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Punk for Your Trunk

Upfront feminist Le Tigre shakes asses all the way to the rally

By Traci Vogel

LE TIGRE, IN ITS own words, is "the band with the roller-skate jams"--that is, if your roller-skating rink is located just to the left of Angela Davis' house. Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna, whose brand of third-wave feminism colored a whole generation of riot grrrls, founded Le Tigre in 1998. The band's 1999 self-titled debut sent punk to hip-hop college by way of the dance hall, resulting in a catchy blend of political sloganeering and jams like no roller-rink disco ball has ever seen.

When the band, then composed of Hanna, Johanna Fateman (who grew up in Berkeley) and video artist Sadie Benning, released Le Tigre, it found a ready-made audience of hipsters decompressing from indie rock's defection to big labels and DIY punks thirsting for an actual "ism" to rile them up. The album lets slide the most ecstatically political series of songs this side of Outkast, and it backs them up with drum-machine beats and New Wave guitar so catchy that Britney Spears might eat her tongue in jealousy.

Quickly becoming a thrift-store soundtrack staple, Le Tigre got talked about in the press for its most accessible track, "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes," in which the difficulty of interpreting art, especially art that seems superficially misogynistic--a Ph.D.-worthy topic--is presented in a clever and hilarious three-minute rant. The song even earned Le Tigre a spot on NPR's Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, during which Hanna most memorably bragged about her high-level sexuality.

Le Tigre's newest album, Feminist Sweepstakes (Mr. Lady), features a slightly altered lineup--Sadie Benning is replaced by JD Samson--and a slightly less addictive song list. The songs are directly influenced by the Munich-based group Chicks on Speed, with which Le Tigre has been associated for a while (it's a mutual lovefest association; Chicks on Speed now has exclusive European rights to Feminist Sweepstakes).

The influence seems to have beefed up Le Tigre's electronic component, but where Chicks on Speed are wry style personified (they started out as an art project, not a band), the new Le Tigre goes for less humor and more politics. Songs like "F.Y.R." (which stands for "Fifty Years of Ridicule") and "Dyke March 2001" incorporate news-style sound bites and wear their politics on their lace-fringed sleeve.

Most reviewers have found Feminist Sweepstakes less compelling than Le Tigre's previous work--and it's true. Feminist Sweepstakes is more caught up in the message than in the riff, although in recent interviews Le Tigre asserts that its mission is to create a new genre of dance music for feminists.

Where an earlier song like "Deceptacon" approached its message from around the corner ("Who took the bomp from the bompalompalomp?"), one of the new ones, "F.Y.R.," says it loud and proud: "Feminists, we're calling you / Please report to the front desk / Let's name this phenomenon / It's too dumb to bring us down."

On songs like "Fake French" and "On Guard," Hanna's deceptively cute voice cuts up into raw, outright outrage. Many of the lyrics veer into straight-up sarcasm: "Well, I guess you're the judge / I guess you're the king of the forever beauty pageant I'm always in."

It makes more sense to think of songs like "F.Y.R." as anthems to play when you're stuck in one of those brief disorientations brought on by, say, the latest report on women's salaries, rather than as bop by which to test your bed's resilience.

The punchy power of politics should be taken in the same vein as hip-hop's call to arms. In interviews, Hanna and Fateman have never shied away from a direct statement of their politics, and critics needn't apologize for them, either. Feminist Sweepstakes knocks out any of the diminutive possibilities in the term "girl band," and offers up funk, punk and "Fuck, yeah," instead.

Le Tigre plays with Chicks on Speed Sunday (March 10) at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14. (Ticketweb.com)

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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