In high school, where your social status is more or less defined by your car (or lack thereof), clothes, body, and make-out partner (or lack thereof), dorks long for the real world to begin, when the old division between them and the cool people will be redrawn based on merit. Well, if the dorks’ dreams came true, the real world wouldn’t have much use for contact lenses, politicians, supermodels, or most rock bands. The reason high school never really ends is no mystery, seeing as it’s a fact that the white guys who control everything are biologically resistant to change.
What has eluded the dorks is a workable plan for revolution. So it’s with some urgency that Kathleen Hanna, the riot-grrrl-activist/dork-advocate who fronts Bikini Kill, offers her ideas. In a 1991 issue of her ’zine, Girl Power, Hanna does some heavy thinking on the cool/dork dichotomy. It’s a complex matter, and Hanna even provides some equations to limber up the brain: “dork+COOL=dorkykeen,” “DORK+cool=dorkcool.” But math is of little use when you’re engineering social upheaval, and Hanna’s objective is to dismantle the notion that we are branded either cool or dorky at birth. Her plan involves simple reverse psychology: “By claiming ‘dork’ as cool we can confuse and disrupt this whole process.”
Hanna’s strategy for revolution is hardly new if you consider that punk’s originators were basically just geeks who made something of it. But Hanna’s thing is that punks are boys—both cool and in a band because their gender allows them to be. “[C]ool attributes have been claimed by our society as male,” Hanna writes. “[T]he only way a person brought up GIRL can be ‘truly’ cool is to assimilate into male culture via toughness.”
Mission accomplished. From the get go, the members of Bikini Kill have been so obsessed with claiming the pleasures to which they are entitled as both women and rockers, with creating a scene where grrrls, queers, “sluts,” and the rest of society’s dorks could be the life of the party, that the music itself would get reduced to subtext if its primary purpose wasn’t to get people to notice. With Hanna screaming as if she’s trying to rid her lungs of impurities and the band attempting something similar on instruments, Bikini Kill became cool by proving it deserved to be and then used its status to chastise those who in the band’s dream world would be considered dorks of the lowest rank. “Don’t need your atti-fuckin-tude, boy,” Hanna sings on “Don’t Need You” from BK’s ’93 EP, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah. “Don’t need your dick to fuck.” To child molesters posing as fathers, Hanna says, “Suck My Left One.”
A legacy of 7-inches, tours, compilation tracks, Xeroxed propaganda, EPs, and the album Pussy Whipped now behind it, Bikini Kill has firmly established its motives. It has also established itself as the riot grrrl movement’s most consistently effective band. On “Statement of Vindication,” the blistering opener to BK’s latest, Reject All American, Hanna brings the song to a close, chanting “nah nah nah nah” with a liberating, I’ll-sing-about-nothing-if-I-want-to glee. It’s a virtual crash course in making nihilism fun.
Redirecting anger into joy is what fuels BK’s punk. It’s also the distinction that lifts the band above most indie rock. Evident in Hanna’s Rotten-on-the-rag howl is a determination you can’t help but rally behind. But on much of BK’s previous work, Hanna was a soldier fighting without decent ground support. Hanna’s voice is an almost impossible force to match, and her band often struggled to keep up. On Reject, Bikini Kill, in particular “token boy” guitarist Bill Karren, has matured into the tightly wound hardcore unit it just occasionally emulated before. Ranting over “No Backrub”’s Bo Diddley beat or the streamlined, (dare I say) polished riffs of “Capri Pants” and “Jet Ski,” Hanna is obviously energized by the band’s vigor. With the collective strength of Reject, Bikini Kill fully lives out the precept under which riot grrrls and rappers find common ground: The chance for survival is greater in gang warfare than in one-on-one combat.
Given the fickle nature of punk fans, the most striking and daring accomplishments on Reject are the pop songs. “R.I.P.” is indie rock’s “Dead Homiez,” a quiet but angry homage to fallen friends that doubles as a sparkling celebration of life. To dismiss BK’s softer tones as selling out is to fail to credit the band members’ nearly spiritual belief that pop culture is the ground on which they find both injustice and meaning. I suspect that it’s out of respect for this belief that “Tony Randall,” Hanna’s love letter to the punk club experience, is a ballad and not a rocker. If anyone knows that a rock life is every bit as real as a conventional one it’s the members of a touring band who spend their off days supporting their friends’ right to live as they do. When Hanna sings that “some things can’t be photographed,” she’s acknowledging that most experiences are too complicated to be reflected in a song; even with the distortion pedals off, what matters most to the members of Bikini Kill is making the music every bit as intense as their lives.
Ani Difranco’s claim on cool is suspect. By design, she’s a folkie, a self-proclaimed Righteous Babe with a conscience that won’t shut up. As an acoustic performer who cut her teeth on the coffee-shop circuit, Difranco has had to operate in a culture more on the fringe than the punks, who at least can capture fans who have trickled down from the mainstream. But with eight albums now to her credit, the latest being Dilate, and enough road miles to qualify her as a seasoned vet (she’s still only 24), Difranco has become a cult hero with an army of followers who couldn’t care less how cool she is. To them she’s a goddess.
Difranco is that rare folk performer who can inspire her fans to mosh. With her violent strumming, she physically creates most of the electricity she needs. And with a willpower that switches off in the pursuit of sex and love, and a moral conscience that recognizes this as a weakness, Difranco uses up a lot of energy. Live, she wraps her hands in duct tape to keep them from bleeding.
While Difranco might seem to bitch a lot, she never whines. Her best songs are lucid takes on relationships that she admits to having had a hand in destroying—and being so democratic pisses her off. Difranco can concede that the object of her affection is better off with someone else on “Untouchable Face,” though her resentment is painfully clear when she sings, “Fuck you for existing in the first place.” Like her riot grrrl peers, Difranco finds strength in getting fucked both literally and figuratively. Fashioning her damaged, soul-woman croon into a determined snarl, Difranco lashes out on Dilate’s title track: “You won’t see me surrender. You won’t hear me confess. ’Cuz you’ve left me with nothing. But I’ve worked with less.”
The stain on Difranco’s otherwise stunning career is that she’s only sporadically been able to capture the nervy essence of her live shows on record. On both Dilate and her last record, Not a Pretty Girl, Difranco all but surrenders to this failure by quite blatantly making them both sound like “studio” records—imagine what might transpire if Steve Albini were forced to produce Shawn Colvin. But Pretty Girl stands as one of Difranco’s best records because the emotional activity was staged in the content of the songs and in her insistent strum. On Dilate, Difranco leans on the mixing board for sonic drama, committing herself to being the pretentious, self-absorbed folkie that naysayers often dismiss her as. Difranco should know that she’s a goddess because she can do it on her own.CP