Fascination, Friendship And Desire: Kathleen Hanna On The Reign Of 'Rebel Girl'
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
The radio version of this story includes conversations with campers and counselors at girls' rock camps, where "Rebel Girl" has become essential listening. Hear the piece at the audio link .
There's something contradictory about the very idea of a punk rock anthem. From original snotheads the Sex Pistols to contemporary insurgents Pussy Riot, punk bands kick down norms to make space for new ideas; their music smashes through the rhetoric that often gets people singing choruses en masse. Punk is meant to clear the head, not fill it with sentimental feelings. So it's notable when a punk song survives its own explosion to become a uniting force for generations beyond its bloody birth. This is the story of "Rebel Girl," the 1993 song by the feminist punk band Bikini Kill that still echoes through the hearts of girls and women today.
Bikini Kill was the emblematic band in the early-1990s riot grrrl movement, which sought to prove that feminism could become a central element within punk and fundamentally change the music in the process. Hanna, with her alarm bell of a voice and kinetic, funny, sometimes cutting presence, became riot grrrl's most visible torch-bearer. The band stayed together for seven years, releasing a small discography full of nonstop attacks on sexism and celebrations of independence and self-love. Its breakup in 1997 and the eventual waning of riot grrrl felt to many like the inevitable demise of a dream too brilliant to last.
Twenty-plus years after riot grrrl peaked, however, its influence runs even more strongly through punk and the larger independent music world, and "Rebel Girl" is the song that most often signals its continued relevance. As younger artists from Lucy Dacus to Lizzo carry riot grrrl's messages forward into the new millennium, even younger girls around the world learn Bikini Kill's anthem — often as part of the introduction to both music and feminism they receive at rock and roll camp.
Since the first rock camp for girls was founded by women directly inspired by riot grrrl nearly 20 years ago, these summer enclaves have multiplied around the world; the Girls' Rock Camp Alliance includes members from Buenos Aires to Pittsburgh to Tokyo. Thousands of kids aged 8 to 18 — mostly girls, though a few coed sessions aim to educate boys and welcome non-binary children — form their own bands, write their own songs and encounter riot grrrl's feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQI-positive principles. And they yell out the inspiring, secretly deep lyrics to "Rebel Girl" in instrument classes and at camp showcases, to instructors and parents who loved it back when and hear it reborn in the voices of the girls they love.
Bikini Kill's members found other ways to do the work they pursued in that band. Kathleen Hanna founded two influential groups, the electronic-based Le Tigre and pop-punkers The Julie Ruin, finding new ways to explore the intersection of politics and her own subjectivity. She's proud of riot grrrl's enduring legacy, especially as it's flourished at rock camps; in fact, she's served as a counselor at the Willie Mae Rock Camp in New York.
As part of NPR's American Anthem series, I spoke with Hanna about the song's origins and continued resonance. (You can hear the full radio piece, including interviews with girls' rock campers and counselors, at the audio link on this page.) The story of the song, it turns out, can serve as a pocket history of riot grrrl, a movement that was always as full of love and constructive confusion as it was grounded in revolutionary ideas. Bikini Kill reunited this year for a handful of tour dates in the U.S. and England; "Rebel Girl" became a huge singalong on every date. "It feels great," Hanna says of singing the song now, to crowds of 5,000 people instead of basements of 10 or 20. "It kind of feels like coming home, but somebody fixed your house up really nice. You know what I mean? Like, we're not sleeping in the van anymore."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ann Powers: Tell me how the writing of "Rebel Girl" came about. I heard it was inspired by a friend.
Kathleen Hanna: It was inspired by a bunch of friends. Bikini Kill was living in D.C., in this punk house called the Embassy. There was no air conditioning, and we were in the basement just writing songs. Me and Allison Wolfe [of the band Bratmobile] had started doing this group that later became riot grrrl, and it was a bunch of girls talking about starting bands and zines and how we could be feminist in the scene, including doing benefits for other groups that weren't directly, you know, feminist with a capital "F." I was also being mentored at the time by the spoken-word artist Juliana Luecking, who has always given me great advice and shown me the ropes as a feminist artist.
All of those girls were totally inspiring me, and the riot grrrl thing was inspiring me, and it was really like I just stuck my hand up in the air and there it was. I don't really feel like I can take credit for writing it — I feel like it just kind of wrote itself.
I can definitely feel that in how the lyrics shift between various stances. It's directed at one person narratively, but it is also an embrace that directs itself to anyone it touches. You wrote it as a young adult, but it could be the voice of a young girl — the rhetoric of it, the language of it. Did you feel like you were blending more than one voice in the song?
I mean, that was like my whole shtick in the '90s. We were all talking about not being binary, not having a single narrator, all that kind of postmodernist stuff. And so of course, I was really influenced by the idea that identity is fluid. [But] it's also that childhood, sexy feeling of having a crush on someone, where you don't really understand what's happening. ... I always liked the older, kind of bitchy girls in my neighborhood, who used to leave me out of things. I wanted to be them, or be like them, or make out with them — I didn't really know. [With "Rebel Girl"] I was kind of like, "All of the above."
To me, the key line is in the chorus, when you sing: "I think wanna take you home / I wanna try on your clothes." Because "I want to take you home" is a line that's in every dude rock song, as a come-on. But then, surprise — I'm going to try on your clothes. Tell me about that line.
We had a thing in Bikini Kill where whoever looked best in an outfit got to keep it. The bad thing about that was, if my suitcase was open, I would come in and find Tobi and Kathi trying on all my clothes. And they looked better in a lot of my clothes than I did! Even if you'd just bought a dress, if someone else put it on and they looked just so great in it, you had to give it to them.
When my daughter was in her punk band, they did that. I never knew whose clothes I was washing.
But actually, when we wrote that song, the band was not getting along very well. And I think that's really interesting, because there's this total myth — especially when you have more than one woman in a band — that our friendship being really great is so important for us to be artistically productive. Sometimes our friendship was really bad: We weren't communicating great, people weren't adjusting to D.C. very well, I was working a lot. But we still wrote the song that everybody likes the best during that time period.
I think this correlates really well to what rock camps try to teach girls. At rock camp you have to form a band, and by the end of the week, write a song and perform it on stage. You aren't necessarily going to get along with the girls in your band — and all those emotions happen in hyperdrive at camp. Twelve-year-old girls are expected to have girl power and be friends and support each other at all times, but then there's the dark side of that, right? There's something about "Rebel Girl" that acknowledges that tension and hostility, even within the performance of desire and connection.
I'm glad to hear that. I mean, the fact I wished things were better with me and Tobi and me and Kathi at that time — I'm sure there was a certain longing that came out in that song, because I missed being super close with them.
So let's talk about recording the song, which the band did three times: once for a split record with the British band Huggy Bear, once for your album Pussy Whipped, and a single version that Joan Jett produced, which is the version that's most often heard now.
Third time's the charm.
I read an interview where you talked about working with Jett, who of course is an icon of punk and of women in rock, but also her producer Kenny Laguna, who had done a lot of studio and pop work — I think he worked with The Archies. Did that pop side infuse that version of "Rebel Girl"?
Oh, definitely. I mean, he was in Tommy James and the Shondells. He was in The Shangri-Las for a while. He worked in the Brill Building doing bubblegum songs, like Fruitgum Company-type stuff. And I think that's what works about the single that doesn't work about anything else.
The song has this raw kind of emotional power. That sounds really cheesy if I'm saying it about my own song, but I'm just going to say it, because who cares. And if you take this song that's kind of raw and put this bubblegum veneer over it, it creates this tension that is, to me, really electrifying and satisfying. It's like I'm trying to scream myself out of this beautiful bubble. It needed to be produced like that because it provided a contrast to how raw the material was.
That also might be one reason why it works so well when a when a 12- to 15-year-old girl gets a hold of it. When you're 12 you can feel that intense raw feeling about lots of things — about makeup, or about glitter, or about hamburgers. That is a beautiful state of humanity, to be able to feel out of control about something that seems mundane. "Rebel Girl" is about very deep things, but it's also mixing in those elements of the pop world. It seems to work for that age.
Well, also, it's a song about not having to decide. Like, I had a huge crush on my best friend in junior high — I hope she doesn't hear this — and when she got married, I had a nervous breakdown. Because I realized that in my childhood head I had set out this thing that someday we'd be on a, you know, rocking chair porch together or something. She was my best friend, and I had a super-big crush on her, and I didn't know how to tell her. And then I just was like, "Well, I can be friends with her and have a crush on her. It's fine."
You don't have to only have a song be about desire, or only be about politics, or only be about a certain kind of love. It can be about a friendship love that also has a sexy element to it. Or if you want to read it a different way, like I'm singing to my girlfriend, fine. I just really like to write songs [with] the idea that you can be a lot of different things at once.
You've told a story about Bikini Kill being in the U.K. with Huggy Bear, where you heard people singing "Rebel Girl" through the wall from backstage. Do you remember this?
Oh my God, yes. I think there was, like, a bomb threat on the club — because of us, ostensibly. And there were a lot of guys there who were yelling stuff already at the opening band. We were in the dressing room, and we kind of just kept putting more and more makeup on, trying to avoid going downstairs, because we were scared: "Wait, should we cancel? What do we do?"
And then the girls in the crowd started singing "Rebel Girl" — like, chanting and clapping. And we just knew exactly what to do: We walked down the stairs and Tobi started playing that beat, and we sang with them. That was the only night that we ever started a show with "Rebel Girl." And it was [still] a very aggressive, hostile show: There were guys screaming "Show us your t***" and calling us the c-word. I don't know if we would have come down the stairs without those girls. It was one of those moments that happened in that band once or twice a year where you're like, "We're all together in this." They were saying, "We want you, and we're going to protect you."
I love that you say that they wanted you. But I wonder if you felt in that moment that the song was an instrument of power for these girls, too. It wasn't just about wanting you — it was about them protecting themselves via the song, in a way.
It's a really different song when it's chanted with no music: It was so much more beautiful, the way that they employed it, than I could ever sing it myself. They were letting us know that they were there, like a kind of Morse code, so we could hear through the floor that they wanted us to come down. Like, the song's not about that: It's not about, "Hey, band, please come downstairs and play a show for us." But that's what they communicated by the way they sang the song.
You licensed "Rebel Girl" to the video game Rock Band in 2008. In reporting on this song I've found it's used in music education programs all over, not just at girls' rock camps. I wonder if you think putting the song in that game expanded its reach, where it's maybe reached girls that wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to hear it.
Yes, and that's exactly why I pushed for it. I just heard a podcast two days ago where the woman — I think she's in her 20s — started off saying, "The first time I heard Bikini Kill was at my friend's party, playing Rock Band." That was her first foray into the feminism mixing with punk thing, and now she has a podcast about women in music. It worked! Even just that one person.
You know what the really big thing is? 10 Things I Hate About You. Heath Ledger's trying to impress Julia Stiles about his musical taste, and he says "Oh, I'm really into Bikini Kill," or something like that. That was the sound of girls going onto the internet and checking it out; we got so many fans from that. I mean, I didn't grow up with parents who listened to alternative or indie music or punk music or anything: We listened to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet, me and my sister. So I learned about punk on television.
What does it feel like to perform the song now, at Bikini Kill's reunion shows? The song has its own life, and you've gone through a lot of changes, done many different musical projects. Can you describe the feeling of playing "Rebel Girl" in 2019?
It kind of feels like coming home, but somebody fixed your house up really nice. Like, we're not sleeping in the van anymore. Five thousand people are coming to see us a night, and that wasn't what it was like for us in the '90s. And the material feels very fresh, because we just started doing it again.
I'll admit it: By the end of the band I was like, "God, if I have to play 'Rebel Girl' one more time ... ." We could rotate everything else out, but you start feeling obligated to play the anthemic one, and it can get annoying. Now, 22 years later, it feels totally fresh again. Sometimes it's about the people in the front row: I'm literally singing it to them, about them, even though I don't know them. Because I'm just psyched that they're there.
We're in an interesting turn of the wheel right now on the level of grassroots feminism and the youngest generations: There is this vitality and activism, and the #MeToo movement, and the gender fluidity of teens today that really fulfills and returns to what was happening in the '90s. But then, of course, it's also a very rough time politically. Can you talk about what the song might mean in this moment?
I almost feel like it was more of a dare in the '90s, like diving off a high dive. Not because you needed a particular prowess to play that song, but because our shows were scary: There were confrontations, things thrown at us, stuff like that. So doing that song always felt like putting my superhero cape on at the end of the show and being like, "See, I showed you. We did it."
Now, it feels more like a celebration. It feels like people are with us. Things really suck in a lot of ways, and we all know what's going on. But things are also really changing culturally, and that's a good thing. When we play the song live, a lot of people who do not like how things are going are all in the same room, dancing and celebrating — just having that moment of possibility in such a bad time period. It's really important to celebrate how quickly things can change.
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