There wasn’t really a script. But it’d be tough to write a better one.
Feminist punk icons Bikini Kill hadn’t played a full show together in more than two decades when the Olympia-formed band announced a trio of 2019 comeback gigs in Los Angeles and New York.
A few months earlier, the nation was gripped by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, resulting in a man accused of sexual assault assuming one of our country’s highest positions of moral authority. He’d been chosen by a president who once boasted about grabbing women’s crotches and, at the time, Kavanaugh’s appointment felt like a blow to the snowballing #MeToo movement.
The shows, beginning with a spring date at the Hollywood Palladium, instantly sold out. More dates were added, again selling out in about as long as one of the band’s seething two-minute blasters deriding rape culture or patriarchal systems. Ultimately, Bikini Kill would start 2019’s mini-comeback spree with four sold-out shows at the Palladium, collectively drawing around 20,000 fans — a few more than could fit inside Olympia’s North Shore Surf Club to see them back in the early days.
“Before the first set of shows, I felt like I was backstage for like a month, waiting for the show,” said frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who co-founded the band while attending The Evergreen State College. “I just felt so much anxiety and excitement — anxiety and excitement are super close to each other.”
The band’s well-received return and feminist lyrics felt right, almost necessary, for the moment and eventually led to a full-fledged tour that was initially slated to begin in Olympia in March 2020. Then the lockdowns started.
“It was pretty extreme,” recalled drummer Tobi Vail, who lives in Olympia. “We were practicing in Portland, I was like, ‘Wait, do we need to pay attention to this COVID thing? [Laughs]. What’s going on?’ It really wasn’t registering.”
After more than two years of COVID-19 delays, Bikini Kill finally returns to its Northwest birthplace, with two sold-out shows at Olympia’s Capitol Theater (Sept. 11-12) benefiting Interfaith Works emergency overnight homeless shelter, a newly added Tacoma date (Sept. 13, Spanish Ballroom) and a larger show further up I-5 at Marymoor Park (Sept. 17).
“I don’t want to use the word trippy, but it’s kind of trippy,” Vail said. “We’re still the same people, these are the same songs, this is the same place, but so much has changed. Then again, also not.”
The tour was already underway when news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade, 30 years after Bikini Kill and a host of like-minded bands (including Nirvana and Pearl Jam) fought to preserve the right to an abortion with the Rock for Choice concerts, organized by former Sub Pop band L7. The messages back then were eerily similar to the ones flooding social media feeds today.
“We played with Fugazi outside the Supreme Court in 1992,” Vail recalled. “’92-’93, we were doing these pro-choice shows and making comments at shows — ‘You gotta vote so that we can keep the Supreme Court balanced so that we can preserve the right to abortion.’ [It’s] like we’ve just been watching that get chipped away this whole time.”
Bikini Kill’s music is arguably more relevant today than it was in the ’90s, with many of the views and ideas they expressed in underground circles finally boiling over into the cultural mainstream.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” bassist Kathi Wilcox said of playing their songs in today’s political climate. “It feels amazing to be on stage and play these songs again, but then you realize that the reason that people are feeling it so strongly is because everything is so [expletive] up. You look out in the audience and people are crying along to the lyrics and it’s partly because they’re feeling it, because they love the music. But it’s also partly because there’s so much [expletive] going on. … In some ways it feels like nothing has changed since the ’90s.”
In its 20-some-year absence, the band’s influence has only grown, as new generations discovered the music of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney and queercore stalwarts Team Dresch, who also reunited in the last few years. Spawned in early ’90s Olympia, a college town already home to K Records and a strong DIY culture, the riot grrrl movement was driven by a consortium of young women informed by revolutionary politics and a desire to create space for themselves in a male-dominated music scene.
“I don’t think everybody was that excited about a bunch of girls pointing out the fact that there weren’t enough women making music, promoting music and recording music as there should be,” Bratmobile drummer Molly Neuman recalled. “But there was also a lot of enthusiasm and support at the same time.”
With their “girls to the front” rallying cry, Bikini Kill’s combustible live shows physically made room for women in front of the stage and at times made the band targets of sexist comments from men in the crowd. The press often characterized Bikini Kill, who released their seminal debut album, “Pussy Whipped,” through Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label, as leaders of the riot grrrl movement — claims the band refuted. According to Neuman, who alongside members of Bikini Kill founded the Riot Grrrl fanzine and played in side project The Frumpies, riot grrrl was an egalitarian movement pulling from various schools of political thought and designed to give a voice to women and people who felt like outsiders.
“That inherently didn’t have one specific leader,” Neuman said. “But there’s no denying that the charisma, the passion and the talent that brought [Bikini Kill] together and created that work had the leadership role.”
For their part, Bikini Kill’s members were more interested in fostering a participatory environment as opposed to delivering the official edicts of third-wave feminism.
“That was something [drummer] Tobi [Vail] talked about a lot early on in our band,” Hanna said, “asking questions and encouraging participation rather than being like, ‘This is an explanation of what feminism is’ or ‘This is what you should be doing.’”
The Olympia riot grrrl scene may have been relatively short-lived. But the flame Bikini Kill helped light didn’t extinguish when they unplugged their guitar cables in 1997.
A legacy continued
Misty McElroy was one of the outsiders. Growing up in culturally isolated rural Florida, McElroy left in search of a big-city music scene as soon as she turned 18. She discovered bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile while living in Chicago and was drawn to their DIY ethos and the way they addressed issues like gender disparities and sexual violence at shows, something McElroy had experienced.
“Music was an escape from all your problems,” McElroy said. “Other people were there, especially the guys, and they were able to experience that on that pure level. And I was being denied that. I was just enraged because that was such a pure experience for me and how dare someone try to take that away.”
Eventually, the former roadie settled in Portland and enrolled at Portland State University. The Olympia riot grrrl scene had fizzled by the time she arrived, though some of its key figures, like members of Sleater-Kinney and Team Dresch, had migrated to Portland.
As part of a required community service project to complete her women’s studies degree, McElroy launched the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in 2001. Motivated by her own experiences and in kinship with riot grrrl values, the idea was to empower girls ages 8 to 18 through music instruction, as well as teach self-defense classes.
“When these girls showed up that first day, they were not making eye contact with us,” McElroy recalled. “They were so shy and so disempowered, and by the end of it, they’re screaming in the microphones.”
Although McElroy is no longer involved, the Portland rock camp had continued up until the pandemic. Portland organizers canceled this summer’s edition, citing a lack of “adequate professional resources,” but similar camps have proliferated throughout the country, including Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp, which launched in 2009. “There’s no way that Rock Camp would’ve ever taken off in any other location other than the Pacific Northwest, and I believe that to be the case because of the riot grrrl movement,” McElroy said.
At contemporary Bikini Kill shows, many of the faces in the crowd are young enough to be current rock camp students, the songs written roughly 30 years ago connecting with the same urgency they did in the early Olympia days, across generational lines. A perfunctory nostalgia tour this is not.
“I feel more energy behind the songs than I have singing any other songs that I have in the past 10 years,” Hanna said. “It’s funny, because the media and finance people look at music as like, ‘Oh, your time was in the ’90s, that’s when you guys were really hot, blah blah blah.’ But to me, our time is now.”