Legendary artist Patti Smith and her punk descendants, Bikini Kill, shared a stage last Sunday in Chicago at Riot Fest. That is, Patti Smith played a set, and the next band to grace its glorious sound system was Bikini Kill, who headlined the fest. It couldn’t be more apt to say in the truest sense, Patti Smith set the stage for Bikini Kill.
Often when people hear or see women in punk bands– even in 2019– they refer to them as “riot grrrl,” which grates on my nerves but is also inaccurate compartmentalization on multiple accounts. Riot grrrl was a movement that existed at a particular time and place (early ‘90s in the Pacific Northwest and Washington DC, eventually spreading all over the world). But, moreover, what so many don’t realize is that over a decade before the riot grrrls ripped holes through the roofs of multiple male-centric music scenes across America, women like Patti Smith and many more had already played essential roles in punk and its many off-shoots (proto-punk, post-punk, no wave, and new wave).
Refusing to bend to the same sexist stereotypes and exclusions from the music industry that women endured decades before, artists from Smith’s generation cleared a path for artists from Hanna’s to blaze through swarms of men with torches. These women of the late’80s and early ’90s then made it possible for many others decades later to confidently front bands of their own. Punk itself wouldn’t have been possible without the women of the early era.
In an interview with Eric Davidson on Please Kill Me, author, academic, musician, and veteran punk, Vivien Goldman emphasized, “To me, the punks’ role in giving women a voice and a little opening, it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was the start of cock rock having to crumble and make way for female artists. There was nothing before punk…groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, yes, we love them, however, what they were doing was nothing as radical as the Slits or Raincoats were doing, because they were unprecedented. Whereas the Clash or the Pistols, all my friends, they were in a lineage, they had role models, but we didn’t.”
Working adjacent to and alongside their male peers in the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, women’s roles in punk’s first wave laid the groundwork for a movement that later pushed them out. Half a decade later, riot grrrls rose up against the re-established testosterone-fueled majority to avenge women’s roles in punk— and here we are today, many decades later, witnessing these tenacious, underground artists finally take center stage.
Knowing and speaking about that history is not pretentious– it’s a matter of respect
But, let’s just allow the mere fact settle in for a second: Patti Smith played a prime spot at Riot Fest that led into Bikini Kill’s headlining spot. Both names were displayed on the bill in a bigger font than the majority of other bands booked. On stage, Kathleen Hanna herself pointed out the progress in that very notion. And hopefully, this is only the beginning of mass-appreciate of artists who are both outspoken and increasingly not male.
Sunday night, Patti Smith and Bikini Kill sandwiched The Raconteurs– who, let’s face it, just two years ago would have undoubtedly, unapologetically, and unquestionably, held the headlining position over these two illuminating, influential women. The other nights were stacked with male-centered bands– as most festivals tend to be. Well, not today, Satan.
Ushering in the femme-empowering aura at Sunday’s show were–in this order– the full moon Friday the 13th, Against Me!, and the B52s.
Before Patti Smith took the stage wearing a suit coat and vest, a mysterious T-shirt underneath, and her signature long, wavy, silver locks, two girls elbow distance from me joked that if any of us had to go to the bathroom mid-set, we could create a collective human wall to protect the person squatting. Thankfully that never needed to happen, but I genuinely believe it was the compassion in the thought that counts.
Multiple people around me were quietly shedding tears before Patti got through her first song, “People Have the Power.” The song is a plea for people to protest harmful politics and take social issues into our own hands to create a better future; it can best be understood by lyrics found in the song itself:
“I commit my dream to you
The power to dream to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It’ s decreed the people rule
It’ s decreed the people rule
I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’ s revolution
We have the power
People have the power”
A benevolent wizard who brought us all together and eased us into our connections, Patti (who is, may I say, quite a hippie for being “the high priestess of punk”), spoke to the audience directly, urging us to both use our voices politically and to be more in touch with nature as a society. Minutes later, one of the same girls nearby offered us all water.
Like her audience, Patti was connected, present, and compassionate.
During dynamic songs like “Dancing Barefoot” and “Gloria,” she raised both arms powerfully above her head, summoning cool breezes and the essence of an androgynous deity. As well as evoking magic, the set felt personal as Patti waved to the audience between songs and shared a conversation she had earlier that day with her daughter: Since Chicago is both where Patti lived for the first four years of her life and her place of birth, it is, therefore, where she took her first breath in this world. The performance felt, appropriately, like a reunion.
Bikini Kill’s set was an hour and a half later after night had officially fallen and the crowd had visibly transitioned from one of a mature, gentle, and mystical nature, to that of tight-lipped aggression. I noticed the palpable difference in the crowds’ attitude when my friend and I left to go the bathroom and returned to find it had grown, and no one wanted to let us pass; I learned this through their body language and their eyes. People had their legs planted firmly in their spot and they were not going to let any newcomers enter. The feeling was confirmed when I asked one No Nonsense woman directly if my friend and I could get through. She responded flatly and unamused, “No.”
“Well, we were already here for Patti Smith, and–” I started to explain.
“I was here for Patti Smith, too,” she cut me off tersely.
“… we went to the bathroom and got our friends some food. They are right up there,” I added, pointing in the direction of where they might be.
“Well, my friends are up there, too,” she said– not budging, physically or emotionally.
Everyone nearby heard the whole exchange but no one I looked to offered a kind eye.
I should have told her I’d help her find her friends, but instead, I shrugged and asked another woman a few humans down from the No Nonsense lady if we could get through. “Of course!” she said, welcoming us into a gap. This is what Patti and Kathleen and Tobi would have wanted, I thought. Another girl started chanting “women to the front!” which was cute, but also uncomfortable, though in an entirely opposite way from how No Nonsense had made me feel.
My friend and I squeezed through a few rows of people back to our friends, who in guarding our place, had also noted how much the crowd had changed since we’d left. It was pretty tense. People stared at an empty stage, above each other’s heads or looked at others coldly. Wafts of cultural avarice filled the small bubble around us. The undercurrent was perhaps both a reflection of the protected counterculture surrounding the band and the inevitable insecurities of a younger crowd. Or maybe the crowd had it with Jack White’s neverending guitar noodling.
The discomfort began to dissolve the moment after White’s band The Raconteurs finished up their set, appropriately, with “Steady As She Goes” and White introduced Bikini Kill as the next act. The stuffy air subsided almost entirely once Kathleen Hanna burst across the stage in a silver space cadet dress, waved energetically and smiled enormously at the crowd who exploded into cheers.
The mood shift told me that perhaps what everyone needed to feel content was her presence. Hanna comes across to the audience as a kind and welcoming queen, which is, truly, a needed gift from a leader in a society so pitted against one another. Suddenly, the crowd felt a lot less like a high school hallway and much more like a community.
The set was a wild ride– opening with “Carnival” and a handful of other jammers. Firm nudging turned into dancing and erupted into a mosh pit pretty quickly. A few slow tunes like “Feels Blind” crept in. I wondered how No Nonsense was doing now. I hoped we were both having the time of our lives in a parallel existence.
Then drummer Tobi Vail and Kathleen traded lead-singing duties back and forth. Kathleen’s stories, pep-talks, and musings between songs were both well-founded and true to character, citing moments in her life when older men took advantage of her naivete at a young age, and also advising young artists in the crowd to keep their work, because maybe one day they’ll be the ones on stage performing it.
Overall, both shows– practically back to back– were powerful and uplifting, giving space to hard-working artists of the last four decades, and giving the entire audience– people of all genders and ages– brilliant role models and options for expression going forward in a male-dominated industry in a male-dominated world. A world we can change, perhaps with kind gestures toward our fellow humans, and according to Patti and Kathleen, one dream, one journal entry at a time.
As we were leaving, a friend noted how many younger folks they saw enjoying the show. “Yeah, I think they were BORN after 1995,” she said. “That’s so bizarre… I can’t imagine. That’s like us liking—”
Three of us, in unison, chimed in, “Patti Smith?”