PRINT February 2003


Le Tigre

FAMILIAR WITH HERM CHOREOGRAPHY? Well, if you’ve ever attended a Le Tigre concert, choreographed by band member JD Samson, you’ve seen it. Herm (slang for androgynous queer) locates Samson and the boy-band-derivative moves one sees at Le Tigre shows—her tributes to how queer bodies negotiate the world. Equal parts dance style and critical intervention, Samson’s choreography is just one element of a performance practice that reopens questions about community, fandom, feminism, queerness, and their conjunctions and differences, by drawing on staged spectacle, audience exuberance, and punk-derived dance tunes with sneaky samples and make-your-heart-swell lyrics (“for the ladies and the fags, yeah / we’re the band with the roller-skate jams”). Le Tigre toured North America and Europe for six months last year, which was the culmination of a creative spurt for the trio, who have released three records since 2001.

Samson, Johanna Fateman, and Kathleen Hanna give Le Tigre a powerful stage presence, built on three distinct public personas familiar in part from past achievements. Hanna’s earlier work is the best known: As lead singer of the legendary indie band Bikini Kill, she exploded her musical talents in the Pacific Northwest punk scene that took off in the early ’90s. Bikini Kill juggled anger, alienation, hope, and humor with an honesty forged by lived experience and feminist defiance. Whereas many bands deployed these familiar indie-rock tropes almost editorially, Bikini Kill’s music stood out as direct, expressive, and polemically present. During the ’90s, Hanna quickly absorbed various musical techniques and devices like sampling and 4-track, which appear in her other projects—briefly in the Fakes’ Real Fiction (Chainsaw Records, 1995), more substantially in her underrecognized solo project Julie Ruin (Kill Rock Stars, 1998), and now in full swing with Le Tigre. Fateman’s pre-Tigre projects, ’zines like The Opposite part 1 (1996) and Artaudmania (1997), applied punk forms of critical discourse to official culture and hold a singular place in ’zine history by virtue of their theoretical acuity and inclusion of art criticism in a genre typically dominated by autobiography and underground music. Samson, the youngest Tigre, butch and gorgeous, threatens to be the most interesting sex symbol in the music world. A founding member of Dykes Can Dance, a troupe that stages interventions at New York clubs, Samson shares music duties, makes art, and choreographs the stage show.

Le Tigre’s expansive use of performance, feminist, and lesbian markers is crystallized on stage with “Hot Topic,” a song/slide show honoring the band’s inspirations that is conceptually akin to a hip-hop shout-out. Projected images of (or by) Valie Export, David Wojnarowicz, G.B. Jones, Jean Genet, Angela Davis, Aretha Franklin, et al. charge the song, while the song lovingly frames the visuals—and along the way, the audience, reacting to each slide, is transformed a little. It’s the passing of information, political desire, and social love from one medium to another, and from one person to another, that inspires feelings of transcendence. Indeed, deep inside the fun of this sing-along lie some of the most intense and unusual beauties on offer by the Tigre scene, and for my money they pose in acute forms many of the questions asked by Lovink and Garcia’s ongoing “Tactical Media” series and Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter—not to mention by Boy George fans everywhere.

Le Tigre songs meld dance, garage, and digital genres. Right now, “Dyke March 2001” plays on my stereo. Though I’ve heard this vivacious track (and its chorus of “Marching naked ladies!”) countless times, it always gives pause. Maybe it’s the combination of electronica aesthetics and lesbian politics, or maybe the novel way the song sound-tracks women in the streets, on their own terms, loosely organized, with their outlaw sexualities (another funny refrain is “We recruit!”) and mobile bodies. In the Tigre context, these urgent, celebratory moments are very much matters of art, love, and collective power, and they are amplified in a concert setting that exalts dancing and values immediacy.

Another riff on marginalized bodies is JD’s Lesbian Calendar, an art project that debuted at Hanna’s Spring Street Gallery in October. There, thirteen large-format photos (most of which appear in the calendar) showcased Samson in low-visibility jobs suited to the cold social reception typically afforded her androgyny. Shot by commercial photographer Cass Bird, the pictures are cinematic, emotionally attenuated, underwritten by the objectifications of celebrity and Samson’s “loss of confidence in the real world of human contact.” They are meant to create, the artist says, “a tableau vivant, devoid of real character development—which I think is the stereotypical view of the butch lesbian: Stone. Blank.” Exposing and exploiting those typologies in the name of undervalued sexualities and subjectivity, the photos, with their purity of intent, humor, multiple formats (inexpensive desk calendars can be purchased online), and deployment of erotics in the context of labor relations, ultimately strike in ways that the scattered self-portraits of a Nikki S. Lee or an Anthony Goicolea cannot. Even in light of historical precursors like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the photos of Sage Sohier and Claude Cahun, and varieties of punk ephemera, JD’s Lesbian Calendar is stirring and originally conceived, pointing optimistically to 2003—and offering the perfect place to record the date of the next Le Tigre concert.

Rachel Greene is a New York–based writer.