The Bikini Kill Reunion and Punk Nostalgia

The Bikini Kill Reunion and Punk Nostalgia
By A.K. Acosta

In January 2019, the legendary riot grrrl band Bikini Kill announced their reunion. It was only three shows, two in New York City and one in Los Angeles. Tickets were almost impossible to purchase. It seems that bots had purchased many of the tickets and immediately posted them on resale sites for hundreds of dollars. After a few days, Bikini Kill apologized for the situation and announced more shows, all of which also sold out, but at least most of the tickets were sold to people and not capitalist robots.

For many Bikini Kill fans, it was a reminder that the band is no longer an underground punk secret, but actually pretty famous. Like many legendary bands, they became progressively more famous after they broke up. The band was a figurehead of the punk feminist movement riot grrrl, which received mainstream media attention in the early 1990s. Their last album was released in 1996. Kathleen Hanna’s next band, Le Tigre, was a popular indie band in the early 2000s. (Le Tigre briefly reunited in 2016 to make a video in support of Hillary Clinton and her pantsuits, but the less said about that the better.)

Riot grrrl nostalgia started slow. In the early 2000s, as a college student, I mostly came across mentions of riot grrrl in academic articles. In Japan, some feminists talked about Riot Grrrl, like in the pamphlet Yuka Ogaki wrote in 2005, The Riot Grrrl Movement -A Politics of Our Own (Yudosha). Ogaki’s was not a nostalgic look at riot grrrl but more of an introduction. And then, in 2010, suddenly riot grrrl was everywhere. Two books about the movement came out back to back. Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music was as much about the how the idea of “girl power” had become a popular trope in the 1990s, as well as about the riot grrrl music scene. She discussed the 90s music scene from riot grrrl to ‘foxcore’ (bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland) to the Lilith Fair to the Spice Girls. The same year, Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution was released. Marcus’ book in comparison was focused on how riot grrrl developed out of the late 1980s punk and zine scenes in Olympia, Washington and Washington DC. Both authors had personal connections to the story- Meltzer lived in Olympia in the 1990s and Marcus, from the East Coast, had identified as riot grrl. They had different attitudes towards the movement. Meltzer felt that riot grrrl had a lot of revolutionary potential, but ultimately that the bands were too concerned with staying underground to make much of a difference. She praised famous pop artists like the Spice Girls for bringing phrases like “Girl power” to the mainstream. Marcus, on the other hand, took a more punk-like approach. Her criticisms of the movement were more internally directed, about how the personal failings of key movement members might’ve led to the dissolution of riot grrrl as a whole.

There were two main types of reviews of these books. The first was those written by people who had experienced the 1990s scene and were eager to explain how their personal experience was different than what was written in the books. The other group was by young women who were too young to have experienced riot grrrl for themselves, but who loved the books for painting a picture of a previous era. This attitude was best captured by the online magazine Rookie, launched in 2011, by teenage blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson. Tavi and the writers at Rookie loved riot grrrl. They published playlists of riot grrrl music, interviews with Kathleen Hanna, and articles about how the feminism of riot grrrl had changed their life.

There were also skeptics. The drummer of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail, wrote in one of her reviews of the two books, that “nostalgia is the enemy.” Why, she wondered, weren’t we all focusing more on creating new forms of punk feminist music and expression instead of trying to recreate the aesthetic of something from two decades ago? After all, politics had changed a lot since the 1990s. Carrie Brownstein, a member of the riot grrrl band Excuse 17 but widely known as a member of Sleater-Kinney, published a memoir in 2015, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Brownstein has an endless amount of underground credibility, but she always wanted to do more than just be in an underground band. She described feeling like her ambition was looked down upon in the riot grrrl scene. Brownstein is now famous as the co-creator and star of Portlandia, a show that managed to find eight seasons worth of jokes about hipster culture.

Tobi Vail’s comments reminded me of my own nostalgia for scenes I had never experienced. I was barely old enough to experience riot grrrl when it was happening, but I was a part of it, sending many letters to record labels in Olympia like K Records and Kill Rock Stars, with a few dollars of cash carefully wrapped up in notebook paper. I grew up outside of Washington DC, which had a great scene in the 1990s, but I was sure I had missed something better. I carefully studied Cynthia Connolly’s Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground, a collection of photographs from the 1980s, featuring bands like Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and other Dischord Records bands. Those shows looked more exciting than the ones I was attending. A few years later, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in Nation’s Capital, by Mark Anderson and Mark Jenkins, provided even more detail about the scene I had missed. Instead of fully appreciating the Fugazi shows I saw all the time, I lamented the Rites of Springs shows I would never see. I’m glad these books exist and that these small moments in time were documented. But I try to remember Tobi Vail’s words too. Remembering the past is fun, as long as we also remember to do something new.

(190410 updated)