A cis white male interviews Bikini Kill

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Bikini Kill live

“Capitalism does not want free men. It wants men with wives and children who are dependent on them for support. Mothers' pensions will be hard fought for before they are ever gained… Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” –Floyd Bell, 1914

Labels. In music they are a double entendre: a company sticker slapped on a record, and the much more subjective label of genres, agendas, and movements. Of the latter, few are more prevalent in today's music subculture as “punk” and “feminist”—four syllables that can mean so much devoid of context and whose definitions are completely different depending on who you're talking to. Two words with such power that to discuss them from a purely 2014 perspective would be to abuse history. Luckily for me, Bikini Kill are active again, both in the label of riot grrrl, as well as the business-side, launching their own Bikini Kill imprint to reissue such classics as Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and their eponymous EP.

But before we get to the p- and f-words: can we expect a reunion?

“I pretty much feel like we did everything we set out to do and when the band broke up it was definitely time for it to end—personally and creatively,” Tobi Vail tells me when I ask if the new label is pointing to something larger. “Politically, we achieved what we set out to do and what we started continues without us. I really didn’t think we would ever do a label though, so really, you never know. Personally, I don’t see it happening.”

While no reunion shows might seem like a disservice to their fans, Bikini Kill remain as relevant as ever. With a wave of female bands attaining success in the indie world, the topic of women in music, and specifically, in punk bands, is hyperrelevant once again. Few can speak on the arc of its trajectory and progress better than Vail and former bassist Kathi Wilcox. So as feminism pertains to independent music and culture, are we in a better place now than, say, 25 years ago?

“I have been a part of the punk scene in Olympia for 30 years now—I’m 44 and started going to shows here at 14 and playing in bands at 15,” Vail says. “When I started going to shows here it was rare to see women on stage but it did happen. It was rare for there to be a woman playing drums and all female bands were extremely rare. All female bills just did not happen. That started happening more in the early '90s here and has continued but it’s not the norm. We still don’t have gender parity and we still don’t have gender justice in society at large. So really, a lot of the issues are the same—male-dominated public space, male-centered music culture, sexual assault within our communities, sexual abuse against teens, lack of women in positions of cultural power, etc.”

Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox in 1991.

Despite this mixed progress, a new generation of punks rightfully look to luminaries like BK as an influence for progressive strategies. But as the streams of music revenue change, so have attitudes toward aligning yourself with corporate culture. The bands who are now the bearers of feminism and the punk ethos must recognize how their impact can be diluted by a cynical, capitalistic agenda. “The critical thinking seems to have evaporated a bit,” Wilcox laments.

“I definitely feel that with popular indie musicians, it feels like there isn't that sort of criticism. It's like, 'Yeah, of course we're all doing Volkswagon ads, or we're in Elle magazine or whatever.' I feel that was different in the '90s. Maybe a lot of people are glad it's not that way anymore, but what happened to actually looking at these things critically and saying, 'What part do I play in the parts of popular culture that I actually disagree with and hate?'”

Listening to Wilcox describe feelings of disdain for the apathy that lives in a scene dominated by Green Label Sounds, Houses of Vans, and Converse Rubber Tracks, it's easy to understand how the line between the acceptable and unacceptable consumerism in punk is getting ever blurrier, although her mention of Elle magazine raises another interesting side of this conversation.

Perfect Pussy is a band who has a very specific message thanks to their dynamic frontwoman Meredith Graves. Take away any political intentions and she's simply a woman singing in a punk band, but Graves, like Bikini Kill, wears her agenda proudly on her sleeve. And while this sets her apart, many have pointed out that—from blood-infused vinyl to Elle photo shoots—it's also a very marketable quality. Having recently spoken to Graves, I ask Vail if she thinks capitalism infringes on the message of a band like Perfect Pussy.

“Perfect Pussy know exactly what they are doing and why. That is a rare thing,” Vail confirms, as though to stop my thinking in its tracks.

“That said, they are in an interesting position,” she continues. “Talking to a friend who works in a record store, the people that come in asking for their record are mostly 50-year-old men who follow 'serious music journalism.' That’s kind of what happened to Sleater-Kinney too. It was weird but you know, it’s weird being hyped, there’s always gonna be a backlash, and the backlash sells papers (generates clicks?) just as much, if not more, as the hype—and it also sells records. To paraphrase Bell Hooks, you can’t expect to challenge things and also have approval. This quote gave me great solace in the early days of Bikini Kill. I can relate to the position Meredith is in and I have nothing but respect for her.”

And then, unknowingly, Tobi said something that melted my heart, and in doing so, prompted some self-reflection of my own:

“I’m not an indie rocker though, I’m a punk and punks stick together when shit gets real. I've got her back.”

This seems like a good time to let the cat out of the bag: I'm a cis white male. I didn't know what that was until OK Cupid set me free some years ago. Thanks to the “Google of online dating,” I was able to find my ultra-definitive categorization. My label. Unfortunately for me, I'm the beneficiary of all of this country's racism, sexism, capitalism, and just about every -ism you can think of. Pay no mind to the 25% of me that is not Caucasian, or a lifetime of trying to dispel all of those -isms, as Ian MacKaye put it some 30 years ago, I'm guilty of being white. Being a man doesn't help matters.

This is worth noting because what I find so appealing about Bikini Kill (aside from their music) is their punk philosophy, but also because I don't think I could post this article without being honest with myself and all of you. And if we're being honest, I must admit, I also find this video to be incredibly appealing, in a way that's sure to be hampered by the identity crisis discussed above. Here, I struggle to parse out where my heady, unbiased appreciation stops, and my cis white male-ness begins.

As one of the first YouTube commenters point out, to reduce someone like Kathleen Hanna to an object of desire is a cardinal sin. I know this and feel guilty for even thinking it. As Kathleen addressed in “Star Bellied Boy”, maybe I'm no fucking different than the rest. Am I “Not All Man?”

Yet it brings me back to the age-old question: Should sexuality and feminism be mutually exclusive, and to a larger point, are we anointing certain women musicians over others based on attraction? If so, aren't we all guilty of that? After all, I know this to be true for male musicians. Kathi points to something larger than my myopic view.

“I think people now, young women especially, are being bombarded with confusing messages about how to look, and just the overall pornification of everything. It is way more different now that it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Speaking of porn, something else has dominated our culture in the past three decades unlike anything we'd ever seen before: the Internet. And while the rapid-fire honesty of social media sites can be seen as signs of progress, immediacy carries its own disturbing reality.

“I never would've expected the internet to just turn into this portal for extreme objectification of women,” Kathi continues. “I mean, I guess you could've expected it, but not to the degree that it is. Even just riding the subway in NY, you go down in the subway station and you go by all these ads, and it's like, 'Man, this just sucks.' I feel bad for young people, because they're just growing up in this stew of fucked up body images. It's a tough thing, and it's a cultural thing, and how do you solve that?”

I shift the conversation away from objectification towards classification. What about women who are popular specifically because they're women? And to take it one step further, is it hypocritical that, on one hand, it is expected that we look beyond sexuality and gender when discussing bands, yet it would seem most of the people lumping women musicians into separate categories are often times women (magazines/websites for women musicians, labels for women musicians, venues for women musicians, etc). I struggle with whether that's a good thing or reinforcing the stereotype. To use a clumsy example, it's kind of like segregation.

“That's a good question,” Kathi affirms, much to my relief. “Ultimately, for me, the ideal scenario is that it isn't always the issue. If you're a woman in a band, it's no longer a novelty that it becomes the first thing you talk about. It's so common for women to be playing music, you ultimately get to move beyond that topic…”

“On the other side of it,” she continues, “it was important for [Bikini Kill] to be recognized as women musicians because we were a feminist band. So in a way, we created riot grrrl, but we weren't creating it to be used as a hammer against other girls in bands. That was how we identified our band, but it wasn't as though we felt all women in bands should be viewed through that prism.”

Tobi was much more direct.

“As long as women are oppressed by patriarchy (maintained by systems of power that are largely economic and reinforced by sexual violence) feminism needs to exist. Some feminist artists/musicians decide to politically align themselves with other women via the presentation (and sometimes content) of their work. This is often done to create community and seize power. Other feminist artists/musicians choose other strategies. These are all valid choices, given our current situation as disenfranchised members of society (disenfranchised to various degrees; race/class/gender/sexual identity etc.).”

I realize midway through this conversation that it is becoming an exercise in reaffirming my confidence that I am not a total douchebag. Yet, forcing this conversation upon the members of Bikini Kill is a total douchebag move. It's neither theirs, or any women's, responsibility to quell my insecurities about being viewed through a cis white male lens. So I move to an insecurity we can both share: running a record label. After all, being a capitalist isn't very punk.

“I have a love/hate attitude towards record labels,” Vail explains. “On the one hand, we need them and they can be cool—especially when they actually pay bands and don’t exploit them—but on the other hand, a record label is a business and has to navigate all kinds of capitalist scenarios: they produce waste, they manufacture plastic, which is very toxic, profit is created by the exploitation of workers (and unpaid interns) and a record is, by definition, a commodity in this economy.”

To be fair, it wasn't anyone in Bikini Kill's idea to start a label—at least initially. If it were not for Tobi and her sister Maggie's forced-retirement from Kill Rock Stars, the label they helped develop and grow, there would be no need to start their own. But it does offer a renewed sense of independence. As Vail points out, this is a label created specifically to put out Bikini Kill’s back catalog and document things on their own terms with complete control of their representation and material. Still, she digresses.

“It’s just kind of a bummer that that is what being in a band is all about—peddling plastic. It’s not sustainable and yet this is what we fetishize and collect. I speak as someone who has thousands of records in my own collection. I have mixed feelings about it all. Maybe this is the problem with doing things on a professional level as opposed to staying in the amateur realm. I don’t know.”

I feel as though Vail's inability to justify Bikini Kill's remunerative endeavor mirrors that of my cis white male identity crisis. Are we inherently defined by our label, can we alter our label by our actions, and ultimately, can we even choose what defines us?

Rather fittingly, Tobi concludes her thought by echoing the sentiments of journalist Susan Faludi, who writes that, while feminism “has succeeded in securing for women a substantial beachhead in the public realms of education, employment, and professional life,” it’s a mistake, Tobi says, “to equate small business owner or even successful business woman with feminism.”

“I don’t really think capitalism liberates women, I think it’s part of the problem.”

At that moment I came to the realization that all feminists might not be punks, but all punks are feminists. And cis white male or not, Bikini Kill makes me proud to be a punk.

Kathi Wilcox is currently playing bass in The Julie Ruin. Tobi Vail is putting the finishing touches on a new album with her band Spider and the Webs and is also “happy to be packing orders for Bikini Kill Records and writing about music for Wondering Sound.” She is also active on Twitter.