Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna is no golf fan; its preppy posturing just doesn’t appeal to her. She is, however, sympathetic to the plight of golf pro Annika Sorenstam, who recently waged a much-hyped battle to become the first woman in 58 years to play against men on the PGA tour — she didn’t make the cut, but she damn sure made some headlines.
That Hanna, the quintessential riot grrrl, should show any concern over something as trivial as a country club sporting event may seem odd, but Sorenstam’s plight hits close to home.
Speaking from New York as she prepares tracks for Le Tigre’s third full-length, Hanna says she’s been working on a song about Title IX, the referendum that, in part, prohibits excluding women from participating in federally funded athletic programs. (We hope the chorus is catchy.) Hanna remembers that when the law was passed, it was the first time she was allowed to run cross-country in school.
“I remember feeling like if I didn’t come in the eightieth percentile of the six-hundred-yard dash, that they might take it away,” she says. “There was all this pressure for us to perform like little girl athletes or we might have to go back to square dancing.”
Behold the connection between square dancing, golf, and the riot grrrl movement: Five years after the demise of Bikini Kill, which brought feminist ideology to indie rock’s male-dominated forum, Hanna is still steadfast in her ideals. But if her message hasn’t changed, her medium certainly has. Le Tigre, the band she formed in 1999 originally as a backing group for her solo work, is a musical about-face from Bikini Kill’s confrontational punk. Over the course of two albums (Le Tigre and Feminist Sweepstakes) and two EPs (From the Desk of Mr. Lady and Re-Mix) the band has perfected an infectious pastiche of ’60s girl-group pop, ’80s new wave, and contemporary dance music.
If Hanna’s critics during the last decade have found her overwrought and humorless, Le Tigre goes a long way toward presenting her in a new light. The band is no less committed to its political agenda than Bikini Kill was, but by plundering the bodycentric vocabulary of dance music, the band (also including Johanna Fateman and J.D. Samson) made the message more palatable, and the band even sounds like it’s having fun in the process. More important, we’re invited to the party.
“It’s really amazing to create a space for people who are interested in similar politics as us where they can dance and have that community and have a good time,” Samson says. “It feels really good to be in a club, feeling, ‘This is our night, this is our community. Everybody is taking up the space they want to take up and feeling safe.'”
Hanna admits shifting from the world of three-chord guitar rock into an electronic realm of samples, loops, and beats was a formidable task. The songwriter had to learn a whole new musical lexicon, not to mention figuring out how to operate all that equipment. But that, she says, was precisely the point.
“One of the things that was so awesome when we started Bikini Kill was that besides Tobi [Vail, the group’s drummer], none of us had any musical experience,” she says. “It was so exciting because we had a feeling of discovery. I wanted to go back to that great, I-just-fell-in-love-for-the-first-time, butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling. And I really wanted to work with people whose first thing wasn’t necessarily music because I get to vicariously watch their excitement in discovering their styles, while I’m rediscovering mine.”
Musical novices Fateman and Samson (who replaced original member Sadie Benning in 2000) ably fill that role. Fateman has a degree in art and dabbles in spoken word, while Samson is cofounder of the dance troupe Dykes Can Dance. For her part, Hanna has also ventured beyond the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll, briefly operating a gallery last year that hosted, among other exhibits, a show for Samson’s “lesbian calendar,” which featured J.D. in different gender-bending work attire each month. This cross-pollination of media has made Le Tigre as much performance artists as a rock band, with choreography and multimedia projections staples of the group’s live shows.
“If you’re working in conceptual art, it doesn’t really matter what medium you work in,” Fateman says. “People feel free to choose from photography or painting or video or whatever’s necessary to realize their concept. I feel like that’s an operative principle in our band. If we have a great performance idea, we’re fine putting the whole song on a backing track and singing and doing the performance. Or if it’s more about the idea of being a live band, then we’ll play the music. We don’t feel like we have to prove we’re real musicians by playing things live. It’s more like whatever suits the content of the work is what we do.”
But with the “women in rock” moment of the Bikini Kill era having given way to the more sanitized “girl power” of Avril Lavigne and the like, along with Le Tigre moving even further beyond the boundaries of a conventional band, Hanna isn’t banking on storming the mainstream. And that’s just fine with her.
“I see us figuring out ways to work within our limitations as a not very commercially viable band,” she says. “We don’t need yachts and we don’t want to write songs in the studio for two years. We just want to be able to make the art we want to make.”