Le Tigre was a band that was never supposed to be. What was initially founded in 1998 as a backing band for riot grrl legend Kathleen Hanna’s lo-fi electronic solo project Julie Ruin ultimately became this trio of “underground electro-feminist performance artists.” Along with zine-maker Johanna Fateman and video and visual artist Sadie Benning, Hanna went full-throttle into the booming NYC electroclash scene of the late ’90s. But unlike a lot of the artists in that microgenre, Le Tigre were presenting an updated version of Hanna’s first band Bikini Kill’s message: feminism and equality, but a much more intersectional version of it that relied heavily on visual arts. The trio dressed in matching costumes and performed in front of a slideshow of images that accompanied each song to bolster its politics. On their self-titled first album, they rallied against pop culture they found soulless, celebrated like-minded and band-inspirational artists, extolled and spit bile at New York City (most straightforwardly, “Oh fuck Giuliani/ he’s such a fucking jerk”), sang about robots and dancing alone, and flexed their muscles at crafting sound-collages.
The band’s second release, the EP From The Desk Of Mr. Lady further advanced their politics. It burst with feminist ennui, essentially smacking in the face the notion that feminism is synonymous with humorlessness and rigidity. Instead of anger thrown at inequality — the perhaps unadvisable Amadou Diallo reaction piece “Bang! Bang!” being the exception — it’s met with eye-rolls and dismissiveness. It was Benning’s last work with Le Tigre, and she was replaced by the group’s former roadie and slideshow operator, J.D. Samson (currently of MEN), who would ultimately become an equal figurehead of the band.
In 2001, the same year as the release of From The Desk, Le Tigre put out their second album, Feminist Sweepstakes. The live show’s visual component evolved from slides to video and their music became more polished, but even more ferocious. From its start, they intimated that this was Emma “It’s Not My Revolution If I Can’t Dance” Goldman music, kicking off the LP with a song about their fans before opening a bouquet of danceable songs of anger, frustration, and self-care. Between then and their final — and only major label-released — studio album, This Island, the band guested on fellow electroclashers Chicks On Speed’s massive posse-cut cover of Tom Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood” and released remix EPs. This Island was a triumph on the level of Le Tigre’s first two albums, but received more mainstream acknowledgement, including songs featured on The O.C. and One Tree Hill. Despite 2004 being the last time the band put out original material, they continued to work, including a guest appearance on the Yoko Ono track “Sisters, O Sisters” from her Yes, I’m A Witch album in 2007, and were even recruited as producers for Christina Aguilera in 2009. The most recent offering was not from the band, but about the band by way of 2011 concert doc Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre On Tour by filmmaker Kerthy Fix (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields).
While Le Tigre is still considered active, the the three have been working on other projects. In 2007, Samson spearheaded the electropop group MEN with Fateman on contributing duties. They released their first full-length Talk About Body in 2011 and are slated to release its follow-up, Labor, this October. Fateman is still a writer and contributes regularly to Book Forum and other publications, as well as co-owns the self-proclaimed only feminist salon in New York, Seagull (tell them I sent you!). For Hanna, everything comes full-circle. Her solo project Julie Ruin has found another incarnation, this time with definite article “the” added to the name, and a full, official roster in place. The Julie Ruin not only gives shine to drummer Carmine Covelli and guitarist Sara Landeau and includes Kenny Mellman, former member of drag cabaret duo Kiki And Herb, on synths — it reunites Hanna with Bikini Kill member Kathi Wilcox (also of the Frumpies and the Casual Dots). They’ll release their years-in-the-making (which you can read more about in our Q&A with Hanna) debut Run Fast next Tuesday (9/3) — and to celebrate, we’ve collected the 10 best songs by the band that was initially support Hanna as Julie Ruin. Get into it.
10. “The Want Us To Make A Symphony Out Of The Sound Of Women Swallowing Their Own Tongues” (From The Desk Of Mr. Lady, 2001)
From The Desk Of Mr. Lady was an EP released in between Le Tigre’s self-titled debut and Feminist Sweepstakes, and give a peek into their increasingly political message. But what the 7-track collection is primarily filled with is anthems of feminist boredom (particularly “Yr Critique” and “Mediocrity Rules”), and sound-collage “Symphony” drives home that message by subverting nervous laughter and interview stutters into a cacophony of whatever, dude-isms, while also emphasizing the cruelty of using “and, um”s and other Valley Girl-ing as a way of dismissing a woman’s voice.
9. “T.G.I.F.” (from Feminist Sweepstakes, 2001)
“T.G.I.F.” is a whole mess of things it shouldn’t be. As listeners, we expect exuberance, we expect party music, we expect Katy Perry in braces. But for Le Tigre, “T.G.I.F.” is the unfun version: 9-to-5 got you down, your boss sucks, and there is this gap of time in the week that belongs to just you and your friends. But the notion of friendship on the track isn’t flowery, it’s raw and realistic and free of feelings-flippancy. It’s, perhaps, not Le Tigre’s most groundbreaking song musically, but the vocal “crescendo” from feminist boredom to stern commands of strength can kick you in your core.
8. “After Dark” (from This Island, 2004)
This is what a feminist one night stand song looks — well, sounds — like. While nowhere near as in-your-face as Bikini Kill’s “I Like Fucking,” “After Dark” is sex-positive and saucy, but even more importantly, its synths are the most euphoric of the trio’s career. Riot grrl cheer-squad anthem “TKO” may be the perennial hit from Le Tigre’s swansong This Island, but “After Dark” is one of the band’s funnest songs ever.
7. “My Art” (from Feminist Sweepstakes, 2001)
In a recent profile in SPIN, Hanna shirked the notion of being an icon saying, “Not to rag on myself, but when people say, ‘What does it feel like to be an icon?’ I’m like, my dog does not think I’m an icon, my cat does not think I am an icon, my cousin does not think I am an icon.” But on the fuzzed-out, combative “My Art,” Hanna asserts her own and the band’s significance, making an all-encompassing diss record that decrees, “I don’t care you sing such a winner’s song/ no, I won’t respond/ my silence screams, ‘ha ha’… And if you ever want an adventure/ if you ever want a fashion show/ I’ll walk on your block/ ‘cuz my art is better than your art/ and you’ll be better off when I’m gone.” It’s an empowering knock-out punch drawing from a similar place as Bikini Kill’s “Thurston <3s The Who" -- a message to naysayers that no amount of prodding can derail her mission to create.
6. “What’s Yr. Take On Cassavetes?” (from Le Tigre, 1999)
From the squawking seagull samples in the opening to the sparse but punishing drum-machine backbone to the aggressive dark barks in its closing, the sonic puzzle pieces that make up “Cassavetes” are enough to put it in Le Tigre’s top ten, but it’s the creativity they use to discuss the complications of appreciating the work of a problematic talent that makes this one of their most special songs. Over a game show timer-like guitar shred, different voices yell out pairs like “Misogynist? Genius?” (Opening Night, anyone?) in each verse, instead of writing long and detailed and potentially meandering about Cassavetes’s oeuvre. It also acknowledges that this type of thing is not categorical and you have to make your own decisions about what or whose work to consume. For Le Tigre, acknowledging your own agency was always paramount.
5. “The The Empty” (from Le Tigre, 1999)
In 2013, this cut from 1999 feels a little bit dated, but its fury has never ceased to feel palpable. The tearing down of mainstream pop culture — “keep waiting for a Santa that will never come/ a real party not just people who are faking fun…/ and all that glitters isn’t gold when inside it’s dead” — has been supplanted by (deserved) praise of Beyoncé. But Hanna’s high-pitched yell-singing, her mocking deep vocals, the punishing-but-plucky guitar riff, and the brolic synths will never get old.
4. “Hot Topic” (from Le Tigre, 1999)
Two of the things that Le Tigre did extremely well was balance lo-fi savagery with buoyant and bubbly esoteric pop. “Hot Topic” is the latter, with a whimsical drum loop and a chorus reminiscent of a children’s playground game. And unlike “Cassavetes,” this song is an unabashed celebration of (mostly) female artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers that range from Gertrude Stein and Billie Jean King to Mia X and Joan Jett to Gayatri Spivak and James Baldwin. When it finally ascends into a choir of different voices shouting out different icons, it feels like it could go on forever, as if the game is one of productive hero worship that you can play for hours. It doesn’t hurt that it probably garnered new fans for all of the names dropped.
3. “F.Y.R.” (from Feminist Sweepstakes, 2001)
Acronyms have found their way into Hanna’s music a few times over her career — Julie Ruin’s opening cut “V.G.I.” stood for Valley Girl Intelligensia, and on Le Tigre’s “Yr Critique,” the group referred to someone called a “W.I.A.,” which stands for Well-Intentioned Asshole. But “F.Y.R.” had an historical root, representing “Fifty Years Of Ridicule,” a chapter from the 1970 book The Dialectic Of Sex by Shulamith Firestone. Firestone addressed the 50 years between the end of suffragism and the publication of her book and the still-present dearth of equality among the sexes. In her book, she posed methods of resolution for this disparity and discussed how movement forward often begets setbacks from previous progress. Le Tigre modernize the concept with lyrics like, “Can we change Title IX/ for an end to hate crime/ RU486 is we suck your fucking dick.” Certainly this line is meant to be cheeky but the suggestion that an end to identity-based violence can come at the cost of education equality and that the abortion pill is irrelevant because of male oral sex is an slick combination of shock-and-fury that persists throughout the song. And while the cavalcade of headway-making laws supplanted by the old rules (“celebrate gay marriage in Vermont/ by enforcing those old sodomy laws”) that are references within the song is its own force, the rally-call pre-hook — “feminists we’re calling you/ please report to the front desk/ let’s name this phenomenon/ it’s too dumb to bring us down” — makes this Le Tigre’s most visceral political cry.
2. “Deceptacon” (from Le Tigre, 1999)
In many instances on this list, there is evidence to assert that a lot of the music Le Tigre made was gleaned from hip-hop. The Julie Ruin LP, which forged the way for rap-like experiments (the aforementioned “V.G.I.,” especially) from Hanna, proved that her ability to sling slick tongue-lashings works equally well over synth-beats as it did over sloppy punk. But “Deceptacon,” from Le Tigre’s self-titled debut, is ostensibly her first foray into battle-rap. When Hanna wails, “let me hear you de-politicize my rhyme,” she proves that you can say “fuck you” with sing-songy cutesiness and still totally mean it.
1. “Keep On Livin'” (from Feminist Sweepstakes, 2001)
When these lists get made, more often than not, the writer notes the hardship in crafting a list like this. For Le Tigre, the No. 1 spot is a no-brainer. Feminist Sweepstakes’ closer is one of the only songs of its kind, a paean to overcoming and the becoming stuck again in some of the worst emotional shit a person can ever experience. At an NYC show back in summer 2001, the trio closed their set with one of the first performances of this song with a photo-slide of a cake bearing the message “Happy 8 Days Without A Flashback.” Before that infectious drumbeat even kicked off, it was clear that the message of the song would be one that no one had ever really put out before. Here’s Hanna on the writing process:
“I was writing it originally about coming out as a sexual abuse survivor, but it can really be about any kind of emotional trauma, and you’re like, ‘I’m totally over it’ and then you get reactivated about it. You’re like, ‘Jeez, I worked so hard. How am I back in the same place?’ But each time you revisit it, it’s a little better. So many women have experienced horrific forms of male violence throughout their lives, and why isn’t there a song about how you get depressed because of it? And you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know how to talk to your friends, and how weird it is to be a feminist in that situation, where there’s sort of the expectation that you’re super-strong superwoman but you’re just, like, eating pizza in your house avoiding talking about it. I started writing it, and [Samson] was like, ‘I see a real link between what I felt like as a kid when I was trying to come out as a lesbian.’ As we were writing it, we were like, how does this song not exist already?”
The tandem of Hanna and Samson gives the song an extra power boost. And when Samson sings the refrain, “this is your time/ this is your life and/ this is your time/ this is your life and …” until the song’s conclusion — where a gang repeatedly shouts, “Keep on livin'” as she fades into the background — it solidifies itself as one of our most important and unique feminist anthems.