Seeing Bikini Kill Made Me Feel Like I Was 16 Again

feature image by Ollie Millington / Contributor via Getty Images

Photo 1: Bikini Kill performs on stage with purple lighting. Photo 2: Bikini Kill performs on stage with green lighting. Photo 3: Bikini Kill performs on stage with purple lighting.

photos by the author, Stef Rubino

Before we got in the car, my friend’s older brother ran from the driver’s side door into their house to grab his big, black, 112-space CD Wallet I’d been envying ever since I saw it the first time he picked us up from the mall. He was giving us a ride to a local punk show at Pompano Indoor Skatepark (affectionately called PISS by all the Ft. Lauderdale skaters and punks who spent their weekends there), so he was in charge of whatever we’d listen to on the way. At a little over 35 minutes, we had a “long” drive ahead of us by South Florida standards, which meant we’d probably be able to listen to more than one of his mix CDs. My friend’s brother was renowned in our circle for constantly finding new music and ripping it from the web. If he had something particularly interesting or obscure, you’d have much better luck just paying him for a copy than trying to look for it yourself. If he didn’t have it…well, there’s not a single time I can remember where he didn’t have something someone was looking for.

When he was finally ready to go, my friend and I hopped into the back seat of her brother’s beat up, 18-year-old Corolla, and off we went screeching out of their parents’ driveway like we always did. He wasn’t the best driver, and that made riding with him feel dangerous in the way that only two just-turned-16-years-old kids would brag to their friends about. My friend and I were too busy exchanging glances and secretly touching each other’s hands in the back seat to fully notice what he was playing on the stereo. All I could think about was escaping into one of the many dark corners of PISS with her to make out and make a plan to make out again at some time after that night, so I let my mind settle there as her older brother sped up I-95 and weaved his little coupe through traffic. Out of nowhere, a voice came barrelling through his shitty, jangly speakers so loud and so clear that it completely knocked me out of my horny teenage stupor.

“We’re Bikini Kill and we want a revolution! Girl-style…NOW!”

Bikini Kill? “We’re Bikini Kill”? Who the fuck is Bikini Kill?

By the time the song, “Double Dare Ya,” got to “You’re a big girl now / You’ve got no reason not to fight,” I was locked in, fully bought in, ready to listen to whatever these women had to say. Whoever the fuck Bikini Kill was, they were already changing my life. Or at least, that’s how it felt at that moment in the back seat of that shabby, old Corolla. I wanted to hear more, and I wanted to know more, but my friend’s older brother only had that one track on this mix.

“You know this band?”

“I don’t know know them…I heard this song in a forum and liked it, so I downloaded it. I think the drummer used to fuck one of the guys in Nirvana or something.”

“All right, well, can you play it again?”

For the rest of the ride, he kindly obliged me by hitting the track down button every time the song ended. At PISS that night, I was still firmly focused on making out, but even among all the noise from the bands playing, all I could hear in my head was Kathleen Hanna’s resolute voice screaming “You do have rights!” for the rest of the night.

I wasn’t surprised that girls could be punk. Despite those creeping feelings about gender that I didn’t know how to talk about at the time, I thought of myself as one, and I knew a lot of others. But I didn’t know girls did that. Blame it on the fact that I was only 16 or the fact that we really didn’t have the internet like that yet, I just didn’t know there were women in punk who already carved out spaces for themselves and who were already challenging both the explicit and latent  misogyny of the scene. And, just based on the experiences I’d had so far, I certainly didn’t think there were men out there who cared to listen or even support a band fronted by a woman singing about issues that affect women (at that point, I had no idea there were other women in the band).

The only women I had ever seen come close to doing this were Avril Lavigne, Hayley Williams, and Fefe Dobson. They were part of the growing pop punk and pop-rock phenomena, which were much more glamorized and commercialized than the stuff I really wanted to listen to. Being in the space of punk always felt like a tremendously emotional push and pull, because I wanted so badly to make a home in it. I believed in its tenets — fuck the government, fuck George W. Bush especially, fuck your mom and dad’s rules, fuck the white picket fence, fuck cops, fuck bigots, fuck war, use violence only when necessary, treat your friends like family, do-it-yourself when and where you can, and if you have to, take your anger out in the pit. Shit, I still believe in these tenets. The problem was that even with those very basic tenets making their appearances in the music and on t-shirts and in the zines of the scene, in the early and mid 2000s, it didn’t feel entirely safe to be something other than a boy when it came down to it. Already so male-dominated, I watched as all of that explicit and implicit sexism from the outside world permeated this little community we were working hard to build.

The day after that night with my friend’s older brother, I hopped on the bus and went to see the people who I knew could help me out with this: the staff at the used CD store closest to my house. Strapped with the cash I had taken out of the most recent paycheck I got from my shitty Target concession stand job and prepared to buy every album they had in stock, they told me the only one they had at the moment was Pussy Whipped but that I could come back for the rest the following week. I popped the CD into my Discman as I was walking back to the bus stop, and the opening bass line of “Blood One” made my heart pound immediately. I flipped the cover over and there they were: Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail. Three women making punk rock about how poorly our society treats women. Before I even made my way to “Rebel Girl,” ostensibly their most well-known song, I was already in. (I don’t mean to write the band’s original guitarist, Billy Karren, out of this, but I’ll admit I didn’t think of him as much as I should have.)

From there, I used all of the resources I had to learn everything about Bikini Kill, and in the process, I learned so much more. They opened a door for me, a door that has stayed open ever since. I learned that Tobi Vail was much more than just Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend, as my friend’s older brother so crudely stated. I learned about the riot grrrl movement she started alongside Hanna and Wilcox and others, and, most importantly, I learned they weren’t the only ones. I learned about the long history of female-fronted punk bands that came before them and all of the ones that came after. I learned that even though Hanna is famous for screaming “Girls to the front!” before Bikini Kill shows began in the 90s, she was just one in a long line of women in punk who were trying to break down barriers and show the boys just how fucked-up they were. I learned there were so many queer and trans punks, too — people whose sexualities and genders were a central feature of their politics and art-making. It would be a few years before I saw this in my own scene in Ft. Lauderdale, but at least I learned these people existed elsewhere — and that they weren’t so far from my grasp.

I was so angry all the time. Angry at the failings of our society, angry at my parents, angry at the place where I was growing up, angry at my job, angry at myself, angry because I didn’t understand my body, angry because I was gay and the prospect of being out was scary, angry because even with a hoard of people around me, I still felt so alone sometimes. I needed somewhere to put that anger, but no place seemed right, not my crushes, not my friends, and especially not my family. When that door opened and I walked through it, I felt that there was actually a place in punk where I could build my home. So, I did. And then, I learned how to find other places to build homes in, too.

Bikini Kill never stopped occupying one of the most reverent spaces in my heart, even if I went whole years without listening to a single one of their songs. As I grew up, I just always assumed I’d never see them live. I was born about ten years too late for riot grrrl, and that was just something I had to accept and get over. I certainly never expected to see them in South Florida, of all the places. But in what felt like a moment from the TV show Punk’d, almost 17 years after I first heard those words in “Double Dare Ya” come blasting through my friend’s older brother’s car speakers, I opened Instagram one day in early 2020 to see that the Miami record store where some of my friends worked, Sweat Records, was sponsoring Bikini Kill’s South Florida stop on their newly announced national and international tour. I don’t think my fingers ever moved as quickly as they did when I hit the EventBrite link to buy tickets to the show.

Finally. Finally, I was going to see Bikini Kill at the end of that summer. Not the various other bands the members have formed since Bikini Kill’s original split, but Bikini Kill. All three of the original women in the band. The real Bikini Kill. In the flesh. I was so fucking stoked, I barely knew what to do with myself.

It feels as if I don’t even need to say what happened next, but I will. Less than a month after the show was announced and my tickets were bought, we went into lockdown, and the show was postponed. Not immediately, of course, but as the pandemic was continually mismanaged and raging on, I knew that email was sure to come any day. During lockdown, everything got even weirder than it already was. I don’t mean in my personal life but in our world. And even though it’s true that I’m used to living with a base level of anger inside me, it felt like it was spilling out all over the place. I listened to a lot of Bikini Kill during that time and in the time “after.” Luckily, the songs are short, so I could get about five or six in just driving to the store to pick up a curbside order.

As the months went by, I figured the show and the tour would never be rescheduled. I knew Hanna struggled with chronic illness, and I didn’t think we’d ever get to a place where it would be safe for her to perform in front of a live audience again. I also wasn’t confident that a time would come where I felt comfortable standing in an audience at a punk show again. I wanted it — but not at the risk of someone’s life or mine. I let it go again. Just in case an email eventually came that said the whole tour was being canceled, just in case we couldn’t move on from the spot we were in.

The last two years went by, we got some vaccines, and eventually, we came to some strange, uncomfortable, collective decision that we were going to try our hands at living — some of us, including myself, with many modifications — as we did before the pandemic started. I got an email in April 2021 saying they were rescheduling the show for the end of May 2022. Then I got an email on May 4th of this year confirming that Bikini Kill was, for real, coming to play Miami at the end of the month. We would be their first stop on the rescheduled tour. The very first stop. Bands like Bikini Kill rarely play Miami, and even if they do, we’re never the first stop.

I didn’t decide I was going until that Saturday before the show. I couldn’t miss it, and I didn’t want to. The venue was checking vaccine cards and Covid tests and required masks for entry, so I figured I’d just do my best to get my girlfriend and I to the front so we were facing the stage instead of standing in the middle of the crowd. I knew that wasn’t scientifically sound, but I hoped we’d be safe enough.

We made it to the front, right on the barricade between the crowd and the stage, and we waited for the show to start. Glass Body, a Miami-based trio, kicked off the night playing their brand of fuzzy shoegaze-y noise rock and, before long, it was almost time for Bikini Kill to start. I was excited, but part of me still felt as if it could get shut down at any moment, even though the opening band went on without any issues. Then I saw Wilcox, Vail, and the band’s new guitarist, Erica Dawn Lyle, walk onto the stage and take their positions. A couple seconds later, Hanna took a big leap forward as she galloped on stage in her trademark sequined sparkly top and short, pink skirt, and the band launched into “New Radio.” I said “Holy shit, no way” so loud the guy next to me thought I was talking to him. It was so strange and exhilarating to be seeing them in person. I didn’t know what else to do except to fix my eyes on them and start screaming.

Song after song, they played as if the last 25 years since their original break up hadn’t gone by at all. They were absolutely magnetic, and their energy felt exactly how I imagined it should feel when I watched the YouTube videos or archival footage of their performances from the 90s. Hanna, as always, treated the stage like her own personal dancefloor, moving between skipping and hopping around to doing a modified version of the Twist to just doing whatever the hell came to her in the moment. From what I could see in those old videos before, she had always been the epitome of the cool, confident punk rock girl who didn’t give a shit what you thought about how she moved her body or what she did on stage. She was having fun. The whole band was. And this time, it wasn’t any different.

In between particularly raucous performances of “Jigsaw Youth” and “Reject All American,” the band traded places a number of times, as they’ve been known to do, with Vail replacing Hanna on the mic, Hanna replacing Wilcox on the bass, and Wilcox taking the drums. By the time they got through an earth-shaking performance of “Distinct Complicity,” I could feel how I felt the first time I jammed Pussy Whipped into my Discman. I was in it.

It’s incredible how lurid and well-preserved Hanna’s voice is after all these years. With the support of the heavy and clear instrumental work by Vail, Wilcox, and Lyle, their songs boomed so large straight out of the speakers and straight into that place inside me that truly just wants to fuck shit up. They didn’t hold back, and they didn’t even let some annoying men in the crowd throw them off. They didn’t come to be tame or to be subdued. They came to fucking melt our faces off, and that’s exactly what they did. Seeing it on video is one thing, but seeing it in person felt other-worldly. I wish I had a better way to describe it, but it’s just the simple truth that their performance was of another time and place entirely.

In a world where words attached to movements are rapidly getting co-opted or used so much they lose all of their bite, Bikini Kill’s performance made the messages of their songs seem fresh again. They made it feel like we can take our language back at any moment, and they reminded us that we have to keep fighting. At one point in the performance, Hanna stopped to talk about how, when they started Bikini Kill, they thought they’d eventually be able to stop singing these songs. She said, “I want to sing about tulips once in a while, you know? Why can’t I write a song about flowers? But no, we’ll be singing these songs until we don’t have to anymore!” She stopped the performance a few more times to drive the message home, proclaiming that we have more power than the powers-that-be ever had and ever will. It’s easy to look around at what’s happening — the attacks on trans people, on abortion access, on the backlash to the anti-police protests of summer 2020 — and think that we need Bikini Kill’s work more than ever. Their performance made that apparent.

When they walked off stage to create that tension most bands do right before they come back to do the encore, I was a little disappointed that, despite the crowd’s prodding, they didn’t perform “Double Dare Ya,” the very first song of theirs I ever heard. Before I could get too bummed about it, they came storming back on stage with Hanna screaming, “We want a revolution! Girl-style! Now!” and I started screaming the words to the song so loud I could feel the burn of it in my stomach. While I was screaming and pointing at Hanna, she walked to the corner of the stage where I was, locked eyes with me, and pointed back as we sang “You’re a big girl now / You’ve got no reason not to fight” and the rest of that verse to each other.

It feels like, at the end of an essay like this, I’m supposed to say that, now that I’ve seen them perform live, I can close that door they opened inside me or that I’ve come to the end of some kind of journey. But really, what this performance did was take the door clean off its hinges. It helped me remember why I fight so hard for the people around me and the communities I’m a part of, why I wake up every morning and choose to believe that we can and will do better. They ended the night by blasting the riffs and lyrics of “Rebel Girl” resoundingly into the crowd, and although it’s been a long time since I’ve called myself a girl or considered myself one, I knew that one was for me.

Set List:
“New Radio”
“This is Not a Test”
“Don’t Need You”
“Jigsaw Youth”
“Feels Blind”
“I Hate Danger”
“In Accordance with Natural Law”
“Resist Psychic Death”
“Capri Pants”
“Outta Me”
“For Only”
“Distinct Complicity”
“Reject All American”
“Alien She”
“Rah! Rah! Replica”
“Hamster Baby”
“Tell Me So”
“Lil Red”
“Suck My Left One”
Encore: “Double Dare Ya” / “Rebel Girl”

Bikini Kill is currently touring the nation. You can check their website for the dates of their appearances.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.


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