2 March 2009

Bikini Kill

Pussy Whipped
Kill Rock Stars, 1993

When Crass, the anarchist punk band I wrote about last week, appeared on stage they did so in matching black military-surplus outfits, supposedly as an "attack on the cult of personality" but also, no doubt, to highlight their discomfort with mainstream culture and the oppressive nature of women's fashion. The opening track on their third album Penis Envy, 'Bata Motel', was filled with sexual imagery – romance, high heels, make up – that became sadistic and grotesque as the song went on. "My breasts to tempt inside my bra/ My face painted up like a movie star," sang Eve Libertine with mock histrionics. "Trip me over, show me the floor/ Tease me tease me, make me stay/ In my red high-heels I can't get away."

Ten years later, the face of radical feminism in pop music looked closer to the character in those lyrics than the band in their shapeless uniforms. Kathleen Hanna, the singer of Bikini Kill and the woman most widely associated with the "riot grrl" movement, rejected the notion that glamour and feminism couldn't mix, appearing on stage and in photos wearing short dresses, lipstick and boots. She had formed the band with Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail and Billy Karren, after the group began creating a feminist fanzine of the same name. Their first album, a cassette demo called Revolution Girl Style Now, set the tone for their work – furious and rough-around-the-edges punk rock mixed with gender politics – before they signed with the then fledgling, and now very famous, Kill Rock Stars label.

By the time they released their signature album Pussy Whipped, Bikini Kill and Hanna had become rather infamous and, thanks in part to the success of Nirvana's Nevermind, underground movements such as riot grrl had become topics of intense interest for the media. There was a standoff, of sorts, as riot grrl advocates called for a media blackout (meaning that no one should speak to journalists), while every magazine from Rolling Stone and Newsweek to national school newspaper Scholastic Update wrote about it. Hanna's combination of fashion and politics proved to be more popular than, perhaps, it was intended to be. A few years later, the slogan "girl power" – which had adorned the cover of Bikini Kill zine #2 – was plastered across the chests of The Spice Girls. Bikini Kill released one more album and broke up in 1998.

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