AF 2019 IN REVIEW: The Return of Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna on stage at Riot Fest Chicago 2019. Photo by Ashlee Rezin Garcia for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Nineties vibes are at a fever pitch in 2019 and women’s rights are still at stake, though the ripple effect of the original Riot Grrrl movement continues. For feminists who’ve repeatedly seen women demeaned without consequence during the Trump era, the passion of punk is vital. Luckily, Bikini Kill is back to arm another generation for Revolution Girl Style Now. It might be a coincidence that Bikini Kill formed — and reformed — within a few months of the congressional testimonies of Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford. But the band’s second iteration isn’t a feel-good nostalgia trip — it’s a call to action by a band of punk superheroes fighting misogyny.

Old school riot grrrls gasped in excitement in January at the news that Bikini Kill would reform to play a few dates in London, LA and Brooklyn, with a headlining Sunday spot at Riot Fest Chicago in mid-September. I was transported back to a day nearly 20 years ago, when my mom interrogated me about my Kill Rock Stars mail order catalog – I eventually bought The C.D. Version of the First Two Records from the label, but opted to have it shipped to the house of friend with chiller parents. He listened to that Bikini Kill record and told my crew of skateboarding stoner friends that it sucked. So, until I met like minds in college, I kept the band’s music to myself. Info on Bikini Kill was not abundant on a farm in the central Midwest – it was just me and the CD. But there was a lot to that CD – from Kathleen Hanna telling white boys to “just die” to the validation of singing “I’m so sorry that I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me” right along with her. It was basically my gloriously rebellious introduction to ’90s-era radical feminism.

In 2019, I just had to travel 2.5 hours south to Chicago to experience the show — and attend to a sizeable outdoor music festival, which I hadn’t felt the energy to do in about five years. Bikini Kill was the only band that’s ever given me reason to make it to Riot Fest, despite one of my best friends attending without fail every year. But this year, I couldn’t miss it.

I was immediately glad I’d made the trek; the effects of Bikini Kill’s first incarnation were on full display just inside the gates, where a group called OurMusicMyBody handed out buttons to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the music scene and promote “fun and consensual music experiences for all.” The booth bore a handmade sign parodying Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. that read “Consent Rules Everything Around Me” (the remaining members of the legendary NYC rap collective had headlined Riot Fest the night before). Vendors hawked T-shirts with feminist slogans, which would have been taboo 25 years ago. Bikini Kill helped normalize this resistance. In a crowd full of women wearing whatever they fucking wanted, the joy in freedom was palpable.

Mere hours earlier, Against Me! And Patti Smith had performed (separately) as a new generation of riot grrrls moshed and screamed along to anthems that spit in the face of the patriarchy. The original members of Bikini Kill, with guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle standing in for guitarist Billy Karren, took the stage with the gusto of a group that had never left it. Style icon Hanna donned a holographic silver dress, hot pink tights and her trademark high ponytail and side-swept bangs. As the band rolled through their quick and dirty anthems, drummer Toby Vail took a turn at the mic in a short, tight dress.

The monumental set included songs that were revolutionary at the time, though their subject matter might seem commonplace today – songs about normalizing women’s pleasure (“I Like Fucking,” “New Radio,” “Don’t Need You”) and critiquing slut shaming, decades before it was a widely known concept (“Rebel Girl”). Bikini Kill also rolled through “Jigsaw Youth” and “Resist Psychic Death,” which encourage listeners to thwart the status quo and live authentically – very apropos in late capitalism.

During Bikini Kill’s first go-round, men — and some women — would attend Bikini Kill shows solely to hurl insults at the band. Those men didn’t dare show up in 2019. During the set, Hanna requested that straight white cis men in the audience notice the space they’re taking up and who around them might need more space to feel safe. She stopped saying “Girls to the front,” she told Pitchfork, in part because she didn’t want to misgender anyone, and also because the audience majority was now femme presenting.

The DIY origins of Bikini Kill encouraged women to start their own bands, create their own zines and be their own culture. And many have taken up that mantle. Compared to the ‘90s, technology in 2019 is a DIY wonderland: digital recording technology, streaming, printing. And people are using it to disseminate girl-style revolution. Bikini Kill’s underground hit “Rebel Girl” is now a staple of Girls Rock Camps across the world (and was even featured in Guitar Hero spin-off game Rock Band 2). Yet there’s always more work to be done.

I left Riot Fest giddy with the teenage satisfaction of seeing my heroes headline a festival. I was invigorated by the energy of a new generation of young feminists with ever so many more resources than just the CD I had mail-ordered from Kill Rock Stars. I also exited the festival grounds knowing I couldn’t safely take public transport home or stray too far from main thoroughfares, particularly in a short dress and knee socks – empowerment goes a long way, but there’s still so far to go. May Bikini Kill’s baker’s dozen of 2020 tour dates reenergize first-gen riot grrrls to continue our work and introduce our younger siblings to an ethos that will incite change and freedom over time.

The Decade’s Best Books by Women in Music

If I hadn’t read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, I wouldn’t be a rock writer. It was 2013. I had recently graduated art school and was dividing my time between three retail jobs: a liquor store, a grocery store, and a clothing store. One of my friends had recommended it to me, and even though I didn’t think of music as a big part of my identity anymore — something I’d felt pushed out of because I didn’t have the right taste or the correct opinions or the appropriate body of knowledge — I suddenly found myself reading about music a lot.

Maybe it’s because I was hanging out with female DJs. Or I wanted to ably push back when men told me everything that was wrong with what I listened to in break rooms. After four years of honing how my eyes took in information, it’s possible I was trying to improve my ears, too. But when I read Marcus’ 2010 release on long bus rides between cash registers, something in me changed.

Girls to the Front blends passion with criticism, betraying Marcus’ clear love for and intimate experience with riot grrrl while carefully laying out its many skeletons. Male critics love to trot out the feminist punk phenomenon as evidence they remember women play music, too: “I’m not sexist; I’ve heard of Bikini Kill!” But Marcus declares the movement as an important part of music history worthy of critical scrutiny — and hardly a beginning or end point for women in rock. Reading her book turned on a light in me I didn’t realize existed, and made me want to build on her work.

I don’t think I was the only one to react that way, either. In many respects, Girls to the Front anticipated the next 10 years of music books. 2010 to 2019 was a banner time for publishing women writing about rock. And I’m not just saying this as someone who was so inspired by a book about ladies’ sweat-stained expressions of rebellion that I made a slow professional shift; I have the receipts. Not only did this decade give us more women’s stories, but we also witnessed small but meaningful strides in the kinds of stories prioritized (memoirs from the likes of Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, Carrie Brownstein, et al became so ubiquitous they didn’t even fit into this list). What follows is a roving, incomplete list of books — one from each year — that marked small but powerful shifts in the rock ’n’ roll landscape.

2010: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

The 2010 debut from ’70s punk-poet icon set a new standard for memoirs well beyond the rock pantheon. In lyrical prose, Patti Smith describes her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — its evolution from friendship to romance to creative wellspring. Even more than a eulogy for one of her most formative friendships, though, it’s a love letter to her influences: Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and so on. She gives longform life to Rainer Maira Rilke’s romantic ideas of art as a calling. And because of this title’s wild success — it was a bestseller that garnered numerous awards including the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction — Just Kids opened the memoir floodgates for everyone from Kim Gordon to Ani DiFranco.

2011: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Ellen Willis is probably best remembered as a feminist cultural critic who touched on everything from decriminalizing drugs to antisemitism on the Left. Somewhat lesser known is that she began her career as a music writer. In 1968, Ellen Willis became the first pop music critic at The New Yorker — the first ever music critic to write for a national audience. Despite influencing writers such as Griel Marcus and Ann Powers, Willis died in 2006 never seeing her music criticism get its due. In this tome, her daughter, Nona Willis Arnowitz, brings together writing that, while very of its time, was a hugely important landmark for music coverage.

2012: Alice Bag’s Violence Girl

Before she was releasing Christmas tracks about punching nazis or clacking away on typewriters alongside Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, Alice Bag was screaming with The Bags. She first cemented her punk legacy with a cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, but Bag has long proven her stay power. In her book, she describes growing up Latinx in L.A.; unlearning the violence she grew up surrounded by; going hip-to-hip and lip-to-lip with both men and women; and how these experiences shaped her life’s work as an activist, educator, and musician. Early L.A. punk was queer and brown, and it had so many women — and Alice Bag will not let you forget.

2013: Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

I do a women’s rock history podcast, and my first season is on the Runaways; there may be some heavy bias in this choice. But I’m letting it stand because Evelyn McDonnell has long written about the varied and important ways women have contributed to popular culture, and to me, this is her magnum opus. Queens of Noise provides cultural context while separating fact from fiction for one of rock history’s most storied, undervalued bands. In 2015, the Runaways’ bassist Jackie Fox revealed she was raped by the band’s manager and producer, Kim Fowley. While McDonnell’s book hints at this, she resists outing Fox or even letting Fowley’s predatory, abusive behavior define the band’s legacy. The book is not about what was done to these women; it’s about what these women did for themselves.

2014: Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

While Viv Albertine’s memoir tells the story of being an influential musician at the center of 1970s British punk, it’s also an account of everything that comes after that: marriage, motherhood, cancer, divorce — even relearning how to play the guitar. Among other things, Albertine reveals shrinking her musical past to emotionally accommodate her husband and fighting with her publisher to forego a ghostwriter. Thank the stars she won that fight, because her voice is strong, insightful, and intimate. One of the simple elegances of Albertine’s autobiography is how she marks time in a way familiar to so many women and femme music lovers: what she was wearing in that moment, what she was listening to, and who she was dating.

2015: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

When I initially saw this in a bookstore, I actually scoffed. At the time, I was regularly reading so much excellent music criticism from women that my brain couldn’t yet wrap itself around the bold and unfortunate fact of the title. Highlights include Jessica Hopper’s essay on emo (“Where the Girls Aren’t”); Hole fact-checking Wikipedia during an oral history of Live Through This; and an interview with journalist Jim DeRogatis where Hopper unpacks her initial instinct to separate R. Kelly’s art from his abuses and admits that was a mistake.


2016: Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace uses diaries entries dating back to the third grade to open up about transitioning, which makes it a landmark trans memoir. But beyond what the book means for transgender visibility, Grace also talks about what led her to punk and anarchism; being part of one of the most celebrated punk bands of the aughts; and reconciling her DIY punk past with finding commercial success — and what it meant when early audiences rejected Against Me! for “selling out.”


2017: Jenn Pelly’s The Raincoats – The Raincoats (33 1/3)

Stories of ’70s heroines really came of age this decade, but so did the critics raised on them. If contributing Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly’s articles are like singles, here was her first LP. Drawing on glimpses into the Raincoats’ personal archives and using interviews from bands such as Sleater-Kinney and Gang of Four, Pelly provides a tender, collage-like account of the Raincoats’ self-titled debut and how its influence lives on. But perhaps as important as the book was its New York launch party, which bridged multiple generations of music. In attendance was a veritable who’s-who of women in rock, and it led to Bikini Kill’s reunion tour.

2018: Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir

Against Memoir is exactly what the title suggests: it’s not a memoir, but it’s not NOT a memoir, either. Which also to say, it’s not a music book, but it’s not NOT a music book. Some writers observe things like how music is made or who it’s made with; Tea chronicles what happens after it’s heard, sandwiching it between myriad other cultural observations and self reflections. The result is a piecemeal queer history of music that resists historicization. Highlights include her “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — Camp Trans being the trans-inclusive music festival that sprung up across the road from trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — and her history of HAGS, a ’90s San Francisco dyke gang orbited by Tribe 8 who kept bands like L7, Lunachicks, and 7 Year Bitch on heavy rotation.

2019: Shawna Potter’s Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot

Drawing on over 20 years of experience fronting the hardcore band War on Women, Shawna Potter has been an active voice for improving physical and psychological safety for marginalized people in music spaces. She’s led trainings at large clubs and tiny DIY venues alike, and now she has a book of actionable advice for minimizing and responding to harassment. Potter takes the conversation beyond acknowledging the aggression targeted at so many people in music, especially women and gender-nonconforming people, and declares, “Here’s some things we can do about it.” This, like so many other titles on the list, gives us a glimpse into what the next decade (hopefully) holds: a more inclusive future for women in rock – musicians, fans, and writers alike.

WOMAN OF INTEREST: Chelsea Ursin Relives Awkward Teen Years for “Dear Young Rocker” Podcast

Most people would rather do almost anything than repeatedly relive their most cringe-worthy moments of adolescence and young adulthood. But writer, bassist, and storyteller Chelsea Ursin has done just that in her podcast Dear Young Rocker,” a tell-all, diaristic recount of her time growing up and feeling like an outcast as a female bass player in a very much male-dominated space. Her eight-episode first season is a brutally honest, witty, and sometimes hilarious coming of age tale that deals with issues like body image, imposter syndrome, and hormones.

Ursin says she took a break from playing music while studying writing but was reinvigorated while volunteering for the Boston chapter of Girls Rock Camp, an organization formed to empower young female and non-binary youth through playing music. Instructing for Girls Rock inspired Ursin to start up her own fuzz-rock band, Banana, and share her journey of the ups and downs of being a female musician. Since releasing the podcast, she’s also started a Youtube channel that addresses topics like self-esteem and friendships. We talked with Ursin about the making of “Dear Young Rocker” and navigating music in a man’s world.

Audiofemme: You say on the DYR site that “this is a story for the weirdos. The loners. Those who felt alone and found a home in music.” Besides offering solidarity to other people going through what you went through, what prompted you to make this podcast?

Chelsea Ursin: It was kind of a culmination of a lot of things. I had been playing in rock bands since I was like 14 years old. That was a way for me to connect with people when I couldn’t because I had pretty severe social anxiety and body issues and everything else. I was the only girl I knew of anywhere that played in a rock band and I just always tried to be “as good as the boys.” I tried to be really good so I don’t look like a stupid girl and misrepresent my people or something. But I never put it together as a problem with the patriarchy or other people that were going through that. I just thought “I’m messed up, I’m a loner, so I have to fight really hard for myself.” When I got older and started taking feminist theory and women’s studies, I started to realize that being marginalized in this way has a lot to do with why I played rock music in the first place and why I got so much out of it, and I was part of a way larger community of people that felt left out or othered in the music community.

And then, it wasn’t until Grad school, when everyone was writing about these terrible things that happened to them and I was like, “I just want to write about rock music because I miss it.” I thought it was important and I hadn’t been playing. Then, someone told me about Girls Rock camp because they read my writing and then they told me about riot grrl, which I had somehow never even heard of… I had this new teenage-dom when I was like 25 and I was like, “Wow, there’s so many other people that felt alone like me, this community of weirdos is huge and I want to bring them together.” So, I decided to write a memoir about my time as a musician. Then I started volunteering at girls rock camp, and I saw these little kids going through the same stuff I had gone through as a teenager, and then being able to rock out on stage in front of hundreds of people. I thought, “If they can do this, I can start my own band.” Then I had this confidence renaissance where I started my own band, I wrote a book, and then publishing a book seemed like this archaic impossible thing. I studied sound engineering in college for a couple years, even though I dropped out because all of the boys intimidated me, so I was like, “I’m gonna make a podcast.”

AF: How were you able to remember all of these stories and events from high school in such great detail?

CU: I mean, a lot of it has to do with anger. I think anger lights up your brain because when I first started writing about this stuff, I just got angry. I had never been angry at the people who had made me feel like crap as a kid, I had always just accepted it. I had always been like, “oh this guy’s playing this crazy riff in front of me, it’s not because he’s trying to make me feel bad, it’s because I am bad and I’m not good enough.” So when I started writing about it, I felt so bad for my teenage self. And felt like “you thought you sucked but you were amazing!” And all this anger prompted me to remember all these things that happened, and in the finished product, it reads as one story, but when I was writing, I would remember one detail. I’d go back and listen to a certain Pixies song and I would remember the smell of the paint when me and my band did this painting project together. Then, I would remember someone singing a Queen song. I just put down as many tiny details in as I could, then I’d put myself into that state and put more details.

AF: Was it painful to revisit some of these memories? Especially the ones that deal with self-esteem and body issues?

CU: Yes, a lot of the time I’d write about this stuff and I couldn’t even leave the house after, because it just became so real again. I’m still processing this, because this is so much a part of my life now telling this story, that sometimes even now, if I go to a party and I don’t know a whole lot of people and I end up sitting by myself for a minute, instead of being mature me and going and making a friend, I just sit there and think “No one likes me.” I bring all this stuff up to the front and sometimes it still hits me.  

AF: You talked about having a “confidence renaissance” prior to writing the podcast, but before that, did some of the feelings of social anxiety and self-esteem that your younger self deals with in the podcast carry on into adulthood?

CU: Oh yeah, they are still there all the time and I still fight them every day. A lot of this project is talking to my (current) self, too. When I give advice at the end and it’s for my teenage self, it’s still very much for me. Sometimes, I’ll complain to a friend about being bummed or whatever and I’ll see things sort of in a skewed way, and my friend will be like, “You need to listen to your podcast.” Once those triggers are set in, they don’t ever really completely go away, but I can see them now for what they are and I can fight them.

ARTIST INTERVIEW: Behind The Scenes With Thundera


I met with Thundera on January 19 at Smash Studios in Midtown, where they practice weekly. I got there a few minutes late and could hear through the door that they were in the middle of a song. I awkwardly stood outside, debating whether I should wait for the song to be over. Even muffled through the door, they sounded great- hard, steady rock that gives a nod to punk without relying on the simplicity that is sometimes a cliche of the genre. Finally, I walked in.

Thundera formed in 2011, their first practice sessions starting that Spring. After a string of bad luck with bassists, they decided to stop looking for one about a year ago, and remain a trio: Rissa on vocals, Marianna on guitar, and Bruni on drums. Rissa and Marianna met at City College of New York, where Marianna is finishing her last semester, and Rissa just graduated. After some hesitation (“I get nervous about these things”), Marianna answered a flyer that Rissa put up. Marianna’s sister then found Bruni on craigslist. “She was looking for a used car, though,” Bruni jokes.

We could faintly hear the sounds of a cover band start practicing in the room next to us – it sounded like they were playing a bad version of “Roxanne.”

Bruni said that she had been looking for a band for awhile before meeting the rest of Thundera, but hadn’t had much luck. “Some Craigslist ads are really weird…  there was always some weird angle to it. Some people get really specific. Like – we really love Meg White or whatever. So you have to kind of look like her. And you have to play this way, the way she did in this concert. It’s not a costume party!”

Rissa’s flyer mentioned the bands she was hoping to find a common interest with potential bandmates: Joan Jett, The Clash, (Well, I like The Clash,” she clarified) Iggy Pop, and Bikini Kill. Though those groups are the band’s foundation, Marianna admits a love for grunge acts such as Soundgarden and Nirvana, and Bruni has eclectic tastes – except for thrash metal. After a brief discussion about whether early Metallica falls under that genre, she clarifies, “They’re still audible in their early stuff. I mean when people are singing like, rarghgargharhga.”


The way they chose their name fits the trio’s playful, laid-back vibe: they drew names out of a hat. Potential titles include The Swirls and The Electronics, but Thundera, which was Bruni’s suggestion, was chosen. Was it rigged? “Maybe,” Bruni laughs. “It was her hat,” Rissa adds.

The cover band next door began an attempt at Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

Rissa says they try to play two shows a month; they’ve played venues like the Paper Box, Bowery Electric, The Fifth Estate, and The Grand Victory. When I ask them what their favorite venue is, Bruni jokes, “Madison Square Garden. I like the way they treat me there,” before agreeing that it depended on the venue’s sound. “We’re really lucky, because we know a lot of female bands,” Bruni said. “We play a lot with the same bands, because we’re kind of all grouped together in the Riot Grrl/punk scene. Other shows that we book independently, we’re kind of the only girls.”

“It’s a nice little community to be a part of,” Rissa adds. But, being in a working band takes, well, work, Bruni says:  “People want to say that they’re dedicated to music, but because it’s something artistic they also wanna say they’re not tied down to it. But you have to be really serious about it if you want to get anything out of it. It’s like having another job.”

I asked Thundera about their recordings on Reverb Nation, and they collectively groan and describe the recording process as “a weird set-up.” At the end of 2015 they recorded 11 songs for their next album, were starting the mixing process the weekend after the interview. Hopefully, they said, it would be done by the summer.

For a good idea of the band’s sound, check out their performance of “Thundera:”