By Laura Lee
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 section.
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?