Bikini Kill - Pussy Whipped

It must be weird to be a cause celebre before you’ve put out your first album, but that’s what happened with Bikini Kill. The band was, of course, at the center of riot grrrl, the ground-up feminist punk-rock movement that burned bright and fast, that applied feminist-studies ideas to the often-boneheaded hardcore scene and saw its influence ripple out for years after its short-but-beautiful explosion. They were linked with that whole scene, had appeared in the Newsweek article that threatened to blow that whole scene wide open and caused internal rifts within it. (Weird to think that a Newsweek article could ever have that effect on a punk scene.) If the whole movement had one definitive anthem, it was “Rebel Girl,” a song written very much as an anthem. But Bikini Kill were a band, too, one that had to go about the business of touring and releasing singles and things that don’t necessarily jibe with being some legendary transformative energy-force. By the time they released Pussy Whipped, their first proper album, 20 years ago this past Saturday, many people within riot grrrl believed the movement had already died out, and the band themselves had already moved beyond the raw gut-scrape sound on it. But it’s still a remarkably potent album, and it still captured a ton of imaginations.

Pussy Whipped came after the Bikini Kill and Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah EPs. Bratmobile, Bikini Kill’s closest contemporaries, had already released their own Potty Mouth album. The band recorded Pussy Whipped early in 1993, then toured for a while. Ian MacKaye introduced them to Joan Jett, who produced their “New Radio” b/w “Rebel Girl” single, giving them a cleaner and sharper recording job. (This was their third time recording “Rebel Girl”; the second version of it appeared on Pussy Whipped.) The single showed a band that was ready to move onward and upward, that was learning just how much more forceful they could be if they presented their hooks straight-up without burying them in four-track murk. That “New Radio” single came out before Pussy Whipped, even though they recorded it months after, so maybe the album felt like an afterthought to the band by the time it found its way to market. And anyway, the album was barely longer than an EP; it ends just before the 25-minute mark. But it was still a hugely important album, partly because it was an actual album that you could buy and partly because it absolutely kicks ass.

“Blood One,” the first track on Pussy Whipped starts with a furiously propulsive bass riff, a few isolated drum-cracks, and Kathleen Hanna moaning wordlessly before saying, clearly and plainly, “I don’t owe you nothing.” And then it’s off: simple buzzsaw riffs, sprinting tempos, Hanna wailing furiously. That stuff barely lets up over the course of the album. There are hooks, and legible lyrics, but the hooks aren’t always legible, and the legible parts aren’t always hooks. It’s hard to know where one song stops and another begins. It’s hard to know, two decades later, how bracing all this must’ve sounded at the time, especially given how macho the hardcore scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s was. It was all done with an electric immediacy and simplicity, to the point where you had people at punk shows complaining that the members didn’t know how to play their instruments — this, even though one of the main points of punk rock was always that you don’t necessarily need to know how to play your instruments. But if everyone could write songs this direct and effective, there’d be a whole lot more punk albums full of songs this blunt and effective. And then there’s the final track “For Tammy Rae,” the longest song by far at 3:34 and a rare indication that this band knew how to jangle and shimmy as well as just pummel. They did a whole lot more of that later. Bikini Kill must not have been that interested in the process of making albums, since they only put out one more, 1996′s great Reject All American, before breaking up. But they still developed a lot more over the next few years, easing up on the attack and showing some serious pop-song chops before finally ceasing to be.

Pussy Whipped eventually sold 75,000, huge for an early-’90s indie rock album, especially one this uncompromising and brutal. And it was important that it existed, since the band’s early EPs, at least until someone collected them onto a reissue CD soon after, just weren’t available to most of the kids who might’ve been interested. Those 75,000 people just might not have had access to the live shows or the EPs. Around this point, “riot grrrl” was becoming a press buzzword to the point where it threatened to lose all meaning. I can remember a BMG Music Club catalog spotlighting “riot grrrl bands” and drawing attention to bands that had nothing to do with that scene: L7, Hole, Babes In Toyland, even Belly. So as riot grrrl gradually came to mean “alt-rock with female singers,” Pussy Whipped needed to exist so that you could hear this sound the way it actually existed. At this point, it still works as a time-capsule reminder of a specific moment. And it needed to be as tough and loud as it was to make a point. Later bands like Sleater-Kinney had the chance to play around with ideas and textures and emotions because Bikini Kill had helped to open up a punk-scene space for them. And at the right social gatherings, the opening “Rebel Girl” drum-cracks will still incite total euphoria in grown women. Those of us who were kids when this came out were lucky. And even if the rest of the riot grrrl scene, and even the band members themselves, had moved onto other ideas by the time Pussy Whipped came out, it’s still plenty easy to get stuck on it now.

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