“Twenty-five years ago, Liz Phair came up with an interesting concept for her debut album: She would record a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 double LP Exile on Main St. Eighteen songs later, she had the cheekily titled Exile in Guyville, a brash, candid and swaggering album that became a key addition to the alternative-rock canon.”
That quote came from a Rolling Stone article plugging the 2018 release of the 25th-anniversary Exile in Guyville box set that followed the 15th-anniversary re-release of Exile in Guyville in 2008, complete with bonus tracks and a DVD depicting the album’s creation. Prior to that release, Exile in Guyville had gone out of print and there were no digital versions available. Quite a fall for an album that Pitchfork rated the 5th best . . . check that . . . list revised four years later . . . 30th best album of the ’90s.
Allow me to put all that information in perspective:
- Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone is and has always been a shill for the music industry. One should approach their material with caution and due skepticism.
- Exile in Guyville is not exactly a song-by-song reply to Exile on Main St. Liz Phair wrote some of the songs before the concept was born, so there was some after-the-concept jimmying involved. In the article quoted above (titled “Liz Phair Breaks Down ‘Exile in Guyville,’ Track by Track), she only mentions the corresponding Exile on Main St. songs twice. It’s more accurate to say that Exile on Main St. served as a project plan template that helped Liz focus her songwriting efforts and organize previously-written material; it also served as an occasional guide to production. Feel free to waste your time trying to connect this song to that one, but methinks the alleged connections are more distraction than elucidation. The only people who could have possibly given a shit about a “reply” to a 21-year old album were Baby Boomers who believe that all double albums released during their salad years automatically qualify as classics.
- What is truly relevant about the creation of Exile in Guyville is what Liz wrote in the introduction to her autobiographical collection of essays, Horror Stories:
It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected. We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best. Our impulse is always to hide the evidence, blame someone else, put the things we feel guilty about or that were traumatizing behind us and act like everything is fine. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another. It closes a door that could lead to someone else’s heart. Our flaws and our failures make us relatable, not unlovable.
I learned this when I released my debut album, Exile in Guyville, back in 1993. I wrote those songs during one of the hardest periods of my life. I had no money, and I was lonely, confused about the future and angry about the past. The lyrics reflected my reality in an unflinching, unapologetic, and sometimes explicit way that people deeply connected with. Fans came up to me at my concerts expressing gratitude and admiration for my bravery in telling the truth, because it made them feel a little less isolated and overwhelmed by their own difficulties. They heard themselves in the music, not me.
Phair, Liz (2106-02-06T22:28:15). Horror Stories (Kindle Locations 106-107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It’s a pretty solid bet that most of those fans were young women. The songs on Exile in Guyville view life in the patriarchy through the eyes of a heterosexual young woman with a subversive streak who, in addition to experiencing the endless communication problems that afflict many intimate relationships, happens to find herself mixed up in the male-dominated indie scene in early ’90s Chicago (referred to as “Guyville” in a song by Urge Overkill), and by extension, the male-dominated music industry. Because all industries are male-dominated**, from tech to fashion to construction to porn, the experiences described and feelings expressed in Exile in Guyville are pretty much universal. You don’t have to be a rock star, a backup singer or even a groupie to understand where Liz Phair is coming from.
And you certainly don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the album. My sense is women appreciate the album because it’s validating: there isn’t much that Liz has to say that we all haven’t thought before (though she says it a lot better). The simple act of a woman giving voice to those thoughts in a public forum encouraged women to have more confidence in their perceptions of reality and talk openly about those perceptions. The album works for men because it’s an opportunity for enlightenment. This isn’t the stuff that a woman says to be nice in order to avoid placing a dent in your oversized ego—this is what a woman really thinks and feels while you’ve got your head up your ass thinking about what a helluva stud you are.
Gender and iconic rock stars aside, Exile in Guyville is an enjoyable album on many levels. First and foremost, Liz Phair was seriously on her songwriting game when she developed this material; the language is fresh and full of clever twists. Despite (or because of) the pain she was experiencing, there is a healthy amount of black humor in the lyrics to help lighten the mood. Liz’s guitar style is more strummer than picker; she sounds like a rocker who did a lot of acoustic solo gigs at small bars and coffee shops and tried to compensate for the absence of a full band by emphasizing rhythm and bottom-string bass. When that style is transferred to a full band environment, it creates some interesting contrasts and textures that give the music a down-to-earth quality. While her voice has limited range and relatively little belt-out power, she overcomes those limitations with wry deadpan and conversational phrasing. The production is excellent, largely because Liz and Brad Wood (who played several instruments on the album) were on the same page.
I will now break down each track on Exile in Guyville while restricting my references to The Rolling Stones and their shitty album to the bare minimum.
“6’1″”: The album opens with a snappy little rocker featuring assertive strumming from Liz and a marvelous bass counterpoint from Brad Wood. Liz delivers the song in a flat voice that wanders on and off-key, giving this tale of schadenfreude an appropriately sour tone. The story features Liz bumping into one of her exes on her way to work, a guy quite reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker in “Bar Italia” navigating his way through the effects of another all-nighter. Liz is not particularly happy to see him but does take a certain pleasure in his continuing decline:
I bet you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save
But all the money in the world is not enough . . .
And I kept standing six-feet-one
Instead of five-feet-two
And I loved my life
And I hated you
I always laugh when I hear Liz deadpan, “And I hated you,” reveling in the guilty pleasure of cutting an asshole down to size.
“Help Me Mary”: This is the track with the most obvious connection to Exile on Main St, so let me clarify my stance on that album.
I loathe Exile on Main St. I think it was one of the worst things The Stones ever did. They recorded it at a mansion about fifteen minutes away from my current abode and I’m afraid to drive by the place out of fear I might catch whatever The Stones had when they made that pile of crap.
Exile on Main St. is a guys album. “The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. ‘Moronic Party Album’ pretty much sums up Exile on Main St,” I wrote in my review. It’s the sound of supposedly mature men reverting back to adolescence under the influence of heroin (and whatever else was available) and recording their drug-fueled debauchery in the mansion’s basement. Listening to that album reminds me of all the creepy teenage guys who tried to force themselves on me at various parents-are-away parties: slurry, sloppy, slobby, stupid pricks who deserved the blue balls I gave them with my patented knee-to-nuts move.
“Help Me Mary” is the reply to “Rip This Joint,” a song that Liz described as “all about sort of the attitude of these rock guys that would just kind of roll into town, create trouble, sleep with other people’s girlfriends and leave a big mess behind.” Bingo! “Rip This Joint” is a paean to male musician entitlement, a celebration of the inalienable right of rock stars to trash hotel rooms, fuck ’em and leave ’em.
True story: I have a friend who used to work at one of the more exclusive hotels in Seattle. About ten or so years ago, this posh establishment had the pleasure of hosting a world-famous rock star in town on a one-night tour stop. This is a guy whose net worth exceeds what you or I will earn in a dozen lifetimes. During his thankfully brief stay, he not only inflicted serious damage to his suite but stole one of the paintings from the room! This is a guy who probably carries a monogrammed, diamond-studded paddle to the auctions at Christie’s! Why on earth would he steal an obvious reproduction? Because he could.
The experience Liz describes only involves male musicians from the Chicago indie scene, but give a guy a guitar and a loyal following of twenty or more and he thinks he’s Mick Fucking Jagger:
Help me, Mary, please
I’ve lost my home to thieves
They bully the stereo and drink
They leave suspicious stains in the sink
They make rude remarks about me
They wonder just how wild I would be
As they egg me on and keep me mad
They play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that
I lock my door at night
I keep my mouth shut tight
I practice all my moves
I memorize their stupid rules
I make myself their friend
I’ll show them just how far I can bend
When faced with toxic, drunken masculinity, Liz adopts an attitude of “safety first,” a wise but ultimately frustrating decision. When she sings the second go-round of that exceptionally vivid line, “They play me like a pit bull in a basement,” you hear the depth of that frustration in the way she spits out the word “basement.” Liz closes the song making two requests of Mother Mary. One is the old turn-the-other-cheek stand-by (“Temper my hatred with peace”); the second is sweet revenge (“Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame”). As things turned out, the success of Exile in Guyville earned a hostile response from indie purists, so I guess the virgin wasn’t of much help either way.
Compared to The Stones’ boisterous, slipshod performance on “Rip This Joint,” I’ll take the assertive drive of “Help Me Mary” anytime. Liz is seriously hot on dual rhythm guitar, propelling the song forward with clean, syncopated chords that meld strong attack with delightfully bright overtones. I also love her vocal overlays over the “egg me on” line (and wish there had been more of them).
“Glory”: Liz isn’t quite done with her analysis of the behavior of egomaniacal rockers. In “Glory” she describes a local player whose schtick involves a combination of cold intimidation and evocative displays of a very large tongue. The guy may have absconded the tongue idea from The Stones or Gene Simmons; then again, he might just be advertising his prowess in the art of cunnilingus—Liz doesn’t really say. What’s most interesting here is the music, featuring Liz on acoustic guitar and a low-tone organ remarkably free of reediness. This time she adds vocal overlays formed by echoing “you are” to punctuate the line “You are shining some glory,” a tongue-in-cheek line par excellence. After two solid rockers, it’s nice to hear well-executed haunting acoustic music.
“Dance of the Seven Veils”: Regarding this song, Liz told Rolling Stone, “He (Johnny) was the roommate who was basically – and rightfully so – convinced that I had bitten off more than I could chew and this was going to be a disaster.” Taking her word for it, the song is a rather gruesome revenge fantasy where Johnny’s going to buy it via either a) a gangland-style hit or b.) decapitation and his head on a platter a la Salome. Other than the memorable line, “I ask because I’m a real cunt in the spring,” the song doesn’t work for me.
“Never Said”: I can understand why “Never Said” turned out to be the album’s hit, given its formulaic adherence to repeating the hook ad infinitum, but I consider it one of the least interesting songs on the album. “[This was] just kind of like about the music scene and how catty it was. People were always getting upset about something that someone had said about their band or whatever the latest gossip was,” said Liz to Rolling Stone. I suppose the experience is transferable to other catty environments (like high school), but I never played those games and have a hard time relating to the lyrics. There isn’t anything wrong with the performances; the song just doesn’t grab me. I’m embedding the video because I like Liz’s smile and the way she wields a guitar.
“Soap Star Joe”: Things get much more interesting the second you hear Liz flying on heavily reverbed guitar and even more interesting when John Casey enters the fray with a wickedly hot harmonica. The subject matter here is dating older guys, a subject in which I have a great deal of experience. It’s a weird dynamic—most of the older men I dated were basically nice guys but so pathetically insecure:
He’s just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in
On the back of a pickup
And he won’t leave town
‘Til you remember his name
She later describes Soap Star Joe as “looking for some lonely billboard to grace,” a brilliant line that tells me Liz probably dated some agents, either in real estate or insurance. Deep inside they know they’re just one of a million other agents and try to compensate by working hard to “be someone.” They want to be heroes because America values heroes. Lacking access to Erymanthian Boars, Lernean Hydras or any of the other labors of Hercules, they turn their midlife crisis into a heroic quest in search of young babes to make them appear “heroic” (kind of like the Vikings did by plundering all the good-looking blondes and taking them home instead of engaging in garden-variety raping and pillaging). Joe’s “heroism” involves finding “something attractive to save” because all women need saving and it’s nice to save your most cherished possessions so you can show them to the boys and tell them to go mix some drinks.
In a stirring rebuke to the concept of American exceptionalism, Liz ends the song by holding up the mirror, and the image we see is not the sculpted, ripped, loaded-with steroids-body depicted in those dreadful action films or the suave ladies man reading his lines off cue cards in the afternoon soaps:
Check out the thinning hair
Check out the aftershave
Check out America
You’re looking at it babe
The thing is, you can never get through to these guys because peeling back the layers would hurt too much. I think Liz realized that, capturing the pathos of it all instead of just poking fun.
“Explain It to Me”: “I love the songwriting. I think of that as a perfect little jewel song,” quoth the artist about “Explain It to Me.” Well, I’ve cautioned readers about taking the word of the songwriter when it comes to song meaning or quality, but in this case, I have to agree with Liz. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon kind of song, one that sounds like she created it while messing around at the upper reaches of the fretboard and stumbled onto something magical. You can hold that magic in your very own hands by checking out the tablature on Ultimate Guitar (note the 1st fret capo instruction that enables you to play in Bb major). Even without the special effects and the looming bass, you’ll find the pattern perfectly delightful.
Liz claims that the song is about a fallen rock star, but while there’s enough evidence in the song to support that view, I think “Explain It to Me” is best appreciated as a lesson in the success-failure dynamic that governs every profession in humankind: musicians, athletes, professors, playwrights, the works. All success comes with the pressure to keep going, do better the next time, show them that you’ve still got it and let them know that it’s too early to classify you as a has-been:
Tell him to jump higher
Tell him to run farther
Make him measure up
Ten times longer than you ever should
Sigh. Human beings have a hard time grasping the concept of “enough is enough.”
“Canary”: We’re almost at the halfway point in the album and haven’t once mentioned that naughty word, “feminism.” Way back in 1994, Liz Phair told Jon Pareles of the New York Times (half-seriously) that “she worries about becoming ‘the next feminist spokesmodel.'” Twenty-four years later, Jessica Bennett of the Times asked her about that statement:
Bennett: When “Guyville” first came out, you told The Times that you didn’t want to become “the next feminist spokesmodel.” Did you?
Phair: I’m sort of a feminist spokesmodel for, I guess, putting your voice out there, believing you have something to say and maybe sex-positivity or something. I have been placed there because there was a sense that I was the girl next door who just picked up a guitar and went onstage and said what everyone was thinking. And it felt empowering to me and it felt empowering to the people that heard it, especially the women. So, the accidental feminist spokesperson. I do get uncomfortable with the label because I feel like there are people that could be far more eloquent about it, historically so.
Liz Phair was not Bikini Kill trying to spark a revolution, and I think it would have been a mistake for her to consciously push a feminist agenda on Exile in Guyville. What worked for Kathleen Hanna wouldn’t have worked for Liz Phair. Her strength as a songwriter is the ability to make the personal universal.
That talent is beautifully displayed on “Canary,” a piano song that Liz said was “about the loss of innocence and facing the pressures of being a young woman in the world and what men want from you while you’re still kind of on the cusp of your childhood.” She presents the song in the form of the internal dialogue that runs through her head, delivering the lyrics in a voice that sounds like she’s sleepwalking. The tension in the song comes primarily from the piano, particularly towards the end of the song when her keyboard strokes become louder and more insistent—and it’s there that she verbally expresses the pressure that accompanies repression:
I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
‘Cause froth comes out
That froth is never very far from the surface if you’re a woman in Guyville.
“Mesmerizing”: I don’t know of any other songs that have used the egg toss as a metaphor for boy-girl relationships, but it works on many levels: trust, connection, staying connected during periods of physical separation, the anxiety attached to growing distance. The song has a laid-back feel accentuated by background conversation, playful guitar interaction and the sound of a growling dog in the fade. Nothing monumental here, just a pleasant diversion from the heavier stuff.
“Fuck and Run”: Liz and the band get right down to business in “Fuck and Run,” with guitar-drums-bass quickly and tightly establishing the beat for two short measures before Liz jumps in with her modern tale of woe. While I celebrate the freedom presented to women by The Pill (and I’ve been celebrating it most every day for about twenty-five years), the manufacturers failed to include any instructions on how to communicate effectively when engaging in sexual relations with serial partners. I hate to repeat my personal “mama done told me” advice, but maman was very explicit about the importance of communicating my needs and expectations before the act and insisting that my potential partner do the same. “Look. I think it might be nice to fuck you but I’m only interested in one fuck at the moment and I can’t promise anything beyond that. I’m not interested in going steady or planning a wedding. I like doggy-style, me on top and missionary; I love sucking dicks and you’re more than welcome to taste my pussy. How do you feel about that?” I have to admit that most of the responses fell into the category of “um, er, well, I, uh,” but eventually we’d come to an understanding and proceed with the naughtiness. It wasn’t foolproof, largely because so many people are out of touch with their feelings, especially feelings about sex.
In “Fuck and Run,” Liz finds herself exhausted by the expectation that all roads lead to sex, the superficiality of casual fucking and all the bullshit that comes with it:
You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
‘Cause I didn’t think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn’t think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
“But I heard the rest in your head” is not simply “women’s intuition.” Combined with the following line, “And almost immediately I felt sorry,” it’s an admission that she was locked in the same cycle of dishonest communication. She also realizes that physical connection doesn’t always scratch the loneliness itch (“I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend another year/my whole life alone.”) Man, this shit is getting old:
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
Twelve is a pretty early age to start (I waited until I was fourteen), and there’s no way an experience at that age can be anything but fuck-and-run because you just heard dad’s car coming up the driveway and you need to shove the guy into the nearest closet. Liz finally figures out what she wants—a relationship, tender moments, hanging out, playing Scrabble—a real honest-to-goodness boyfriend!
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
“Fuck and Run” vanishes as quickly as it appeared, a suitable ending for a no-nonsense rocker with a message of crystalline clarity.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”: After telling you that Liz is more of a strummer than a picker, she launches into a song featuring her energetic picking on those fat bottom strings. The sound of frantic low-note plucking creates a sort of eeriness suitable for an exposé of the dark side of the feminine character. “You can manipulate the system to your advantage, as well, which as women, we do both,” Liz explained, and she’s 100% right. When direct paths are closed to you and you want or need something really badly, you can either quietly wimp out and send a donation to NOW or you can undo the button right above your cleavage and get the fucking job. As much as I’d love to convince myself that I got a Director’s job because of my intelligence, superior skill and bilingualism, I know that the guys who made the decision saw me as eye candy and a possible squeeze on a business trip. You may think that the men were evil farts who view women as nothing more than pieces of ass, but I shared in the evil by manipulating the vulnerability emanating from their hungry penises.
Because I take full advantage
Of every man I meet
I get away almost every day
With what the girls call
What the girls call
What the girls call,
The girls call murder
Yes, we do feel guilty about our manipulative ways, but if the men in power weren’t so frigging obtuse, we wouldn’t have to play these stupid games.
“Divorce Song”: This is one of the songs Liz wrote pre-concept, a slice-of-life tale about a couple on the cusp between friends and friends-with-benefits bickering on a road trip. The cause of the bickering is pretty obvious: both parties engage in indirect, incomplete, contaminated communication and neither considers how their words may land on the other. Although hardly an original storyline, Liz lays it out in a way that heightens the tension in the car, a milieu where neither party can engage in face-to-face communication. Picture both of them with their eyes fixed on the road ahead, seething with hurt and anger, taking potshots at each other without having to make eye contact. The key line in the story is “But if I’d/you’d known how that would sound to you/me,” marking the essential problem and the missed opportunity. The song ends without resolution, the micro-aggressions unaddressed, remaining true-to-life right through to the end. Following the lead from the thematic influence, Brad Wood mimicked a classic Charlie Watts rhythmic arrangement that provided the steady beat in support of Liz’s offbeat syncopations.
“Shatter”: At this point in the album, we encounter a series of experimental works that deviate from standard pop/folk/rock song format and give Liz the opportunity to stretch her wings and (hopefully) keep the listener engaged. “Shatter” opens with an extended meditation where Brad Wood melds Liz’s guitar with controlled feedback, creating an almost orchestral feel in the process. In this case, the lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the music, and my gut tells me it would have been better to just let Liz meditate on guitar and leave it at that. “Shatter” is one of the more successful experiments.
“Flower”: And then there are experiments that should have never made it out of the lab. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have no problem with sexually explicit language. When Liz delivers lines like “I want to fuck you like a dog,” “I want to be your blow job queen,” and “I want your fresh young jimmy/Jamming, slamming, ramming in me,” and “I’ll fuck you ’til your dick turns blue,” I’m thrilled by the display of female aggressiveness.
But those lyrics should have been attached to a searingly hot rock arrangement, one that demands that you grind your hips and shake the fuck out of your fanny . . . you know, LIKE MANY A ROLLING STONES SONG. Instead, we get a weirdly robotic arrangement reminiscent of the limp soundtrack attached to early video games before the technology matured to allow orchestral arrangements. When I listen to “Flower” today, I don’t think of hot, heavy, sweaty sex, but those newfangled sex robots that are now a “hot” item thanks to Covid-19. Yuck.
“Johnny Sunshine”: Now, if Liz and Brad had taken the pounding rhythm of the first half of “Johnny Sunshine” and applied it to the lyrics for “Flower,” they might have had something. Alas, that terribly exciting tempo is wasted on an exaggerated tale about a guy leaving a broad after stealing her car and her horse, then killing her cat by burning it in antifreeze. Later, the song suddenly shifts to a sort of round, à la “Frère Jacques,” a move that makes no sense, either narratively or musically. Strong pass on this one.
“Gunshy”: And I’ll have to pass on “Gunshy” as well. The detuned guitar sound is interesting, but the story is a bit thin and the tempo/musical shift in the chorus is both awkward and disruptive.
“Stratford-On-Guy”: This reminds me of the comment Thom Yorke made after seeing Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet: “I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.” I’ve always found it puzzling when people choose to remain in no-win situations or stay in places that suck WHEN THEY CAN JUST GET UP AND LEAVE. A change in perspective can work wonders and help you realize you’re not the center of the universe.
“Stratford-On Guy” (the title is a pun calling out the pretentiousness of the Guyville scene) finds Liz flying the friendly skies high above Guyville, realizing how small and insignificant it is from that vantage point. What I love about the song is the poetry—having done more than my fair share of air travel in this lifetime, I’ve rarely read any description of the passenger experience as accurate as the one Liz draws for us:
I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball
As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of a city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them, thirty-thousand feet down
I also like how she points out that decompression from the stressful situation you’re escaping (work, Guyville, lousy relationship) and the emergence of a new perspective take time to manifest: “It took an hour, maybe a day/But once I really listened the noise just fell away.” Too bad it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to view air travel as a healing experience in our immediate future . . . we could all use some perspective right now.
“Strange Loop”: We close with the bright guitar (Liz attributes the sound to an old Peavey amp) of “Strange Loop,” a song that about relational reconciliation—not the superficial kiss-and-make-up bullshit but the mutual acceptance of the truth that while strong personalities can ignite conflict by simply being in the same room at the same time, the real conflict is the inability to accept the other person for who they are instead of wishing they were someone else:
The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free
But you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse
‘Cause nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst
The narrator backs off from the blame game because fighting is both exhausting and fruitless, admitting her own contribution to the difficulties: “I always wanted you/I only wanted more than I knew.” Interestingly, the song ends with an extended jam that sounds more like falling apart than coming together, but guess what? Relationships require constant care and feeding, and they’re going to get noisy and sloppy because human beings are noisy and sloppy.
Exile in Guyville was the victim of Shiny New Thing Syndrome, a debilitating condition that also distorted the reaction to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (as we’ll see in our next episode). This happens when a budding artist releases something that appears to be groundbreaking and music critics desperate to maintain their relevance exaggerate its virtues and ignore its flaws in case it turns out to be The Next Big Thing. When the artist fails to meet inflated expectations on the next release, critics attempt to rewrite history (like Pitchfork with their ever-changing best-of lists) and reappraise the work that got them so excited. It should have been pretty obvious from the experimental stuff that Liz Phair was going to expand her horizons; unfortunately, her audience wanted Exile in Guyville: The Sequel.
My take is this: Exile in Guyville is clearly a superior debut album that broke new ground by presenting a woman’s perspective on life in the patriarchy using language that defied cultural expectations of how women should behave, think and feel. Liz Phair said the unsayable and shared her thoughts about the unthinkable, influencing listeners and other women artists to do the same. The music is generally solid, marked most of all by Liz Phair’s unique approach to guitar and rhythm and her ability to tell great, true-to-life stories.
I’ll close with another excerpt from her interview with Jessica Bennett, who gave Liz the opportunity to comment on current events involving women:
Bennett: In almost every interview I do now it feels like we reach the point where I have to ask about #MeToo. There’s almost no instance where the person, if female, hasn’t faced some type of harassment or mistreatment. What has been your experience?
Phair: Well, of course not. Everybody went through it. Every single woman went through it. It’s the way our entire society is structured. Everything is structured around men. We still don’t pay the first lady! That blows my mind.
Bennett: What do you make of this moment?
Phair: I’ll tell you where I’m at with it. I’m at the point where I don’t feel like I have to do anything differently. I think it’s all on men now. Like, they’re just going to have to deal with it. They’re going to have to do their therapy, do their thinking, do whatever they need to do — cry together, whatever the fuck it takes. I just don’t feel that I need to help. And I’m not in any way antagonistic toward men, that’s the weird part. This is old, old news for me. And it just is a matter of, this isn’t ours to explain to you anymore. It’s common sense. Like, let them deal with it. They’re the ones with the problem.
It’s old news for me, too, Liz . . . it’s old news for all of us.
p. s.: I hear Liz is opening for Alanis Morissette on her 25th Anniversary of Jagged Little Pill tour, an arrangement I find deeply . . . ironic.
**Note: Some may object to the statement, “all industries are male-dominated.” If you google “female-dominated industries,” you’ll find a whole lot of jibber-jabber about “female-dominated professions” like nursing, teaching, retail and HR as if greater numbers amount to “industry domination.” People in those jobs don’t dominate anything beyond their own bailiwicks. More importantly, the system in which they work was set up by men based on masculine values. Not even the limited number of female CEOs can change that reality.
“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power,
D’ya know that you can use it?”
—The Clash, “Clampdown”
There have been few musical artists who displayed the courage of their convictions as clearly and consistently as Bikini Kill.
Bikini Kill came out of the Pacific Northwest at a time when the “family values” crap peddled by the GOP and the Christian Coalition had both pundits and average janes questioning whether or not feminism had run its course. The push for the Equal Rights Amendment had pretty much lost its steam; the word “feminist” conjured up an image of a broad with hairy legs spewing hatred towards men and unholy rejection of their essential role in aiding and abetting fruitful multiplying. Why listen to those grumpy bitches when you can guzzle your beer as you watch big tittied cheerleaders smiling for the sideline cameras and feel enormous satisfaction that despite the whines of feminists, America was raising another generation of women who appear to be more than delighted to serve as eye candy for their male masters?
What Bikini Kill did in no uncertain terms is to call bullshit on the patriarchy, bullshit on the death of feminism, bullshit on cultural notions of beauty and womanhood. They expressed the rage of the millions of young women who had experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence and who felt they had no recourse or outlet because society had defined women as “less than,” “hysterical” and “emotional.” And unlike many of their predecessors in feminism’s first wave (think “abolitionists and suffragists”) and second wave (think “ban the bra and ERA”), they celebrated sexuality as a fundamental form of human expression and connection, regardless of partner gender.
Zooming back in time to the period when they were putting the band together, I would have set the odds of Bikini Kill getting anyone to even listen to them equal to the likelihood of me going down on Donald Trump. Their publicity strategy in that pre-Internet era was limited to feminist zines and word-of-mouth. Their music distribution strategy was confined to DIY cassettes sold at small-venue concerts. While touring, they often slept on the floors and couches offered by friends and admirers. While Tobi Vail came from a family of drummers and had drummed in other punk bands, Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox were still trying to get their chops down on guitar and bass while breaking in new lead guitarist Billy Karren. That shouldn’t have been too much of an obstacle given the values of the DIY punk scene; after all, The Clash signed a contract with CBS after only six months of existence, at a time when Paul Simonon was still figuring out the bass. The difference, of course, is that The Clash were men; women bands and band members were considered novelties at best, by both the average fan and the male-dominated music industry.
The punch line is that the members of Bikini Kill weren’t interested in a big label contract anyway. Their vision specifically excluded the commercial path to fame and fortune:
They knew from the beginning that Bikini Kill was going to be something special, not a feint at the Top Ten or at bourgeois stability. They had plotted it out carefully in strategy sessions: Their band was going to be a revolution. They would settle for nothing less.
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front . HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
As they describe it in the About page on their website, “Bikini Kill believed that if all girls started bands the world would change. They actively encouraged women and girls to start bands as a means of cultural resistance. Bikini Kill was inspired by seeing Babes in Toyland play live and attempted to incite female participation and build feminist community via the punk scene. They used touring as a way to create an underground network between girls who played music, put on shows and made fanzines. This independent media making and informal network created a forum for multiple female voices to be heard.”
While I guess all that is true, it sounds kind of sterile—and Bikini Kill was anything but sterile. Bikini Kill didn’t just “actively encourage.” Kathleen Hanna got right in your fucking face, challenging girls to stop putting up with the bullshit, to be who the fuck they wanted to be and to let it all out—the abuse, the pain, the dirty little secrets, the devaluation, the constant feeling of insecurity, the sexual frustration with guys who only wanted to bang away and couldn’t find the clit if you surrounded it with flashing lights—all of it.
The “underground network” eventually evolved/morphed/merged into Riot Grrrl, a designation that would be twisted and devalued by mainstream media forces who couldn’t get their heads around a leaderless movement built on collaboration and empowerment. The remarkable story of Riot Grrrl is fully covered in Sara Marcus’ fabulous work, Girls to the Front, The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Marcus makes it very clear that building the network involved more than the usual trials and tribulations:
But if the front rows held girls passionately singing along with every song, there seemed to be an equal number of men just behind them who shouted “Show us your tits” and howled “Shut up!” whenever Kathleen paused between songs to talk to the audience. She engaged hostile hecklers, occasionally at length. She wanted everybody’s eyes on the offenders; if they were being abusive, they needed to realize the whole crowd was aware of it, because she knew polite silence too often led to more abuse.
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front. HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
Hate mail, death threats and the constant threat of physical violence were also part of the bargain.
Still, they persisted.
When I’ve played Bikini Kill for friends who had never heard of them, their first reaction is usually, “Whoa! Don’t you think that’s a little raw?” Sometimes they’re referring to the music; sometimes they’re complaining about the production.
The music is raw because it had to be raw. Bikini Kill was trying to launch a revolution, and you’re not going to spark an uprising by playing Bach and reciting Wordsworth. Kathleen Hanna was channeling female rage suppressed by centuries of oppression, anger that rarely saw the light of day. The sound and the lyrics had to be aggressive to shock young women out of hopeless complacency and inspire them to take control of their lives.
The relative rawness of the production was the result of artist preference and indie economics. The First Two Records combines a self-titled EP released in 1992 (6 songs) with the Bikini Kill half (7 songs) of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, a split album shared with the English riot grrrl band Huggy Bear. The EP was produced by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, who was “completely blown away” (Marcus) by the band when he heard them in D. C. at the end of a cross-country tour. MacKaye tangibly manifested his enthusiasm by offering Bikini Kill free studio time and his services as producer. In contrast, Bikini Kill’s contribution to Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah was recorded in their rehearsal space on a 4-track machine without producer oversight. Because MacKaye had both the studio experience and the punk credentials, he knew how to produce punk in a way that minimizes aural distractions while maintaining its aggressive orientation; hence, the EP features noticeably better sound quality. However, the songs presented on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah have an aural fierceness that serves to complement the jolt-you-out-of-your-seat lyrics.
In the final analysis, I can understand some of the criticisms related to “rawness,” but I also have this nagging feeling that the animus behind many of those complaints come from men who feel terribly threatened by female displays of aggressiveness . . . like the jerk who wrote the original Rolling Stone review of the EP:
The EP Bikini Kill has plenty of yowling and moronic nag-unto-vomit tantrums over stock school-of-Sabbath riffage; like almost all noisy bands lately, this one is better at melody than at ugliness but usually opts for ugliness. The Kill also cages its rage in silly editorial doggerel – “YOU! DO! HAVE! RIGHTS!” – instead of letting the rage work on its own.
We will now leave this nutless bastard with his head stuck firmly up his ass and move on to the review.
The EP opens with one of the clearest statements of artistic intent on record. I have this wild fantasy where I imagine Bikini Kill launching their career via a 30-minute prime time riot grrrl reality show with “Double Dare Ya” streaming over the opening credits:
We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution
I got a proposition goes something like this:
Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional baby”
Double dare ya, double dare ya, double dare ya
Girl fuckin’ friend yeah
Double dare ya
Double dare ya
Double dare ya
—“Double Dare Ya,” Bikini Kill, The First Two Records
As a TV theme song, it would have crushed “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees” and represented a significant step forward in human evolution.
The recording is engaging from the get-go, though the form of engagement is somewhat perverse: the first sounds we hear from Bikini Kill are fuck-ups—loud hiss, Kathleen Hanna asking, “Is that supposed to be doing that?” followed by some annoying feedback and guitar buzz from either a wobbly cord or shaky wiring. “Ok, sorry, ok we’re starting now,” Kathleen apologizes, then immediately hits her sweet spot with the opening call to action. While studio chatter and re-starts have become fairly common additions to modern recordings, this isn’t the studied nonchalance of The Beatles in the opening moments of “Taxman,” but an affirmation of the DIY ethic that tells the listening audience, “We’re nothing special—if we can make records, so can you!”
The counter-argument to that assertion is Kathleen Hanna’s vocal, which is pretty special. She is a woman of many voices, a quick-change artist who can change her voice from full-throttled woman to Valley Girl to smart-ass chick in a heartbeat. The first verse quoted above is largely Kathleen at full power, though she effortlessly shifts to “girl talk tone” filled with cheek and guile when flinging the “double dare ya” challenge at her invisible companion. In the second verse, she downshifts from high gear to deliver the line “Gotta listen to what the man says” in a voice dripping with acidic sarcasm. She goes full Valley Girl in the last verse until the subject of women’s rights comes up and she shifts to a bullying tone in the line, “Rights? Rights? YOU-DO-HAVE-RIGHTS!” When Ian MacKaye observed that Kathleen was “dialing it in from somewhere else, like high up” (Marcus), he was speaking factually, not fancifully.
The band is pretty special, too, pumping out the musical energy with a tightness unusual for a relatively new group. Tobi Vail plays the role of conductor, providing comparative newcomers Wilcox and Karen with a solid foundation and displaying enough confidence in them to hold things steady while she throws in a few thrilling drum rolls and syncopated riffs. “Double Dare Ya” is one of the strongest statements of identity I’ve ever heard from a band, a piece that clearly established Bikini Kill as a purveyor of no-bullshit feminist punk.
“Double Dare Ya” bleeds right into “Liar,” where another childhood taunt is used as a challenge. This time, it’s directed to the men who perpetuate rape culture. If you don’t exactly understand what rape culture means, here’s a handy definition from the Women’s Center at Marshall University:
Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.
Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.
The site goes on to list numerous examples of rape culture perpetuation, including:
- Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
- Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
- Tolerance of sexual harassment
- Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
- Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
- Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
- Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
- Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
- Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
- Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape
If that list doesn’t help you understand the rage in Bikini Kill music, nothing will.
After a spot of dissonant feedback and two spirited grunts from Kathleen, she launches into the song by describing two common forms of rape: “Betty’s got the back of her dress all ripped out/Mama’s got her face muffled, twist and shout.” The latter form, of course, involves the religiously-sanctioned form of rape, justified by whatever piece of scripture you have handy that conveniently defines “wife” as “property” and dismisses the notion that rape can within marriage. Kathleen launches into the liar-liar-pants-on-fire taunt, punctuating it with gusto (“You know you’re a goddamn motherfuckin’ liar”). The following six lines will seem repetitious without a lyric sheet: “You profit from the lie/You prophet from the lies.” If you don’t understand how one can profit from the lie of rape culture, you have the examples of Donald Trump and at least two Supreme Court justices to help you connect the dots; given all the sexual scandals involving televangelists and other “fundamentalist Christians,” the connection between profiting and “propheting” should be obvious. The last line in the sequence adds a single word to drive the point home (“You profit from the rape lie”), then Kathleen proceeds to connect rape culture to cultural expressions of masculinity, racism and domestic violence:
Beat your fucking wife
It’s all the same thing
I would have replaced “eat meat” with “buy guns,” but yeah, it’s all the same fucking thing.
Kathleen reminds us that while men get away with rape by simply denying it, the victim knows that whatever the outcome, she will “stand my whole life on trial.” After a repetition of the profit/prophet sequence, we arrive at the most chilling part of the song, when the guitars disappear, the drums become more insistent and Kathleen sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance” in a sweet, “feminine” voice over the horrifying screams of a rape victim. The repetition of the first verse and chorus that follows seems superfluous, but I don’t know how else they could have ended the song . . . the screams still ring in your ears . . . and you’re left to face the truth that trying to fight toxic masculinity armed with idealistic slogans and naïve hope simply isn’t going to cut it.
Kathleen seems to channel Kim Deal’s spoken-word intro to “Tony’s Theme” in the introduction to “Carnival,” as the two women share a similar vocal timbre. Kim Deal also wrote about the joys of fairs and carnivals (“Saints” on Last Splash), and both songs express a delightful sense of wickedness in the base enjoyment of an essentially tacky experience. Unsurprisingly, Kathleen provides more juicy details about the “seedy underbelly” of those carnivals that plant themselves in the parking lots of shopping malls to give teen girl shoppers a more thrilling bad girl experience than they can get from run-of-the-mill shoplifting. “This is a song about 16-year old girls giving carnies head for free rides and hits of pot,” recites Kathleen, revealing no shame whatsoever as she repeats “I want to go” three times, like Dorothy wishing herself back to Kansas. If there’s one line that gives Kathleen’s take on carnivals the edge, it’s gotta be “I’ll win that Motley Crue mirror if it fucking kills me!” One could argue that requiring the girls to give head really sucks (man, I love a good pun), but nowhere in the song does it indicate that the carnies are imposing such a requirement. Kathleen wants to go, and she makes it clear that the main obstacle is cost (“But I know it’ll cost $16 now”). Giving a guy a blow job in exchange for weed and the thrill of the Tilt-a-Whirl seems like a fair deal when you ain’t got the dough. It may be naïve, it may be dangerous and she may be prostituting herself (gasp!), but it’s her choice. For those searching for a feminist message in “Carnival,” I think it’s this: “pro-choice means giving women the right to do stupid shit and learn from the experience.” Confession: I learned more from doing stupid shit than I ever learned in high school.
The relative lightness of “Carnival” disappears in a flash with “Suck My Left One.” With the band in full throttle bash, Kathleen uses three different voices to tell the story: Valley Girl for the bulk of the performance, amped-up Valley Girl for a key transition line and a voice that can only be described as ghoulish for the one-line chorus, “Suck my left one” (though on the second go-round she flips the switch to Valley Girl for the second “one”). The dazzling display of vocal pyrotechnics serves to intensify the meaning in the lyrics, but that meaning is also highly dependent on context. Verse one presents either two blood sisters or two lesbian girls (“sisters” in feminist-speak) in an unidentified mixed-gender environment (“Tell me what the fuck we’re doing here/Why are all the boys acting strange?”). The narrating sister responds with the transition line that urges rebellion against sexual repression: “We’ve got to show them we’re more than queer.” Kathleen then goes ghoulish on the line “Suck my left one,” imbuing that rendition of the line with the sinful evils associated with witchcraft. In the second verse, “sister” is used in the familial sense, but in the context of a father sexually abusing his daughter. When this sister instructs the father to “suck my left one,” the ghoulish voice now communicates the hopeless bitterness of the abused. The third verse establishes the mother as abuse-enabler, supplying the rationale for her hopelessness. Classic maternal messages—“Show a little respect for your father” and “Wait until your father gets home”—now take on a horrifying meaning and explain the daughter’s sullen acceptance (“Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine”). “Suck My Left One” is a tough song to listen to, but hey—Bikini Kill is not for sissies.
In the fascinating documentary The Punk Singer (a film about Kathleen Hanna), Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney fame quotes snippets from “Feels Blind.” When referring to the line “Look at what you have taught me/Your world has taught me nothing,” Corin had this to say: “The way Kathleen delivered that line was so angry; it was so outside the realm of how a young woman was supposed to act—really raw.” Corin’s partner Carrie Brownstein shared similar sentiments about the song with Spin magazine:
I remember being very struck by the lyrics of “Feels Blind,” remembers Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, “‘As a woman I was taught to be hungry / Yeah, we could eat just about anything / We’d even eat your hate up like love.’ It was the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation, the feeling that all of these institutions and stories we’d been taught to hold as sacred had very little to do with my own experiences.”
The song knocks me out, too, especially during the passages when Kathleen abandons the Valley Girl and goes into full belt-out mode in the chorus. That, my friends, is power personified:
All the doves that fly past my eyes
Have a stickiness to their wings
In the doorway of my demise I stand
Encased in the whispers you taught me
How does it feel?
It feels blind
How does it feel?
Well, it feels fuckin’ blind
What have you taught me?
Look what you have taught me
Your world has taught me nothing
If you were blind and there was no Braille
There are no boundaries to what I can feel
If you don’t see but were taught
What you saw wasn’t fuckin’ real, yeah
Doves generally symbolize peace and hope, but in a woman’s experience, there’s always a catch that gets in the way of full flight, frequently dashing hope and any sense of inner peace. The “stickiness” consists of all the “yes, buts” and “girls don’t act like that” and disapproving looks by the majority who subscribe to the belief that women by their very nature are limited creatures. The whispers could be a combination of the self-talk women engage in as they encounter a world that bears no resemblance to the illusions painted by mom and dad, or the useless advice from parents and elders trying to get women to passively accept their lot as second-class citizens.
It helps that “Feels Blind” is one of the strongest band performances on the album, and despite a lack of supporting documentary evidence, I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb and tell you that the arrangement bears more than a trace of Pixies influence. The song begins with a lengthy, clean bass solo where Kathi Wilcox channels Kim Deal; the arrangement adopts the soft-loud dynamics the Pixies made famous; the dissonant noise from the guitars would fit nicely into several Pixies song (though I don’t hear any Joey Santiago in the lead guitar). The great differentiator is Kathleen’s stunning vocal performance, an all-time favorite that I call up whenever I need music to clean the crap that has collected in my soul as I navigate through the world of male entitlement.
The EP section of the album ends with “Thurston Hearts the Who,” a live performance where Tobi Vail reads a negative review of a Bikini Kill while Kathleen sings a song (such as it is) about the dangers of identifying yourself with an indie rock idol (in this case, Thurston Moore, lead guitarist of Sonic Youth). Let’s just be polite here, call it an “interesting art piece that could have benefitted from further development and move on to the stuff from Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah.
The recording quality on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah wasn’t the greatest, and the band feels a bit uptight at times, but the grrrls manage to get in more than a few good licks. “White Boy” is a simple, lo-fi, demo-quality production saved by an introductory mini-interview and Kathleen’s bitter, sarcastic response:
[White Boy:] I don’t think it’s a problem ’cause most of the girls ask for it.
[Kathleen:] Uh huh, how did they ask for it?
[White Boy:] The way they act, the way they… I… I can’t say the way they dress because that’s their own personal choice. Some dumb hos, those slut rocker bitches walking down the street, they’re asking for it, they may deny it, but it’s true.
Translation: White boys are remarkably fortunate that the creator endowed them with psychic powers. The ability to read a girl’s mind—-nay—to know a girl better than she knows herself has come in handy in many a rape defense. In response, Kathleen refuses to pull any punches:
Lay me spread-eagle out on your hill, yeah
Then write a book ’bout how I wanted to die
It’s hard to talk with your dick in my mouth
I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time
How very thoughtful of her! Kathleen also realized she would get some pushback for calling out our precious, entitled white boys, so with great foresight she included an apology in the song:
I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you
Your whole fucking culture alienates me
I can not scream from pain down here on my knees
I’m so sorry that I think!
I’d bet you a million euros that the white boy who appeared in the intro would “read” Kathleen’s response as a woman begging for a man to put her in her place. Guys! Leave the cat-and-mouse shit for Tom and Jerry and grow the fuck up!
“This Is Not a Test” is our assurance that the members of Bikini Kill were indeed human and capable of fucking up. The song’s message takes forever to develop, and when it finally arrives, it’s in the form of adolescent defiance: “You don’t make all the rules!/I know what I’m gonna fucking do/Me and my girlfriends gonna push on through/Riot Grrrl gonna stomp on you.” I really don’t think the riot grrrl movement needed an official rally song, and if they did, this sure as shit wasn’t it. The band is seriously off the mark, struggling with the stop-time moments and unable to maintain a consistent tempo.
Before we get into “Don’t Need You,” I want to go two steps back, highlight a line from “White Boy” and garnish three words with bold type: “I’m sorry if I’m alienating some of you.” Bikini Kill weren’t a group of rabid man-haters; they simply had zero tolerance for assholes of any gender. Kathleen Hanna dated Dave Grohl and later married Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys; Tobi Vail dated Cobain; Kathi Wilcox married Guy Picciotto of Fugazi (and obviously, they featured a man on lead guitar). What they collectively rejected were the twin notions of male-as-protector and female-as-dependent, and that’s what “Don’t Need You” is all about:
Don’t need you to say we’re cute
Don’t need you to say we’re alright
Don’t need your atti-fuckin’-tude, boy
Don’t need your kiss goodnight
We don’t need you
We don’t need you
Don’t need you
Don’t need you to tell us we’re good
Don’t need you tell us we suck
Don’t need your protection
Don’t need your dick to fuck
We don’t need you
We don’t need you
Don’t need you
Does it scare you
That we don’t need you?
The only men likely to be scared by this message are those who believe that keeping a woman down is essential to masculine identity. Truly secure men would embrace female independence because it’s much more validating when a woman chooses to be with a man instead of just submitting to societal expectations. The band is much tighter on this piece, featuring Tobi pounding away with enthusiasm and establishing a beat so strong that it’s impossible for the others not to fall in line—you get the sense that the group really felt this one.
Kathleen Hanna supported her budding musical career by working as a stripper, a choice that caused some second-wave feminists to feel rather uneasy:
She attended a talk by Andrea Dworkin on the evils of pornography, and she went to a meeting in Seattle of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), but she felt out of place at both events. Dworkin, the intellectual architect of an antiporn orthodoxy that was the most well-known strain of feminism at the time, took the view that all sex workers were victims of patriarchy. Kathleen worked as a stripper, and she considered it a choice she had made freely; she liked to tell people that it felt no more degrading than working as a waitress, and it paid a lot better. When she brought this up during the Q&A, Dworkin’s response left Kathleen in tears. “To her, feminism and sex-trade work were diametrically opposed conceptions,” Kathleen recalled. “She said, ‘Oh! I appreciate you coming out and saying this in front of all these people. And I just want to tell you that if you think this experience has not affected you, I want you to know that it’s going to affect the whole rest of your life. You’ll be paying for it forever, blah blah blah.’”
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front . HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
Those were the feminists Camille Paglia called out for having a “Nazi and Stalinist view of art, where art is subordinate to a pre-fab political agenda.” And although I’m not much of a fan of her music, I agree with Paglia that Madonna pretty much destroyed the argument that a woman who chooses to openly manifest her sexuality surrenders her power. In “Jigsaw Youth,” Kathleen defends the right to reject such judgmental dogma and follow your own path:
I can sell my body if I wanna
God knows you’ve already sold your mind
I may sell my body for money sometimes
But you can’t stop the fire that burns inside of me . . .
We know there’s not one way, one light
One stupid truth
Won’t fit your definitions
Don’t fit into your dumb plans
Not into win/lose mentality
Won’t meet your demands
Once again, the band is on fire here, with strong power-chord guitar supporting the equally hard stance in the lyrics. Ironically, Kathleen delivers the song in her Valley Girl style, as if she’s mocking the Andrea Dworkins of the world who considered her a helpless idiot.
The belief that there is more than one path in life available to a woman is given further emphasis in “Resist Psychic Death.” I have no problem with the message of refusing to submit to cultural repression of women (“I will resist with every inch and every breath/I will resist this psychic death”), but the performance feels both stiff and choppy, particularly when the band attempts a tempo change and doesn’t quite pull it off. I can understand why the song earned semi-anthemic status when first introduced, but I don’t think it aged well beyond the urgency of that particular moment.
“Rebel Girl” is probably Bikini Kill’s best-known song, and yes, the version on Pussy Whipped may sound better to those who prefer greater refinement. I like them both because Kathleen Hanna kicks ass on both versions—flipping back and forth between the two as I review the song has been a thoroughly pleasurable experience . . . so much so that I had to wash my fingers before I was able to type this sentence. I will say that the version here has a touch more sassiness to it, a feeling that probably comes from the rougher guitars and less filtering on Tobi’s drums.
The foundation of the song involves two uniquely female behaviors—and I mean learned behaviors, not DNA-programmed behaviors. The first is that women are always checking out other women, and that checking out always starts from a competitive orientation. The second arrives when the emotional intelligence kicks in: the competitive fire cools, we reach out to the former object of our envy and seal the friendship by exchanging clothing. Heterosexual guys don’t really check each other out with the thoroughness manifested by heterosexual women, probably because they’re terrified of being tagged as gay. And I’ve never heard of heterosexual men showing each other their wardrobes and saying, “Oh, you’d look really nice in this oxford button-down.” If a straight guy lends another guy some clothing, you can bet that it’s only because the man in need has vomited all over the duds he was wearing. For women, “I don’t have anything to wear—can I borrow that patterned sleeveless of yours?” is a bonding experience, an affirmation of close friendship. Sharing clothing is also a financial necessity because women’s clothing is far more expensive and most of us can’t afford a new dress every time we want to do some high-class clubbing. You’re not going to lend your special occasion duds to just anyone—you have to trust the borrower enough to have confidence that she won’t return a pile of rags that smell like the floor of an Irish pub.
Now, I don’t have any scientific evidence to support this, but my sense is that because girls are always checking each other out and checking out bodies in particular (ostensibly for fit, but that’s crap), it’s easier and more comfortable for women to take the next step and engage in displays of physical affection (air kisses don’t count). Having armed you with fact and reasonable theory, we can now explore “Rebel Girl.”
The song opens with classic female competitive envy that turns into idol worship in about ten seconds:
That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood
She’s got the hottest trike in town
That girl, she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah
What motivates Kathleen to take the next step is not the trike but the way “she holds her head up so high.” That orientation might earn her the “stuck-up bitch” label from those who resent her confidence, but for Kathleen, there lies the attraction. The girl expresses confidence and pride—and in the context of the patriarchy, that makes her a rebel.
Rebel girl, rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world
Rebel girl, rebel girl
I think I wanna take you home
I wanna try on your clothes, yeag
Here the clothes exchange involves trying on a new identity, something traditional women do on a much larger scale. When her crazy schemes fell flat, Lucy Ricardo’s fallback plan would invariably involve a new dress or hat. India Adams sang, “There’s nothing like a new man to make you feel like a new dress” in “It’s Silk,” underscoring the importance of apparel to self-esteem. Here the girl is trying to assimilate the rebel girl’s confidence by trying on her clothes; the “I think” indicates some trepidation about taking that big step into rebelliousness. Feeling a bit shaky, our heroine feels the need to justify her admiration and literally comes out in favor of total rebellion:
When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolution
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution
Sara Marcus wrote, “With this incantation, the girls raise the shade of the role model, the someone they’ve been longing to see. The intensity of their desire, the power of that projection, conjures her into the room. The invoked apparition sharpens, focuses. They make of each other that girl. They make her themselves.” Viva la fucking revolución!
The album closes with the comparatively subdued “Outta Me.” This is clearly a demo quality take with an arrangement that needed some work, but the song itself has enough potential to make me wish they would have revisited it. You rarely hear full chord strumming on a Bikini Kill record, and though the sound is scratchy and rough, it demonstrates that the song could have used a full acoustic arrangement a la Ani DiFranco to support the breezy melody while maintaining the bite.
Although the #MeToo movement and the recent upsurge in domestic violence attributed to the world-wide lockdown tell us that the problems women face are as widespread as they were in the early ’90s, no one can say that Bikini Kill did not change lives and raise consciousness despite the limitations of indie distribution. In the documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna talked about how her audience was not the music consumer but the teenage girl sitting in her bedroom at night, writing in her diary, wondering why her parents told her “You can be anything you want to be” when her daily life consisted of blocked paths and harsh judgments—judgments that had nothing to with her brains, compassion or the content of her character, but everything to do with her physical appearance. This one-bedroom-at-a-time approach to revolution may seem like a longshot at best, but before you reach that conclusion, I suggest you take a trip over to The Bikini Kill Archive and read the responses to the invitation on that page: “Please add your Bikini Kill story to this blog! It can be totally off the top of your head and doesn’t need to be fancy. Maybe it’s your reaction to a song we wrote, something weird that happened at one of our shows, a personal anecdote or just WHATEVER.” Some of the contributors heard Bikini Kill in their prime, but a surprising number were toddlers in the ’90s and only recently discovered the band. Here are a few of my favorite responses:
- “Since I was born I was raised to suck in my stomach and not talk until spoken to, Bikini Kill taught me to say fuck it and take no shit from anybody. They still help me through the days and I could thank them every day for it.”
- “I live and study in the small town in Central Europe where feminism is still some weird concept that many women despise because of the demonizing image of the feminists by the media. But I am doing my best to educate them, I show men why feminism is important to them as well. I am still angry, but I’m making a change with my anger.”
- “After leaving a violent and psychologically abusive marriage, I crank up BK and it takes all the self-loathing and shame for simply being a woman all away.”
- “I was sexually molested for several years by a neighbor when I was just a little girl. It tore away my self-respect and confidence at an early age and I was terrified to be around guys who weren’t family. I didn’t know how to channel my anger and shame. Bikini Kill lyrics and Kathleen’s voice also carried me through a very emotionally abusive relationship that I couldn’t find the strength to get out of until I found empowerment through music. I truly love Kathleen for everything she’s done for my mind.”
Pretty powerful stuff, but the one that moved me the most came from a man:
Listening to them opened the door to the Riot Girl movement and I learned about feminism and overall treating women with respect and dignity. It was a confusing time period for me because I didn’t have any father figure and a lot of what I was learning about being a man came from what I saw and read. I believe learning about feminism at such an early age taught me how to be a better man and now a better father for my daughter.
Beautiful . . . and painfully relevant today. We live in a world where misogyny is entrenched, where domestic violence continues unabated, where rape and sexual abuse remain sanctioned by the powers that be. Daughters need all the support they can get to navigate such a confusing and often cruel reality.
Fortunately for daughters (and fathers), Bikini Kill is back, having launched a US tour that was unfortunately suspended by COVID-19 but is now rescheduled for the fall (keep your fingers crossed). Even Rolling Stone has joined the party, publicizing their return in the appropriately-titled article “Bikini Kill Is the Band the World Needs Now” by Brenna Erlich (status: female). I can’t guarantee a splendid time for all, but if you’re lucky enough to scoop up some tickets before they disappear, the experience might just inspire you to do more to make our world a safer place for women.