Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
2019 marks the return of the riot grrrl. Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, L7, and Team Dresch, all formative riot grrrl bands, have reunited in 2019 to play tours and (in some cases) even release new music. In the era of the #MeToo movement, increasing abortion restrictions, and the struggles of the LGBTQ community to find acceptance, riot grrrls sense that they are needed, and they’re coming back. The riot grrrl movement was a punk musical movement, but it was also a political movement; lyrics took on weighty topics, promoted feminism, and unabashedly commented on politics. This week we celebrate riot grrls, and thank them for speaking up and pushing for equality through their music.
It only seems right to kick off a week of riot grrrl posts with Bikini Kill, often considered the founding band of the movement. Founded in Olympia, Washington, home to the early riot grrrl scene, in 1990, the band is made up of singer Kathleen Hanna, drummer Toby Vail, guitarist Billy Karren, and bassist Kathi Wilcox. Before disbanding in 1997, Bikini Kill recorded five albums, demanding “girls to the front” at their shows. Afterwards, the members went on to other musical projects. Most notably, Hanna became part of Le Tigre, the rock band known for its liberal political statements. Ironically, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried to use “Rebel Girl” in a campaign video, but Vail requested that it be removed.
In 2006, when Rolling Stone picked the best songs of each year since 1967, Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” was deemed the best of 1993. But this song is not just a song for the ’90s (not to mention a refreshing break from heteronormative lyrics), it’s an emblem, an anthem for everyone fighting injustice in this world.
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
These covers span the spectrum from screaming to singing, and they choose a variety of tempos marked by a steady metronomic drum beat.
Dog Party – Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill cover)
First up is Dog Party, a band from Central California made up of two sisters. The Giles sisters have recorded six albums since they formed in 2009, and they’ve notably opened for Green Day during part of the Revolution Radio tour. Dog Party’s “Rebel Girl” is slightly slower paced than the original, with a guitar that plays a supporting rather than leading role. Instead, the spotlight is on drummer Lucy, who absolutely nails the powerhouse vocals. From the vocal lilts to the transitions between the spoken word, the chorus’s tune, and the screaming on ending phrases like “she is,” Lucy does it all without faltering. Even more impressively, she does it all while keeping a steady beat.
The Melvins featuring Teri Gender Bender – Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill cover)
The Melvins, another band that helped start a musical movement, predates Bikini Kill, forming in 1983. However, they both have Washington in common. Seattle, Washington was a hub for the grunge scene in the ’80s. Fun fact: The Melvins’ drummer, Dale Crover, played with Nirvana, and their guitarist, Buzz Osborne, made the introduction between founding members of Nirvana and Dave Grohl. This cover brings a faster tempo and starts out with some guitar feedback to add to the dissonant vibe. The band brings in Teri Gender Bender (stage name for Teri Suárez Cosío), from Mexican rock band, Le Butcherettes, to provide vocals. She takes an approach that sings more than screams, making some parts of the song a little less forceful than the original. The electric guitar also takes some liberties, not always matching the original tune, but providing a bit of individuality.
Bridge and Tunnel – Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill cover)
Bridge and Tunnel, a punk band from New York City, starts with an inspirational speech going out to all of the ladies. Reading the story (on YouTube) behind this recording is wild. Rachel Rubino is usually the band’s guitarist, but before this set, she broke her wrist. Like a true rebel girl, she made the best of it. The band decided to change their set list to covers, featuring Rubino on vocals. This version emphasizes the screaming over singing, and Rubino gets so into it that she ends the song a little out of breath. You can’t tell that Bridge and Tunnel hadn’t planned this cover; the guitar and drums do a good job of replicating the sound of the original.
Craig Owens – Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill cover)
Even the occasional man can do “Rebel Girl” justice. Craig Owens is an advocate for rebel girls, donating the proceeds from this cover to Equal Rights Advocates, a non-profit women’s rights organization, and Girls Rock Camp, an “international membership network of youth-centered arts and social justice organizations.” Owens was the lead singer of the “post-hardcore” (think punk bands who don’t want to be constrained by that label) band Chiodos in the early 2000s before splitting off to work on a myriad of other musical projects. Although the electro-pop version of the distinctive guitar intro and chorus melody may not be for everyone, Owens’s vocals stay true to the original’s vision. The drums remain consistent, the temptation to overcomplicate the steady beat to match the updated electronic vibe is effectively resisted.
The Sad Girls – Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill cover)
Did you ever think you would see a washboard feature in this post? It wouldn’t be a Five Good Covers without a genre-bending cover. The Sad Girls provide a quirky, folksy take to this patriarchy-smashing anthem. As a warning, the main voice doesn’t carry as much as some of these other performers, so turn up the sound a bit. Impressively, the banjo still provides the emphasis of the characteristic guitar line, and the tambourine does its job, emulating the original’s punchy drum beat. The trio members all join in to yell parts of the lyrics, staying with the spirit of Bikini Kill’s vocal delivery.
Bikini Kill featuring Joan Jett – Rebel Girl
As a bonus, check out when Bikini Kill brought out the queen of the neighborhood herself, Joan Jett, to help perform this song. After their UK tour, Bikini Kill started to work with Jett, who had found kindred spirits in other riot grrrl bands such as L7 (more about L7 later this week). Jett produced the “Rebel Girl” single, and Bikini Kill’s singer, Kathleen Hanna, co-wrote songs for Jett. Joan Jett adds her own flair to this live version, from providing some guitar licks to taking her turn on vocals. She even pauses her strums to pump up the crowd. Seeing Joan Jett take the stage with Bikini Kill gives life to rebel girls new and old.