Bikini Kill perform at the Asylum in Washington, D.C., in April 1992. The… (Pat Graham/ )
Guys were always peeling off their shirts at punk shows. Why couldn’t she?
It was June 27, 1991, and D.C. was sweltering. Just like Kentucky the night before. Just like Alabama the night before that.
Enough. Kathleen Hanna marched on stage wearing a black bra she’d found at a thrift store, bracing herself for another night of heckles, threats and projectiles. Instead, the singer of Bikini Kill felt the room turn upside down. Or maybe, finally, right-side-up.
“I remember halfway through the show being like, ‘People are really getting this,’ ” Hanna says. “It was like they had been waiting for us.”
Outside the District, Bikini Kill was ahead of its time.
Formed in Olympia, Wash., in 1990, the quartet helped launch riot grrrl, a radical feminist movement that would spread from Adams Morgan group houses to the pages of Newsweek. They coined the term “girl power” in a photocopied fanzine years before the Spice Girls spelled it out in bubble gum. They were pals with Nirvana before Nirvana was Nirvana. (Kurt Cobain took the title for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from some graffiti that Hanna drunkenly scribbled on his bedroom wall.) They wrote brilliant, abrasive punk salvos that would inspire Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, embattled Russian group Pussy Riot and a generation of others.
And when Bikini Kill crash-landed in D.C.’s activist-friendly punk scene after a sleepless tour of towns that had never heard rock songs about rape, domestic violence, empowerment and equality, they found a new home.
“The D.C. scene was unapologetically political,” bassist Kathi Wilcox says. “Everyone was like, ‘We understand your band perfectly.’ ”
Instead of lingering in the back of d.c. space — the now-shuttered venue at Seventh and E streets NW — the girls in the audience rushed to the front to see Bikini Kill’s big splash up close. Instead of barking slurs, the guys danced.
“I can remember exactly where I was standing. It was that kind of show,” says Ian MacKaye, then of local punk giants Fugazi. “The shape of the songs, the presentation, the charisma was pretty undeniable.”
Six days later, MacKaye brought the foursome — Hanna, Wilcox, guitarist Billy Karren and drummer Tobi Vail, all in their early 20s back then — to Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios where they spent the afternoon recording what would become the core of Bikini Kill’s furious debut. Released 20 years ago this autumn, the self-titled EP is being re-issued on Tuesday.
After the session, the band decided to stick around for the summer, but ended up living in Washington for its most pivotal year, rallying an underground community that would ultimately suffocate the band with its impossible expectations.
“We were trying to keep the outside world from killing us,” says Hanna, sipping a latte with Wilcox at a Manhattan cafe on a recent afternoon. “So the tension within the band that wasn’t resolved . . . it came out on stage. When you see a band that’s on the verge of falling apart with a really angry lead singer . . .”
Wilcox completes the thought, “It’s not boring.”
The start of riot grrrl
Washington’s coffee options were bleak. So the transplants endured Folgers from Safeway until Vail’s mom started mailing oversize bags of beans from home. Hanna remembers when the first neighborhood Starbucks opened, “Everyone was like, ‘Corporations are taking over the world!’ and we were like, ‘Woo-hoo!’ ”
That summer, the members of Bikini Kill would each adapt differently to Washington.
Vail passed on being interviewed for this story via e-mail: “I don’t remember much about DC except being depressed and homesick.” Karren almost never gives interviews and also declined.
“For me, it was a homecoming,” Hanna says. “This was going to be me taking over my not-so-great history of growing up here . . . What do you call that? Repetition compulsion? Where it’s like you go back to the scene of the crime, but this time it all works out?”
Hanna grew up in the Maryland suburbs and in the early days of Bikini Kill, only spoke obliquely about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. During her student years at Evergreen State College in Olympia she worked as a counselor at a domestic violence and rape shelter and continued to counsel fans backstage at Bikini Kill concerts.
“That’s part of why I wanted to be in a band,” Hanna says. “I could walk up to a 15-year-old and ask her [switches into nerd-voice], ‘Would you like to join my support group?’ But if I say that from the stage and I’m in a cool band, they’re gonna come.”
Fanzines were another way to reach out. So one night in early July, Hanna and a few friends gathered around a Capitol Hill Xerox machine to run off copies of “Riot Grrrl,” a handmade pamphlet that Hanna daydreamed of developing into a glossy magazine about feminism and music.