Why We Need Bikini Kill: A Concert Review

The energy in Philly’s Franklin Music Hall is far more than electric, it is like a snaking live wire sending sparks across the venue. The pit, balcony, and even sidelines are teeming with old punks and alternative teens, each one of them buzzing with excitement as they wait for the legendary Bikini Kill to take the stage. When they strut onto the precipice, Kathleen Hanna (vocals), Kathi Wilcox (bass), Tobi Vail (drums), and Erica Dawn Lyle (guitar) don’t launch into one of their iconic anthems. Instead, Hanna speaks to the audience like she bumped into an old friend.

From there, she introduces their opener, “New Radio.” The foundation of the song is built on iconic Bikini Kill signatures: Hanna’s guttural and honest vocals, Wilcox’s relentless and precise bass lines, and their classic sex-positive, pro-slut lyrics. There is nowhere in the song for the band to hide and warm up. It demands to be performed with the same palpable rage that it was written with 30 years ago, lest it—and by proxy the rest of the concert—fall flat. But the second the first kick of the drum meets the crunchy guitar strums, the venue is engulfed in Bikini Kill’s gritty and powerful energy.

By the end of the first song there is one undeniable truth: Bikini Kill is just as paramount today as they were 30 years ago. Formed in 1990 in Olympia, Washington, Bikini Kill broke into music with the intention of igniting change. They were a beacon of resistance and actively encouraged other women to embrace their power. Kathleen Hanna is credited for coining phrases such as “girls to the front” and the infamous “girl power.” Their influence on alternative music and feminism during recent decades has been immeasurable. Now back on tour, the women who helped pioneer the Riot Grrrl Movement are reminding us all that our anger is our power.

But they’re not simply cashing in on renewed relevance. When the band first arrived on the scene in the 90s, it was a man’s world. There was very little space, if any, in the punk realm that wasn’t drenched in sexism, homophobia, and racism. Since then, the things they fought for have become more widely accepted. And in terms of feminist theory, Riot Grrrl’s strictly female centric efforts were lacking in inclusivity. Still, Bikini Kill is a chain linking the third wave of feminism to the fourth. The Me Too Movement, the Kavanaugh Hearings, and Trump’s presidency among other things prompted a regenerated need for female empowerment (and some rage, too). Kathleen Hanna put it best in her interview with PBS, “I mean, it’s not like sexism stopped existing.” Revived with modern nuance, songs like “Rebel Girl” have become protest hymns with which all marginalized voices can hum along.

Back in Philly, the venue is still filled with the same rightfully angry feminists as before, but this time there is a bit more variety. People of all genders and races pack in next to each other, but most notable is the age range. The middle-aged crowd is almost equally matched with teens and 20-somethings and there are a handful of children linking hands with their (albeit slightly more enthused) parents and equipped with industrial, ear-protecting headphones. The generational exchange adds an even more eclectic feeling to the show; I mean, where else can you see a clean-cut-looking man in his 50s slamdance next to two non-binary teens dripping in black fabric and tattoos? For many, this is the first time seeing Bikini Kill live, and even for the life-long fans, there remains a personal and cultural need for their music and message.  

After charging their way through an hour’s worth of high-octane music featuring some of their quintessential tracks and equally formidable deep cuts, Bikini Kill aren’t finished. They open their encore with the punchy “Double Dare Ya.” Then comes the song that has become synonymous with Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl, and feminism. “Rebel Girl” is as explosive as anyone might dream. Like a shaken bottle of carbonated adrenaline, the drums pound, the guitars shred, and the vocals rattle more than the foundation of the Franklin Music Hall. Every undercurrent of anger—born from misogyny and laws restricting women’s rights and the commodification of women’s bodies—explodes to the surface. Squeezed between punks from the past and my angst-ridden peers, chanting the lyrics that opened so many of our eyes, it is communally cathartic. 

At some point in the night, Kathleen Hanna tells a story about how she went to the fair and saw, hanging among plush stuffed animals in the prize section of a carnival game, a slightly deflated blow-up hammer adorned with the words “girl power”. Bikini Kill has been and remains a huge source of inspiration—musically and attitude-wise—for women. The remnants of Bikini Kill have been lingering in our culture for two and a half decades. Back on tour, they are screaming new life into their mythic discography.