Mall Girl Revolution: A Column

If Kathleen Hanna lives to be a hundred years old she will still be a mall girl to me. What’s that you say? Do I intend an insult? Actually, I intend that as a compliment. One of her great gifts has been her ability to identify with girls and women who have never heard of her and may never. Although it is seldom discussed in any forum I frequent, alternative culture in this country is rife with elitism and snobbery. It’s easy to see why; disaffected youth who feel alienated from the dominant culture find each other and bond over their chosen subculture. The comfort that increased social numbers brings may also bring confidence which may ultimately lead to the smug air of imagined superiority. Kathleen has never stopped seeing this pitfall nor will she deny or forget her mall girl youth. On Bikini Kill’s Pussywhipped she spelled it out for us quite clearly on “Alien She”: “She wants me to go to the mall/ she wants me to put the pretty, pretty lipstick on/ she wants me to be like her/I want to kill her but I’m afraid it might kill me.” Now that Kathleen’s Le Tigre records for a subsidiary of entertainment conglomerate Universal I imagine you can find Le Tigre’s most recent CD, This Island, in malls all over America. From what I can tell it has not sold much beyond Le Tigre’s already established fan base. I don’t suspect they will have a long career in the world of major label subsidiaries (few bands do these days), but their current engagement with corporate culture is worth some analysis.

I haven’t seen much mudslinging in the indie punk press over Le Tigre’s major label jump, but Le Tigre has hardly received any attention over the years in such anti-corporate mags as Maximum Rocknroll; it’s no surprise that they’re still ignoring them. While I don’t consider myself any friendlier to corporations than the most stalwart hardcore punk idealists, I do still identify with mall girls or maybe I remember my introduction to punk rock in my youth all too well. When I was a teen my mom used to buy mainstream rock mags like Creem and Circus for me. It was Creem that constantly wrote praises to punk rock, especially to the Clash. In the late 1970’s and in a small town in the South it was not very likely that I would ever hear this music. When London Calling was released in late 1979 it did get some airplay on our local album rock station. On Monday nights there was a show which counted down the top twenty best-selling albums in local record stores for the week and a song from each album on the list was played. London Calling had made the lower rungs of the chart for a couple of weeks. Each week as a different London Calling song was played I made sure to have a cassette recording it. At first, I thought, “What’s the big deal about these guys?” but as time went on I played my tapes of “Train in Vain” and “Revolution Rock” over and over. On the last day of the eleventh grade, I bought London Calling and everything changed. Years later, it would strike me as quite ironic to read Al Flipside’s comment that “punk rock died when the Clash signed to CBS”.

I could be incredibly jaded by now. After all this time I could easily say “fuck punk bands on major labels, fuck Hot Topic, fuck Warped Tour,” and yet I’ve never said any of those things. While I have reservations about all of them I do equate each of them with my experiences reading Creem and hearing the Clash on commercial radio way back when. All of these things can represent a door to someone in a culturally deprived situation. I’m not expecting today’s Hot Topic shoppers to eventually bring about the revolution that dismantles capitalism or our two-party system, but, I’m sorry, I don’t expect today’s readers of Profane Existence to bring that about someday either. I think we need both groups, and , don’t laugh, but we need both groups working together! If I can get the most vehemently anti-capitalist crust punk to at least consider why a band like Le Tigre might make the major label move, then I’ve accomplished something. If Le Tigre is really interested in changing our world for the better then they’ll still care what the crust punks think. I’m also not suggesting that I think it is a good idea for punk bands to aim for major label deals. I do not endorse that concept nowadays, but when a visionary band wants to give it a try I’m also open-minded and optimistic enough to hope that some good comes out of it, for the band and, especially, for the alienated youth across Smalltown USA.

Le Tigre’s identification as an LGBT (Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgender) band will forever eliminate them from certain elements of corporate co-optation although LGBT culture is much further into the mainstream now than I could have imagined, say, twenty years ago when Rosanne Barr shared a kissed with a woman on her sitcom and it was considered A BIG DEAL. Still, if a Le Tigre video appeared in regular rotation on MTV I can only imagine the remarks that MTV’s adolescent male audience would be making about Le Tigre’s sole dyke, JD Samson. And no matter how attractive Kathleen and Johanna Fateman might appear to this audience I can still see them wondering why the more feminine Le Tigres aren’t shaking their booties in the audiences’ faces. That pretty much means that Le Tigre would still get the girls and the LGBTs who are watching and that suits them just fine. They did make a video (“TKO”) to promote their latest album which I saw only by going to mtv.com. As far as I know it never aired on the cable network although it probably aired on their more adventurous and less available channel MTV2. Commercial radio also did not support their new release in sufficient numbers to significantly broaden their U.S. audience. For me, This Island is their best album since their first, and when they played in my state for the first time in three years this past February, I found myself trying hard not to look and feel like a dirty old man as I found myself chauffeuring three teenage girls who had never seem them to the show.

The specter of Bikini Kill always lingers whenever I think of Le Tigre. For me, Bikini Kill delivered the shock of the new as much as the Sex Pistols or the Ramones or Black Flag did. Out with the old order and in with the new. I got to see them live just once at the Duke Coffeehouse (Durham, NC) in November of 1994 and they floored me. Of course, you won’t see Bikini Kill’s name on the jackets of a lot of young punk guys because, well, a lot of those guys may feel that Bikini Kill were out to get them. I never felt that way, but maybe it was my single-mother upbringing that enabled me to be more accepting of strong women. During Bikini Kill’s entire existence I knew women who had been beaten or sexually abused or raped. I only had to think of their stories and I easily could relate to Kathleen’s lyrics on those subjects. Kathleen’s interview in the Research/ Juno book Angry Women in Rock Volume One was a revelation for me when I first read it. If only her detractors were open-minded enough to read it I think they would come away with a better understanding of Bikini Kill and of Kathleen.

There were two things that kept me from initially embracing Le Tigre as eagerly as I had Bikini Kill. First, I missed the manic energy that Bikini Kill exploded with. I realize that having a live drummer as opposed to a computerized drummer comes into play with perceived energy level, but if Le Tigre had more songs as frantic as “Deceptacon” off their first album and “Seconds” off their latest one I might not notice the difference as much. Secondly, Kathleen’s Le Tigre lyrics are less naked and vulnerable. From my perspective as a songwriter I was often astonished by the brutal honesty of her most dramatic Bikini Kill lyrics. “It’s hard to talk with your dick in my mouth/ I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time” are just a couple of the lines that I don’t think I will forget if I live to be a hundred years old. But since I work hard on lyrics myself I could understand why she pulled back from that perilous level of soul-baring. Even when you’re not necessarily writing from personal experience and simply singing from the point of view of someone else, it can be emotionally draining. Bikini Kill’s success had made Kathleen the one person that so many young women felt could understand them. I can only imagine how besieged she was with troubled letters and with people coming up to her at shows who wanted to share their personal stories. Reliving your own pain and empathizing with the pain of others on a regular basis can lead to emotional overload. I think that Le Tigre has been her attempt to stay true to herself and her ethics without being overcome with pain. I think this has become easier in recent years with both Johanna and JD really blossoming as formidable artists within the group.

Their February 23rd show at the Cats Cradle in Carrboro, NC was a solid hour plus a two-song encore that touched on all of their releases. If you’ve never seen them their set includes some live playing along with synchronized dance routines and a video for each song that plays on a screen behind them. My three young friends thoroughly enjoyed the show. In some sort of mother/ child psychic bond, the youngest girl’s mother rang my cell phone just minutes after the show ended to ask when I was going to have her daughter home.

I’ve seen Le Tigre three times now, but my favorite show remains the May 2001 show in Carrboro. The high point for me was when Kathleen came back for an encore by herself, strapped on a guitar, called up a solitary drumbeat on the sequencer, and played the Bikini Kill song “For Tammy Rae.” I had always assumed that this was a love song from a woman to another woman, but, no, Kathleen told the crowd the song was about “female friendship” and that it was one of the first songs she ever wrote, but that she had to wait until she could meet some people to help her bring it to fruition. It was a touching moment and it was amazing to hear this old song in a new way, both musically and, for me, lyrically. I’d love to have a recording of her doing this version.

There is a Yahoo discussion group called Aerobicide that is devoted to Kathleen. I was curious as to what their fans were saying about them since their new album had come out. Surprisingly, there were a few who complained that the group no longer cared about their fans and just wanted to be rock stars. There were also those who argued that this was not true; my favorite post involved Le Tigre coming outside after a Chicago show this past winter to meet fans and to pose for pictures with whomever wanted one in what was described as “fucking freezing” weather. I still think that they’re fighting the good fight. I think this latest turn of events is just another step in a long, personal history devoted to creative ways to rebel without killing yourself. In Jigsaw Fanzine #4 from spring 1991 and at the age of 22, Kathleen wrote:

“Resistance is everywhere, it always has been and always will be. Just because someone is not resisting in the same way you are (being a vegan, an ‘out’ lesbian, a political organizer) does not mean they are not resisting. Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance. One girl calling another girl to warn her about a guy who date-raped her is another. And while she may look like a big-haired, makeup girl who goes out with jocks, she is a soldier along with every other girl, and even though she may not be fighting in the same loud way that some of us can (and do) it is the fact that she is resisting that connects us, puts a piece together.”