Reject All American is Bikini Kill's most accessible release to
date. That's not to say that it's particularly easy to get a copy of; I
had to brave four Cambridge record stores before I finally found one in
the HMV megastore (God bless the corporate world.) Rather, it's
accessible in the sense that it's songs cover a wide variety
of styles, ranging from the classic BK punkouts to soft ballads to catchy
girl-group pop--but all are still delivered in typical kick-ass Bikini
In the transition from punk to pop, BK has lost none of the edge and
emotion that is so central to their sound. On the contrary, the
effectiveness of Kathleen Hanna's words is only increased by the
variation in style. "R.I.P.", one of the albums ballads, is a
memorial to a friend who died of an AIDS-related illness and is without a
doubt the saddest and most touching song I have ever heard.
Hanna begins by acknowledging the limitations of the tribute: "I can't
say everything about it/In just one single song/I can't put how I feel in
package/And sell it back to everyone." It is powerful in its documentation
of the emotional struggle that accompanies the loss of a friend. Hanna's
sincerity as she sings "Its not fair/Its not fair/Its not
fair" prevent the words from becoming cliched, and evokes the deep
helplessness and frustration and sense of the true injustice of the world.
And in this society, where we are taught from such an early age to just
move on and not to make a fuss, that to be good is to be quiet, Hanna
speaks for us all when she says:
"Don't tell me it don't matter
Don't tell me it don't matter
Don't tell me I've had three days to get over it
It won't go away
It just won't go away"
A driving force throughout Reject All American is the drumming of
Tobi Vail, who also steps up to the mic for two songs, handling the lead
vocals for "Distinct Complicity" and "For Only", and sharing lead with
Hanna on "False Start". A rocking drum intro starts off "No Backrub" one
of the album's punk attacks and continues through the song to
push out the punk.
In "For Only", a mellower tune, Vail's vocals are drawly and gentle as she
sings about her recollections of the past and the reality of the present.
Based around a strong bass line "For Only" is the most studio and cleanest
song on the album with melodic, undistorted guitars and a backing horn
Hanna confronts the stereotypes and labels that have been placed on girls
by the media in "Tony Randall". She is justified in her attack
as the media has so overtly taken the title of "riot grrl" and twisted it
into just another glorified sterotype with which to confine and
manipulate. Hanna has long been identified as one of rock's foremost "riot
grrls", a label that has worked both for and against her, but is a label
nonetheless. In "Tony Randall" she rejects the media's
attempt to capitalize on the riot grrl image: "Robotic nation/ False
history spit out/ another picture of a girl with a gun to bore me/ Cartoon
girl/ Hallmark Card/ I see a punk bar/ He sees a strip club."
But the media can't capture everything and she ends the song by reassuring
herself that "Some things can't be photographed."
The title track is an excellent example of Bikini Kill's acute pop
sensibility liberally mixed with Hanna's characteristically biting lyrics:
"Gets good grades and plays guitar/ thinks he's cool but really is not."
One of the most striking things about Hanna's vocals, which are
undoubtably Bikini Kill's strong point, is the fact that they're so
refreshingly unpretentious. If there's angst in her words, it's
justified. Bikini Kill's music is definitely without the
hollow whine strained out by most tortured artists today. Hanna states
things as they are: life isn't fair and oppression is real, but so are
hope and empowerment. And the album is not without humor. It closes with
the band singing with gleeful irony:
"We're the girls with the bad reputations
We're the girls gonna make you pay
We're the girls with the bad reputations
We are gonna have our say"
No fault can be found in Bikini Kill's graceful transition from the lo-fi
feel of 1993's Pussy Whipped to the tight pop-punk of Reject All
American. They emerge intact and rocking. Perhaps due to some of the
more radio-friendly songs on this album, Bikini Kill will achieve a more
mainstream audience. While most indie-punkers might view this as a bad
thing I can only see it as beneficial. With Reject All American,
Bikini Kill have proven that they are not going to lose their edge despite
their shift in style. Throughout the album their message remains clear
and unwavering. Sure their current fans get it, but isn't it the
mainstream audience that most needs to hear?