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Bikini Kill Is the Band the World Needs Now

Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox on why they’re bringing their pioneering riot-grrrl act back for the era of Donald Trump

Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs onstage at O2 Academy Brixton on June 10th, 2019, in London.

Ollie Millington/Redferns/Getty Images

“Since Trump was elected, there’ve been all these times when the news is on and I’m singing a Bikini Kill song in my head,” says Kathleen Hanna. “It’s like I need to hear these songs.”

She’s not alone. Since reuniting with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox and drummer Tobi Vail in 2019, ending a 22-year break, Hanna has been performing songs like 1993’s “Rebel Girl” for their biggest crowds ever. “With the #MeToo movement and a president who says, ‘Grab them by the pussy,’ it’s hard not to feel like, ‘OK, feminism’s coming back,’” adds the singer, 51.

Hanna discovered feminism at age 19, when she first read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Soon, she was performing spoken-word poetry about sexism and violence, and later packing clubs with Bikini Kill. Onstage, she screamed in dresses and body paint, the word “slut” sometimes written across her stomach. After Bikini Kill disbanded, Hanna kept pushing forward with new bands Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin. She wasn’t sure at first about reuniting. “I didn’t want to be a parody of myself in my twenties,” she says. “But I was so excited to be hearing the songs live again that it felt natural and right.”

One thing that’s changed since Bikini Kill’s first run is the wholehearted way the world has embraced them this time. “We are getting so much more positivity and love than ever before,” Hanna says, “and we’re not having to spend all of our energy being upset that a fanzine we like just wrote a whole article about my ass.”

Vail, 50, has been feeling the same energy. “People of all ages are coming to the show, so that’s pretty cool,” she says. “With the punk scene or whatever, often it’s just people in their twenties. It’s not intergenerational in the way that these shows have been. That feels special.”

She’s found particular power in performing “Tell Me So,” from 1993’s Pussy Whipped — a cathartic tantrum of a song with a strong critique of the male gaze. “The performance of that song was always like a screaming toddler or something,” Vail says. “It feels really weird to be occupying that physical space as a middle-aged woman, but it also feels bizarrely in some ways natural, because it’s so performative. In Bikini Kill, I was able to be more feminine because I felt like I was in control.”

In the age of #MeToo, the reclamation of femininity separate from male desire seems all the more relevant — and Bikini Kill’s catalog seems to have a song for every feeling. “I can hardly get through ‘Feels Blind’ without starting to cry. I really have to focus,” says Wilcox, 50, referring to the song off the band’s 1991 debut EP, on which Hanna proclaims, “I’m the woman I was taught to always be: hungry.”

“When I look in the front row or the first few rows I see all these people crying, so I know it’s not just me,” Wilcox adds.

The fact that this is an election year is not lost on Bikini Kill’s members, who say that’s one reason they’re playing a more extensive reunion tour this spring and summer instead of one-off concerts. “People are so upset, women in particular, and there’s still all this anger right now,” Wilcox says. “Everybody can come together in a room and have that moment. It doesn’t feel like they’re just getting some sort of nostalgic thrill — like, ‘Oh, I’m listening to this band I listened to when I was a teenager.’ It feels good. It feels relevant.”

Last time around, Hanna recalls, she played New York with the Julie Ruin just days after Trump’s win in November 2016. “It ended up being cathartic,” she says. “At least we weren’t all at home crying to Cat Power records.” She’s still mulling whom to support as this year’s Democratic primary heats up, but notes, “I believe in [Elizabeth] Warren. I would love to see her win.”

In the meantime, she’ll be on the road with the band that started it all, starting with a pair of benefit shows this month in their hometown of Olympia, Washington. “It’s definitely what I call, ‘these troubled times,’” Hanna says. “But [performing] is … nourishing.”