had their own zine in which Hanna published the Riot Grrrl Manifesto. It was a call to arms for all women who wanted to do something about the sexism they faced. It talked of “hating capitalism in all its forms” and “taking over the means of production”, although it didn’t offer a plan for doing that other than through music and zines.
Famously, Hanna would often ban male fans from in front of the stage during gigs, in an attempt to create a safe space for women to enjoy the performances without the threat of being trampled or harassed. It was not uncommon for performances to be called to a halt if a man was perceived to be acting inappropriately.
Songs such as Double Dare Ya and This is Not a Test call on women to get active in the struggle for liberation while Daddy’s Li’l Girl and Suck My Left One tell tales of sexual violence. The previously unreleased track Playground is punk music at its best. As the bass guitar strums out a deconstructed discordant reimagining of the nursery rhyme Ring-o-Roses, Hanna bellows “When all the boys left our playground/You’re not invited to our party anymore”.
Earlier this year in recognition of their influence, the Mayor of Boston declared 9 April “Riot Grrl Day” and released a proclamation that stated among other things, “Because our young women can’t be what they can’t see, girls need to see other girls picking up basses, drum sticks and microphones.”
The songs have stood the test of time and seem just as relevant today as they did then.