Superheroes from some weird feminist alternative reality: JD Samson, Johanna Fateman, Kathleen Hanna
Life On Their Island
Oliver Hall talks utopian pop and practical politics with electro-dance bullhorn radicals LE TIGRE
Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (2004), available from The Arthur Store for $6 postpaid
The October issue of Harper’s reprints something I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for days now: a passage of instructions, from a handbook for members of a Japanese student club, for gang-rape. The men of Super Free, “a now defunct club for students at elite Japanese universities,” gang-raped hundreds of women between 1995 and 2003. “Take away the woman’s shoes, purse, and cell phone so that she cannot get away before we have finished,” it says. “Take photos or a video of the rape and threaten to expose the woman publicly if she opens her mouth about what happened.”
To say nothing of rape, shame and humiliation are the secret weapons the powerful use in the everyday battles lost by women—and queers, nonwhites, the poor, weirdos. “Are you gay?” asked a girl I had just met at Club Screwball a few weeks ago; I was too drunk to articulate Gore Vidal’s thesis that “gay” and “straight” properly refer to sexual acts, not people, so I just said, “Well, not really.” “Then why are you funny? You must have been beaten up at school.” “Yes.”
Unlike Kathleen Hanna’s previous band, the great and legendary Bikini Kill, the band that inspired the thrilling Riot Grrrrrrl movement of the early ’90s even as it distanced itself from that movement, Le Tigre is not a punk band suspicious of its audience. All the members of Le Tigre, as I interviewed them independently from their locations in New York—JD Samson in Brooklyn, Johanna Fateman uptown, Kathleen Hanna downtown—spoke of their audience with a kind of awe, and I sensed that providing a special, free place for all those who have had to develop a sense of humor to live in the world, who have to cherish joy because it is a privilege rather than a right for them, gives all the members of Le Tigre a lot of pleasure.
This Island, Le Tigre’s new album and its first ever for a major label, is the kind of pop music you haven’t heard coming from your radio or TV in years—not retro, just painted in primary colors—but that’s where it belongs, making the carwash fun again. “X-out all self-supervision, get your keys out now start the ignition / We’re on the verge of. . .” what?
Rumors are circulating that there will be a Le Tigre float at next year’s New York Gay Pride parade. I begged JD to give me the details, but she said I’d just have to come see it. See you there.
ARTHUR: Your single “New Kicks” uses sounds JD recorded at the February 15, 2003 Iraq war protest in New York City. I was there, but I couldn’t get to the speakers’ stage where much of “New Kicks” was recorded. The police held us immobile between barricades, diverted the march away from the stage, and beat up a lot of people. Was the protest as fun as the song makes it sound?
JD: I think of the song as cinematic, dramatic—kind of an anthem in the sense that it’s for all the people that were there and have been protesting in the past few years, but I don’t really see it as a celebration-type song. My experience was more positive than some of my friends who were arrested and had mace in their face. I just kind of jumped over fences and tried to make my way to where I could hear the speakers. That was kind of my number one quota that day.
The part in the song where [Amy Goodman from Democracy Now]’s naming the list of places, that’s pretty exciting. That was actually from the radio broadcast of the event. When I came across that I was like, “Oh my god! What a good build.”
JOHANNA: What was amazing and made me really happy was realizing how huge it was. That’s what was sort of exhilarating about it, is that we felt really unstoppable and it was really out of the control of the police or anyone, and it felt like it couldn’t be denied because a whole huge section of the city was shut down. I don’t know if I feel like the song is a celebration of that, but we didn’t want it to be, like, a bummer song [laughs]. The song was actually played on Democracy Now. That felt good, it sort of came full circle.
Le Tigre’s appearance on Carson Daly’s late night show is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen on TV. What was that like for you?
KATHLEEN: We were really bummed when we got there, we were totally exhausted. You have to bring your equipment to that shit at like ten in the morning? And we don’t really have a crew, so we were doing it ourselves, and we got stuck in traffic for like two hours, and we hadn’t slept cuz we played a show the night before — we were just totally exhausted, and we were like “Why are we doing this? It’s so ridiculous.” And then we look on the TV monitor, and Carson Daly goes, “. . .and Le Tigre!” and we hear everybody scream! And they pan the audience, there were all these friends of ours that we hadn’t seen in forever that showed up, there’s all these girls in mustaches, and we’re like “Okay, we can do this.”