Given the pedigree of Le Tigre's three players, it's not surprising that they're poised as she-roes for feminists of generations X and Y.
Kathleen Hanna, unofficial leader of the riot-grrrl movement spawned in the Pacific Northwest in the early '90s, formed Le Tigre in 1999 after the dissolution of garage punkers Bikini Kill. She took the electronic-dance aesthetic of Julie Ruin, her post-Bikini Kill persona (under whose name she released one record for Kill Rock Stars) and turned it into a 21st-century revolution. Hanna soon recruited other women artists to join the cause, including Johanna Fateman, former editor of Snarl, a zine that made the rounds in the West Coast punk scene in the '90s, and filmmaker Sadie Benning. Benning has since been replaced by J.D. Samson, founder of Dykes Can Dance, a grassroots organization devoted to promoting the shakin' of one's groove thang in lesbian bars; Samson is responsible for choreographing the dance routines in Le Tigre's live shows.
Le Tigre has updated the riot-grrrl manifesto -- a raucous directive to shake off traditional expectations of femininity -- to a call for women to claim public space as their own, to dance without regard for the eyes that are always watching.
The band's second full-length record, Feminist Sweepstakes (released late last year on Mr. Lady records), maneuvers almost exclusively in the public sphere, commenting on everything from guys at their shows to riding the subway to dyke marches, claiming all terrain in the name of Women Everywhere. The album comes from a well of frustration, from not really having a place that's safe from voyeurs, commentators and attackers. Sweepstakes' subject matter condenses "all of our combined frustrations with being harassed on the street, whatever form it takes -- whether it's about how sexy you look that day or how ugly you are or how crazy you are or if you look like a boy or a girl," says Samson, a self-proclaimed "dyke with facial hair."
The record kicks off with "LT Tour Theme," a call to booties that implores women to dance while singling out the "guys with the digi cameras" who feel some need to document women speaking out and acting up. This phenomenon, which the band has witnessed at its own shows, is described by Fateman as the "male deer-caught-in-the-headlights-in-the-front-row-with-a-digital-video-camera approach to attending feminist cultural events." "LT Tour Theme" is meant as more of a celebration than a rant, however: "But then we see the girls walking towards the dance floor and we remember why we go on tour," the players sing, reminding listeners that the music is not for the boys who like to watch, but for the girls who like to move.
Mobility itself is a theme on Feminist Sweepstakes, most specifically in a sound bite of a performance recorded in 1974 by Naomi Weisstein of the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band. The band was an offshoot of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, a product of radical '60s feminism that was active through 1977. Weisstein and the band would tour around the country, performing a program that blended satirical music and comedy in front of college audiences, trying to spread the word and increase awareness on hot topics such as women's health care (including abortion), gay rights and workplace and career issues. In the sound clip, Weisstein talks about a woman who would drool on the subway, which allowed her to ride from one end of the city to the other without being bothered. The crowd hoots and claps, greatly amused.
"We thought it was kind of interesting that when she says her friend doesn't get bothered on the subway, you hear all the women laughing, because it seems like such an impossibility to ride the subway from beginning to end and not get fucked with once," says Hanna. "Like that's a joke -- and it's really so sad that that's a joke."
This clip prefaces the track "On Guard," in which a feral-sounding Hanna issues a guttural "Fuck you" to those who feel they have to comment on one's looks: "Well, I guess you're the judge/I guess you're the king of the forever beauty pageant I'm always in."
"I just had a guy tell me how unique I look," says Hanna. "And I had just gotten up and gone to get some lunch, and I was like, 'I didn't really ask for your opinion.'" Of course, when women are subjected to commentary on their looks by men, they are expected to smile and nod, perhaps say thanks for the compliment. Those brave gals who dare call someone on the inappropriateness or unwelcomeness of their input are branded bitches or -- horror of horrors -- lesbians. And everyone knows how dangerous they are, right?
The attitude that lesbians are a danger to society is perfectly illustrated in the innovative "Dyke March 2001," which takes samples of interviews with participants in last year's New York's Dyke March and sets them to a series of beats and synth accompaniment. Women testify that they enjoy being surrounded by women, which is followed by cries of "We recruit!" and "Resist!" The song builds in intensity as male voices enter the fray, accompanied by whistles and commands to "Get down! Sit down!" At this point in the clip, the listener learns that the march has been infiltrated -- and the women are pissed. What starts out as a radical proclamation of lesbians claiming their space turns into a war marked by a "huge, strong mass of feminist fury."
The sense of danger and the radical message that underscore "Dyke March" pretty much guarantee that the song won't be played on the radio, unless it's on programs like Testosterone Detox, a weekly women's music show on KVCU Radio 1190/AM whose playlist reflects a love of Le Tigre. The feeling is mutual.
"I've got a Testosterone Detox button on my jacket," says Hanna after she and Samson finish making enthusiastic exclamations at a mention of the show. While some might posit that the existence of such shows tends to marginalize women's music -- why should program directors try to work women's music into rotation if there's a whole show devoted to it? -- Hanna and Samson find it a boon for female rockers who aren't Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls.
"I think it's great that the people who have that show can have an audience in Boulder," says Samson. "It's incredible that there are so many people who are interested in listening to the kind of music that they're playing." Hanna concurs. "I think it's awesome. I think it's really hard to be a female DJ at a college radio station; people wouldn't have to have shows that specifically focused on women if there wasn't such rampant sexism and homophobia in the world. I totally applaud them for doing something about it."
Applause aside, the fact remains that when women's music is cordoned off into one time slot (in the case of Testosterone Detox, Tuesdays from 9 to 11 p.m.), the dynamic is one of preaching to the converted, which seems counterproductive when artists have as much to say as the women of Le Tigre do. It's all well and good to make music for the masses who get it -- like a cheering section for people who take each other seriously. But shows that revolve around a shared worldview can also provide ammo for those who favor the term "feminazi," or even those who are just uncomfortable with sassy women.
"Assholes think that because we're women, feminism is a shtick. If you say anything at all progressive politically, people hold you to really crazy, insane standards that they wouldn't hold anybody else to, as a way to put you down," gripes Hanna. "A lot of bands that are politically conservative, perpetuating the status quo -- nobody questions what they want in their rider when they play a show. Nobody questions their sound specs or if they want water when they're playing. But with us, people get really bent out of shape that we ask for really normal things. It becomes a really big issue."
Of course, there's the obvious followup: Would it be like that if Le Tigre were men?
"Of course not," Hanna retorts. "I think it would if we were progressively political gay men, or men of color. But I think if we were straight white men singing, 'Oh, baby, baby, baby,' it wouldn't."
To quote Ann Powers, co-editor of the 1999 book Rock She Wrote, "While film's gaze has always rested on woman as spectacle, and sports gives men a chance to sublimate by reveling in the sight of each other's bodies, popular music since the birth of rock and roll has focused overwhelmingly on male sexual expression." So naturally, the Establishment's response to someone like Kathleen Hanna and a band like Le Tigre is to give them as much shit as possible, for how dare they try to set rock conventions on their ear?
Perhaps it's that modern man is uneasy with the fact that the women he's watching are watching him right back and holding up a mirror, to boot. What he sees ain't pretty, and he knows it, which is why Le Tigre will always have a job to do. At least they'll always have fun doing it.
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