There’s two kinds of canons: influence and product. The first isn’t really a canon, just a series of acknowledgments that an artist meant a lot to a specific set of people. Your Fugazis, your Ani DiFrancos, your 2Pacs, your…I don’t know, Sunny Day Real Estates. The second is the in-stone biblical texts of whatever you read—Kid A or Loveless for Pitchfork, Pet Sounds or The Joshua Tree for Rolling Stone, Illmatic or Liquid Swords for readers of rap authority blogs like say, Passion of the Weiss (a buddy but no relation). Albums that you can count on music fans to at least be aware are considered classics whether they agree or not.
In punk, or even sorta-punk, no consensus albums by women come to mind that people will unquestionably slot in the latter category. There’s no Nevermind the Bollocks or Singles Going Steady or London Calling that people knowledge by Joan Jett—if they can even name an album by Joan Jett. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Bikini Kill’s debut EP is the closest thing, though they’re more slotted in the “influence” canon—everyone acknowledges they were Important in the ‘90s or Invented something or whatever, few (male) critics point to their musical utility as a strength or single out a classic album. Let’s rectify this.
Bikini Kill’s debut EP is admittedly the weakest of their four great records: in descending order, the in-and-out manifesto The Singles, the unabashedly melodic Reject All American, the In Utero-comparable dissonant rawness of Pussy Whipped, and this classic, if not very tuneful opening salvo. The second EP Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, originally packaged with this on The CD Version of the First Two Records compilation, sucked. But those other four would almost fit on one functionally perfect, educational, increasingly-not-decreasingly spirited and inventive 80-minute cd. Cut the silly-but-at-3:45-shitty “Thurston Hearts the Who” and the non-definitive version of “Rebel Girl” from Pussy Whipped that can’t touched the Jett-produced Singles one, and they fit. That would be a perfect compilation. None of those records in their current format go near 40 minutes, which is the only thing imperfect about them. You need to acquire them all to sate the inevitable cravings for more.
If I’m not talking about Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox’s widely-noted visceral and cultural accomplishments, their reportedly life-changing stage shows, Hanna’s scrawling misogynist go-to words on her own body, pulling girls to the front of the crowd, their fearlessness, their reach, their success in becoming a buzz name on par with male friends Nirvana and Fugazi, it’s because those are well-documented, epochal accomplishments for this seminal punk band who’s deserved their 20th anniversary reissue for a long time now. Where a review of Bikini Kill in 2012 might be able to make a difference is selling the songs, all classics except “Thurston” (pains this enormous Sonic Youth fan to say). That leaves five torrential outbursts nowhere near as commercially viable as “Rebel Girl.”
“Double Dare Ya” opens with shivering feedback that never quite subsides, posits a doomy Flipper riff and Hanna shouts an intro that’s now as classic as Mc5’s “Kick Out the Jams”: “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution—girl-style now!” She lists a bunch of reasonable challenges, all the more relevant 20 years on as the country waded through the serious threat of Todd Akin being elected a senator. “You’ve got no reason not to fight,” Hanna blares.
“Liar”’s the one that infamously compared “Eat meat/ Hate blacks/ Beat your fuckin’ wife/ It’s all connected,” which shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand by any proud carnivores who don’t stop to think about the line of desensitization. “You profit from the rape” is a truth for everybody, the “Give Peace a Chance” quotes drowned out by screams as well.
“Carnival,” the most tuneful thing here begins the record’s two-song sardonic streak—its two best songs, actually. Lyrically it never tops the intro about “the seedy underbelly of the carnival” where “16-year-old girls give carnies head for free rides and hits of pot.” Musically it’s a minute and a half of bliss on par with any Green Day favorite. “I wanna go,” Hanna’s cracking voice pleads, not entirely finding the possibility of illicit sex or free rides an unfun prospect even in her moved disgust.
Then there’s “Suck My Left One,” which set an impossible bar for any band, male, female, punk, whatever, to live up to. A raucous riff, hooky title shout and horrifying lyric where Hanna’s protagonist dares herself to try and get a thrill from the incestuous hell she’s trapped in. All she can muster by the end is an entirely unconvincing mantra of “fine, fine, fine, fine” when she knows it’s perfectly not. The song tries to own the rape experience in retrospect, presenting control of the narrative, tweaking the black humor in it when the reality was completely helpless. It’s the kind of impossible work of art that only rock and roll was made for. Rape is a fucking horror, unimaginable for this straight white male. Turning that into what this band did—the Clash, Ramones and Pistols could pool their resources and never come up with something so brave, personal and cutting.
The three-note slow one “Feels Blind” is primarily there as an envoi, soothing the daze from “Suck My Left One” on a musical level, for once blurring the lyrical content into the heartburn of the sound. They went on to write catchier choruses, more skillful riffs, and possibly more multilevel satirical pieces. But compared as a single outburst, all other bands come up short. If they quit after their first EP, Bikini Kill would be just as legendary today for ripping the medium open and saying everything someone needed to start saying. Instead they improved on it in every way except as pure legend. Perfect.