Le Tigre’s Feminist Rage has Always been Fun

JD Samson, Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman recently reformed as Le Tigre for a European and North American tour. Monica Simoes/Courtesy of the artist

When Bikini Kill reunited in 2017, later embarking on a tour that united feminist punks across generations, it introduced a clawing, almost desperate question in the back of my brain: Would Le Tigre ever reunite?

The art punk, electronic, “whatever-you-wanna-call-it” group, fronted by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna alongside Johanna Fateman and JD Samson, last toured in 2005, promoting its only major label album, This Island. But even with just three records to the band’s name, released between 1999 and 2004, Le Tigre’s legacy loomed large in my mind. The group’s combination of new wave-biting synth-pop and mixture of high-brow politics and low-brow aesthetics never lost its power in the decades since the music’s release — even as the political targets of its songs left office, even as feminism became a fashionable (albeit often questionably defined position) in pop culture.

In the years since, Hanna, Samson and Fateman have jumped around different musical and artistic projects, from new groups including MEN and The Julie Ruin to writing projects and professorships. But from the newfound virality of a song like “Deceptacon” on TikTok, to the resurgence of riot grrrl principles and sounds in indie rock over the last decade, a reunion seemed increasingly inevitable. When the group announced earlier in 2023 it’d be reuniting for a tour, with three sold-out nights in Brooklyn, I knew that my colleague Marissa Lorusso and I would be reporting for duty. —Hazel Cills

Hazel Cills: I’ve been a fan of Le Tigre for most of my adult life, but every time I’ve put on their music I’ve known that I was missing out on something: The band as they’re truly meant to be heard, live with a crowd to actually dance and scream about the possibilities of my MetroCard with. All bands transform and shapeshift to different degrees on-stage, but Le Tigre has always felt like a band whose explicitly feminist music — which often has this singalong, manifesto quality — demands a communal experience. The beauty of Le Tigre was that it built out the punk ethos Hanna had been doing in a group like Bikini Kill (who we’ve also both seen, as dutiful riot grrrl disciples, not to speak for you, Marissa) with an ’80s electro-pop style; not so much burying or disguising potent political messages in pop, but knowing the two can (should!) co-exist, and that the messages are no less radical when you marry them with playful synthesizers and humor and moments of fun.

Which is why I loved, loved, loved the karaoke-ness of the live show. Le Tigre’s setup was sparse — just Hanna, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson trading off instruments depending on the song, decked out in color-blocked outfits. But a giant video-screen behind them playing a series of colorful home videos and mini-art films always had the lyrics of whatever given song was being performed across the screen like a news ticker. It had this beautiful effect on me, as if its presence was screaming, “How dare you not sing with us? Look at how easy we’ve made it for you!” And easy it was, not that I ever, you know, need assistance telling people to get off the internet and into the streets. All of which is to say, the show exceeded my expectations, and I’m still a little awestruck that I got to see them live after 20 years of not touring. What did the live show do for you, Marissa? In the year of listening to this band did you ever feel generational FOMO for not seeing Le Tigre?

Marissa Lorusso: Hazel, let me start by saying it was such a delight to see Le Tigre alongside you! I, too, never figured I’d get to see Le Tigre live and always felt that, as you said, it’s a band that “demands a communal experience.” I don’t exactly remember the first time I ever heard “Deceptacon,” but I know I was in high school, and I remember immediately showing it to other girls in my life. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and even though I didn’t understand everything Kathleen Hanna was singing — and even though I didn’t yet identify as a feminist — I knew there was something powerful in it that the boys wouldn’t quite understand.

I love what you’ve said about the karaoke-style setup of the tour. I think the projection of the lyrics did exactly what you described: It welcomed the whole crowd into the party and made it impossible not to sing along, whether you came there as a Gen Xer who saw the band before it signed (controversially!) to a major label back in the day, a longtime millennial fan like us or a Zoomer who knows the hits from TikTok. (And yes, when I saw the original riot grrrl show up on my “For You” page doing a makeup tutorial, I did a serious double take.) But crucially, I think the setup also doubled down on the other essential aspect of the Le Tigre equation: It put the band’s political messages front and center. You couldn’t not have a good time, as you said, but you also couldn’t ignore the larger-than-life text calling out, for example, gerrymandering, hate crimes and the private insurance industry (and that was just in one song).

Kathleen Hanna performs at Union Transfer in Philadelphia with Le Tigre.
Kathleen Hanna performs at Union Transfer in Philadelphia with Le Tigre. Monica Simoes | Courtesy of the artist

Several times during the set, a member of the band would introduce a song by pointing out that its lyrics felt just as relevant today — if not more relevant — as when they were originally written. Much to the chagrin of the denizens of Barbieland, we haven’t exactly solved gender inequality since Le Tigre last toured. But what has changed, I think, is the relationship between feminism and pop culture (and pop music). Is it fair to say Le Tigre was putting out records into a world where having one of the biggest pop stars in the world give a major performance in front of the word FEMINIST was unimaginable? Now, it feels almost like a given that some version of feminism can coexist with choreographed dance moves. Still, to me, Le Tigre’s approach and lyrics didn’t feel dated or out-of-step or, god forbid, cringe in concert. Is that just my nostalgia speaking? How did the tone of the band’s messages strike you in 2023?

Cills: I think I was admittedly nervous, too, about how that once Bush-era political spirit would feel in real time, resurfaced in 2023. Maybe it had to do with the band’s 2016 song, “I’m With Her,” which they wrote in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the content of which had a blatant expiration date. Or maybe it’s just how I’ve changed as a person since discovering Le Tigre, like you, at a very formative young age. I found the group as a tween: Maybe it was reading too many music blogs, or too much time on gURL.com, but “Deceptacon” made its way into my orbit. And I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that discovering that first album completely expanded not just my music tastes, but specifically my conceptions of what political music could sound like. My early brushes with music that could express political possibility or rage were the punk my parents listened to, but it was all men — Gang of Four, The Minutemen, etc. Without Le Tigre I wouldn’t have found Bikini Kill, wouldn’t have found riot grrrl, wouldn’t have begun to stack the building blocks of feminism in my brain until they solidified into the outlook I have today.

But all the messaging felt right (not cringe!) in this moment. I mean, “Get Off the Internet,” is, I imagine, even more of an anthem in an increasingly competitive attention economy and toothless feminist blogosphere than it was when it came out in 2001. (Although, side note: Can people be “off” or “on” the internet anymore when the internet is in your pocket? The only solution is to throw your phone into the sea, I think.) Every song had an intense response, but I feel like “Viz” stood out to me as creating some special alchemy in the crowd. (I think I remember Johanna complimenting our especially “good jumpers.”) And, of course, it did, because I can think of very, very few songs that express what that song is communicating about sexuality and visibility and gender non-conformity in a way that feels subversive and subtle and funny. I’m always looking, I think, in feminist art, for a spectrum of expression that actually speaks to the totality of what marginalized experience looks like, feels like. It’s why the band can get away with the fatigue and anger of songs like “F.Y.R.” and “Seconds,” and then turn around and do a song like “Eau d’Bedroom Dancing” or “Hot Topic,” a pure celebration of feminist art that somehow turns what could be a college syllabus into an addictive call and response.

But it’s the fun of Le Tigre’s show, and its synth-pop sound, that stuck with me. I was also thinking about how there’s been such a subtle revival or even nostalgia in the last year or so for that early aughts, “bloghouse” sound among a few rising bands. You have groups like The Dare, The Hellp, Frost Children, all of whom sound like they were plucked from that moment, like I could have found them on one of the few days someone made me read Hipster Runoff as a teenager against my will. But a lot of that era that’s being mined for revival is not the queer, feminist, fun electroclash I grew up listening to, like Peaches, Chicks on Speed or Gravy Train!!! (the latter of which I clocked playing over the venue speakers before Le Tigre went on). Instead we get songs like “Girls,” which sounds like it was written by a horny LCD Soundsystem cover band. “Bloghouse” was fun, but mostly fun for who, exactly? Maybe there’s a near-future or alternate history where what Le Tigre was doing in the late ’90s, early ’00s repeats itself.

Le Tigre demands 'a communal experience,' says NPR's Hazel Cills.
Le Tigre demands “a communal experience,” says NPR’s Hazel Cills. Monica Simoes | Courtesy of the artist

Lorusso: Fun for who, indeed. Your question makes me think about a recent interview with Johanna and JD about the reunion tour, where Johanna gave her thoughts about “indie sleaze,” the newly coined nomenclature for the early ’00s moment that’s being revived. She said it makes her think of American Apparel, which makes her think of “sexual abuse”; that it makes her think of Vice magazine, and the nascent alt-right, and a “culture of casual sadism.” It’s all associated, for her, with “that era and those disgusting people that we avoided, who hated us also,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like we were beloved by those people.” As Johanna points out, all of that stuff was happening right alongside the scene Le Tigre was part of. And while I have no idea if that level of toxicity pervades in today’s bloghouse revival, I’ve yet to hear something that centers an explicitly, subversively feminist perspective from this new group of artists.

So I’m inspired by your proposal of a near-future alternate history where new bands pick up the mantle of artists like Le Tigre or Peaches — music that injects some more righteous rage into this nostalgic sound. It’s funny; you and I talked at length after the concert about why the huge feminist pop spectacle of a Le Tigre show felt more invigorating for us than the huge feminist pop spectacle of the Barbie movie, and I think it’s for exactly the reason you’ve pinpointed: that the band makes room for these gnarlier emotions, that it’s more interested in the totality of our shared experience than a tidy narrative arc. As you pointed out to me, the Barbie movie never really depicts the actual oppression women face in the real world; that would be way too much of a bummer for a blockbuster aiming to speak to the widest possible audience.

But Le Tigre went there, goes there — and still finds things worth dancing to. So my vision for our alternate-history near future goes there, too. These dream artists would, I think, have to take into account the massive shifts in feminist discourse over the past two decades — the way intersectional issues like misogynoir and anti-trans violence have been centered in more and more mainstream conversations, for example. Plus, the fact that feminism isn’t a dirty word, for the moment; so many mainstream stars — some of the biggest artists in the world! — actively embrace the label, even if their engagement with it can often feel watered-down (remember Taylor Swift’s #squad?) or contradictory. (And it’s not as if genres like indie rock and hip-hop are hurting for amazing women and queer artists, either!)

OK, so all that’s a tall order for our alternate history. And it’s hard not to feel a little jaded about the prospect of it even happening; sometimes, it really feels like gender equality becomes a hot topic for a minute, turns into a marketing ploy — brands love International Women’s Day! Spotify wants to quantify your gender bias! — and then cycles back into being uncool. Maybe that, too, is why seeing Le Tigre felt so refreshing: Since the band came up at a time when everyone wasn’t exactly on board with the whole feminism thing, it’s able to create this genuinely fun and genuinely committed space that’s blissfully unbothered by what’s in vogue. It honored our rage at state violence, our exhaustion with the discourse cycles, our hope for the future and put us, if even just for a few hours, in a community of people who wanted to do karaoke together through it all.

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