From the May 5, 2000 issue.
Hanna and Her Sisters
By Virginia Vitzthum
Le Tigre at the Black Cat April 26
Kathleen Hanna still has it in for the patriarchy, but she’s moved from the separatist nation of riot grrrl to a feminist diaspora that’s a lot more fun. On Le Tigre, the self-titled debut of her new outfit with filmmaker Sadie Benning and ‘zine editor Johanna Fateman, she has forsaken, for the moment, Bikini Kill’s guitar, bass, and drums ‘n’ rage for samples, sound effects, drum machines, roller-rink organ, and mockery of self and others . “Things aren’t as immediate when you’re 30,” Hanna told me after Le Tigre’s show at the Black Cat Wednesday. “You can use anger as a productive catalyst and realize how funny anger is, and how multidimensional.”
Le Tigre is a little bit punk, a little bit garage rock, New Wave, girl group, and techno dance record. The songs excoriate indie-film poseurs, workfare, and the co-opting of dissent (“Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme”). But music and other art does more than fight the power on Le Tigre; it also cements friendships and builds intellectual community. Le Tigre exalts what High Fidelity denies: Nick Hornby’s book and the movie paint fandom as an emotional cul-de-sac, as if you could love either people or music, but not both.
Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” exhorts Gertrude Stein, Marlon Riggs, James Baldwin, Billy Tipton, Yoko Ono, Kara Walker, the Slits, Leslie Feinberg, and about 50 more feminist and/or gay figures: “Don’t you stop/I can’t live if you stop.” Driven by a Nuggets-era guitar riff, “Hot Topic” finds overcaffeinated girlfriends in go-go boots and glasses passing around books and records and ideas. “What’s Yr Take on Cassavettes?” answers the titular question with opposing shouts: “Genius! Misogynist!” and “Alcoholic! Messiah!” The supercondensed dialectic of “Cassavettes” laughs at the idea of such a question’s mattering but never denies that it does indeed matter.
It’s nice to see Hanna worrying about a dead filmmaker’s politics after so many years of personal angst. Back in 1991, she wrote: “To be a stripper who is also a feminist, to be an abused child holding a microphone screaming all those things [I] promised…’I won’t tell.’ These are contradictions I have lived…Because I live in a world that hates women and I am one…struggling desperately not to hate myself and my best girlfriends, my whole life is constantly felt by me as a contradiction.”
Bikini Kill embodied contradiction by turning punk rock–which is as close as sex and violence get in white music–on sexual predators. Punk’s bratty screaming and phallocentric guitar attack were thrilling and a little sickening in songs about rapists and molesting fathers and carnies who give teenagers pot for blow jobs. Hanna dug up the self annihilated by sexual abuse (the songs are full of emptiness and blindness) and made it a menacing presence of its own. In “This Is Not a Test,” she screamed back at the man’s world, “You’re fucked/I’m not.”
Hanna and the other grrrls didn’t just bear witness, though; they built alternatives and predator-free zones. At many shows by Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, et al., males were banned from the area in front of the stage, so girls who didn’t want their tits moshed could worship at their heroines’ feet.
More than 250 people were turned away Wednesday night, after 200 or so were sardined into the Black Cat’s curtained-off backstage. Club owner Dante Ferrando said the smaller room was Hanna’s idea and added that he couldn’t just pull back the curtain and open the full room because his sound man was out on tour. It seemed an odd miscalculation for the return of a local heroine known as a brilliant live performer.
Benning’s new video, “Flat Is Beautiful,” featured in the current Whitney Biennial, played first. A meandering family drama played by actors in masks, it sent a steady trickle of rock fans into the adjacent Red Room. Le Tigre’s 11-song set, accompanied by Benning’s slides, never quite jelled, either, and Hanna was openly frustrated in her attempts to break through. She unsuccessfully prodded the mostly male crowd to dance, declaring several times, “D.C. is so weird.”
The indie rock guys of DC are distressingly dance-averse, but it wasn’t all their fault. I’ve yet to see anyone make pushing Start on a sampler interesting for an audience, though Le Tigre tried gamely by playing guitars and dancing and showing its slides. Hanna, subdued somewhat by a cold, chattered with the audience and fussed over some audience members from the Feminist Majority in her distinctive Valley-speak: “Oh my God, I saw them on CNN and it was so cool, I wrote them a letter and invited them to the show. And they came!”
The slide show was surprisingly ill-conceived. “Let’s Run” is a teen-mocking but affectionate call to start a band that doubles as an ode to the fans (“We could suck/ ‘They might improve’/We get our grades from/Professor you and you and you”). But all of the accompanying slides showed the band and its logo. I felt as if I were watching a catalog of Le Tigre product–which was jarring, given the song’s do-it-yourself message and the group’s anti-capitalist rhetoric.
After another sound-and-vision mismatch that rendered “Slideshow at Free University”–one of the funniest songs on Le Tigre–numbing and forgettable, things picked up with “My My Metrocard” and two new numbers. The crowd began to twitch. The last number of the encoreless set was “Hot Topic,” the song’s name-checking supplemented by slides of even more influences, ranging from Chantal Ackerman to Prince to KRS-One. About a third of the audience members were shaking their asses by this point, and a handful of fans cheered their favorites as they flashed on-screen. I liked seeing whom the Le Tigre ladies champion, but my male friend found the visual-musical parade of heroines and heroes doctrinaire and “discouraging of critical thinking.” He felt bludgeoned, whereas I felt included in a group geek-out.
After the show, I got in line to talk to Hanna, who was greeting fans as she hawked records and T-shirts. In front of me was a big girl in tiny barrettes who began weeping as soon as Hanna said hello. “I’m sorry,” the girl blubbered, hand pressed to face. “It’s just that you and your music have meant so much to me. I got [Bikini Kill album] Pussy Whipped in high school and it helped me deal with so much shit.”
Hanna comforted her fan quickly and instinctively. “Oh, don’t apologize for crying. I did the same thing when I met Julia Sweeney–you know, Pat on Saturday Night Live? I was all [fake sobbing to illustrate],” she explained. “‘Your comedy helped me through a really shitty period of my life.'”
Julia Sweeney? A bizarrely mainstream reference, but the big girl was smiling and nodding. She probably had never heard of “Hot Topic” shout-outs Urvashi Vaid, Valie Export, Cathy Opie, or Yayoi Kusama–I sure hadn’t –but she knew who Pat was. Kathleen Hanna had embraced another girl–and another contradiction. The mainstream media may be empty and dead, but Julia Sweeney helped her through a rough time. And though it’s just a TV show (or Bikini Kill record or French movie or queer coming-of-age novel), art can save your life.