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The Boston Phoenix Tigre Tales

Kathleen Hanna's newest cause

By Carly Carioli

APRIL 17, 2000:  For someone who's used to being a lightning rod, both as a musical and a political figure, Olympia's Kathleen Hanna recently found herself in an unfamiliar position among the multitudes of famous and near-famous in New York City, just one political protester among many. Hanna has been a regular at the protests being staged in her adopted home town in response to the killing of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo and the subsequent acquittal of the four white police officers who struck him with 19 of the 41 bullets they fired. "When I was in the protest," she says, on the phone from her apartment, "there was a guy who was marching in front of me, who was black and had a hat on. The cops pulled up next to us on scooters and yelled, 'Get him -- the one in the hat.' And they proceeded to jump off the scooters and run over and throw him on the ground and beat him in front of me, and I was trying to do something to get in the way of how they were trying to brutalize this man."

At an earlier march, she says, her fellow protesters had included 23-year-old Malcolm Ferguson, a black man who was later shot in the head and killed at point blank range by an NYPD officer, only a few blocks from the spot where Diallo was gunned down. Hanna has been wondering about the official version of the story -- Ferguson, unarmed at the time of his death, was allegedly fleeing the officer because he was in possession of heroin. "But after being a part of that kind of violence [at the later protest], to hear that this other guy [Ferguson] was killed, and that they're saying it's completely unrelated to the fact that he was in the protest, is really suspicious to me. There's a lot of scary shit going on here, but also a real feeling of hope, because people are taking to the streets."

It s a good time to be Kathleen Hanna. In the three years since the demise of her band Bikini Kill -- who became synonymous with the populist-minded wing of rock-and-roll feminism known as riot grrrl and were largely responsible for drawing the lines along which some of the underground's biggest aesthetic and ideological battles have been fought -- Hanna has kept a relatively low profile. She adopted the pseudonym/alter ego Julie Ruin for her first solo album (recorded in 1997 at her apartment in Olympia, a town she helped put on the map as the epicenter of the international indie-pop underground), on which she began to experiment with loops, samples, and drum machines. Her attempt to put together a band to play the Julie Ruin material live blossomed into a full-blown collaboration with two other underground feminist icons -- 'zine writer Johanna Fateman and acclaimed Pixelvision filmmaker/video diarist Sadie Benning. The homonymous album they recorded last year as Le Tigre was a creative breakthrough if not a commercial one, spanning a musical spectrum from girl-group garage pop to basement hip-hop, the band singing in sly, edgy cadences that wouldn't sound out of place on the subway or a playground.

And for Hanna, who brings Le Tigre to the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain this Friday, the move to New York City has been a blessing: she seems more focused than ever, more committed and connected to each of her roles: as a practicing feminist intellectual, as a pop musician, and as an activist. Even before the current police-brutality furor arose, Rudy Giuliani made it into a Le Tigre song called "My Metrocard" ("He's such a fuckin' jerk," Hanna jeers on the tune). The metropolis has proven a worthy adversary. "I'm gonna keep writing about New York, just because Giuliani is just so fascist and scary. It's really phenomenal to me. It wasn't like that when I lived in Olympia. When I lived in Olympia, I did write about local things, like what everyone was talking about and thinking about and stuff. But here, it's like when things in the government change in New York, you see it in the streets immediately. It's so different.

She laughs. "Although I always thought, when I lived there, that the things that happened in Olympia were the most important things. And I'm sure that people living in, say, Laramie, Wyoming, feel the same way about Laramie. I try to always remember that and not get too stuck up about living in New York -- you know, there's other places in the world, but it's kinda hard to remember 'cause it's so incredible here."

In conversation, what some of her critics have taken for Hanna's knee-jerk self-righteousness is nowhere to be found. She has a knack for fiery rhetoric, but it comes hand in hand with an easy giggle and a casual self-effacing streak, both of which, though often invisible on the printed page, keep pretentiousness at arm's length. (There's also her long-adopted perky California drawl, which she celebrated in a song on the Julie Ruin album called "V.G.I.," for "Valley Girl Intelligentsia": "My philosophy/Is I'm a masterpiece/I wear a scrunchie/I'll say it again . . . " She may be a regular at the Diallo protests, but she's also a regular at pick-up hoops. Not that these should be thought of as incongruous pursuits. When I mention that I found Le Tigre to be the most fun of all her albums, she says, "I thought [Bikini Kill's final album] Reject All American was a pretty fun record too. I think a lot of stuff that Bikini Kill did was fun and also funny. I just think sometimes people didn't interpret it that way, because a lot of the time feminists are stereotyped as being humorless -- and I guess if you're the butt of the joke, you don't find it very funny. But I always thought it was really funny."

Hanna can talk at length about the political implications of her work -- its semi-deliberate electronic lo-fi-ness as a means "to disrupt the idea of the objective observer"; the radicalness of girls with synthesizers and drum machines in a culture that, she says, discourages women from embracing and mastering the tools of technology; and her right as an artist to experiment, and to fail, in public. "There would be no Le Tigre record without the Julie Ruin record because that's where I learned all the stuff that I needed to know. Maybe the Julie Ruin record isn't the greatest thing." (Personally, I thought it was pretty cool.) "I don't really care. It's interesting. And if Beck can put out one stupid record after another, I don't see why I can't. I'm not saying it's a stupid record or a bad record, but it's an experimental record, and it has tons of things that aren't the greatest on it, it has flaws, it was recorded in my apartment. I've always said, sometimes the stuff you hate makes you want to create. If someone's like, 'Ohmigod, I can't believe that girl is getting away with that. Like, she just has the same sample playing over the same drum beat, and she's not even playing in time, that's pathetic' -- well, all the girls who are in their room fucking around with this stuff, who are 20 times better at this than I am, you better put out records. And just show me up. Kick my ass! Come on! I'm ready! Like, that's what they should do."

One of Hanna's signature talents is her ability to turn these ideas into visceral, cheap-thrills rock and roll. There's plenty of this on Le Tigre: a feminist film critique in three chords and seven words ("What's your take on Cassavetes? Misogynist? Genius?"); a cross-disciplinary gynocentric bibliography in the form of a hip-hop shout-out ("Hot Topic"). But Le Tigre is also an album about the fears and risks and pleasures of withdrawing ("Eau de Bedroom Dancing") and connecting ("Let's Run"), and at times one is surprised that Hanna still has to work up the courage of her convictions.

"There's the part of you that wants to go with what's easy and secure and you know you'll get tons of praise for," she says, "that wants to write the loud feminist rock anthems that I sometimes have felt I'm expected to write. And the thing is, I do want to write feminist anthems, because I love feminism and it's such a deep part of my life and such an important part of my scholarship. Because where are the feminist pop artists? I would like to be one. I would like to be counted among them and find them. But I also just need to learn things about myself and write in a bunch of different styles and a bunch of different ways and not stick to one thing no matter what -- to keep growing intellectually and musically and technically and all those things. 'Let's Run' was written to myself -- to the part of me that's a perfectionist, that doesn't want to allow myself to fail. And I know that from talking to a lot of my friends, especially among a lot of women, there's this feeling of, 'If I'm perfect, then no one will hurt me.' Because we live in a culture that's saturated with violence against women and hatred against women and stuff like that, and it's like, 'If I stay perfect and do all the right things, maybe nothing will happen to me.' "

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Le Tigre is listening to the trio chase down a new sound, innovating and improvising a new musical language to match their playful, unhinged enthusiasm (though all three members are hip-hop fans, Benning's the one who lends the explosive turntable breaks to the album's propulsive opener, "Deceptacon," and Fateman is the one with the new-wave fetish). And that, says Hanna, might be the most revolutionary concept of all. "Well that is political, especially for three women, to think they have the fuckin' nerve to, like, experiment musically. That seems really political to me, because so often, if you're women who have radical progressive politics and you're out about that, a lot of the time that's the only thing people know about you. And you're not supposed to -- or be allowed to -- experiment musically. That makes you impure. You're supposed to just focus on your politics.

"To me, the music is political -- the quality of the music, and us caring about the quality of the music, and wanting to pay attention to it, and being able to do that and not being like, 'Oh we're women, so we have to be emotional and stuff and not really care about the technical stuff.' Why shouldn't we learn about technical stuff? I've been kept from technology my whole life, and I feel like it's a political statement to say, 'I'm taking this technology now. I'm gonna learn about it and for the rest of my life I'm going to teach other women that I meet about it, so that if they have a dream like mine they can follow it.' "

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