A master of direct confrontation as the singer for the incendiary punk trio Bikini Kill (whose “Suck My Left One,” “Sugar,” and “Outta Me” were among the most eloquent emotional outpourings of the past decade), Kathleen Hanna has seemingly mellowed, at least musically. Her current group, Le Tigre, released a self-titled album that delved into cheery new-wave dance dynamite, dense DJ-Shadow-style instrumentals, and eerie, atmospheric synthesized concoctions, with Hanna’s voice never approaching the piercing highs or ungodly guttural lows it reached during her calls in the mid-’90s for “Revolution, Girl Style, Now!” Yet anything beyond a cursory listen reveals that Hanna’s rage still seethes, her dedication to feminist issues remains profound, and her music still glows with searing power. She’s partying for her right to fight, wrapping revolutionary rhetoric in an irresistible, perky package.
On Le Tigre‘s opening track, which is peppered with hand claps and synthesized hooks, Hanna poses the time-honored question “Who took the Ram from the Rama-lama-ding-dong?” The melodic chorus offers the singsongy appeal of a Grease-style slumber-party anthem, but the contextual clues the verses provide break the code: Her real question is “Who took the power out of ‘girl power’?” Hanna attacks insipid empty-slogan-shouting pop acts, such as the Spice Girls, with trademark Hanna vitriol (Wanna see me disco?/Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme). Other targets of the roaring Tigre include New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (He’s such a fuckin’ jerk, Hanna complains, taking him to task for shutting down sex shops); smug film-festival-attending, retro-porn-viewing male hipsters; and various vapid entertainment outlets (went to your concert and didn’t feel anything/sat through your movie but didn’t see anything). That’s not to say Hanna hasn’t found anything to applaud; “Hot Topic” runs through an eclectic roll call of female artists and authors, ranging from Mia X to Yoko Ono to Gertrude Stein. Like Public Enemy’s landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Le Tigre qualifies as reference material — the post-riot-grrrl generation can seek out The Need and Angela Davis in the same way that hip-hop heads 12 years ago learned about Farrakhan, Mandela, and Chesimard.
In theory, it would be a grand gesture for Le Tigre to restructure the song when it heads out on the road to pay homage to area feminists. In reality, it’s a logistical nightmare. As Hanna says, “Changing it to include local women is sort of a tall order given that not everyone’s name is gonna rhyme with Carolee Schneeman.” Even without the addition of regional flavor, Le Tigre’s live show, which features Johanna Fateman on keyboards and programming, and Hanna and JD on guitars, promises to be one of the year’s most intriguing. (Sadie Benning, filmmaker and beat-programmer, will not accompany the group on this leg of the tour.) A slide show, the nature of which Hanna declines to divulge, will provide visual stimulation, and the group will mix its preprogrammed output with additional instrumentation. “Jo is dying to show off her secret clave tricks this tour,” Hanna says, revealing Fateman’s prowess on the miniature percussion instrument. “I cannot reveal the other instruments that will be used, as the element of surprise is pretty important to our whole shtick.”
One element of the set list that might surprise some is the inclusion of tunes from Hanna’s Julie Ruin album. Conceived as a Ziggy Stardust-type alter-ego project, Ruin sees her experimenting with keyboards on Casio-beat-driven tunes that are at once more basic and less accessible than their Le Tigre counterparts. Hanna, Benning, and Fateman actually formed Le Tigre as a touring band for this record, but inspiration struck, resulting in a dozen new creations. Another Ruin album remains a distinct possibility; Hanna says, “the Julie will never stop. She is a one-woman hit machine.” However, she’s not currently writing songs for either project. “All I’ll be writing on the road is ‘I need more sleep’ in my own menstrual blood on the walls of the van,” she says.
Among the factors contributing to Hanna’s all-night marathons are her ongoing collection of sound samples and her activist initiative. Since moving from Olympia, Washington, to New York, she’s found new battles to fight. “I go to protests and rallies having to do with the racist killings the police have been doing and protests and rallies of all kinds, but that’s for my own mental health as much as for anything,” she says. “I don’t wanna sit in my apartment crying by myself anymore.”
With her music, Hanna has convinced countless women to take the same stand. After hearing her songs about gender roles, abuse, objectification, and incest, a new generation of young feminists emerged to host forums, start discussion groups, and chart plans of action. Olympia, Bikini Kill’s home base, became the movement’s hot spot, with bands such as Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Excuse 17 putting different spins on riot-grrrl rock while area artists and writers released a flood of works filled with deeply personal reflections. Olympia remains a feminist mecca, and Bikini Kill, which disbanded after 1996’s Reject All-American, remains its marquee name. When Olympia hosted Lady Fest this summer, a three-day-event featuring workshops, panels, and concerts from such bands as Sleater-Kinney, the alt-rock mag Revolver ran a photo of Hanna to accompany its article, even though neither she nor Le Tigre attended. Not that Hanna objects to being perceived as inseparable from Olympia; she admits as much: “Olympia is permanently in miniature and living in my head. The real Olympia has a life of its own, but the one I know, the one I had a bizarre relationship with, is still firmly implanted in my brain. I hope it remembers me as fondly.”
What ensures Hanna’s fond legacy, what makes her different from so many temporary punk icons, is that her attention to genuine causes never wavers. Other than Public Enemy and Ani DiFranco, it’s difficult to name an acclaimed and somewhat commercially viable act from the past two decades that has stuck to its lyrical guns without sullying the effect with an ill-advised pop record or some other ethical breach. Yet it’s clear that Hanna will continue to deliver such commentary, regardless of the musical avenue she chooses, because that’s the only way she knows to make art. She could conceivably make a delicious pop record, with songs about crushes, love, and the like, but that would mean separating her political views from her creative voice. And, as she asks, “Why would I want to do that?”