Byline: Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic
How is feminism faring in 2002? According to the electropop band Le Tigre, predictably not well: "one step forward, five steps back/one cool record in the year of rock-rap."
The band's new song "F.Y.R." (Fifty Years of Ridicule) doesn't just call modern-day feminists to action, it sums up the pattern of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna's career: "We tell the truth/they turn up the laugh track."
"As feminists, we're constantly being asked, 'Is feminism still important?' That's such an insulting question in a country where domestic violence is at an all-time high along with rape and torture and hate crimes," she said recently. "It's really frustrating to be constantly told we're redundant. What we find redundant is violence and racism and the fact that we are in a totally advanced technological state where you can get a DVD player the size of your hand, but they can't get voting booths that work."
Starting in the early '90s, when Hanna fronted the feminist noise band Bikini Kill, she has been rock's most consistent subversive, a role dogging her with unwelcome controversy. Bikini Kill was dragged into Nirvana lore after it was reported Kurt Cobain became inspired to write the megahit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" after Hanna, in the days when both bands lived in Olympia, Wa., spray painted the phrase on his apartment wall.
But in underground circles, Hanna is best known for being at the forefront of "riot grrrl," a phrase Bikini Kill drummer Toby Vail - and a brief Cobain girlfriend - first coined in a rock fanzine describing the new face of punk-rock feminism. Riot girl included bands like Bratmobile, L7, the Slits and Heavens to Betsy that articulated a new generation's denial of corporate culture by spitting in its face. Bands refused interviews, taunted the status quo in their music and backed it with a fury of volume.
But there was a price paid. Hanna ended up a target of the mainstream press and - in the ultimate irony - riot girl's message of empowerment became co-opted in the late '90s by big corporate- rock phenomenons, from Lilith Fair to the Spice Girls.
"It was just really hard," Hanna said. "I was really young and idealistic. I would get burned so often and I would see how bad the media lies. There was a flurry of activity around the band and people would try to get us to put other women down a lot and misconstrue things we said. I was 23 and would start crying and get really upset."
So how does a riot girl rebound? In 1998, Hanna released an album under the alter ego Julie Ruin and followed it up with Le Tigre, a more dance-oriented band that backed its feminist screeds with fast-flung techno breakbeats. But on its 1999 debut - and its recently released second album, "Feminist Sweepstakes" (Mr. Lady Records) -Hanna and company also adopted the humor and infectious pop teamwork of early girl groups from the Shirelles to the Go-Go's with its singalong lyrics and hip-shaking beats. …