It was way back in May 2019, three years ago and just the ninth chapter of this column, that we looked at the history of the riot grrrl movement. We were over halfway through the nightmare of the Trump administration and just under a year away from the pandemic-enforced lockdown. The world was in chaos but we didn’t yet know how bad things were about to get.
In January of that same year, Bikini Kill announced a handful of reunion dates. They had played a one-off show in 2017 but this was starting to feel more like a full-on reunion. Singer Kathleen Hanna had gone on to have success with alt-synth band Le Tigre and, then punks, The Julie Ruin, and she was performing with that latter band on the night that Trump was elected. That, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, convinced Hanna the time was right to play those Bikini Kill songs again.
“So much stuff and so many cops killing black people for no reason,” Hanna told this writer recently. “So many white nationalist vigilantes murdering people. So much stuff going on that I was like, I need to get this out. I’m so fucking pissed. I tend to either turn it on myself or turn it into song. For me, it’s all about the live outlet. I like the Bikini Kill records but, for the most part, I always considered us a live band. Connecting with the audience and especially after being so isolated — I feel like I’m going to cry the whole time.”
It’s worth remembering when Bikini Kill existed in the ’90s they were very much a niche band. Since the reunion, they’re playing bigger venues to loving audiences. It’s just different.
“When Bikini Kill played in the ’90s, there was a lot of violence and aggression towards us, and there were also a lot of people who loved us and were very supportive,” Hanna said. “It’s really amazing for me to come back as a singer so many years later and get so much love and positivity. I think people don’t realize we weren’t a popular band — Bikini Kill was a very niche thing. People either really loved us or wanted to literally kill us. There were a lot of, ‘you guys don’t even deserve to exist,’ kind of sentiment. So to come back and be like, we do deserve to exist and actually, these songs — sadly, sadly, sadly, sadly — are feeling more relevant now than they did then. It’s great that I feel like singing the songs again when I didn’t feel like singing them for 20 years, but jeez, I would rather that the world was a better place. I wish I could sing about flowers.”
2019 was also the year that Sleater-Kinney put out the Center Won’t Hold album — their ninth in total and only the second since their decade-long hiatus between 2005 and 2015. Carrie Brownstein told this writer:
“I think so much of this record is about how trauma and toxicity affect the body, especially the woman’s body, and how the body is a place of resistance. I think there are a lot of songs about despair, about aging and obsolescence, depression and corruption. To me, it feels like a lot of the songs surveyed the landscape and took it in, but couched it in an intimate narrative. ‘Broken’ or ‘Ruins’ is definitely a song about a collective monster that we’ve all built up and is now destroying everything. ‘Reach Out’ is a song certainly about despondency. ‘Love’ is about connection as a fulcrum for survival. So yeah, to me it’s the most personal record we’ve done since The Hot Rock I guess.”
AND 2019 was the year that L7 released their first album in twenty years, Scatter the Rats. Apparently, that was a big year for riot grrrl (or riot grrrl-influenced) bands, which is probably unsurprising. L7’s Donita Sparks told this writer that music can be a solution or a weapon.
“We don’t all have to be hopeless,” Sparks said. “It took me a while to get to that way of thinking too. It’s like, ‘I’ve got weapons and my weapons are sitting here writing a song. In my own little tiny space. Yet it’s gonna get out there.’ I’m a threat, you’re a threat. You write about this, you write about other stuff. We have weapons to combat all this violence going on, all this craziness going on. We have weapons too, but they’re not of a destructive nature. They’re of a creative nature. That was a definite light bulb moment for me, lyrically.”
Brownstein expressed similar feelings.
“In the moment, it can feel good to have a soundtrack to one’s feelings,” she said. “But in terms of the bigger picture, not everything is in the present moment. Everybody approaches music from their own context and personhood. Our responsibility is to write songs that will appeal and connect to someone a year from now or two years from now. That connection is one of the reasons we play music and our desire is for people to feel seen and heard. It’s one of the reasons we go on tour, to be in that dialogue, both with ourselves and the audience. I don’t know if we feel a sense of responsibility but we feel gratitude and I think our responsibility is to push ourselves. To make good records and hope that in doing that, people will enjoy it.”
Ultimately it comes down to this. We look at riot grrrl as a ’90s movement but really it was an extension of the work that female punks had been doing for decades. That work is far from done, and so the music created by those riot grrrl bands is as relevant now as it ever was. Perhaps more so. So thank god all three (and more) are around again.