Before the internet’s ubiquity, the 140-character Twitterverse and more, DIY punk meant hanging your own flyers and hand-stapled fanzines. In 1991, Bikini Kill—a feminist hardcore group comprised of Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox—came together at ABC House in Olympia, Wash. to record a demo cassette that was pivotal in igniting the riot grrrl movement. Revolution Girl Style Now was an electric jolt to the sternum, rage channeled through buzzing electric guitars and lyrics that didn’t hurl mere invectives, but truths about sexism and sexual violence.
No one realized the self-released cassette would be a Molotov cocktail of awareness, but suddenly Bikini Kill became leaders in a movement to urge girls to form bands and book artists, while grouting together a network of like-minded women. As important as rallying girls in the gritty trenches of rock and roll, they made a brutal, thrashing noise that pulled no punches.
With the incest-slamming “Daddy’s Little Girl” and yowling “Suck My Left One,” these girls didn’t play nice. They harnessed the rage inside and took it out on pummeling songs that feel more like fighting back against an attacker than frustration at the state of gender imbalance.
Announcing “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution now,” the band lurches into “Double Dare You” with mocking menace. The quartet hurls bass and guitar lines like lightning, the vocals reeling and seething without apology. Squalling towards conclusion, drums thumping and building, the pause climax descends into the domestic abuse pound-down “Liar.” It’s an unrepentant song, blowing the whistle on covering up violence that goes on at home. Deep-throated alto wrath keeps coming like blows, outlining the misdeeds (“beat your wife”) before doubling down into a bridge that invokes John Lennon’s “All We Are Seeing” as a woman shrieks in the background.
Not only stridence and vigilance, “Carnival” is pure Russ Meyer teen tramp-age. A 16-year-old girl offers carnies oral copulation for rides and drugs, running wild and reveling in her power over men. It is an act of rejecting nice-girl norms with full awareness of what she’s doing, and it’s a feminist manifesto in a way that seems contradictory but isn’t.
Hanna went on to found Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, as well as being the object of the hard-look documentary The Punk Singer. Never one to court celebrity, she became an activist’s pivot for gender, sexuality, issues like bullying and beyond. Anyone curious about how grassroots become national conversation can start with this reissue and that film.