The first time I heard about the Riot Grrrl movement was in 1993. My roommate then went around in men’s plumbing shirts with matching utilitarian trousers and a silver-link key chain that clipped from her belt loop to her pocket. Sound familiar? I thought so. This was just post-Nirvana hype time and I was sick of beloved ‘alternative’ music becoming an American radio and fashion experience so I decided to ignore anything – like Riot Grrrl – that had a uniform and a summer festival to go with it. It seems I missed out on Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill and a major turning point in chick-rock that ended up spawning Le Tigre and inspiring countless other bands that I now tend to admire. Oops, oh well, time marches on….
It’s not quite 10 years later and on this night, at Polar TV Berlin, May 2002, there was not one plumber’s shirt with ‘Bob’ written above the pocket to be seen, rather the single most gorgeous and magazinely well- dressed 90% lady audience I have ever seen at a gig. So good looking even the band commented on it from stage. Between this and the combination of disco balls and coloured lights, the Le Tigre girls all dressed in their waitress-meets-space-cadette (Johanna Fateman and Kathleen Hanna) -meets-park-bench pervert (JD Samson) outfits, I felt like a kid in a candy shop, dancing to a soundtrack of bubblegum pop.
Actually, what I’m calling bubblegum is more to do with the lovely pink outfits Le Tigre wears on the sleeve of their new album, Feminist Sweepstakes, than the music, which they call ‘rollerskate jams’ and I’m more inclined to call happy and hardcore: happy mood, hardcore meaning.
More than one female I told I was going to see Le Tigre wrinkled up her nose and said something about them being too political, but I found the atmosphere at the concert so buoyant that they could have been singing about inserting tampons and I wouldn’t have cared. Le Tigre play with the whole sensual experience of hearing music: from the opening kick-ass groovy guitar and synth riffs you’re shaking your ass, and only if you listen very closely will you realise the lyrics are actually about child sexual abuse, coming out and academic dialectics. Whoa – so this is postmodern feminist theory – dish out some more, please!
There were still more paradoxes of politics and pleasure going on within Le Tigre’s show: while the group did their synchronised marching and aerobics to rival Cobra Killer, video projections confronted the audience with grim statements and worrying images (though many also with humour). Meanwhile, smattered amongst the fashion queens, the other 10% of the audience consisted mainly of butch dykes whose appearance always raises questions in my mind about whether anyone should be wearing high heels at all, or, on the other hand, if a girl dressing like a boy isn’t somehow hypocritical.
Apparently, there were some complaints about Le Tigre looking too chic on their album cover…
Goddess knows – I know feminism’s not supposed to be about appearances, or rather it’s supposed to be all about appearances, or rather what is being a woman about anyway? And what was it I said about avoiding music with fashion statements? Here’s when we come back to the music and just dancing and having fun.
So, what about that gig? Well, Johanna Fateman’s vocals were strong and piercing like the best of the early punk queens and contributed to the atmosphere of passionate optimism, however she accidentally gave away perhaps her biggest influence when she did an a cappella line from Little Orphan Annie’s “Tomorrow”. I preferred Kathleen Hanna on guitar than on the lead mike and JD was great on rare vocals, guitar riffs and presiding over the sampler. I guess they played mostly stuff from Feminist Sweepstakes, but I wouldn’t have known anything earlier, anyway. ‘On Guard’ was brilliant – a cheerful punch in the face for the whistling builders of the world, and ‘Keep on Livin’’ ended the gig with an emotional momentum that took me all the way home alone on the S-Bahn with no fear.
It says a lot about the ‘Feminist Sweepstakes’ album that’s it’s been given fantastic reviews from the most wanky London fashion magazines to the most lefty lesbie publications to serious music journal The Wire who made it a cover story with an article about the recent fem-electro-wave. It’s clear that Le Tigre is making music that can’t be ignored, and I think it’s fantastic that their lyrics are dedicated to the politics that everyone seems to find so distasteful and incompatible to the pop world. Le Tigre manage to create a voice in mass culture for those people who traditionally don’t have one – from dykes to child sexual abuse survivors of which, yes folks, even the ever-cheerful and easily-pleased Miss Rose is one.
I may be wrong, but I think what Le Tigre try to say in the brief hour or two that they bring together the diverse factions of fashion fans and freaky fags, is that in the Feminist Sweepstakes everyone’s a winner. Just like they say in the lyrics of the ‘LT Tour Theme’: “For the ladies and the fags yeah, we’re the band with the rollerskate jams…. we see the girls walking towards the dancefloor and we remember why we go on tour. Won’t you dance some more?”