This Island is a Sapphic Utopia!
Finally, it’s here. No, not the long awaited follow up to Le Tigre’s Feminist Sweepstakes. Nor the first sounds of the predictable whining of long-time fans eager to label their beloved Le Tigre as “sell-outs”. Rather, the most longed for moment of all, the moment we have been promised since “Free to Be You and Me”, has arrived. With the debut of This Island, Le Tigre has made it possible for queer and straight folk to come together, lift up their hands in unison, and shake their booties on the dance floor. Reprising their past work with raw fuzz guitars, hot beats, punked out melodies, and fierce feminist lyrics, their latest release adds a professional gloss and a disco flavor to righteous riot grrrl rock. Some will call it mainstream, others sold out, but I dare anyone to call it sexless, heartless or apolitical. With this repertoire of dance-floor seductions, Le Tigre may finally break into the hearts and minds of mass culture mavens, bringing closet queers into the spotlight and feminist politics to mass media. Even for the doggedly apolitical, the album is a musical feast, treating ravers and rockers to even doses of heavy techno hooks and raucous punk swagger.
Divorcing Le Tigre’s music from their politics would be antithetical to the very liberationist concept for which the band has made themselves the poster child, but music reviews being what they are, I will try to tuck my politics away for a bit and focus on form over content. All caveats aside, Le Tigre’s latest release is pure, unadulterated aural pleasure. This Island is a delectable buffet of new wave dance pop synthesized atom smashing vamped up rock and roll. Like the floral corsages they sport on the album’s cover, they wear their musical influences with pride, adding just a dash of class. On “Tell You Now” Ric Ocasek’s cameo appearance taps a bit of the classic Cars sound, with catchy pop melodies, romantic lyrics, and raw ultramodern synths. On the more pepped up full throttle songs, Le Tigre blends a little of the Go-Gos’ shout out vocal style and party girl attitude with the poetry of queer identity politics, as on “TKO” and an unforgettable cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”. Elsewhere on the album the vocals recall the emotive growl of Patti Smith’s deadpan poet-songstress persona, not to mention the screamo style of Kathleen Hanna’s own Bikini Kill.
The many musical faces of Le Tigre draw out their focus on identity politics by defying essentialist constructs of genre and gender. They successfully mitigate a minefield of pop music clichés, cleverly weaving together hip-hop beats and samples, sparkling electronica timbres, slick new wave synths, and the great triumvirate of the personal, the political and the power chord. Keenly rejecting both the sweet innocent female singer songwriter stereotype and the trope of the bad-girl misanthrope, the women of Le Tigre exhibit a chameleon-like ability to morph their voices from a feminine whisper to a snarling wail, exploiting every vocal nuance in between. The anthemic rocker “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo” quips and quakes with humor and energy, while the trip hop track “Sixteen” crafts a seductive ballad with a slowed down and sweetened up flavor. With “New Kicks” the band kicks it old school with a nod to political and musical influence Public Enemy. This song is a masterful use of sampling with sound clips taken from the 2003 anti-war protest in New York City carefully looped over hot beats and hardcore guitars to turn the voices of the People into a lyrical song of protest. More than an innovative work of art, the song is an important anthem of solidarity and a poetic call for peace. These complex and spirited songs clearly reflect the honest, authentic and democratic spirit of the band and the creativity of each of its members.
Given Le Tigre’s emphasis on positing authentic private identities in the public realm, the label of “sell out” tends to chafe more than usual. Although more often than not a major label release from an indie band does signifying a stultifying cooptation by the world of corporate entertainment, for once it appears this accusation is totally unfounded. Le Tigre found a home on Strummer/Universal only after the collapse of the feminist label Mr. Lady, and they are in the process of organizing their own Le Tigre label. The elitism of the new glossy sound, grace a ProTools, is not so much “selling out” as buying into better technology, an overtly democratic attempt at widening their listenership. After all, isn’t it about time radical feminists allowed themselves to quit preaching to the choir by confining their message to opaque and unapproachable art? These anthems to feminine, butch, queer, everybody liberation simultaneously critique dominant heteropatriarcal discourse and offer the possibility of escaping it through the bacchanalian disco, and perhaps even the everyday carnival of mainstream radio and music television. Perhaps “sell out” is better understood as a means of articulating a sense of aesthetic disappointment with Le Tigre’s cleaned up sound, but apolitical and inauthentic are two adjectives that simply do not apply to This Island. Smart and sexy, political and provocative, Le Tigre is the best and brightest of feminist rock.