The best Le Tigre--nay--the best *Kathleen Hanna* song is “Deceptacon,” everybody knows this, nobody argues, it’s a really really incredible song. It’s really great that she was able to crank out such a hit after Bikini Kill and basically give herself a second career. Which is not to say that Le Tigre in general wasn’t a revolution, but it was certainly fueled by the power of “Deceptacon.” A diss track, it not only slaps, but also effectively draws a line in the sand between Le Tigre’s post-punk (lowercase PP) and the male-dominated (and at times arguably quite misogynistic, if intended in a “playful” manner) pop punk that enjoyed unlikely mainstream saturation in the latter half of the 90s. And it was just in time.
In my post about Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” I mentioned that at the turn of the millennium, burnt out on rock music, there were a handful musicians that pivoted towards pop/dance music from what Pete and I considered to be credible from a punk/indie perspective. This helped us understand that electronic music wasn’t all drugs and glow sticks and that pop didn’t have to be vapid. Along with Radiohead, I credit Bob Mould and Le Tigre for letting us dance again. I dare say they also made the version of Electric Grandmother you know today possible.
When Le Tigre came along, I was familiar with Bikini Kill’s work from scant radio play, the KRS compilation (a bit of a watershed, mentioned in my Bratmobile post), and the Singles collection, but I wouldn’t have described myself as a *big* fan necessarily. Oddly, Le Tigre ended up being a gateway to Bikini Kill for me. I can’t for the life of me remember when I might have first heard them. I’m fairly certain it was in college. They played Hawaii* and we couldn’t afford to go, but I also remember being not-all-that-disappointed that we couldn’t make it either.
*Friends of mine went and I remember this because my pal Mindy reported to me that she saw Kathleen Hanna and now-husband Ad Rock seemed AWFULLY FAMILIAR hanging out near the stage before they went on, but this is long before anyone knew they were a thing. I think this explains why Le Tigre made it to Hawaii because the Beastie Boys were playing a show in town in the same week, a detail which at the time seemed QUITE benign. Also I’m sorry to have mentioned this union on a post about Kathleen’s band and not on the Beastie Boys’ post which would seem to in part define a feminist icon’s worth by her marriage, but not her husband’s. The story IS related to Le Tigre and not the Beastie Boys, though. It’s the best I can do.
I really got hooked on Le Tigre in grad school when they released Feminist Sweepstakes, which is NOT their best album (though not a bad album, having refreshed my memory), but since it had just been released, I got obsessed with it. And then retroactively became obsessed with the superior self-titled debut, which includes both “Decepticon” and the subject of this long, winding story, “The The Empty.”
OH! I would be remiss to not mention my mom’s role in fostering my relationship with Le Tigre. One day at some point in late 2001 (I remember because I think I was newly living in Columbus), out of the blue, she asked me if I liked Le Tigre. I felt a little like Steve Martin in Parenthood when the stripper who was mistakenly sent to his son’s birthday party in place of the popular cowboy character in that I had a lot of questions that didn’t even seem relevant. I told her I did fairly well. She said she heard Kathleen Hanna on Fresh Air and struck her as something I’d enjoy. “She sounded like a valley girl, but one with ideas.” I guess that’s fair. I was tickled enough by this interaction that I leaned in a little.
I didn’t want to talk about everyone’s favorite song by Le Tigre, so I instead made a personal pick. “The The Empty” is a very atypical Le Tigre song because the guitar is so front-facing. The guitar is also pretty typical three-chord (if that?), unusual for any song with a drum-machine track. The drum track, which is so fast, full, and chaotic, it’s almost irritating. What were they thinking? I think my favorite genre of music is bad-ideas-gone-good. When stuff looks bad on paper but you can pull it off anyway? That’s success.
Kathleen’s vocals aren’t typical for Le Tigre either. They’re usually bouncy and playful, even in angry songs like “Decepticon.” In “The The Empty,” they’re screamier, evocative of her Bikini-Kill style, but more screamy than yelly and far more kinetic. And oh! So angry! I feel like in most screamy songs, the vocalist rarely shows weakness or fatigue and the same I think the same could be said for Kathleen’s Bikini Kill songs, but by the end of the song she sounds at once exhausted but unready to stop?
For all the anger, she’s not even singing about something all that objectively bad. It’s a function of a simpler time, but also that Le Tigre was uniquely art-focused. She got all New York on us. They maintained the feminist-punk spirit from Bikini Kill that made Kathleen Hanna a household name, but in “The The Empty,” and other songs by Le Tigre through Feminist Sweepstakes, that spirit was less lyrically aggressive and more culture-focused and observational. In preparing for this post, I read an interview with Kathleen from 2000 in which she goes on at length about feeling out of step with culture after watching There’s Something About Mary. She admits to watching Adam Sandler movies (lol) to demonstrate that she’s can be quite low-brow and found some funny moments in Mary. But she couldn’t quite get past the concept that Mary effectively had three men stalking her, which rendered the whole thing unfunny and offensive. She had similar complaints about American Beauty (also lol) and Election, though I disagree with her on that. I think in 2000, she would have been chided for being too uptight, but I think mainstream cultural thought has finally caught up to Kathleen Hanna.
“The The Empty” is about exactly this. The refrain throughout the song has Johanna Fateman backing Kathleen’s screams with a pleasant, calm and melodic but assertive “all that glitt
rs is not gold,” which pretty much sums it up. I think the series of lines that drives the unique point of view home here is:
(Oh! Baby!) Why won't you talk to me?
(Oh! Baby!) You don't say anything!
(Oh! Baby!) Why won't you talk to me?
(Oh, baby?) You don't say anything!
What I like about it is that she’s asking for more out of culture. “Why don’t you talk to *me*?” She doesn’t limit the scope here to other musicians. She even calls comedians out, which I find a little funny, but again, with recent progression in standup norms, demonstrated by such output by Hannah Gatsby demonstrates that we are catching up with Kathleen Hanna.
Following Feminist Sweepstakes, Le Tigre attempted to sell out in 2004 with their major label release This Island, which is a steaming pile of shit. It was overproduced and under-performed. So it sounded really slick but amateurish at the same time. I hated it. I guess other people did too, because they failed to gain a foothold in the mainstream. I recall hearing the lead single “TKO” on CD 101 in Columbus and having to turn it off because I hated it so much. Then they went on indefinite hiatus, popping up here and there to do things like record that tragic shoot-the-moon track “I’m With Her” in 2016, along with various production projects here and there. It’s--definitely over.
I’m happy for Kathleen that Bikini Kill is back together. Pete seems to think it’s where she belongs. The couple of times we saw Le Tigre were in mid-sized clubs and they had to move their own shit. They were always fun shows, but I think it’s only natural that when you reach cultural-icon status, it kind of hurts a little to carry your own amps (see also Joe Strummer passing out handbills to an Atlantic City Mescaleros show). When we saw Bikini Kill last year for their triumphant reunion, they were playing at Terminal 5 in NYC and were treated like legends they are. I guess she’s where she needs to be now.