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The Boston Phoenix Good-bye Grrrls

Bikini Kill's single parting shot

By Matt Ashare

JULY 27, 1998:  The Singles (Kill Rock Stars) is, at least for the time being, the final release from the Olympia punk-rock band Bikini Kill. It clocks in at a mere 17 minutes and 28 seconds. All nine of the songs were previously available on three vinyl seven-inch singles the band released on Kill Rock Stars in 1993, 1995, and 1996. The first three come from the New Radio EP, which was produced by Joan Jett and has her joining the band on a searing version of "Rebel Girl"; the next four, including the 28-second contortion "In Accordance to Natural Law," are from the Anti-Pleasure Dissertation EP; and the last two are from the "I Like Fucking"/"I Hate Danger" single. So at first glance The Singles doesn't appear to be a particularly weighty album. But it feels significant, in large part because the band broke up earlier this year. Thus The Singles must bear the weight of being Bikini Kill's de facto swan song, of marking the end of one of the great bands of the '90s.

To put The Singles in some perspective: Bikini Kill released only two proper full-length albums in their eight-year career -- 1993's Pussy Whipped and 1996's Reject All American. The first was preceded by the cassette-only eight-song Revolution Girl Style Now, which was sold mainly at live shows beginning in 1991, and two EPs: New Radio and one side of the Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth split LP with England's Huggy Bear, which later joined 1992's Bikini Kill EP on a compilation titled The C.D. Version of the First Two Records (Kill Rock Stars).

The slashing, guitar-driven anthems of Pussy Whipped along with media interest in the then emerging feminist punk underground are what initially put Bikini Kill on the map. It was both frightening and inspiring to hear singer Kathleen Hanna enact her transformation from a cooing sex doll to a roaring demon on Pussy Whipped's "Sugar" and "Star Bellied Boy." She came on sounding like an angry young girl but left you with the impression that Johnny Rotten had been recast as a woman with a whole new agenda. Or maybe, some felt, she was a belated American answer to Poly Styrene of the British punk band X-Ray Specs. Either way, set against the bristling backdrop of Tobi Vail's flailing drums, Billy Karren's buzzsaw guitar, and Kathi Wilcox's persistent bass, Hanna's words and voice resonated with an irresistible kind of defiance.

By the time the equally potent, fuller sounding Reject All American was released, Bikini Kill had been put through the cultural wringer by the media, who had held the band up as leaders of an underground network of rebel women dubbed riot grrrls. "We have been written about a lot by big magazines who have never talked to us or seen our shows," a contentious Vail wrote in the liner notes for The C.D. Version of the First Two Records. "They write about us authoritatively, as if they understand us better than we understand our own ideas, tactics, and significance. They largely miss the point of everything about us because they have no idea what our context is/has been . . . no matter what we say or do, there continues to be this media-created idea of 'Bikini Kill/Riot Girl' that has little or nothing to do with our own ideas and efforts . . . we want to be an underground band, we don't want to be featured in Newsweek magazine."

Elsewhere in the same CD booklet, Hanna included "Jigsaw Youth," an essay she'd penned in '91 that sought to redefine punk and feminism -- and, by extension, Bikini Kill -- as a kind of metaphorical unfinished jigsaw puzzle made up of seemingly incongruous pieces. She warns, "The revolution is going down . . . no it's not happening without us, it is just plain not happening at all . . . it is going down under the gurgling sounds of our own voices, reproducing the voices of our parents in a slightly altered way . . . trying to dictate to each other what is and what isn't cool or revolutionary or true resistance, what is or isn't true in other people's lives . . . we are wasting valuable time." And she imagines "Jigsaw Youth, the island of lost and broken toys, feminists who wear lipstick, people who envision 'the land of do as you please,' whose lives are not simple."

Bikini Kill may have been thought by others to be as one-dimensional as Serious Angry Feminist Punk Rockers, but they unabashedly embodied all kinds of complexities and contradictions. Maybe that's why my favorite moment on The Singles comes at the end of "Demirep," one of the songs produced by Joan Jett, when you hear a snippet of playful dialogue between two women -- it could be any combination of Jett, Hanna, Wilcox, and Vail. One says, "They're laughing at us," and the other answers, "We're having fun." Along with being serious, angry, feminist, punk, analyzed, misunderstood, and a bunch of other things, Bikini Kill were also having and creating fun. And that's one piece of the Bikini Kill puzzle that shouldn't be overlooked.

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