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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Bikini Kill: Reject All American

BIKINI KILL: REJECT ALL AMERICAN (1996)

1) Statement Of Vindication; 2) Capri Pants; 3) Jet Ski; 4) Distinct Complicity; 5) False Start; 6) R.I.P.; 7) No Back­rub; 8) Bloody Ice Cream; 9) For Only; 10) Tony Randall; 11) Reject All American; 12) Finale.

This is the first Bikini Kill album for which the band finally decided to try writing and per­forming some music, as opposed to «distortion-enhanced social activity» — and, incidentally, the last one as well, because the effort proved to be too much for the band, and it imploded from internal conflict. Also, most people hated the album, because nobody wanted Bikini Kill to try to grow and mature — Pussy Whipped had listeners falling on their knees and surrendering to the sheer wrath of the «songs», but Reject All American had ballads. BALLADS! How are you supposed to make a bikini kill with a frickin' ballad?

Logically, I suppose that we should be going along with critical opinion. Bikini Kill are not musicians, but activists. They cannot write songs, they cannot (or will not) play, they don't know how to sing, and all they got going for them is their animal passion and feminist ideals. So if they start cutting down on the animal passion without significantly compensating on other levels, who needs them? Better a doggone awful band that can't play at all than a boring mediocre band that pretends to be playing well.

But wait, not so fast. First of all, it is not really true that Hannah and her gang got «softened up» on this record. The very fact that their guitarist is playing a few more notes than usual, and that the barking and nagging is occasionally shaping up in the form of a vocal melody does not nece­s­sarily mean that they lost anything in terms of energy. What may have been really disappointing to some of the fans is that lyrically, Reject All American transcends the level of primitive, gut-level «riot grrrrl» slogans — in fact, there is not one single direct reference here to the evils of sexual objectification, although many of the songs deal with the evils of objectification as such, period, and sometimes in almost surprisingly smart ways.

The title track, even if it is superficially poppier and even «girlier» than ʽRebel Girlʼ, is arguably Bikini Kill's finest two and a half minutes — Hannah concocts a well-modulated mantra of «social activity clichés» ("regimented, designated, mass acceptance, overrated, lip synch, teen anthem, lip synch, obligation...") that her co-workers are happy to throw on the bonfire ("reject! all american! reject! all american!") with catchy glee and generic, but tasteful pop-punk riffage. Primal chaos, it is true, has been replaced by a tighter, better controlled, more disciplined (and clearer articulated, might I add) way of presenting the message — but why not, if Billy Karren is capable of playing in the style of, say, Lenny Kaye?

None of the other songs try so hard to imprint themselves in the listener's mind, but the overall sound — provided you have finally gotten used to Hannah's nasal wail — is still an improvement over Pussy Whipped. There is a certain immediacy and minimalism to the songs that was pre­viously lacking: most of the rockers start and finish abruptly, without any «moody» introductions (on Pussy Whipped, about half of the songs had some sort of amateurish bass intro to them), and, surprisingly, at least three or four finish abruptly twice — for some reason, the band had develo­ped a consistent taste for false endings, which creates the illusion that there are far more songs here than there really are (a nod to Wire's Pink Flag?).

The two «ballads», sung by Kathi and Tobi rather than Hannah, are forgettable but not particu­larly corny — they may have been written with somebody like Blondie in mind, with a mix of tenderness and inner strength that is certainly incompatible with the idea of a «girlie sellout», and, after all, there is nothing wrong about showing a little tenderness, is there? I even think that the ironically titled ʽFalse Startʼ has all the makings of a good song — pretty vocal melody and cute combination of gruff electric riffage with tinkling chimes. Just lacks that special something to put it over the top, but on the whole, it is their ʽSunday Morningʼ and ʽDreamingʼ all rolled in one, even if the result is ultimately quite amateurish.

In any case, my logic is simple: Reject All American is the most «musical» album these girls ever made, and ideologically, it does not betray their agenda, but extends and deepens it. With a few years more work, they might very well have matured into decent songwriters and competent players — sadly, the male chauvinist Olympic gods were all against this, and the band split up less than two years after they decided to reject all American (then again, logically, Bikini Kill is also very much American, so they had no choice but to reject themselves). Which leaves me with no choice but to award this album a very low thumbs up — for (a) not being irritating, and (b) honoring the «growth curve» and showing promise for the future. So it never came to pass, but really, what matters is the dynamics of the action, not the result.

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