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Hot Topic: Le Tigre's self-titled album reinvents the riot-grrl movement.

Geek Grrl Anthems

Underground pop animates grrl-hood on 'Le Tigre'

By Michelle Goldberg

IN THE EARLY '90s, Kathleen Hanna was one of the loudest, fiercest voices demanding revolution grrl-style now. As the lead singer of the furious punk band Bikini Kill, she exemplified the naked wrath, strident earnestness and flayed emotional honesty that drove the riot-grrl movement as well as the white-hot intensity that, not surprisingly, quickly burned itself out.

Just a few years after angry teenagers in combat boots and baby barrettes were scrawling "SLUT" in red lipstick across their midriffs, the Spice Girls defanged girl power, and Courtney Love, once an icon of the movement, sucked, tucked and polished herself into tenuous mainstream acceptability.

Inspired by the riot-grrl zine scene's penchant for self-revelation, Bust magazine appeared, offering a more playful, nuanced approach to girl culture, one that both celebrated and satirized traditional notions of femininity. The rage that had driven the riot-grrl movement dissipated, even if the problems that motivated it didn't.

So what does underground girl culture mean in 1999, when singers like Fiona Apple have turned the personal-is-political audaciousness of the riot grrls into unthreatening, narcissistic neurotica? As the Woodstock rapes prove, mainstream rock is no more hospitable to girls than it ever was, but what are the alternatives in our irony-choked era? What's a smart girl to listen to?

One answer comes from Hanna, who has overhauled her image without losing any of her bite. In 1998, she put out a CD as Julie Ruin, tempering her scathing lyrics with razor wit and insanely catchy basement-bubblegum-pop backing. Julie Ruin was as angry as anything by Bikini Kill, but it was far savvier, alive with the tension between the easy, cheesy pleasures of techno-pop and the revolutionary fervor of protest music.

Now she's back with the trio Le Tigre, whose self-titled album (on the Mr. Lady label) is a brilliantly innovative melange of lo-fi indie pop and New Wavy machine music, sometimes girl-group bouncy, sometimes as discordant and despondent as the hangover from a self-destructive binge. It has the pathos of a Lynda Barry cartoon, and it's unapologetically smart. This is dance music for bookworms, anthems for geek girls.

That's nowhere more evident than on "Hot Topic," which appropriates the classic hip-hop shout-out to celebrate all manner of (mostly female) cultural icons--people like Yoko Ono and Angela Davis, Gertrude Stein and Nina Simone. There's something profoundly satisfying about a catchy pop song that celebrates women such as way-underground video artist Valie Export. It makes one feel that, despite the best efforts of MTV and Madison Avenue, there might still be an alternative culture after all.

It's not that the lyrics on Le Tigre are terribly intellectual, it's just that the band members assume that their listeners are as smart as they are and are clued into a world beyond TV and glossy magazines. Our pop culture is so relentlessly vapid and depoliticized that Le Tigre's offhand braininess feels almost revelatory.

The genius "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes" is a simple song that sounds like the kind of very intense argument a cool city girl might have with her film geek boyfriend, showing with just a few acidly delivered words how our heroes reflect our sexual experiences.

"We've talked about it in letters, and we've talked about it on the phone," begins Hanna in a shaky, unsure voice. "But how you really feel about it/I don't really know." Then she launches into the momentous question of the title, with her bandmates shouting conflicting answers: "Genius? Misogynist? Alcoholic?" And of course the most important question, "Hey, where's Gena?"

THE MUSIC throughout is deliberately rough but also innovative, combining bare-bones dance beats and samples with wild punk energy in much the same way that Blondie did. But instead of Deborah Harry's vampy sexuality, Le Tigre exudes an introverted ennui, sometimes bitter and sometimes just sad, that occasionally explodes into mania.

The feeling of drowning in trite clichés has probably never been better expressed than in "Dude Yr So Crazy!!" in which a nonplussed singer reels off a litany of exhausted, meaningless phrases over a creepy, implosive, tinny beat. The song sounds like a stroll around the room at any arty pseudo-hip party: "Film Festival/Retro Porn/Shabby Chic/ Bicoastal/Soundtrack/Carnivore/Transgressive/Gone Fishin'/Shock Value/Good Contract ... ." The music's funereal atmosphere makes banality seem as deadly as quicksand.

One of Le Tigre's loveliest, least ironic songs, "Eau D'Bedroom Dancing," is about the inverse of social dissatisfaction. Sung in a high, girlish warble over a spare, poignant electric guitar, "Eau D'Bedroom Dancing" evokes the insecurity and vulnerability lurking beneath a hipster facade. About, simply, dancing alone in your bedroom, the song also celebrates a respite from public scrutiny as Hanna repeats the phrase "No one to criticize me" as if it were a mantra.

Like all of Hanna's best work, Le Tigre is both deeply personal and political. On the rousing "My My Metrocard," Hanna's old insurgent vigor resurfaces in a rant against Mayor Rudy Giuliani's bowdlerized New York: "Giuliani/He's such/A fucking jerk/Shut down/All the strip bars/ Workfare/Does not work." Flavored with go-go surf-punk guitar riffs, the song's hyperactivity contrasts exuberantly with its political rancor without blunting the message. The entire album is far more fun than Bikini Kill's brand of agitprop but just as potent.

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From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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