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Bikini Kill - The Singles Music Album Reviews

Newly reissued on vinyl, Bikini Kill’s 1998 compilation stands as the defining document of the feminist punk band whose music remains relevant, righteous, and unflappably cool.

The silencing of women is a social plague; Bikini Kill spent seven years annihilating it. From 1990 to 1997, the Olympia band fought to cultivate a feminist punk counterculture that blazed and shrieked and cared: “Dare ya to do what you want/Dare ya to be who you will,” went one early Bikini Kill rallying cry. Their fanzines burned between every weaponized word as they encouraged a participatory logic. “A band is any song you ever played with anybody even if only once,” as drummer Tobi Vail wrote—could a song topple the world? Could it destroy the deafening quiet? Bikini Kill were a scream in the face of silence, shattering it, casting its bondage into stark relief. This would not have been possible without their seismic, heroic songs, of which The Singles is the defining document.

The Singles compilation arrived in 1998, a year after Bikini Kill broke up, collecting three 45s: “New Radio,” produced with Joan Jett in 1993; plus two singles from 1995, The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation 7" and “I Like Fucking” b/w “I Hate Danger.” Concision is a virtue in hardcore and punk, which have historically flourished in the abbreviated EP form (see: Black Flag’s The First Four Years, the Minor Threat EPs, Bikini Kill’s own First Two Records). With brighter and more robust productions, Bikini Kill’s effect exploded, as if someone flipped a light on in their dark basement. If a person in your life wants or needs Bikini Kill—wants or needs proof that punk can seek justice and thrills at once; that feminist rock’n’roll can be palatable without being formulaic; that protest music can be unflappably cool—give them The Singles first.

By September of ’93, when “New Radio” first arrived, Bikini Kill had yet to release an LP—their lo-fi debut, Pussy Whipped, came out one month later—but their EPs had already laid out the core pro-girl principles of their band. In the early years, singer Kathleen Hanna would repeat single phrases like mantras to ensure the audience didn’t miss their insurrectionary messages in busted P.A. systems. But now, Bikini Kill fans were memorizing the words at home, so with “New Radio” and other singles, Hanna took more liberties with her lyrics. The Singles largely deals in the pursuit and politics of joy, adventure, friendship, and sex. As Hanna put it on “I Like Fucking”—in a semi-fried voice that immortalized her vision of a generation of scrunchie-clad philosophers, the Valley Girl Intelligentsia—“I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe!” Anger is an energy, she seems to say, but pleasure is power.

Joan Jett was 34 years old when she entered the studio with Bikini Kill that March, well over a decade removed from her all-girl teen rock band, the Runaways. Brash, glittery, and nails-tough—a woman who taught herself guitar with Sabbath riffs—Jett had been through the industry ringer many times over (she was rejected by 23 majors before she had a hit with “I Love Rock N Roll”). Jett felt quick camaraderie with the emerging generation of oft-misunderstood feminist punks. She was handed a Bikini Kill demo at a Fugazi show; the tape’s label said, “For a good time, call Kathleen.” Hanna was in sheer disbelief when Jett dialed the number: “Who the fuck is this?!” she spewed into the phone, sure it was a prank. In 1981, Jett was alone, singing, “I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation”; later, Bikini Kill sang, “We’re the girls with the bad reputations,” joining her. It started on “New Radio.”

Bikini Kill recorded two glammy new songs with Jett, “New Radio” and “DemiRep,” plus a definitive version of their signature anthem, “Rebel Girl.” Jett sang back up and played guitar on all three, revving the band’s joyride energy with her giddy “Cherry Bomb” fuel. Jett had experience putting a highlighter to hardcore—14 years earlier, she produced the first Germs album—and these recordings pop and fly like her motorbike. On “New Radio,” Hanna’s lyrics of depraved childhood sound like lines from a lost Kathy Acker novel. “I’m the little girl at the picnic who won’t stop pulling her dress up,” she quavers at the start, before practically cartwheeling to the song’s sex-positive finish: “Let’s wipe our cum on my parents’ bed!” This is the self-determined “thrilling living” that the radical critic Valerie Solanas wrote about.

“DemiRep” opens with another marker of girlhood: Hanna and Jett playing the hand game “Miss Mary Mack,” concluding the rhyme scheme with an enthused “Fourth of July/Lie/LIAR!” Is America the lie? Is childhood? “DemiRep”—a word defined on the 7" label as a “woman of doubtful repute; an adventuress”—suggests both. Hanna hollers biting critiques of body image, class privilege, and capitalism: “I got something, man, that your fucking money cannot buy!” As “DemiRep” blasts forward, Hanna practically sticks her tongue out at the man: “You don’t know what it’s like to be alive!” She does not mince a word.

The steadied thrum of “Rebel Girl” is the march of patriarchy crumbling. Hanna observes her punk-rock queen and writes an ultimate girl-love anthem, tracing “the revolution” in “her hips” and “her kiss.” In every bar of “Rebel Girl,” our relationships matter; our speech matters. This gift of a song is a framework for rethinking both. “Rebel Girl” is like the glue that binds the two teen girl outcasts attending prom together in last year’s Lady Bird, defining for themselves what it means to be cool (Lady Bird, of course, has a Bikini Kill poster in her room). When Hanna’s rebel girl “holds her head up so high,” she’s hipper than James Dean. With Jett, Hanna sang “Rebel Girl” as if her life depended on it; lives did. The word “revolution” is practically dissected by her scream, made real, screeched into the brightest red.

Hanna could often depict the complexities of identity in a single verse, diving between yelps and bellows and growls. On The Singles, she does something similar to portray the rage and vulnerability of sex. “Strawberry Julius” shimmies from a shrill “WHAT THE FUCK?” to a tender “come on!” “It’s you all over my skin/Taking invisible streets/To the fake places where we win,” Hanna sings. On “Anti-Pleasure Dissertation”—a song about being in love with someone who “[writes] about fucking you in their fanzine”—she lashes, “Go tell your fucking friends..../How punk fucking rock my pussy smelled!” The Slits weren’t even this explicit. At its core, though, “Dissertation” is about the emotional burden of deception: “Was I wrong to trust anyone?” Hanna asks sincerely. On the swaggering “Rah! Rah! Replica,” it is pure emphatic joy to hear Bikini Kill scream “DON’T! YOU! TRY! TO! FAKE! ME! OUT,” as if blowing a colossal wind back at every man who has ever inflicted emotional or psychological harm.

Before Bikini Kill, Vail had made her name as a razor-sharp writer and thinker with her feminist music zine, Jigsaw. Her lyrics were accordingly searing, ideological, often essayistic. The two songs Vail brings to these Singles—“In Accordance to Natural Law” and “I Hate Danger”—are monumental moments in American punk, jolts of seething, inspired conviction. Both feature Vail on vocals, Hanna on bass, and bassist Kathi Wilcox on drums (Billy Karren stayed on guitar). “In Accordance to Natural Law” is a 29-second bomb, like a screamed monologue—proving that even as Bikini Kill polished their sound, they were taking risks, deconstructing and reimagining what we think a song can be. In less than half a minute, Vail ignites a scathing critique of underground media and flimsy scene politics, her own girlish V.G.I. shout dripping sarcasm. The whole song is a clenched fist.

Vail’s livid Singles closer “I Hate Danger” is what happens when a woman’s eyes look through punk’s societal magnifying glass. As she shouts about the subtle silencing of women in an everyday social situation—just sitting around with a friend and their other, narrow-minded friends, and not managing to get an inch into the conversation—“I Hate Danger” offers a clear metaphor for the systemic silencing and sidelining of women in the world. Vail captures the particular fury of being undermined by being ignored. She goes to war for every girl who could never articulate why it is so belittling to not be taken seriously in small ways, turning her anger into a singing polemic about the politics of hanging out: “It’s one particular point of view/This group dynamic caters to,” she sings with remarkable ease, “I think you know when it caters to you!” Vail is not here for your feigned ignorance: “If you do know/Don’t act like you don’t/Cause it’s really annoying/And if you don’t know/Well, let’s just say/You’re a lot, lot stupider than I thought!”

In the girl-gang refrain of “I Hate Danger,” Vail, Hanna, and Wilcox invert the situation in which our narrator felt so psychically powerless: “I stopped talking an hour ago!” they chant exuberantly over chainsaw Karren riffs. It sounds like solidarity, like three girl geniuses linking arms in protest. Vail imagines going back in time to say exactly what she meant—“You’re so not dangerous! You’re so no what you say you are at all!”—and those final words tumble and lock into one another like armor. “I Hate Danger” is charged with the superpower of the greatest punk: Our hearts race faster, we grow six inches taller, and in the eternal battle of us-against-them, if only for two minutes, we win.

In Bikini Kill’s orbit, women spoke openly about sexual assault, rape, harassment, abuse. “It was intense to be at the center of all that female rage and terror,” Vail said in 2012. “We were at the frontline of teen-girl pain.” The Singles validated these brutal realities while offering fun as an antidote. This combination makes these songs even more relevant in 2018, as these conversations permeate the public consciousness. Maybe it’s in how these particular Bikini Kill songs circle pop’s pleasure-centers, but there remains a felt optimism to The Singles. In “I Like Fucking,” when Hanna sings, “Do you believe there’s anything beyond troll-guy reality? I do. I do. I do,” it could be a mantra for fighting and overcoming the many forms of harassment that persist online today. This is legitamtely encouraging. Bikini Kill’s miraculous songs ultimately believe in a world beyond rape culture, beyond eating disorders, beyond female pain, and that hope makes them life-affirming.

Bikini Kill thought that if all girls started bands, the world would actually change. They were right: When girls make work to narrate their lives, they embolden each other and demand to be heard; they begin to infiltrate and subvert every crevice of existence; they no longer keep the truth of female experience trapped like secrets inside of their bodies and minds. The world is progressing with the unleashing of those truths. The Singles remains one of our most potent catalysts for that revolution. “I want to scream because I am just as much of a human being as any man but I don’t always get treated like one,” read an early Bikini Kill zine. “I want to scream because no matter how much I scream, no one will listen.” The world is listening now.

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