'N Sync and its lacquered ilk might induce more screams from the ardent nymphets packing our great nation's stadiums, but no one has inspired more teenage girls to grab guitars than Kathleen Hanna. Bikini Kill, the Olympia, Washington-based punk group she fronted from 1991 to '98, epitomized the Riot Grrl aesthetic -- fast and furious feminist rants propelled by a punishing barrage of bar chords -- and left in its wake an army of devoted disciples, many of whom started bands of their own. When Bikini Kill broke up, Hanna practiced guitar, picked up some rudimentary sampling skills and then retired to her closet, where she recorded a solo album as Julie Ruin, an alter ego she created to explore her growing interest in experimental electronic music. Shortly thereafter, Hanna moved to New York City, recruited fanzine writer Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning -- neither of whom had ever played in a band before -- and formed Le Tigre.
"I wanted to work with Sadie and Jo because they are good artists," Hanna explains. "Since Sadie can't really tour with us, our collaborator J.D. Samson is now a part of the fabulous process known as Le Tigre. She has never been in a band either, but is a person who most definitely needs to be onstage. I think being able to travel with someone and like them is more important than their musical expertise, actually. Learning how to play guitar is way easier than learning how to take life's complications gracefully."
Although her priorities are unorthodox, if not bizarre, Hanna clearly chose her bandmates wisely. An intoxicating concoction of '80s New Wave, '60s girl group, art-punk tribalism and minimalist electro-pop, Le Tigre transgresses the arbitrary boundaries between electronic music and rock, between cerebral sound-collage and inspired amateurism. Imagine, if you can, the mutant spawn of Devo, the B-52s, the Shangri-Las, the Slits and Wire, and you'll have part of the sound. Then toss in thickly layered samples, a drum machine, deliberately cheesy Casio tones, buzzing electric guitars, hand claps and finger snaps. The result is punk rock that deconstructs itself, electronica that dares to show its human face.
According to its Web-page manifesto, "Le Tigre emerges from the aesthetics and strategies of punk/underground music, digital technology and the concerns of contemporary feminist art. We piece together low-budget electronic setups that are a few steps behind the state-of-the-art, and pair these situations with the elements of a traditional rock band that remain compelling to us. We choose experimentation and change over mastery and are interested in unveiling the mystery of the encyclopedic knowledge and technical wizardry of the techno hero, desecrating ideas of rock purity, guitar virtuosity, and all popular masculinist myths re: 'the artist.' . . . Catchy or danceable moments are complicated by repetition in which flaws become apparent, piracy is obvious, or political content challenges 'the groove.'"
Theories, even fancy postmodernish ones, can take a band only so far, of course. Luckily, the first 30 seconds of Le Tigre's self-titled debut prove that the group's rhetoric isn't just so much academic bullshit. You don't need a Ph.D. in semiotics to appreciate the subversiveness of "Deceptacon," its chirpy venom, its malevolent glee. Against a rigid, staccato guitar riff, a relentless Casio hook and robotic hand claps, Hanna demands, "Who took the bomp from the bompalompalomp? Who took the ram from the ramalamadingdong?" It's a Trojan horse on the dance floor, a blistering indictment of mainstream pop culture slyly packaged inside a bona fide booty-shaker. "Wanna disco? Wanna see me disco? Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme," Hanna sneers, her sweet voice sharpened with the perfect hint of distortion.
Hanna discusses the song's message by way of an anecdote: "Last night I saw a few minutes of the MTV Music Awards. Eminem and Fred Durst are inside getting award after award after award while claiming that they are really the underdogs of the world, hated, rejected, etc. . . . while outside, six women are being sexually assaulted by their hideously goateed fans. As a finale, the faux-punk version of 'N Sync sings a pathetically boring Coke commercial-type song while a bunch of midgets are suspended from strings above them. The antidote? Destroy capitalism and take these idiots out with it."
That's just one potential remedy in Le Tigre's armamentarium, however. The next cut on the CD, "Hot Topic," takes a completely different tack, celebrating sources of inspiration rather than denouncing objects of disgust. While name-checking everyone from Yoko Ono to Faith Ringgold, from James Baldwin to Vaginal Cream Davis, the song solders freakoid-jazz trumpet bleats (courtesy of co-producer and power-pop luminary Chris Stamey) to an absurdly infectious hip-hop rhythm track. "You're getting old, that's what they'll say, but don't give a damn, I'm listening anyway," Hanna lilts over a simple chorus that all three women sing in unison. When asked about the song's origins, Hanna replies succinctly: "Cynicism. Lack of hope. Everyone tearing each other apart instead of trying to make something cool happen."
This constant tension between the constructive and the deconstructive, the building up and the tearing apart, makes Le Tigre's feminism more complicated than the standard girl-power shtick and infinitely more interesting. It's hard to imagine the Spice Girls writing a song like "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes," wherein the filmmaker is described with a series of cryptic one-word adjectives: "Misogynist? Genius? Alcoholic? Messiah?" (Hanna's own take on Cassavetes is no less enigmatic: "Gladness, ambivalence, disdain, admiration.") Resolving these apparent contradictions isn't the point. The song's real subject isn't Cassavetes qua Cassavetes; it's the liberating implications of female discourse, women getting together not to kvetch about broken hearts and boyfriends but to converse about art and ideas, then turning that experience into a song.
More dialogue than diatribe, Hanna's feminism doesn't dictate the correct answers, and it can't be reduced to facile slogans. "Someday I am going to have my own recording studio," she proclaims. "It will be called Popcorn Studios, and I am going to produce up-and-coming female bands, rap groups, etc. This dream would not be possible if feminists had not created the scholarship/action that told me I am not a big piece of shit."
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