Bikini Kill Is Now On Streaming
When Kathleen Hanna listens to Bikini Kill’s catalogue now, she doesn’t hear a faded aural snapshot of her youth. In fact, she doesn’t really even recognize herself as the woman behind the microphone. Instead, she hears the voice of someone she can relate to. Whose thoughts and demands are very much about the now.
“It was so long ago that sometimes it doesn’t feel like me; I listen to it much more objectively because I’m further away from it,” Hanna tells TIDAL. “Now I listen to it and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m really feeling this. I’m feeling it as if it’s another woman singing it to me. I’m feeling empowered by it.’”
Although it’s been more than 20 years since Bikini Kill positively exploded the punk scene, their messages of feminism and inclusivity — delivered with a dagger and a smirk — are still just as needed today. Just take a look at the headlines: at the growing power of the #MeToo movement, accelerating in concert, it seems, with governmental attacks on women’s bodily agency. Luckily, Bikini Kill is back when it seems like we need it most: the entirety of their catalogue is now on streaming.
For the uninitiated, Bikini Kill formed in 1990 in Olympia, Washington — a collection of (mostly) women who met at Evergreen College: Kathleen Hanna (vocals), Billy Karren (guitar), Kathi Wilcox (bass) and Tobi Vail (drums). Together with bands like Bratmobile and Huggy Bear, they served an integral role in ushering in an underground feminist punk movement call riot grrrl, which merged feminism with punk.
Hanna had been honing her interest in feminism since roughly age nine, later paging laboriously through texts like The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, and throwing herself headfirst into spoken word poetry about sexism and violence. She bonded with Tobi Vail over fanzines and Vail’s band The Go Team, and the two started their own ‘zine with Kathi Wilcox soon after — titled, appropriately, Bikini Kill. Forming a band seemed only natural: Hanna’s poetry and the friends’ ideologies put to raucous song.
Over the ensuing years, the band released a series of albums in rapid succession: demo album Revolution Girl Style Now (1991), studio demo Pussy Whipped (1993) and Reject All American (1996). They also released The First Two Records (1994), which merged a 1991 self-titled EP with a 1993 EP recorded with Huggy Bear. In 1998, they dropped The Singles, which includes Joan Jett’s production, guitar and vocals on three tracks, including Bikini Kill classic “Rebel Girl.”
Bikini Kill’s discography taken as whole depicts an evolution of the band’s sound and skillset, as tracks crop up in various versions across albums — most notably “Rebel Girl,” an iteration of which appears on almost ever record. From early, raw recordings with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat (The First Two Records) to the more polished studio recording that they did with Jett, the band learned to refine and sharpen their sound — without losing that vital energy.
Prior to the release of the Bikini Kill catalogue, TIDAL spoke with Kathleen Hanna (also of Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin) about feminism, early days in the studio and how much Twitter sucks.
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Why did you guys finally decide to pull the trigger on streaming?
For me, it wasn’t a decision against streaming. I know there was a while where we were pretty upset about the shoddy royalty rates that people were getting. But now, you look at it, and it’s all people just listening to your music on YouTube.
You just want to have more people know about your work and get to hear the music however they get it. That’s just become more the thing for us. Since we have an extensive back catalogue, I just don’t think it’s right that everybody can’t have access to it.
A lot of our records were not recorded that great, but they were recorded how we had the money to record them at the time, and I want people to listen to what we made. I don’t want people to listen to the crappy third-rate version on somebody’s YouTube video.
Bikini Kill was a really intense, amazing band to be in and I’m happy that the music is going to be available to more people.
Yeah, it was cool to listen to all your albums in order and see certain songs evolve —like ‘Rebel Girl.’
That was our biggest song and we never really had the time or money to record it the way we wanted to, so we just kind of kept trying. It’s definitely interesting to see the evolution of [the song]. I think there’s different energy on each take.
The thing I really learned from the final recording that we did with Joan Jett and [her manager] Kenny Laguna was that we were so raw as a band and a punk band that you could put as much shine as you wanted on us and the energy was still going to come through. I wasn’t as confident when I was in my twenties that that would come through if you put a little reverb on my voice or if we didn’t record it as raw as we felt it.
But I learned so much more about recording. Having a band that’s so alive and energetic and polishing that up with kind of a pop veneer on top of it, it can create a really interesting tension. I think that that happened with the ‘Rebel Girl’ Singles version. I think it’s definitely interesting to hear the evolution and to see how we grew as songwriters on our last record.
People didn’t like it at the time, but people seem to like it now. They’re like, ‘This is a great record!’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we knew that was a great record.’ But that’s the thing. Everybody’s always like, ‘Their first record was their best.’ We’re kind of lucky, because our first record was definitely not our best.
I heard that you got some pretty brutal reviews when you first came out.
Flipside wrote ‘fuck you’ eleven times. That was their review. It was because we wouldn’t do an interview with them or give them free passes to a show or something. We weren’t talking to the media because we were constantly being misrepresented. I guess they didn’t understand that. Instead of being cool and being like, ‘Hey, these women are trying to do this thing. I don’t really like the music but I get what they’re trying to do,’ they just wrote, ‘Fuck you.’
I mean, come on. That’s just a bunch of men who fucking aren’t getting what they want and boohooing. I wouldn’t treat guys like that. I look back at things like that and it’s like, ‘Thanks for showing us who you really are.’
Do you think things have changed over the years for women in music? Have they gotten better, do you think?
I’m sure there are women who are still experiencing violence at their own shows, being groped by promoters backstage, being groped by people who work at the show or harassed by people who are working the show and then having to put on a bright face and just go out and play the show the same as it’s always been. I would never say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s totally better.’
[Still], I was getting interviewed by Sara Marcus for a book about riot grrrl and bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and when I started talking about violence at shows and how guys would try to beat us up, she was really shocked. She’s like 10 or 15 years younger than me. And I was like, ‘No, seriously…’ She was really shocked.
I’ve still had a lot of sexist shit happen to me on the tour with the Julie Ruin two years ago. It wasn’t as bad, though, and the violence thing definitely changed for the better.
In Le Tigre [there was less violence at shows], but I had to change my entire way of singing and making music, partially to deal with the violence. I couldn’t play hardcore punk music at $5 shows. I just thought, ‘I’m going to get killed,’ I can’t do this anymore. When it’s $5, a bunch of dudes can afford to come and throw beer bottles at your head.
What place do you think your music has today?
I hope that for some people, it’s the gateway drug to feminism. I hope they listen to the music and have feelings that they’ve already felt reinforced. Like, ‘These things are happening to me and I don’t know why and I’m not alone.’ I think the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten was from someone who was like, ‘I went to see you in high school and now I’m a feminist studies professor.”
It’s never that we changed their lives or something; it’s always that our music, our songs, are there at the right moment for the right person at the right time — and validating what they already know. We came up with some phrases that could help other people. Honestly, some of the music still helps me. I play ‘Tell Me So’ in my head all the time: ‘If you’re going to look at me I’m going to get a prize.’ It runs through my head all the time and I’m like, ‘OK, if I’m going to be spectated what am I going to get out of it?’ Or if I’m going to be tokenized, ‘What am I going to get out of it?’
There’s another line in one of our songs, ‘I’ve stopped talking an hour ago.’ It runs through my head all the time. Even ‘Don’t Need You,’ I’ve had to deal with men recently who have tried to tell me that I’m not really punk rock and I’m not really this or not really that or I’m a loser. In my head I just have to be like: ‘Don’t need you. I don’t need your validation.’
When did you discover feminism yourself?
I have had a bunch of aha! moments. There’s not just one. But I took a class where the whole thing was reading this book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and sort of peeling it apart, page by page, having to learn what ‘ennui’ is. I just had to look up every single word in the dictionary. This was pre-computer. I would highlight everything.
It was one of the first times that I really engaged with rigorous feminist text. Even though I don’t agree with everything that she’s ever said or written even in that book, it definitely got me in a place where I started engaging with feminist text.
I want people to engage with our music — it’s also a feminist text. It’s sonic text, but it’s text. To engage with it, challenge it, be critical of it, enjoy it. That’s the point. To create some kind of engagement.
What was your mental state when you first went into the studio to record as Bikini Kill?
‘The clock is ticking. This costs money.’ We didn’t have any money. We used to, actually, learn like 10, 12 songs and then we would tour them and then we would record. So we would just go in, set up our instruments, and pretty much record everything at once. I would do the scratch vocal and then the overdub vocal. It was really pretty fast.
Our last album we took 10 days to record and that was like, ‘I can’t believe we get to do this.’ The other ones took like two days or whatever. We just cranked it out because we didn’t have the funds, to be perfectly honest. And what I was thinking was that I was nervous. ‘What are people thinking?’ Because I’m in this little —usually a bathroom — by myself singing and everyone else is in the other room. ‘Are they laughing at me?’
I didn’t have as much confidence as maybe it appeared to other people. But at the same time, I didn’t really have that many effects on my voice during most of our recording. Because I considered it sort of the equivalent of airbrushing. I was like, ‘Don’t put pantyhose on my hairy legs. I want women to hear my voice how it really is without making it sound all beautiful and whatever. I want them to hear someone who sounds pissed off.’ But not in a way that’s attractive. The goal wasn’t to be attractive.
The records were a snapshot of what we were doing at that time. So it was like a snapshot on a crappy camera. It wasn’t like: ‘We have to make each of these the perfect photograph.’ It’s was like: ‘Let’s just go in there and get a snapshot of what we’re doing now.’ Our real thing was the live shows. I think some of that comes through in the recordings. It was really about getting it done as fast as possible. We wanted it to sound live.
My whole thing was like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to be in there when they solo my vocals.’ And I have to stand in there and listen to them soloing my vocals. I was just like, ‘Someone point me in the direction of a fucking guillotine. Is there like a self-flagellation station and the guillotine next to it? Because I can’t deal with it.’
What was your experience like when you actually got to spend more time in the studio?
When we recorded [Singles] that was the last version of ‘Rebel Girl’ we recorded and it ended up being on the Singles album. That was an amazing experience. It made me want to go back and record all of our songs again. I feel like a lot of the things I was thinking [before] were kind of naïve. It’s like a guitar player being like, ‘I’m not going to experiment with pedals because that’s not my thing. I want my guitar to sound raw!’
There are so many different things that you can do with your voice, and just because a little bit of reverb can really make my voice shine a lot better and sound fuller, I don’t think it’s a cop-out. I think I was really young and I had these ideas, but the way that they actually translated to the record wasn’t as successful as I would have always liked.
I never listened to our records; we just kept moving and doing new things. But I have listened back now because we’ve re-mastered things and I love the energy of a lot of it and it’s really exciting and I’m really proud all of our records. But definitely taking the time with ‘Rebel Girl’ and other singles with Joan Jett — she had me go through songs and individual lines… It felt like I was in a luxury spa to be perfectly honest. As a singer, I was being taken so seriously and being given so much space and latitude to experiment. I loved it. I really loved having someone outside of me tell me what they heard and then give me notes.
I wasn’t mad about it or whatever. I was like, ‘This is the best experience of my life, because Joan Jett is teaching me essentially how to do vocals in the studio.’ No one had ever done that. That basically laid the framework for the rest of my career. Because I realized how much more I could do. I just had a lot more colors to paint with. I didn’t have to go in and sing and feel as much as possible. It’s about translating that feeling onto the vinyl.
Tell me a little bit more about working with Joan Jett. She’s such a legend and you guys are such a cool pairing.
People made a really big stink about it back then. They were like, ‘You’re not punk rock, you’re working with someone on a major label.’ I was just like, ‘Fuck you. If you get asked to go in the studio and work with Joan Jett, you’re going to say no?! It’s JOAN FUCKING JETT.’ She’s as important to my thing in my head as any punk band that I fucking care about is. It’s just ridiculous.
I immediately had a family feeling with her. I felt like we were family immediately. And to get to work with her and go to her studio sessions and see how she recorded… I learned so much about the board and non-linear editing. She lent a lot of validation to us at a time when we felt pretty aimless.
I thought we were going to get a way better reception than we got from the punk scene and it definitely wasn’t as generous or kind as what I would have expected —aside from Ian MacKaye, who was very generous and took us into the studio. That was our first time recording and we were so freaked out because the studio… we thought it was like a space ship. We thought we would touch something and break it. We were just totally nervous. But I’m really happy that we had that experience.
But when you feel like everyone is coming after you and telling you that you’re not the right kind of feminist or you’re feeling like you’re starting to be rejected in the scene because you’re getting too much attention… and also there’s all these male voices telling you that you’re a fake band, you’re a novelty and you can’t sing…Your songs are stupid. To have someone like Joan Jett say, ‘You matter. You fucking matter. I’m going to champion you.’ She championed so many women behind the scenes over the years, you don’t even know. At people’s worst moments, she’s there. It meant everything to me. She was totally willing to show me everything she knew about recording.
And it seems like she’s had to put up with her share of people calling her inauthentic, too.
Oh, yeah. At first she was on an independent label because everyone rejected all of her records. She started her own label. This was a time when women couldn’t get a contract to save their lives.
People offered us major label contracts and we turned them down, because that was just not the direction that we wanted to go. But we weren’t getting the kind of offers that our male peers were getting.
In Le Tigre, I did one major label record and we got barely any money for it. It’s not like all these major labels are dying to get the radical feminist band. Like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make so much money off this! Put the word “feminism” in it and all of a sudden: CA-CHING!’ It’s a real mistake, I think, to act as if people are capitalizing off of social justice. It doesn’t go that way. You don’t make more money by calling yourself a feminist.
What do you think of the way feminism has evolved? Where it is now?
I’m just really happy that people have taken the viewpoint that it’s intersectional or it’s nothing. People are being really smart from the very get-go of projects. From all different corners, whether we’re talking civil rights, women’s rights, trans rights, LGBTQ rights — I think people are really realizing that [feminism] has to address class issues, it has to address gender, it has to address identity, it has to address race. To me, that’s something that we really talked about a lot in the ‘90s, but I don’t feel like we successfully achieved that. The way that kids are coming about it is much smarter than the way I came about it.
I just think that capitalism really fucks everything up and that one of the really big problems is that everyone is trying to start a Twitter fight with someone more famous than them so that they can get more Twitter followers. We had that in the ‘90s, we just didn’t have Twitter. It’s like: ‘There’s only room for one white feminist to be popular right now, so I’m going to tear you down.’ The world should allow for all kinds of feminists in all kinds of occupations and there shouldn’t be one — especially one white one — feminist in any type of thing getting all the attention.
But that’s the way that the media works. And that’s because of capitalism. Because they need a face — preferably a cute face with the kind of body that they think will get clicks. That’s really sad, but as long as capitalism is around, I just don’t see that we’re ever going to have the justice that we all need. Everyone gets pitted against each other in a way that has nothing to do with moving forward and helping each other and helping the world progress. It has to do with who can be on top of the fucking fame pile. It makes me sad and depressed.
It’s also really hard, because I see younger girls coming up and I get really nervous for them when they speak out and immediately get attacked by total right-wing nutjobs. They have to fear for their lives for saying something. Also other people from the so-called feminist community come after them for bullshit reasons. There’s always going to be a woman who’s like: ‘You’re fake! You’re a fake feminist.’
I can’t tell you how many ways I’ve been called a fake feminist. I don’t know who these feminist police officers are or where they train, but we don’t get to call each other that. There’s no place for that.
Yeah, it doesn’t seem productive.
There’s a difference between inciting and productive dialogue. Someone calling you on your shit: ‘Hey, that shit was fucking racist’ and being like, ‘Whoa I fucked up. I need to learn more. I feel to get better. I need to BE BEST’… just kidding. That’s real.
But people using political rhetoric as crowbars for their own quest for fame and attention — that’s a real thing and it’s hard to talk about as a progressive person, because you don’t want to give fuel to the right wing. But who cares at this point? We have to be honest and have our communities grow and change and get better and be more supportive and loving toward each other.
On that note, I was interested in the reaction to Le Tigre’s Clinton campaign song ‘I’m With Her.’ People seemed to react negatively that you supported a candidate at all.
We’ve always been a political band. I mean, look at what happened. Look at what happened! We were right. If you can’t hold your nose and vote for Clinton because you have issues with her, that’s on you. Voting, at this point — we don’t have the options that we should have, necessarily.
You have to vote strategically, not with your conscience. Save your conscience for something else. Save your conscience for not buying Chik-fil-a or whatever. Most people can’t afford to vote with their conscience. Most people have never had a choice that they really wanted. Most people have had to just pick between the lesser of two evils. I’m not saying Hillary Clinton is evil, I’m saying she’s definitely problematic. But I don’t think people would be divided from their families if she was [elected]… I can’t even go into that.
But we knew that it was coming down to the wire and we were terrified. We had to do something. And even if only five people voted because of it, fine.
I know you don’t necessarily make political music with the Julie Ruin, but do you feel the urge or need to make that kind of music now?
I listened to all the Bikini Kill albums before we set them up for streaming. It’s weird, but I feel so much closer to that music right now than I did 10 years ago. I just kept being like, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is really resonating with me.’
It was so long ago that sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. I listen to it much more objectively because I’m further away from it. Now I listen to it and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m really feeling this. I’m feeling it as if it’s another woman singing it to me. I’m feeling empowered by it.’
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