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Nine things you need to know about returning riot grrrl game-changers Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna's group broke ground for women in music

It’s 22 years since Bikini Kill last performed together, and boy, are we glad they’re coming back.

Don’t expect the reunion shows to be nostalgia trips. Things might be better than they were when the group kickstarted the riot grrrl revolution in the ’90s but, when you’ve still got politicians trying to rip away reproductive rights, women still being paid less than men for doing the same jobs, and rape and sexual assault victims still battling to be believed, you wonder by how much. The truth is 2019 is the perfect time for a riot grrrl resurgence. More than ever, we need bands who will stand against the establishment, who will shout and scream and make their presence felt and who will fight to force change for the better.

Here are nine things you need to know about Bikini Kill to get you ready for the second coming.

They made music more inclusive for women

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Bikini Kill weren’t the first female-identifying punk band by any means, not when the ‘70s had X-Ray Spex, The Slits, The Runaways, the Debbie Harry-fronted Blondie and more. But by being so vocal about their political views, the need for women to reclaim their space at shows and in society, and sparking a real revolution in punk and beyond, they opened doors for other women to do the same. They fought the battle to be accepted as a band on their own terms, making it easier for other women and people outside of the white male norm to come in and do what they wanted.

They might be one of the most respected and influential feminist bands now, but in the ’90s people really hated them

Bikini Kill’s reunion announcement might have been heralded by many as one of the first great moments of 2019, but not everyone was a fan back in their original stint. In fact, some people really hated them. They’ve described their shows back then as “war”, with men often going just to shout slurs and insults at them, or to try and enact violence upon them. Skinheads would bring chains to their shows and throw them at the band, and they’d receive death threats in their home mailbox, with the authors warning them they were going to “stab [them] in the heart.” 

They coined the term “girl power”

Forget the Spice Girls, who would bring the idea of girl power into the mainstream in the mid-’90s. It was Bikini Kill were coined the term, taking influence from the Black Power slogan. They used it as the name of a ‘zine as early as 1991 before it spread through the punk scene and, later, into more pop-friendly territory.

They made gigs safe spaces for women

The phrase “girls to the front” is synonymous with riot grrrl and Bikini Kill, and was used by Hanna at the group’s shows for two reasons – to encourage women to reclaim space from the aggressively moshing men in the room and to build a wall of defence between the band and those looking to attack them. That ethos changed gigs from places where women would hang at the sides or the back of the room, safe from the pit, to events where women felt safe to stand, and dance, wherever they liked. It’s also one of the reasons NME’s new gig series promoting female and female-identifying bands takes its name from that slogan.

They spoke about rape and sexual assault on stage and gave their fans a support group to turn to

On stage, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna would talk about the sexual abuse she suffered, rape, and being catcalled on the street by lewd men. Afterwards, fans would come up to her and tell her about their own similar experiences and how important it was for them to hear another woman talking openly about those things. Through the riot grrrl movement, Bikini Kill gave women a chance to come together and find a support network to not only make music and art with but to help them through life’s traumas.

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But they weren’t just a band for women

Just because Bikini Kill were a feminist band didn’t mean it was only women listening to them. The band’s original line-up even included male guitarist Billy Karren (he won’t feature in the reunion, with Erica Dawn Lyle taking his place), and their shows were welcoming to men who were there for the music, not looking to go on the attack.

They’ve influenced everyone from Hollywood actors to the biggest punk bands

Bikini Kill’s influence can be seen in music since their start in 1990. They’ve actively inspired the likes of Kim Gordon, Brody Dalle, Sleater-Kinney, Karen O, Pussy Riot and more. The news of their reunion also unearthed another fan that you might not have immediately thought of – Hollywood star Brie Larson. Makes sense that the actor, who is about to appear as the lead in the first female-led superhero movie Captain Marvel, would be into such a revolutionary band.

They had two iconic slogans

Firstly, the aforementioned ‘girls to the front’. You probably won’t hear that at their reunion shows later this year. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, Hanna said she doesn’t say it any more “because they’re already there.” You might hear the second one, “We are Bikini Kill and we want revolution girl-style now,” though. The defiant challenge opened their 1992 track ‘Double Dare Ya’, Hanna yelling into the mic, dragging out the last word as Kathi Wilcox’s rumbling bass introduces the track.

They fought against oppressive body and sexual politics

The band’s songs, fanzines and stage chat dealt with subjects relevant to feminism and women’s rights but they weren’t the only ways they battled society’s oppressive views towards women. Hanna would go on stage in just her bra, her attitude being if men could perform shirtless why couldn’t she? The band would write words like “slut” and “whore” on their bodies in lipstick or black pen, both reclaiming the terms used to degrade women and to challenge the world’s expectations of women to behave in a “ladylike” manner.

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