March 27, 2010
I wrote this to contribute to Kill Rock Stars’ Bikini Kill Archive Project. Also note that this is piece, like most of what I write, blends fiction and non. Thanks to Allison and Arielle for the helpful critiques.
If you add the square footage of lawns, parking spots, sports fields, and closed big-box stores it may dawn on you that the suburbs are a vacant place. Even modest homes tend to have guest rooms, spacious basements and attics sometimes used minimally for storage. More interesting than these are the rooms left vacant by sons and daughters gone to college that are still filled with their things, preserved like museums of teenage culture. I was 14 and just getting into punk when I explored my then friend Kat’s sister’s room. I had never met Jackie but the stories of her fascinated me. She was mid-20s, bisexual, had a girlfriend (which deeply bothered her conservative parents), and had spent the last several years teaching English in Nicuagra. In my dull and sterile environ she was, on the strength of these facts alone, the most interesting local persona I had ever heard of. Her room was about the same size as mine, but how she used the space! It was a virtual rec-room complete with a TV, free-weight set, guitar, bass, and amps, art supplies, and most importantly, a sound-system with phonograph, cd player, and tapedeck. Her record collection was small but concise– Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Beat Happening, The Runaways are the ones I specifically remember drooling over. L7, wardrobed in grungewear, sneered at me from the poster on her wall.
Kat’s parents were away and I think she was making out with my friend Christian in her room, so for the time I was safely alone. I put on Dirty and sprawled out on Jackie’s bed, careful not to disturb the sheets which were neatly made for her eventual return. For a moment I pretended I was someone else, someone I wanted to be.
Kat was a good friend, she was a couple years older and gave me rides everywhere until she actually taught me to drive. She wore shades when she drove so she always looked cool picking me up, her face lit-up in the sunshine and her keychain dangling from the ignition. Over my high school years she dated half of my male friends but never showed any interest in me, which always made me feel inferior, and eventually it was likely for this reason we grew apart. The next time I visited Kat’s house I snuck off to Jackie’s room once again, browsing her bookshelf this time. Mixed in with the Celestine Prophecies, the Second Sex, and Ishmael was a marble notebook. Goldmine! An angsty teen journal! Of course I couldn’t resist; in fact, I read the entire thing, in order, in one sitting.
The entries were infrequent but there were just enough to concisely tell her story. When she was a Freshman she dated an older guy who got her into the music she liked. With the help of Riot Grrl she realized this guy was an emotionally abusive prick and dumped him, devoting several entries to how awesome it felt. She hated high school, constantly feuding with teachers and other girls who put her down for dressing punk. At one point in the diary there was a major tonal shift. An entry was called “THE INCIDENT” in bold letters, and describes, complete with diagrams, how she impulsively attemtped to burn the school down by lighting paper towels in the bathroom on fire. The fire put itself out, but the smoke tripped the alarms and the entire school was emptied out. It didn’t take long before someone ratted her on her, and she was arrested and expelled. Her parents sent her to a boarding school, and the journal ends as she prepares to leave with several sad entries about saying goodbye to her friends and the dread of what was to come. Content that I had discovered enough about Jackie I resolved to stop exploring her room, but before I left for the final time I took a souvenier: a Black Bikini kill shirt depicting the cover of their side of the Huggybear split.
My invasion of privacy is somewhat disgusting to me now. Instead of acknowledging Jackie as a real, albeit absent, person, I though of her as 90s archetype like Jane Lane or Angela Chase, retired along with the decade. Still, I would not tell Kat that I was reading her sister’s diary, or that I had turned her into a folk hero in my mind. She had done what hundreds of misfit teens like me constantly dreamed, but such a thing was unthinkable now. We were post-Columbine, post-9/11, it was an age of zero tolerance where being sad or angry meant being accused of plotting a school-shooting. So instead of replicating her actions I replicated her style. I bought the Huggybear split at Generation records, and wore the shirt to the local hardcore and emocore shows. But the shirt was huge on me, and the kids at the show that actually knew Bikini Kill seemed confused, even startled, that a chubby 15 year-old would be wearing a Bikini Kill shirt. At one show an older girl from a lower-Westchester band even asked me why I was wearing it. “I just like Bikini Kill, I guess.” I didn’t understand the question.
This week I saw Jello Biafra’s new project, the Guantanamo School of Medecine, and was psyched to see one of the best current punk bands opening, Witchunt. This show brought back memories of those early days as a punk in the suburbs and traveling to Brooklyn to see Witchunt’s first New York show opening for Leftover Crack and Morning Glory (it was also Kylesa’s first New York show, if I recall correctly!). Witchunt has gotten huge and amazing since then, playing a punk rock that never sticks with one style, but doing it all really, really well. They ended their set with a cover of White Boy. The song seemed mostly lost on the crowd, who seemed like the same dorky Dead Kennedys fans all the punks hated in the mid-80s but aged 25 years. I was thinking that I probably shouldn’t dance, as only men were dancing during the set and generally a Bikini Kill cover is something of a critique of that, and I wasn’t even sure if that I should sing along, because that would be kind of like a Nazi singing along to Nazi Punks Fuck Off.
Originally, my relationship to Bikini Kill was not so neurotic. It’s tempting to repent for being a straight white male who was into a genre that sung of a type of oppression and violence to which I will never be subject, but some songs still really did ring true for me. While White Boy and Don’t Need You were an attack on the male species, Resist Psychic Death was an expression of alienation and misery in which the “yr” and “mine” were not gendered. Jigsaw Youth was another punk anthem mostly without gender. But the most striking song on the album was Rebel Girl, which seemed a succinct summary of my non-relationship with Jackie. Like the mid-90s, Jackie only existed in artifacts that I profoundly related to but wouldn’t quite fit me, a punk of another body and time. This longing to be someone you’re not, someone cooler and more confident, someone who spits in the face of the daily oppressions of this culture, was a major theme for Bikini Kill. Rebel Girl, Rah Rah Replica, I Wish I Were Him, and Alien She all take this up. Bikini Kill were one of the best and most brilliant bands at taking up these tense issues of subjectivity within culture, combining destructive critique with advocation of creating a countercultural shelter in which its participants may overcome alienation and oppresion to materialize their repressed desires. (The urge to burn down the school is a creative urge, also.)
I do not mean to underplay the importance or centrality of Bikini Kill’s feminism, but just because Bikini Kill has lyrics aggressive to their male audience does not mean it cannot be affective to boys, and, in fact, I think it is definitely an important band for boys to hear. Star Bellied Boy challenges male listeners to “prove you’re different from the rest,” and White Boy and Don’t Need You make sexual violence that’s invisible to many men unignorable (to those who give a shit about lyrics, at least). Similarly, Jackie’s journal instilled a longing not just to become like her, but also to check myself in relationships lest I become similar to that first shitty boyfriend who, despite liking rad music, was still abusive.*
It’s exciting to see Bikini Kill cemented into feminist history for the women they inspired to come together to write and play their own music, write their own zines, and challenge patriarchy. Bikini Kill were not only angry at patriarchy, as they often mobilized a critique of an entire oppressive and miserable culture. For me, and countless other boys and girls who were/are called faggots, sluts, and subjected to other such forms of oppressive violence in high schools worldwide, Jackie and Bikini Kill were Promethean figures who brought the fire of rebellion into dark and vacant spaces. For those who will never have a rebel girl, they at least will always have Bikini Kill.
“You can’t stop the fire that burns inside of me.”
*Thinking along these lines, it now strikes me that entire piece is about the influence of Jackie in my life, but Kat, a real friend and not a specter of artifact, was of course the bigger influence. Now that Kat and I have drifted apart I’ve realized my jealousy and negativity towards her relationship choices somwhat mirror the masculinist behavior of the guy from the journal. Listening to rad music and reading rad literature is never enough. While objects like punk clothing, records, and feminist textbooks are vastly important to counterculture, they should never obscure what really matters– the social relations within that culture.