Kathleen Hanna just gets better and better. And no, not because she’s gettin’ “older” or newly, appropriately, “mature,” having worked through the catharsis of Bikini Kill and her subsequent first solo project. To describe her as a diamond in the diamond-in-the-ruff story of a punk rock Eliza Doolittle is to impose an obtuse framework on her. A boss lady like Kathleen should be understood in terms of an ever-proliferating, always-was-there . . . jouissance. It makes me cringe to sound so grad school in an article about a woman who—seemingly contrary to the activity of much of academia—has, crucially, been voicing her personal and political concerns in a manner accessible to prepubescents. Also, Lacan was sort of a dickwad (one example: dissing the clitoral orgasm as a “petty consideration”). However, his concept of jouissance—an excess over and above phallocentric terms of sexual identity—describes the appeal of Kathleen Hanna’s music perfectly. She has that bodily and psychic yes-ness, that edge of excess. As she sings in Le Tigre’s “Eau d’Bedroom Dancing”:”There’s no time for me to act mature/ The only words I know are ‘more,’ ‘more,’ and ‘more’.” Well alright!
I think Kathleen has always known that surplus potency makes people nervous; that, in the words of Helene Cixous, “smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women—female-sexed texts. That kind scares them.” In the same vein as Bikini Kill and Kathleen’s alter ego Julie Ruin, Le Tigre—Kathleen, zine queen Johanna Fateman, and acclaimed video maker Sadie Benning—are not interested in culture’s “monuments to Lack” (to quote Cixous again). That’s why in “The The Empty” they “went to yr concert and . . . didn’t feel anything,” “sat thru yr movie but . . . didn’t see anything,” “went to yr comedy club and didn’t laugh at all.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not laughing elsewhere; the list of annoying boy-attributes in the brilliantly sardonic “Dude Yr So Crazy!!” completely cracks me up. Some entries in the telegraphed catalog of hip urban smugness include “Hawaiian shirt/buddy buddy/just chillin’/crystal meth/big budget/dirty hair/anti PC/dive bar”; the chorus is simply “ooooooooooooooooh!”
In “Deceptacon,” the über-catchy ’80s new-wave redux anthem—and the strongest song on the record—they accuse, “Yr so policy free and yr fantasy wheels and everything you think and everything you feel is alright, it’s alright, it’s alright. . . . ” Kathleen sings with bratty ease: “You bought a new van the first year of yr band. . . . I’m so bored I’d be entertained even by the a stupid fuckin’ linoleum floor. . . . Yr lyrics are dumb like a linoleum floor. . . . I’ll walk on it, I’ll walk all over you.” Her boots are made for it.
The annoying world of rock boy-dumb is the way I read a lot of what Le Tigre ridicules. And hard-pressed to find girls who aren’t frequently aggrieved by boy bands and their fucking vans, Le Tigre reveals the same bare-bones perception here that has always made Kathleen’s music compelling. She has common sense— on fucking, in Bikini Kill’s 1995 single “I Like Fucking”: “Do you believe there’s anything beyond troll-guy reality? I do, I do, I do. . . . I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure”; on Evan Dando (reportedly), in 1994’s solo, acoustic “I Wish I Was Him”: “I’m not trying to sound like I’m trying to be mean, but he thinks he can be a girl better than me”; on her self, in “VGI” (stands for Valley Girl Intelligentsia!) on Julie Ruin: “My philosophy/is I’m a masterpiece/I wear a scrunchie/I’ll say it again.”
Recorded in Kathleen’s Olympia apartment, Julie Ruin came out in 1998, soon after Bikini Kill broke up. Dancey, clever (how fucking great is the idea of Valley Girl Intelligentsia? I now interpret comments that I speak like a valley girl as wicked compliments), Julie Ruin abounds with bounces, high whines, samples, and a pissed-offness at the misguided, absolutizing late-’90s feminist-consumer fad: “You make me wanna go away! You make me wanna crochet! Just another book about women in rock”; “Fake feminist police force is really bumming me out. . . . It’s a place called I won’t be there”; “You try to shoot me down girl cuz you just don’t understand that a woman like me can’t be bound to one plan.” And while Julie Ruin is energetic, funny, willful, insouciant, and smart, Le Tigre possesses a fuller, faster, in-your-face sound—partly because all three members sing-speak and play a bunch of instruments (samplers, Farfisas, turntables, guitars); maybe also partly because Kathleen is now based in New York City. (She even does a staccato tribute to her Metrocard!)
It’s the most irresistibly kicky record of the year. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my best friend Lindsey and I did flailing spandexed aerobics to it for hours. The hilarious, gleefully repetitive “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes” (“What’s your take on Cassavetes? Genius? Misogynist? Messiah? Alchoholic?”) is absolutely addictive—fill in your own questionable personage! (Mine even rhymes with Cassavetes: What’s your take on Chuck Eddy? Genius? Misogynist? . . . )
“Hot Topic,” another tour de force, is infectious not only because of shake-your- saddlebags-in-the-shower beats, but because it’s literally an index of bands and people who are “hot topics,” ranging from Ut to Yoko Ono to Gayatri Spivak to James Baldwin to drag queen Vaginal Creme Davis. This inventory has an impressive practical function to boot: The day after I heard the song I bought a book by comic artist Julie Doucet and a record by Olympia dyke duo The Need—both on the song’s list—and they both fucking rock. Le Tigre has executed an incredible coup. As a new wavey garage band with a perspicacious cultural sensibility, they make fun and funny, desire-inspired dance music with a consciousness of their own power to decry feckless attempts at substance—from Giuliani pushing workfare and shutting down strip bars all the way down to the “dude” we all know who has “gone fishin’/shock value/good contract/big collection.”