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Basslines and Protest Signs

Is Kathleen Hanna a Prophet? 

Kathleen Hanna on stage with Le Tigre at the Greek. (Brett Callwood)

Some concerts feel bigger than other concerts, don’t they? We listen to music and attend gigs for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s for escapism — to be carried away on a wave of melody and fantasy into another plane of existence. For other times, it’s just to dance or to sing. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics are absolutely relatable, and other times it’s because the lyrics inform us of other people’s lived experiences and we’re capable of empathy. And sometimes, it’s because the music is carrying a lot of weight on a political and social level. 

On Sunday of this week, I went to the Greek Theatre in L.A. to see Le Tigre — the electro-punk band that featured Kathleen Hanna at the end of the ‘90s after the breakup of riot grrls Bikini Kill. Just over a year ago, incidentally, I went to the same venue to see the reformed Bikini Kill. 

“When Bikini Kill played in the ‘90s, there was a lot of violence and aggression towards us, and there were also a lot of people who loved us and were very supportive,” Hanna told me in April of last year. “It’s really amazing for me to come back as a singer so many years later and get so much love and positivity. I think people don’t realize that we weren’t a popular band – Bikini Kill was a very niche thing.

“People either really loved us or wanted to literally kill us. There were a lot of ‘you guys don’t even deserve to exist’ kind of sentiment. So to come back and be like, we do deserve to exist, and actually, these songs – sadly, sadly, sadly, sadly – are feeling more relevant now than they did then. It’s great that I feel like singing the songs again when I didn’t feel like singing them for 20 years, but jeez, I would rather that the world was a better place. I wish I could sing about flowers.”

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That’s not an uncommon story, of course. Lots of bands that were niche, underground at best, split up and then return when time does them the service of increasing their popularity (see the Pixies, the Stooges, etc). For Hanna, a year ago, the world still needed Bikini Kill.

“So much stuff and so many cops killing black people for no reason,” Hanna said. “So many white nationalist vigilantes murdering people, so much stuff going on that I was like, I need to get this out. I’m so fucking pissed. I tend to either turn it on myself or turn it into song. For me, it’s all about the live outlet. I like the Bikini Kill records, but for the most part, I always considered us a live band. Connecting with the audience and especially after being so isolated – I feel like I’m going to cry the whole time.”

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Now here we are, 15 months later, and Hanna’s next band has reformed for a series of shows. Le Tigre might not generate the same headlines as Bikini Kill due to music historians’ fascination with scenes. BK are considered riot grrl pioneers, while Le Tigre’s place in the history books is on less scene-specific footing. But with that flexibility comes great power and responsibility. To paraphrase Uncle Ben.

At the Greek this week, Le Tigre ROARED. Not a second was wasted, and lyrics written a couple of decades ago sound scarily relevant today.

“Where’d you get all the attention,” Hanna sings on “Seconds”. “Your dad’s money too base to mention, His coattails are looking worn, You’ve had a nice ride, that’s for sure, Better thank your brain-dead clientele, For all the money that you’ll spend in hell.”

That song was written about then-President George W. Bush, but Hanna said this week that it makes her think of (paraphrasing) a bigoted, racist asshole that she doesn’t want to name, though she hopes our minds are full of sunshine and rainbows. With this crowd, in a world still suffering because of Trump, that’s doubtful. Because shit, that song could absolutely have been written about Trump.

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That’s a theme that ran through the entire show. The lyrics are timeless and, like Bikini Kill’s, as relevant if not more relevant today as they ever were. They were both primal and raw and technologically savvy. Their electro-punk recalled the likes of the Screamers, maybe a touch of Suicide and Public Image, with that vital riot grrrl lean. Who else would have written a conversational song about film director John Cassavetes, and his various positive and negative traits?

“What’s yr take on Cassavetes? Misogynist! Genius!” they sing on “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes”. In a world constantly debating the degree to which we can separate the art from the artist, it’s another song that could have been written yesterday about any number of people (anyone from Kanye to Woody Allen). 

Or how about the heartbreaking now-ness of “FYR” (“Fifty Years of Ridicule”)? Don’t we all just wish that song wasn’t so necessary today?

“Ten short years of progressive change,” they sing. “50 fucking years of calling us names; Can we trade Title Nine for an end to hate crime? RU-486 if we suck your fuckin’ dick; One step forward, five steps back; One cool record in the year of rock-rap; Yeah, we got all the power getting stabbed in the shower; And we got equal rights on ladies’ night.”

Jesus fucking Christ! It’s not like Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Bateman, JD Samson, and former member Sadie Benning were prophets or something. As Hanna herself said, she wishes these songs didn’t sound as topical as they do, became it means that we haven’t made nearly enough progress. 

The question is, when about thirty years pass, will Bikini Kill and Le Tigre lyrics still sound current, or is some actual progress too much to ask for?

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