There is a post I want to write about Bikini Kill. It is a post about how important they were. A post about how they galvanized a movement that has actually changed the world, and is thus very revolutionary. The greatest example I can think of is Girls Rock!, a summer camp in which young girls and trans spectrum people are supported in starting a band, learning instruments, composing music, performing it, and recording it. It has been going strong for almost twenty years, and has spread like wildfire from its birthplace in Portland, Oregon to camps all over the country. I worked as a camp counselor for two sessions of Girls Rock! Chicago in 2014, and I have seen first hand how powerful these experiences are for everyone involved. I see Girls Rock! as being probably the greatest result of the riot grrrl movement. It is an evolved, more mature, and more inclusive outcome of that work. Yet, people of color and transpeople have had to put in a lot of emotional labor to make those spaces as inclusive as they are now to people outside of the white cis-femme space riot grrrl has always been centered in, and more work still needs to be done in this area.
I want to write about how it took enormous courage and audacity to confront the sexism and violence of the hardcore punk scene at the time they were first doing that. I want to write about how even though riot grrrl was short-lived, its influence has been massive. I want to talk about how if the research I have done for this blog project has taught me anything, it is that women being on stages at all is fundamentally revolutionary, because it was not allowed for almost all of recorded time, and women’s music-making continues to be permitted, supported, funded, and given serious consideration significantly less than male music-making. (I have worked at Riotfest for the last three years, and the line-up is generally around twelve percent female. Something Refused had the audacity to discuss while performing on my stage in 2016, which I really appreciated.) Many of the stated goals and aims of the movement remain enormously important.
But there are problems with organizing a movement around gender. I have often gotten mad when I have seen a band that I think make garbage music, such as The Dum Dum Girls or Best Coast, lumped into the same category on Spotify as a lot of other all-female bands who have nothing to do with the kind of music they are making, bands that I love, such as Grass Widow. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the riot grrrl movement’s focus on just getting women on stages and making noise together is that there is this sort of ongoing ghettoization of music made by women that doesn’t actually have anything in common musically. Punk girl bands that sound nothing like X-Ray Spex, The Slits, and the Raincoats get compared to them all the time, which is really weird, because those bands all have very distinct sounds! While they definitely influenced each other as well as many other bands, they are distinct, and if anything…they inspired the people who listened to them to move closer to themselves, to locate their own distinction. All-female bands who inspired riot grrrl were not riot grrrl bands and all-female bands who have followed since are not riot grrrl bands either. Not even all riot grrrl bands were all-female; Bikini Kill are a great example. riot grrrl is not a music genre; it is a philosophy and approach to music culture with clearly defined principles. Even within the core period of the movement, there was a diversity of sounds.
“Every girl is a riot grrrl.” I like it as an idea. Femininity is a difficult space to occupy. To be consciously, fervently feminine, and not allow being “a girl” to limit what you can or will do, is a radical and deeply revolutionary concept. But not all women, even some of the ones who are considered deeply revolutionary, are riot grrrls. Loretta Lynn doesn’t identify as a feminist, and did not live a feminist life in most respects. Moe Tucker said she never faced different treatment or noticed any problems in the music industry in relation to being a woman or how women were treated. Delia Derbyshire considered herself post-feminism, and found feminism kind of annoying. Nina Simone was a Black separatist, and I seriously doubt she would have been an interested participant in the Mr. Lady or Chainsaw Records message boards, if she was invited to the forum while she was still alive (and they did, in fact, co-exist for a brief time.)
The principles of riot grrrl are probably one of the earliest manifestations of intersectional third wave feminism, yet you may notice that transphobia is not addressed in the manifesto, and while the movement aimed to address racism, it was almost entirely white. The fact that it was largely based out of the Pacific Northwest, one of the whitest areas of America, is maybe a rationale for how white it has been and remains…in addition to the racial divisions of America, which have, in my rarely humble opinion, made punk music culture distinct from other forms of rebellious, message-focused music that originated around the same time, like hip hop. But this regional distinction does not explain why the riot grrrl scene in D.C., a city that is about half Black, was majority white, also, and the struggles of the few Black participants to be seen, heard, and considered as more than just a token or diversity footnote. Even in the Pacific Northwest, there were indigenous women teaching themselves drums to Sleater-Kinney on the res, and they were never invited to the girl power meeting. In fact, as of the past week, Carrie Brownstein hid the comments of a woman who said she was a huge fan and had done this very thing and felt it would be really meaningful if Carrie would actually use her social media platform and mention that it was National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls on May 5th. The comments of others who called out how fucked up it was were also disappeared: just like those Native women and girls. So, white women building a supposed culture of women’s resistance and empowerment on native land are perpetuating the erasure of those women and the rest of their communities from the culture of this land as it presently exists. Sleater-Kinney are one of my favorite bands ever, and I am not listening to them currently.
It is also a movement that failed another whole population of people it was really important to: young transwomen. These women also saw themselves reflected in the punk music scene for the first time through riot grrrl, yet they were often denied inclusion. Sometimes in enormously traumatic ways. Since I already traveled across the country to see Bikini Kill even though I really couldn’t afford it, and have been posting about a revolutionary female musician or group every day since tickets went on sale, I feel like that communicates enough about how important I think they were. There are enough articles about who they are and why they mattered. My new ally in music journalism, Michael Azerrad, advises me not to let my preconceptions get in the way of where the story is going, so this is where it is going: I haven’t read a single article about the Bikini Kill reunion tour that addresses the fact that Kathleen Hanna has never apologized for Le Tigre playing Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2005, six whole years after a young transwoman who was a member of the Lesbian Avengers was seriously traumatized for attending it. Even when people showed up to her shows and tried to foster dialogue about it: she constantly refused. And what was really surprising to me when I spoke with participants in the Mr. Lady Records boycott was that transmen were very much permitted into these spaces; transmasculinity was just seen as the logical outgrowth of lesbianism, being a “tomboy.” Transmen weren’t really men, and transwomen were certainly not women. Kathleen Hanna can be seen in interviews recently stating that she sees the increase in trans activism as positive, and Bikini Kill have a new trans guitar player, but there has never been an apology or any sort of acknowledgement of harm.
A lot of this cultural history has been buried. These record labels don’t exist, and neither do their message boards where a lot of this conversation took place and was documented. For people my age (32), riot grrrl had fizzled out by the time I became aware of punk music. I grew up in the age of Vans Warped Tour and post-hardcore, and I distinctly remember thinking the pinnacle of success and participation in my music scene would be to achieve the heights of selling merchandise for all-male bands. I am talking about 2000-2005. So how successful was riot grrrl? Was its impact more regionally specific, and my experience was colored by growing up in the midwest? Cleveland, and then Milwaukee? When I discovered riot grrrl, it was inspirational, but it was colored heavily with nostalgia. The same nostalgia with which I listened to the first wave of punk that had many female participants: as a historical, cool thing, that had little in common with the $5 DIY shows I attended in Milwaukee as a teenager. I wanted to be in a band, and make noise, and be a part of a culture of women demanding to be seen, and heard, and represented in their music scenes, fuck yes. I have actually gotten even more into riot grrrl era music than I ever have been since Trump got elected, and this is something that has been stated often as a reason bands like Bikini Kill, and now Team Dresch, are having reunions. (Kaia Wilson of Team Dresch is also on the trans-exclusionary feminism shitlist.) Because “we need this right now.” Sleater-Kinney songs from the late nineties have been a huge part of my self-care program since an openly racist, hyper capitalist, serial rapist became the president. I never thought I would get to see A Tribe Called Quest live, but I did, at Pitchfork in 2017, and the whole reason they got back together and made a new record even though Phife Dawg was dead was a) to honor Phife and keep his spirit alive, and b) to fight Trump.
I know that a post about how important Bikini Kill were and how significant these reunion shows are is the only one that appears to exist or be acceptable, but I am going to write the one that is a) needed, and b) actually describes my experience. This is the story of the birth of this project:
Ambrosia, my best friend, who this whole project is dedicated to: Did you see that Bikini Kill are doing a reunion tour?
Me, midwestern as fuck and serious about music culture concepts like what actually constitutes a ‘tour’: Yeah, but I feel pretty offended that they are calling a couple shows played in two cities ‘a tour,’ and that they are only playing in L.A. and New York. (They subsequently added a couple dates in London.)
Even though I have watched Ambrosia almost die in front of me, and their continued beautiful and inspiring existence is largely due to my intervention, I didn’t become aware of exactly how precarious their health was in an ongoing way until the visit during which we had this conversation. (Sometimes out of love, or out of a need to not feel as vulnerable as they actually are, they shield me from the realities of their health problems.) In reflection, I felt like maybe I had rained down hard on something they were excited about, and I wanted to do something big for them while they are still here! So, I decided a feminist punk pilgrimage for their birthday would be cool. We couldn’t do the New York show close to their birthday, so it actually became a death day trip–the day I told the doctors to fuck off and listen to Ambrosia and probably saved their life. As someone who can rarely afford to travel across the country or take time off work, it was a big thing. I got really excited about it. I, similar to many people who went to MichFest in the late nineties into the early 2000s, and attended these Bikini Kill reunion events, conveniently forgot the things people had said about riot grrrl and queercore having been problematic, because THIS IS WHERE EVERYONE IS GOING AND WHAT EVERYONE IS DOING. “I want to be where the people are.” I want to be at the show, with all my friends, I want to experience the music I love, music that has been important to my development as a person, music that maybe has even kept me alive, even when things were really hard, and I couldn’t see a way out; it was a place I could go where I felt like someone else understood. I want to come out of my room, where I keep myself alive through the perpetual PTSD of the Trump era listening to radical women screaming about rape culture and how we aren’t going to be nice about it anymore, I want us all to convene in the same place again, even though I wasn’t there the first time, and even though a lot of other people weren’t invited; I want a revolution girl style now.
I think one of the things that happens when you get into the pleasure fields or cultural areas, or places where people are having their fun (whether it’s music, or sports is another example of this), the idea that you’d want to change the rules–people can easily respond by saying, ‘Oh, that’s such a drag. Why don’t you just shut up. We’re just having fun here.’ I think the fact is that if you are a feminist and you are bringing up uncomfortable topics, there is a strong temptation among the men who are in power to not want to deal with those topics, because they are implicated, so they get dismissed.
We need a revolution girl style now–an unprecedentedly intersectional and inclusive one–but unfortunately, my experience was actually a capitalist nightmare and a super disappointing nostalgia tour. Ann Powers’ words about the difficulties of being a feminist music journalist resonate a lot with me currently. In addition to being a feminist music journalist firing a lot of shots at a band and movement every other feminist music journalist has only sought to elevate and celebrate around these reunion shows, I see the same thing Ann Powers is describing here about male resistance to feminist inquiry replicated in the riot grrrl movement, except it is women refusing to deal with these complicated topics that burden the possibility of fun with your friends. Not just any women, okay? Women who were the leaders of a movement claiming to have been about the radical potential of women talking to one another across various lines of difference and oppression, starting bands together, publishing their own work, and using their platforms to lift one another up, push the conversation, and make punk music culture very specifically more egalitarian and inclusive! It seems, increasingly, the Kill Rock Stars roster have become rock stars, are spiritually arid as a result, and the actual meaning and direction of the movement is largely lost outside of the fans its core principles were really fucking important to; many of whom are losing faith, if they hadn’t already buried the movement when Le Tigre put out their “I’m With Her” Clinton campaign song or during all the years Kathleen Hanna refused to show up for important conversations within the movement she was so instrumental to.
So, what is fucked up about the Bikini Kill reunion “tour”?
Well, a huge part of why I was so excited when I actually got tickets was due to how difficult it was for fans to actually get them at reasonable prices. While the original ticket price was $30, six times what Bikini Kill charged for their shows in the nineties (ten times the price if you were a girl, and got the discounted ticket price of $3, or five times what you would pay if you were a boy, but showed your allyship by wearing a dress, and paid $4…one wonders what rate transwomen paid). I was in the queue to get tickets before they went on sale, yet I was on my phone while trying to navigate the gym and the grocery store with my friend, Vaughan, for about an hour before I actually got tickets! I had to resubmit all of my personal and credit card information probably about fifty times, because there was no timer holding your tickets until you had a chance to submit your information, so my tickets disappeared as I tried to pay for them, over and over and over again. By the time I filled it out fast enough, I paid $250 for two tickets to see Bikini Kill. Even though that is a lot of money for a punk show–an amount I have only paid before to take my boo to Janelle Monae for our anniversary (a show that was, notably, worth every fraction of a penny)–I thought it was a success, because so many people weren’t able to get tickets at all or paid dramatically more insane prices for the ones they could find, even upwards of $900 per ticket. Plus, this is really fucking important, right?
Well, I definitely thought it would be.
Now, how me and my best friend who is chronically ill would travel to and attend the show presented other dilemmas over the course of time. At the beginning, I was going to fly to Seattle, where Ambrosia was living, and we were going to drive their car down the west coast and make it a proper feminist punk pilgrimage to L.A. Ambrosia moved to New York before the show, which is good, because they are much happier there and won’t have to travel as much for work–something that has been problematic, as air travel has frequently resulted in oxygen masks and ambulances in the last couple of years. Ambrosia had a difficult experience flying home from Berlin, and I could not afford to miss more than one day of work to attend the show, so the plan changed again: I would fly to L.A., Ambrosia would take THE FUCKING TRAIN ALL THE WAY FROM NEW YORK CITY TO SEATTLE AND THEN DOWN TO L.A. WHILE THEY ARE ACTIVELY DYING OF LATE STAGE LYME DISEASE. Not in a train car, either–sleeping in a chair for many days at a time. Coach kids! Ambrosia is a seasoned train hopper and has lived a life filled with enormous amounts of discomfort, but this was still a colossal effort for both of us in terms of the major sacrifices of time, energy, and money invested. Our story is by no means strange, either. They only played two cities in the U.S.! People came from all over to attend. They took time off work they may or may not have been compensated for, they got on trains and buses and planes and into cars, and they made a lot of sacrifices to prioritize this experience.
We get to the Hollywood Palladium, and are immediately assaulted by street vendors everywhere trying to sell us Bikini Kill shirts and hoodies. Security confiscated Ambrosia’s fancy pen for writing their notes for their sex worker book club and podcast, Red Light Reader, then we struggled to get our tickets scanned for a while, and then we were told we needed to get wristbands if we wanted to drink alcohol immediately upon entering the building. I initially waved the wristband guy off, because I had literally $70 to live on until I got paid in a week (or, alternately, my room mate actually paid her share of the bills that was over three weeks late at that point), but Ambrosia asked what he said and insisted that we were drinking dumb, expensive venue beer even if I was broke, because they wanted to be my “sugar mama” and for us to have a good time. So, we get wristbands, I point out that now that I have long hair the door person always does a double-take when they look at my ID, and we go to the very expensive beer counter. Like, really expensive. Apparently, the Hollywood Palladium has regular and double-sized beers, the latter so people don’t have to leave to make beer runs as often, I suppose, but since we did not know there were size options or specify one, we were both poured the most expensive option, and Ambrosia was charged $35 for beer.
Then, as we go into the crowd forming around the downstage edge, we find some of our friends who also shipped out from faraway places and also miraculously got tickets they could sort of afford to the same show we managed to find a way into! Amazing! We start sipping our very expensive beers. Ambrosia noticed it was nasty immediately, and chugged it all down to make it go away. I fucking love beer, and it took me hours to drink mine, because it was so disgusting, and was making me feel like shit, but I could not justify throwing the precious $17 beer poured from a bad tap into the fucking trash where it belonged. We talked to our friend Marc and his partner about how the venue was architecturally cool, how many shows you have to play in how many places over how long of a time to call those efforts a “tour,” and probably a lot of other more interesting things I can’t remember. The venue was still mostly empty. Why did all of those tickets cost so much? Did everyone buy $900 Bikini Kill tickets and then have to stay at home because they couldn’t afford the trip? Why were there half price tickets available the day of the show when it was “sold out”?
Then, everything changed dramatically. The house lights went dark and Le Butcherettes from Guadalajara, Mexico came out. We were initially worried because the lead singer came out in a sort of tribal head dress, but then she performed a number of tribal dances which helped us understand she was presenting her own culture to us, and not someone else’s. Marc and I both noted that the drummer, Alejandra Robles Luna, is fucking incredible. Their energy was enormous, and the sound was all-encompassing; I could feel it so physically in my actual heart that I asked Ambrosia if they were okay, because intense physical sensations can trigger seizures for them. Ambrosia was doing remarkably well, because Le Butcherettes’ set was totally intoxicating, sonically enveloping, and thoroughly compelling. I don’t know that I have ever heard the sound so dialed in, actually. They completely floored us with their opening set. Alice Bag even came out for a hot minute–something I figured would happen, from reading reviews of other shows.
When they left the stage, house lights went up, and there were a lot more people there. We were all disoriented and coming down from how amazing the opener was. We were also now kind of stuck in the very middle of a huge crowd of mostly white people (something I was going to use as a barometer for how white the riot grrrl movement’s following actually is now, since L.A. is probably the most culturally diverse city I have been to in the United States). Ambrosia had their cane with them, and I was becoming increasingly aware of what the realities of being at a punk show with a disabled person might be. I had always been an able-bodied person with able-bodied people at punk shows. We couldn’t really see very well where we were, so I asked if Ambrosia wanted to be closer to the front in order to see and be in the center of everything, or if they wanted to stay back to avoid potentially ending up in the epicenter of a mosh pit. Ambrosia said they really didn’t think anyone would mosh, and I reported that mosh pits were a definite feature of all of the show reviews I had read. Ambrosia said they love moshing, love being in the center of it all, and I expressed my ongoing desire to be the sort of mosh pit referee/human barricade, standing on the outskirts, keeping the moshers away from the people who don’t wanna mosh, picking up the people who fall down, and keeping the pit going in a safe and sustainable way. Mosh Mom? I might be the Mosh Mom. We decided to stay where we were, thinking it was far enough away that, if anything, we would be on the outskirts of any sort of hardcore dancing that broke out.
However, fairly immediately once Bikini Kill had taken the stage, a group of very young women and their male friends pushed very aggressively from behind us and began a mosh pit exactly where we were standing! Spilling my nasty, still pretty full beer everywhere, and pulling Ambrosia into it and away from me. I watched my disabled friend get sucked into a situation they could not escape, because people in the pit were actually holding onto their cane and essentially using it as a prop or something in there, pulling Ambrosia with them. I got back to Ambrosia, and we began a new project of moving further and further away and back as dudes and very young, aggressive, excited women pushed forward without concern for other people, and I had to tell multiple people they were separating me from my friend it was very important I stay with. We spent what felt like a very long time holding hands really hard in order to not get separated, but I think we were also lamenting what was happening around us, and how little fun either of us was having, and experiencing all of it on an intense energetic level together.
Bikini Kill sounded like complete shit, and it was their fourth night playing that venue, and the opener sounded fucking incredible, so I can only blame this on Bikini Kill themselves. I guess I have never loved Bikini Kill as a band, more as an idea and an action and as leaders of an important movement, and this became super apparent once they were playing. There was no energy or spirit to their performance, they all seemed tired and bored, and the songs just aren’t interesting in the way that a lot of other music from the same time is–Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, Babes in Toyland. THE MOTHERFUCKING BREEDERS. (/CROOKED ASS MEAN FACE.) If it was performed with the same energy and in the same context as their original performances, I think I would have loved it. The songs just don’t hold up. They aren’t interesting in 2019. I actually got mad when Tobi Vail said they were going to play every song in their catalogue except “Thurston Hearts the Who,” and said, out loud, “BUT THAT IS YOUR BEST SONG.” The really unfortunate thing, I think, is that while that is actually my favorite Bikini Kill song–a song in which a review from a male critic (Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth) is read over a seemingly improvised noisy background while the following words are sung–I ended up feeling the same way he did:
If Sonic Youth thinks you’re
cool does that mean everything
to you if you think
Sonic Youth is cool and you
think that they think that
you’re not that cool does
that mean everything to you
does that mean everything to you
thurston hearts the who
how about you
thurston hearts the who
do you heart the who too
thurston hearts the who
how about you
thurston hearts the who
do you heart the who too
It’s 5 am and we stayed out
all night – we’ve got nothing to
do except talk about you
thurston hearts the who
do you heart the who too…
…I found myself identifying with at least the part of the male critique in this song about them being activists and not musicians. (And I hate Thurston Moore, so feeling in agreement with him irritates the fuck out of me.) The performance was actually terrible. It was one of the worst live performances I have ever been to in my life. I don’t expect musicians to be super technically skilled or formally trained, okay? I am a punk kid. I consider myself a musician, and I do not know basically anything about music formally. I do expect a live performance to be fucking interesting, though. It was lifeless, sounded horrible, and was honestly just really boring. They didn’t even feel like activists, either, though, because other women started yelling “girls to the front” when lots of men started pushing in front of them as the show got packed, and Kathleen Hanna ignored it for a good while, and then said into her microphone: “that’s up to you,” and kept the show going. I guess it is up to us, ultimately, but you’re the one with a microphone who can speak to everyone at the same time, or even refuse to play until people listen, so why are you refusing to use your platform to improve the show for the people who actually give you a platform in the first place?
So, back to being at a punk show with a disabled person, which became the focus of the rest of my night, after I realized Bikini Kill aren’t a very interesting band in 2019. Ambrosia and I were both not having fun and had to go to the bathroom, so we made our way out of the huge crowd to go up the stairs, even though stairs are really hard for them, to the only bathroom that appeared to be available! When we left the bathroom, we decided to try to find somewhere to sit in the balcony, since the experience of being in the crowd had proved to be both super frustrating and also dangerous, and at this point neither one of us cared that much to be in the center of it all. We wanted to just watch the rest of the bullshit parade unfold, so I could write about it. We went up another flight of stairs, after which Ambrosia had to rest on the railing. A security guard came by fairly immediately to let us know we were not allowed to be there. I asked what their accommodations for people with disabilities were, and he pointed out a section all the way back down on the main floor, across the huge crowd gathered around the stage, where there were four seats that were all occupied. There was a huge area of VIP seating roped off on both sides of the balcony, but I guess you had to pay more than $250 to sit there, even if no one else was and the show was almost over. We walked over to where he said we could stand, but there was no spot available where there was something to lean on, so we stayed in the aisle sort of, where the railing was accessible. We got away with that for about a minute before another security guard told us it was a fire hazard, and we had to be on the other side of the tape. We stood there being deeply frustrated and unhappy, listened to Kathleen Hanna, a person who is living with late-stage Lyme’s disease herself, and whom I definitely expected to be more mindful of the experiences of people with disabilities as a result, introduce their new trans guitarist in a super tokenizing and awkward way, and then I asked Ambrosia if we should just leave, and we made the long walk out of the venue, back through the claustrophobic nightmare of merchandizing going on outside the venue, and I expressed how much I wished I had the ol’ JBL clip speaker on me so I could blast “Merchandise” by Fugazi at the whole disgusting scene as we walked away.
Oh, I forgot one thing: while we were standing in the balcony feeling angry and disappointed, and I was considering asking Ambrosia if they wanted to just leave, because they were on their phone typing away for quite a long time, and it was beyond apparent we were both miserable and bored, Ambrosia showed me what they had been feverishly tapping away on their phone at: an instagram post they had just made with a picture they took of me earlier that day.
This was what actually made me decide we could leave the show. Realizing that my blog project was actually way more interesting and culturally valuable in 2019 than the band whose reunion tour inspired it, and that I had better things to do, like actually enjoy my time with my best friend while they are still in this world with me and not put their health at risk for bullshit, write the first negative review of the Bikini Kill reunion, and turn this whole huge beast of a blog project into a book. As my good friend and very early supporter of the project, Kevin Kennedy, said: “Sometimes we find out the things we do for others benefit ourselves also. The show was a vehicle to rediscover your own voice!”
Upon returning home, my room mate informed that even more fucked up drama about Bikini Kill had surfaced on Instagram. It seems significant that Bikini Kill got a transwoman guitarist for this “tour,” and selected a lot of bands featuring people of color to be their openers. It’s kind of like papering over your past exclusionary tendencies without ever acknowledging them or apologizing for them. Oh, wait: I think it is exactly that, actually. And then, when these tokenized individuals experience oppression in the course of working with you, not showing up for them.
Many people have called out and contacted Hollywood Palladium and Bikini Kill, and no meaningful response or apology has been made.