25.10.22
Words by:

Original release date: 25 October 1999
Label: Mr. Lady

Delivered with the glee of a child reeling off a tongue-twister with perfect enunciation, it’s hard to believe that Kathleen Hanna was, presumably, in a state of mourning when she sang “Who took the ram from the rama-lama-ding-dong?” on Le Tigre’s best-known song, Deceptacon. It was the year before the millennium, and the riot grrrl movement – along with the incendiary, direct-action feminism it had engendered – had all but expired. Instead, a very different kind of pop feminism was taking hold in the mainstream, while a Woodstock-baiting Fred Durst and a legion of proto incels were leading a revenge of the jocks. It felt like the baton had fallen to the floor.

Formed by Hanna, of riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, plus zine writer Johanna Fateman and experimental artist Sadie Benning, Le Tigre were an outlier in 1999. The project took riot grrrl’s DIY principles and progressive gender politics and urged them towards the dancefloor. This may not seem so radical now, but in the 90s underground, pop music was generally treated with suspicion. There were exceptions of course: The Julie Ruin, Hanna’s stepping stone between Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, went some way to ease the transition from punk to pop, sampling and recontextualising Foreigner and the Clash with the wit and archness that would come to define Le Tigre. It also brought Hanna, Fateman and Benning together – the latter two recruited to help Hanna usher the Julie Ruin from laptop to live performance. Instead, after presumably having too much collective fun for an ostensibly solo project, Le Tigre was born.

Their self-titled debut album embraced a playfulness that found expression through geeky pop culture references, and by turning evergreen feminist topics and in-jokes into danceable bops. On What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes, the band humorously weigh up the pros (“genius!”) and cons (“misogynist!”) of the director. On Friendship Station, Hanna attempted to split the difference between her heavy mind and her spry dancing feet. Altogether, the album successfully negotiated the popular with the political.

In other words, if Bikini Kill were largely polemical, Le Tigre were a bangers-forward operation; the bangers were the band’s praxis. Joy, Le Tigre reminded us, is a far more powerful spur for action than hopelessness. “We want to write political pop songs and be the dance party after the protest,” Hanna once told Red Bull Radio. It’s a template that has served an inexhaustible list of queer punk bands in their wake: Dream Wife, the Linda Lindas, Big Joanie, White Lung, your sister’s latest GarageBand project.

Le Tigre was made cheaply, repurposing drum machines, turntables, samplers and Farfisa organs – most of which the artists had little to no previous experience with. With them, they pasted together postmodern musical collages that shared DNA with early electro hip-hop: 80s-style drum machines met 50s doo wop flourishes and girl group chants, while wiry new-wave guitar and propulsive bass gave each track an irresistable forward momentum. Meanwhile, the band seamlessly played the roles of both community activists and artists, using their music to impart knowledge and inspire action while writing songs based on their lived experiences. But if the 12 songs on their debut often embraced the academic, the theorising was rendered with the easy-breeziness of a colouring book. “We favour the simple expression of the complex thought,” deadpanned Hanna on the experimental spoken-word track Slideshow at Free University.

Le Tigre remains a syllabus in and of itself (Hot Topic was literally a roll call of feminist artists and writers). If it didn’t inspire you to go out and form a band or start a revolution, then it inspired you to at least read theory or watch a documentary or acquaint yourself with any number of the references contained within. If we’ve learned anything from the fractured, polarised, nuance-free present, it’s that this alone is worth its weight in gold.