Bikini Kill were more than a band — and intentionally so. They were a beacon and a call to arms. They were “Girl you can do this, too” writ large. The band initially began as a radical feminist trio comprised of vocalist Kathleen Hanna, scene-nexus drummer Tobi Vail, bassist Kathi Wilcox, and later, only boy Billy Karren on guitar. Their sound was remarkably dynamic, tough and terse, sloppy and surfy — a menacing backdrop to their scream-along ideology.
The Olympia, Washington-based group became the primary party organ for the Riot Grrrl movement, a loose network of young female musicians, writers, and activists organized in opposition to the patriarchy inside and outside of the D.I.Y. punk underground. When they detonated on the scene in 1990, they awoke and radicalized their young female fans, who could hear their own lives, fuck-you feelings, and survivors’ tales in singer Kathleen Hanna’s caustically shouted lyrics. “I remember being very struck by the lyrics of “Feels Blind,” remembers Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, “‘As a woman I was taught to be hungry / Yeah, we could eat just about anything / We’d even eat your hate up like love.’ It was the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation, the feeling that all of these institutions and stories we’d been taught to hold as sacred had very little to do with my own experiences.”
As the Riot Grrrl movement was eventually discovered by the mainstream media, Hanna and the band were looked to as de facto mouthpieces and symbols; the movement was roiled by attention above and below ground that misunderstood their intent. Bikini Kill became lightning rods for macho trolls and icons for those who wanted a more liberated, girl-positive world.
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