Kathleen Hanna's Fire
On the self-titled debut record by punk/dance band Le Tigre, there's a short song called "Eau d'Bedroom Dancing" that pays tribute to the timeless tradition of spinning around one's bedroom, alone. "There's no fear when I'm in my room/It's so clear and I know just what I want to do/All day bedroom dancing," confides lead singer Kathleen Hanna, her girlish voice ringing over a soft synthetic drumbeat. If the words sound like a poem you (ladies?) might have scribbled in your notebook at 14, consider these lines: "No one to criticize me then/No one to criticize." Sounds like a pop song, reads like a lament.
"I've always felt frustrated listening to a band and dancing, and there's some knucklehead who comes up and says, 'Oh, hey, I love how you dance,'" explains the 33-year-old Hanna, who's been the reigning feminist of the indie-rock scene since it exploded ten years ago. "I think, 'Did I ask for that because I was standing in front having such a good time?' And then, 'Maybe I'll stand in the back and dance,' or 'Maybe I'll stay home and listen to the record and dance in my room by myself.'... It's that sort of feeling that even in leisure time you're still on the clock and being looked at through the male gaze--to turn a little Feminist 101 phrase on you," she adds with a laugh.
For Hanna, who formed Le Tigre in 1999 with painter/writer Johanna Fateman and video artist Sadie Benning (who left the band after their debut album and was replaced by JD Samson, co-founder of Dykes Can Dance), the personal has long fueled the political, and the political has long fueled the music. From her early days with bands like Amy Carter, Viva Knieval and the hugely influential (and angry) punk quartet Bikini Kill, to her current work with the very fun, and very feminist, Le Tigre, Hanna has consistently sought to bring the issues that have affected her and her friends and fans--including domestic violence, unequal pay and the right to choose--to the fore of the indie scene.
But Hanna's path to the stage was hardly direct. As a student at Washington State's Evergreen College in the late 1980s, she studied photography and did spoken word performances of her writing--an avenue of artistic expression she was persuaded to abandon by one of her favorite writers, countercultural icon Kathy Acker. "[Acker] asked me why writing was important to me, and I said 'Because I felt like I'd never been listened to and I had a lot to say,'" she remembers. "And she said, 'Then why are you doing spoken word--no one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band.'"
In the small city of Olympia--in many ways the nerve center of what is now thought of as the Seattle explosion--there was ample opportunity to get onstage. Hanna knew the music scene intimately. As part of a feminist collective art gallery, she frequently booked bands for fundraising concerts and used the proceeds to keep the gallery open for business. (This space was across the street from a women's shelter where Hanna worked as a rape counselor--an experience that had a huge impact on her. "I got a better education there than I did from college," she says.) Following Acker's advice, Hanna put together Amy Carter, her first group.
A short time later, in 1991, Hanna started Bikini Kill, just as the Riot Grrrl movement was attracting young women across America. In interviews, Hanna has denied being a Riot Grrrl "founder," but the feminism espoused by that movement is very much in sync with her own--one that builds awareness from the personal experiences of oppression and unfairness that every young woman goes through and turns that awareness into action. In a way, Riot Grrrl meetings were like consciousness-raising sessions updated for the 1990s--and so were Bikini Kill shows. "I always saw performing as an advertisement for feminist activity," Hanna explains. Concerts didn't erupt into rallies, exactly, but following Hanna's example of what a young woman can be--loud, smart, political and sexy--girls and young women started to speak out. Though vastly outnumbered by boys and men in the crowd, they would wait for the end of a show and then, inspired by the music, confide in Hanna. "Stories I heard from girls at the show--about incest, rape, domestic violence--were a little too much emotionally," says Hanna. "But I was able to write songs about them."
"The music is a way for women to validate what they're going through," says Hanna. "That was the era in the early '90s, when all this work that had been done was getting pushed under the rug and there was such a big backlash--I didn't even know the word backlash, I just knew what it felt like."
I never saw Bikini Kill play. In fact, they were about to disband when I first became aware of them. So it's hard to reconcile the radical punk history with the Kathleen Hanna I had breakfast with recently, who's outspoken but not angry, strong but not fierce. Similarly, it's hard to draw a musical line from the screaming genius of Bikini Kill to the party-time girl-pop of Le Tigre. Hanna says simply, "Le Tigre is more where I'm at now."
Still, connections abound, in the mission and the politics behind both groups. Indie rock was, and remains, the territory of boys and men. But since the early '90s, the scene has opened up considerably. Credit is due to Hanna; it's hard to imagine bands like Sleater-Kinney, the Butchies, the Donnas and countless others--including Le Tigre--existing without the earlier work of Bikini Kill. "I think we really did have the goal in mind that we wanted to change things, at least in the music scene," Hanna explains. "It was also really selfish.... I wasn't making music at that time for a bunch of white, suburban male teenagers. The lyrics weren't about them, they weren't for them. It was frustrating when those were the people showing up at the shows because it was like, 'These aren't even the people I'm trying to talk to.'"
And they still aren't. If ever there was a band for young feminists, Le Tigre is it. Check out the lyrics to "Hot Topic," a sort of shout-out to women, men and groups whose pro-woman work and stance deserves credit: "You're getting old, that's what they'll say, but/Don't give a damn I'm listening anyway." (Those to whom the song pays tribute include Carolee Schneemann, Gayatri Spivak, Nina Simone, Angela Davis and James Baldwin.) The rallying "F.Y.R." (Fifty Years of Ridicule)--inspired by Shulamith Firestone's second-wave classic The Dialectic of Sex--calls on feminists to keep fighting: "Can we trade Title Nine for an end to hate crime?/RU-486 if we suck your fuckin dick?... Feminists we're calling you/Please report to the front desk."
But above all, Le Tigre's music is fun. It's danceable. It makes you want to move. (In the indie scene, this is radical. In the wake of the dwindling fad of moshing it seems that audiences have embraced austerity, where head-nodding is the only acceptable form of acknowledging a beat.) Mechanical beats, lots of samples, simple guitar and bass lines with smart lyrics on top make for a funky mélange that's like the girl-rap-funk trio of Luscious Jackson crossed with Kate Millett. What's more, at a typical Le Tigre show, the audience is at least half-female--full of, as Hanna calls them affectionately, "crazy good dancers." It was for them that the "LT Tour Theme" was written: "We see the girls walking towards the dance floor and we remember why we go on tour. Won't you dance some more?"
In her memoirs, Emma Goldman--that dancing anarchist-feminist--recounts a story in which a young radical whispers to her that "it did not behoove an agitator to dance." Her rejection of that notion has been famously retold as, "If I can't dance it's not my revolution"--a wonderful slogan, to be sure. But Goldman's actual rebuttal, as recorded in her autobiography, is even better--and more apt for feminists like Kathleen Hanna: "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." She would have loved a Le Tigre concert.