True story: In a hipster enclave of Carroll Gardens, two Ivy League-educated 23-year-old women, recently acquainted, are chatting amiably about nothing in particular. One of them happens to bring up an amusing workplace confrontation she’d had with a much older, irksome colleague. She says, “The way he was talking was unbelievable—he actually referred to me, to my face, as a ‘little girl.’ Half of me wanted to be a good feminist and call him out, but the other half just wanted to giggle into my sleeve and gossip about him later, so that’s what I did. I think he’s sorta beyond consciousness-raising at this point.” Strangely, an awkward silence ensues. The other woman’s brow furrows; her eyes cloud over with confusion and dismay. And then, voice faintly timorous, she asks, “Um, are you a feminist?” (The accused later reports that she felt like Danny in Caddyshack when the WASP minister asks him if he’s Roman Catholic.)
There’s a Le Tigre song waiting to happen in that conversation, and it’s easy to guess how Kathleen Hanna and her cohorts (“some kinda underground electro feminist performance artists,” as their own irksome colleague dubs them in the take-this-job-and-shove it testimonial “TGIF”) would spin it. Something like: A patriarchal society has lulled young women into a false sense of security about their rights and well-being, not least by casting vocal skeptics as either whiny hysterics or jackbooted bulldaggers, and has thereby sullied—if not mooted—the very name of feminism. But such reasoning presupposes the decidedly unfeminist notion that girls can’t think for themselves, and other causes abound for why lots of intelligent, self-possessed ladies (of all colors, classes, and turn-ons) have trouble wrapping their lips around the F-word: confusion about the vestigial movement’s current definition, for one, coupled with uncertainty about its present-day purpose. Or, more subtly, a genuine aversion to the ponderous baggage that often goes along with identity politics—for instance, the doctrinaire groupthink that dominates Le Tigre’s second full-length record, Feminist Sweepstakes.
But groupthink’s just another word for everybody dance now—unanimity of thought begets unity of movement, not just for the pavement pounders in the tape-loop encomium “Dyke March 2001” but for the New York-based group’s avowed audience in the opener, “LT Tour Theme”: “For the ladies and the fags yeah, we’re the band with the rollerskate jams.” As on Le Tigre’s exhilarating self-titled debut, Hanna, Johanna Fateman, and JD Samson (the latter replacing filmmaker Sadie Benning) unpack the politics of dancing in a town where it’s been all but legislated into its own form of civil disobedience. “Let me see you shake it baby shake it some more!” Hanna caterwauls during “On Guard,” appropriating the contemptuous voice of a Hetero erectus catcaller at the same time that she angrily exhorts her followers to thrash that booty.
Unfortunately, fratboy malfeasance is just about the only incitement to shake it on the single-mindedly defensive Sweepstakes. On Le Tigre, they tossed third wave in bed with New Wave and scored the romance to a county-fair soundtrack, buzzed on Farfisa and roller-rink swing. At once testy and giddy, they debated Cassavetes, sailed on the magic carpet of the MTA (“My! My Metrocard!”), time-traveled back to the Cold War to follow apocalypse-minded hippies into the wilderness, and posed the immortal question “Who took the Bomp from the Bompalompalomp?” Who indeed—here the remaining alompalomp narrows its horizons as strictly as the lyrics do, confined to muffled one-note or two-chord guitar riffs (sampled and live) and recessive drum-machine flutterings. (The slimming process began with last year’s lyrically strident, musically underfed EP, From the Desk of Mr. Lady.) The best tracks sound like Chicks on Speed homages—”Fake French” swivels its warm-leatherette hips to a sinuous, fuzzed-out bassline, kicky whoa-uh-oh backup, and mysteriously rousing shout-along boasts from a jargon-spewing artiste. “I’ve got—herm choreography! I’ve got—a conceptual stunt double!” (Not incidentally, Feminist Sweepstakes is released in Europe on Chicks on Speed Records.) But the worst ones plunk along like a kid’s first Casio program, and the reductive sloganeering of the similarly Speedy “F.Y.R.” (as in Fifty Years of Ridicule) rudely turns the house lights on the party—in the annals of rash Hannaspeak, the sarcastic “Can we trade Title IX for an end to hate crime?” has got to rate up near “Eat meat/Hate blacks/Beat your fucking wife/It’s all the same thing” from the first Bikini Kill record.
Still, infuriating as Sweepstakes can be, the album can’t be written off as mere trendy discontent—even at its laziest or most dogmatic, Hanna’s work has remained compulsory because its fuel is scalding pain. Bikini Kill’s early records distilled the suffocating horrors of an abusive childhood with bare-throated defiance and gallows wit, and exposed the permanent gash of subtext those horrors leave behind—a wound that can burst open weeping at any moment. On “Les and Ray,” the ethereal coda to Le Tigre, a nine-year-old is transported from unspoken dread by the piano playing of the siblings/roommates/sweethearts next door. And the finale to Sweepstakes, “Keep on Livin’, ” asks the listener to “just live beyond those neighborhood lives and go past that yard outside and push through their greatest fears and live past your memories’ tears.” A girl with secret scars who climbed out her house through a song played by Kathleen Hanna might use those experiences as a catalyst for joining what one song calls “a huge strong mass of feminist fury.” Or she might use them simply as a proof that the weak prey on the weaker. What’s often scoffed at as “postfeminist” is in fact the belief that self-determination need not be predicated on victimhood.