“This is like a time machine!” Kathleen Hanna panted to the crowd of 5,000 at Bikini Kill’s first full show in two decades. Thursday night was the first of four blockbuster sold-out shows at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Palladium. This show was more than just a nostalgia trip for Nineties feminist punks reveling in those were the days camaraderie — the crowd was equally, if not more so, filled with younger fans, mostly women, who were graced with the Easter-adjacent miracle of their favorite band rising from the great beyond.
In the 22 years since Bikini Kill split, two entire generations of feminist punks have grown up. The riot grrrl movement they helped lead has been written into history, studied by millennials in their twenties and thirties and Gen Z kids alike. What Thursday night’s reunion proved is that Bikini Kill’s demand of “revolution girl style, now” remains very much alive in the present, transcending the early Nineties and even punk itself.
Right from the jump — literally, as frontwoman Kathleen Hanna bounded onstage in a mini-skirt and circusy sequin top, skipping around to greet the audience in her disarming cool-girl goofball glee — Bikini Kill played as if their energy had been cryonically preserved in 1997. Perhaps it was thawed by global warming, or even by Hanna’s recent-ish move to Los Angeles. Or more likely, Bikini Kill were summoned back to life by the boiling heat of today’s political moment. We need their fighting words in these grim times.
At these shows, original members Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox are being joined by guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle in lieu of Billy Karren. The reunion lineup was air-tight, having rehearsed over the last couple years to a powerhouse punk polish. They pummeled through half a dozen anthems in the first 20 minutes, from the declaration of us-girls independence of “Don’t Need You” to the arresting, wailing poetics of “Feels Blind.” I asked an original Olympia riot grrrl how the show compared to the Bikini Kill gigs of her past, and she told me “nothing was different.”
“In these troubled times, we need to remember witchcraft,” Hanna pondered. “Maybe we can’t fix everything, but what we make in this room and in our lives, we’re still changing shit, and they can’t take that away from us.” It was an on-pitch call-out to the political feeling of the day (year? era? rest-of-our-lifetimes?) — the daily daze of, what the fuck is going on? — as well as a call back to the core of Bikini Kill’s DIY ethos: Let’s start, right here, right now.
Right on time, the cry from the audience came to get “girls to the front” — the famous riot grrrl concert mantra, meant to both center and protect female fans and, back in the days where Bikini Kill played on smaller stages than this, to protect the band by staving off rabid bros with a feminine energy forcefield. Hanna scanned the floor: “I don’t think we need to bring girls to the front, I think we have it taken care of!” Their hard-won efforts for safety and equality at punk shows, which brought them so much vitriol in the Nineties, seemed like a not-so-minor victory. Hanna’s voice was lurid and lucid as ever, and the band hit rock hard and solid, playing like the forces they fought against haven’t gone away yet. Their mid-set performance of the Jenny Holzer-inspired “Resist Psychic Death” briefly made the word resist meaningful again after its post-election hashtag dilution.
Drummer Tobi Vail turned her back to the audience, changed shirts, and came up to the mic. “I sing some songs in this band,” she deadpanned. “Kathleen was like, ‘Some people are gonna be surprised.’” She cut into a back-to-back of iconic proto-fuckboi tell-off “I Hate Danger” and scene-searing “In Accordance With Natural Law.” In traditional Bikini Kill style, the band rotated places a few more times throughout their 90-minute set. In the beginning, Vail explained, “We were trying to get other women to start bands,” so they switched instruments to show that you didn’t have to know shit, or even give a shit, to play.
The most pure joy of the Bikini Kill live show is getting to revel in that femme-punk uncanny zone between the sexy, the smart and the absurd. It’s the band’s special magic, one that’s acted like a preservative over the years, conserving their appeal for future generations of self-confident girls and intelligent punks. Hanna’s liberating, fun weirdo choreography goes from chicken dance to pogo to go-go vixen to cheerleader with mesmerizingly quick transitions. To see it happen in person is like a metaphorical lesson on how to be the Ultimate DGAF Gal — hilarious, hyper, dead sexy, and deadly smart— and to play with the transformations, the display. It’s especially powerful to watch her body make this argument for fun and vitality and confidence, after her recent years of struggling with serious illness (Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2014).
Opener Alice Bag, an Angeleno legend who founded the early punk group The Bags and who is now a prolific community activist and educator, kicked off the night with a fierce opening set. Gesturing to the continuing legacy of women punks, she invited to the stage Bratmobile’s Alison Wolfe, Chilean-American pop star Francisca Valenzuela, record producer Lysa Flores and Teri Gender Bender of Mexican punk band Le Butcherettes. Bag shattered the anticipatory air with songs about reforming the education system, wage inequality, ageism, and a highlight, screaming “No Means No” with a high-voltage fervor that made being a punk in your sixties look extremely aspirational.
As for Bikini Kill, it feels funny to talk about legacy with a band still so young in the grand scheme of life. But as Hanna put it, the support for “feminist performance-art punks over 30” moved her. “We didn’t think we’d sell out one” night at the 5,000-capacity Palladium, let alone four. Which seems absurd, considering, as a friend told me under the influence of post-show adrenaline, “This is our Beatles!”
Bikini Kill saved two of their best call-to-arms anthems for the encore. Like the moon changing phases, the floor of the Palladium suddenly waxed into a nearly full floor pit with fans howling along to their formative anthems. I watched a young girl jump on a male stranger’s back during “Double Dare Ya” and drive him around the floor for the rest of the song. “Suck My Left One” was next, as thousands of right fists pumped along to the growl of “left one.”
Bikini Kill’s second encore was a cool-down, with the tenderhearted friends-for-life ode “For Tammy Rae,” which Hanna dedicated to her mom. There were several mother-daughter duos in the audience, a sweet display of the trans-generational impact of this singular girl punk band from Olympia, Washington. It was an all-ages show in a literal sense, from middle-aged punks to preteen grrrls, celebrating the fact that Bikini Kill has lived on as a band and an ethos.
DON’T NEED YOU
I HATE DANGER
TELL ME SO
THIS IS NOT A TEST
RESIST PSYCHIC DEATH
RAH RAH REPLICA
DOUBLE DARE YA/SMLO (encore)
FOR TAMMY RAE (2nd encore)