In October of 1992, the 15 minute-long Bikini Kill EP was released on vinyl by Kill Rock Stars, an independent label which was just about a year and a half old, with fewer than 10 releases to its name. Recorded by Fugazi frontman Ian McKaye, Bikini Kill was loud, rough, angry, and raw. The music was a message: feminist revolution starts now, but the third-wave looked (and sounded) a lot different than the first or the second.
This introduction to the Olympia, Washington band told us, in a quarter of an hour, nearly everything we needed to know about them. The sound (what we would now refer to as “low-fi”) was abrasive; the songs sounded at points as if they would fall apart in a fit of howls and unevenly played instruments. Like singer Kathleen Hanna’s later band, Le Tigre, you could be in on the joke if you wanted: “I’ll win that Mötley Crüe mirror if it fucking kills me,” goes a line in “Carnival.” The band went on to release another EP, a few singles, and a full-length album before calling it quits in 1997. But by then, Bikini Kill, and the other bands which loosely formed what is known as “riot grrrl” (after a zine produced by Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail) had already changed the world, coupled with another Washington-state brewed musical trend, “grunge.” Kill Rock Stars went on to release successful and critically acclaimed records by Elliott Smith, The Gossip, and Sleater-Kinney. Anti-corporate indie was the new mainstream.
An essentially pre-internet band, Bikini Kill’s shows were small and visceral
Like many of the bands that grew out of these two movements, Bikini Kill was about more than music and politics. They also had a history of producing zines, handmade, Xeroxed literature with feminist polemics, poetry, recipes, and cartoons, mailed out and then passed around between friends lucky enough to be in the know. The subject matter was “not anti-boy but pro-girl,” in the words of Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe: feminism, rape, abortion, gender identity, homophobia. The movement was physical: an essentially pre-internet band, Bikini Kill’s shows were small and visceral, their mailers were hand-lettered and often came with unasked for goodies — little handwritten notes from the KRS staffers (there were only a few of them) and stickers — reminders that you were ordering from human beings.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the release of their first record, the band has re-issued the Bikini Kill EP, on its own, brand new label, the first of a series of reissues of its back catalogue. The records — available digitally and on vinyl — are just one piece of evidence that riot grrrl has left a lasting and still relevant mark on American culture. NYU’s Bobst Library recently acquired, from Kathleen Hanna and others, documents, photographs, notebooks, and zines for its Fales Riot Grrrl Collection. I recently had conversations with Bikini Kill’s bass player Kathi Wilcox, Kill Rock Stars’ founder Slim Moon, and the Fales Collection’s Senior Archivist Lisa Darms about the lasting appeal of riot grrrl and the state of the music industry today.
“I wanted to help my friends have careers as artists, I felt they had a right to get paid for their work.”
Slim Moon, who left Kill Rock Stars in 2006, was in bands and putting on shows starting in the mid-1980s. He started the label in 1991, he says, because he “had talented friends” whose “music and message should reach a wider audience.” “I wanted to help my friends have careers as artists, I felt they had a right to get paid for their work,” he says. Bikini Kill formed in 1990 after seeing Minneapolis band Babes in Toyland play in Olympia, and Kathi Wilcox says that they “couldn’t have existed without the fans.” “It was in our DNA,” she tells me, and the direct relationship was learned from earlier labels. “I remember before KRS, that Dischord and K Records mail order packages would come with handwritten notes, so I think it's a tradition of smaller, independent labels to do that as a concrete way of saying ‘thanks,’ but also to say that, you know, there's a real person on the other end of this transaction.”
“To say that, you know, there's a real person on the other end of this transaction.”
This tradition has left behind a lot of physical reminders, much of it now at Fales in New York City. Archivist Lisa Darms, who lived in Olympia when she moved there to go to college in 1989, says she identified with the punk / hardcore / riot grrrl movement, though she never attended formal meetings or labelled herself. She was inspired to create the collection after conversations with Kathleen Hanna and [Le Tigre member and artist] Johanna Fateman in 2009. “I still think Bikini Kill and Slant 6 (a ‘90s DC-based punk band) are are among the best bands of the last quarter century,” she says. The collection is ever-expanding, and currently consists of “40 linear feet of 14 separate people's collections, including zines, zine masters, lyrics, notebooks, letters, photographs, flyers, artwork, videotapes and audio cassettes, and the Outpunk "Fight Homophobia" skateboard.” Fales says that some of her favorite items in the collection include one of Hanna’s handmade flyers, “a hot pink one that calls people on their shaming use of the word ‘slut.’” Like the movement itself, Darms says it’s important to her that the collection not simply focus on the “famous” riot grrrls. “I want everyone who identified in any small way with Riot Grrrl during the period 1989-2006 to feel they can be part of the collection, regardless of whether they were cheerleaders of critics of the movement,” she tells me. One recent addition is a donation of zines from “zine superstar Mimi Thi Nguyen in collaboration with the People of Color Zine Project.”
How much of listening to streaming services translates into financially supporting those bands?
In the years since Bikini Kill split up, the physical object of music has largely gone away, though vinyl records have actually been setting sales records every year since 2008. Slim Moon tells me that the physical thing of records never mattered much to him, though he does prefer analog recordings to digital. Bikini Kill is, according to Kathi, doing things in much the same way as they did back in the ‘90s: Tobi Vail (also the drummer of the band) is handling mail order of the records and t-shirts, and each package includes a note. But the world that those packages are sent into is very different than it was in 1992. Most people don’t actually buy records or CDs, or even MP3s: a growing number of people simply stream music through services like Rdio or Spotify. Bikini Kill's music was available under the KRS imprint on both Spotify and Rdio until very recently, and though it's not currently available, they tell me it should be back soon. When asked about streaming music, Wilcox admits that she’s not really a fan of them. “It's just a crappy deal for the bands, exposure or not. I know a lot of people really love those streaming services, and they say they hear about a lot of bands they would otherwise never hear, but how much of that translates into financially supporting those bands?” Of a recent Pitchfork editorial about the state of the music industry (and streaming music profits for artists) by Galaxie 500 frontman Damon Krukowski, Wilcox says it’s “hard to argue with his analysis.” She admits, however, that for most independent (not signed to one of the major corporate labels) bands, touring was and remains the main source of income. Still, her punk rock sensibility doesn’t allow her to write off the open internet: “In one way, I like the idea of everything free and streaming because it seems cooler and more punk rock — but the reality is that then people in bands have to have day jobs to survive, and that might mean they make fewer records or break up altogether.” She also says that she doesn’t know how we could “put the genie back into the bottle,” now that music is simply out there, free to consume. I ask Slim a similar question, and while he’s hesitant to comment on the state of the industry he left five years ago, he says that the internet’s effect on the music industry has been similar to every new technological advance: “we always gain something and lose something too.”
We've gathered a riot grrrl playlist together on Rdio and Spotify for your listening pleasure.