Gang of three: Le Tigre’s feminism hits the dance floor

Daily Herald Music Critic

How is feminism faring in 2002? According to the electropop band Le Tigre, predictably not well: “one step forward, five steps back/one cool record in the year of rock-rap.”

The band’s new song, “F.Y.R.” (Fifty Years of Ridicule) doesn’t just call modern-day feminists to action, it sums up the pattern of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s career: “We tell the truth/they turn up the laugh track.”

“As feminists, we’re constantly being asked, ‘Is feminism still important?’ That’s such an insulting question in a country where domestic violence is at an all-time high along with rape and torture and hate crimes,” she said recently. “It’s really frustrating to be constantly told we’re redundant. What we find redundant is violence and racism and the fact that we are in a totally advanced technological state where you can get a DVD player the size of your hand, but they can’t get voting booths that work.”

Starting in the early ’90s, when Hanna fronted the feminist noise band Bikini Kill, she has been rock’s most consistent subversive, a role dogging her with unwelcome controversy. Bikini Kill was dragged into Nirvana lore after it was reported Kurt Cobain became inspired to write the megahit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after Hanna, in the days when both bands lived in Olympia, Wa., sprayed painted the phrase on his apartment wall.

But in underground circles, Hanna is best know for being at the forefront of “riot grrrl,” a phrase Bikini Kill drummer Toby Vail – and a brief Cobain girl-friend — first coined in a rock fanzine describing the new face of punk-rock feminism. Rio girl included bands like Bratmobile, L7, the Slits and Heavens to Betsy that articulated a new generations’ denial of corporate culture by spitting in its face. Bands refused interviews, taunted the status quo in their music and backed it with a fury of volume.

But there was a price paid. Hanna ended up a target of the mainstream press and – in the ultimate irony – riot girl’s message of empowerment became co-opted in the late ’90s by big corporate-rock phenomenons, from Lilith Fair to the Spice Girls.

“It was just really hard,” Hanna said. “I was really young and idealistic. I would get burned so often and I would see how bad the media lies. There was a flurry of activity around the band and people would try to get us to put other women down a lot and misconstrue things we said. I was 23 and would start crying and get really upset.”

So how does a riot girl rebound? In 1998, Hanna released an album under the alter ego Julie Ruin and followed it up with Le Tigre, a more dance-oriented band that backed its feminist screeds with fast-flung techno breakbeats. But on its 1999 debut – and its recently released second album, “Feminist Sweepstakes” (Mr. Lady Records) – Hanna and company also adopted the humor and infectious pop teamwork of early girl groups from the Shirelles to the Go-Go’s with its singalong lyrics and hip shaking beats. In pure nonsensical fun, the song “Deceptacon” posed the question “who took the bomp from the bompalopalomp?” in its chorus and “What’s YR Take On Cassavettes” tore apart the indie film legend with shout-outs debating “Genius? Misogynist? Messiah? Alcoholic?”

Chris Stamey, formerly of the ’80s Southern power pop band the dB’s, produced both albums, helping Hanna and band – guitarist Johanna Fateman and drummer JD Samson – get more comfortable with its new electronic direction: samples, adrenaline-pumped guitars, fuzz vocals and dirtied-up beats.

“We really wanted people to dance to it,” Hanna said. “Our goal was to change things and have things congeal a little bit better.”

A more accessible sound also meant an expanded audience. Hanna, today 33, said she’s noticed her audience now filled with 40- and 50-year-olds.

“It’s kind of awesome there are people who don’t care what bands I used to be in,” she said. “I can kind of trust it.”

That’s not to say the backlash against her has entirely dimmed. While reviews have been generally positive, the new album has attracted criticism for not shaking its feminist baggage.

“It’s always been like that, that ‘it’s more of the same.’ (Artist) Judy Chicago in the ’70s was told by her art professors she couldn’t have anything about being female in her work, that she was marginalizing herself,” Hanna said. “We’re always being told we’re marginalizing ourselves by playing Ladyfest or writing a song for the ladies and the (gays). I don’t think it’s indicative of anything new in culture. It’s age-old sexism and xenophobia.”

And if there was ever a void of female voices, it’s right now. Except for no doubt and Garbage, there are hardly any women in today’s mainstream rock, especially in the rap-rock era where the white male rage of Fred Durst and Eminem dominate, with women objectified as complacent sex kittens.”

“There’s not even Rage Against the Machine anymore,” she said. “And it’s not like ‘Nsync are singing about ending poverty.”

Everything she believes, she said, is connected to an ERA march her mother took her to in the late ’70s. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Hanna said her mom wasn’t a “radical or a lefty or a hippy,” but was just a nurse who thought it was important that her 9 year old be exposed to a solidarity march.

“It kind of shows what happens when you take a kid to a march,” Hanna said. “It was kind of cool to feel that power and to see women yelling. I didn’t know that women could yell.”

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