Dance, Dance, Revolution
When it comes time for the Le Tigre trio to take the stage at First Avenue on Saturday, November 6, Kathleen Hanna will probably emerge last--that is, if the past is any indication. This is because Hanna is a rock star and, like any successful rock star, she knows how to make an entrance.
Which is not to say that Hanna demands attention--she just has a way of getting it. It's no coincidence that, of all the riot grrrl bands on the circuit in the early '90s, Bikini Kill were the most totemic. They had the best name, they had the best songs, and they had Hanna, who, as a frontwoman, was totally approachable and yet completely inaccessible. She would pull girls onstage, pass out her zine, and beg bouncers to let underage fans into the show, all of which made her more heroic--and intimidating, a tricky position for someone who's part of an underground movement that strives to be as collective as possible.
Predictably, Hanna outgrew the scene. She moved to New York and formed the electro-punk outfit Le Tigre with writer Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning, who was later replaced by roadie J.D. Samson. Since their self-titled debut in 1999, Le Tigre have been making dance anthems out of left-wing agendas, and Hanna has managed her fame by staying in close proximity to the place where she began--on an independent label, refusing interviews with mainstream music magazines, and touring tirelessly. So it comes as something of a surprise that a major label has released Le Tigre's third album This Island. Surely Strummer/Universal wouldn't be as enthusiastic as the feminist indie label Mr. Lady had been about songs that called for the legalization of the abortifacient RU-486.
Some have suggested that This Island is a watered-down version of what the band is capable of, politically speaking. And it's true that tub-thumpers looking for explicit invectives against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will want to take their ire elsewhere. But This Island points no fewer fingers. It's just that even when the ladies gang up on the title track to say that "rent's high and the war's on and it's last call," it's you they're looking at when they yell, "you're a mess." Take responsibility for your life first and place blame later--that's a radical attitude for a band with a pretty long shit list. And the bar metaphor hits especially close to home for anyone who's lived in New York City (or anywhere, really) since 9/11 and sought consolation from a pint more often than a protest sign.
The fact that Le Tigre's first single is "New Kicks," a mash-up of antiwar speeches by Susan Sarandon and Democracy Now host Amy Goodman (among others), is your proof of purchase: This is not Le Tigre-lite. The song's martial pulse channels all the sweat and swell of days spent marching down cordoned streets chanting, "This is what democracy looks like," and unlike its precursor "Dyke March" (from 2001's Feminist Sweepstakes), "New Kicks" isn't just politically correct filler. Meanwhile, the disco jams "TKO" and "Nanny Nanny Boo Boo" recall the arm-linked Red Rover-esque taunts of the riot grrrls--only now, the ladies know that a healthy political regimen starts with a good deal of synchronized dancing. It gets you in the mood.
The accusation that Le Tigre have gone soft is often made by the same people who would consider a similar record by the Dixie Chicks polemical. It's a familiar bias: A band that has been fiercely independent for such a long time is expected to take more risks. But maybe Le Tigre have just finally acknowledged that they could have a bigger fan base--an idea that has probably been the elephant in the recording studio for some time now. For This Island, they took their bedroom productions to professional sound engineers like Nicholas Sansano, who has worked with Public Enemy and Sonic Youth, and the result is still a Le Tigre album, only more sophisticated. But even when producer Ric Ocasek throws down a seductively spooky beat on the balladic "Tell You Now," there is no doubting who held the reins. This is the album's best song--a sequel to Bikini Kill's "Feels Blind" where, instead of collapsing under the weight of fear and loathing, Hanna is resilient. On the equally personal "Viz," Samson grapples with her queer identity and takes a swipe at lesbian chic with the catchy refrain, "They call it coolness and I call it visibility." Let Clear Channel put that in rotation.
If Le Tigre take themselves slightly less seriously on This Island, that's a good thing. When these women are earnest, like they were on 2001's fist-pumping sing-along "FYR," they can end up with choruses like "Feminists, we're calling you, please report to the front desk." The song is great, the sentiment is galvanizing, but the didacticism is irritating. After all, not everyone gets to be the cool, important, D.I.Y. electronic band that fans go crazy for. Most of us have to work for a nonprofit or forward a MoveOn petition to our friends or something else less...fun.
But This Island makes it easier to accept that inspiration is sometimes more effective than instruction--especially since everyone fails to practice what they preach once in a while. Over the years, Hanna has been so devoutly democratic that it's weird to watch her enforce any kind of hierarchy when it comes to who takes the stage first. Maybe the order is an accident but, either way, she's earned a little superiority. These days, no one makes a better spectacle of dissent. And no one is better at making you believe, as Hanna does on This Island's opening salvo, that we're on the verge of all right.
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