The Music And The Message: How Le Tigre Paved The Way For Today’s Artistic Activism

A band both of their time and before their time, Le Tigre blended art, punk, and politics with dancefloor electropop, all in service of reminding the world that it’s okay to be angry and joyful at the same time. The group also unknowingly provided a pretty solid model for the next 20-odd years of queer and feminist indie acts.

Founded in 1998 in New York, Le Tigre was initially composed of Johanna Fateman, visual artist Sadie Benning, and former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who’d just come off creating solo material for her pseudonymous project, Julie Ruin. Frustrated about her inability to perform solo cuts live, Hanna sought Fateman, who she’d once lived with in Portland, and Benning, who she’d made a music video with in Chicago. The trio began sharing tapes of demos through the mail (Benning was still in Chicago, while Fateman and Hanna were in New York), picked a band name, and Le Tigre was born.

When it was released in October of 1999, Le Tigre’s self-titled debut set the punk world on its ear. Using its tight 34-minute run time to do everything from calling Rudy Giuliani a “f*cking jerk” to schooling the world about dot-happy artist Yayoi Kusama long before her aesthetic became Instagram candy, Le Tigre acted as the perfect fusion of music and message for so many listeners.

Though social activism through music is hardly an unheard of concept, Le Tigre’s danceable quest for justice has throughlines to tons of recent bands like The Linda Lindas, who wore Bikini Kill shirts during their viral performance in an LA library, and Lil Nas X, who has been so wildly successful with tracks like “Montero” and “Industry Baby” that it’s easy to forget that his very presence in the rap scene could have been viewed as a novelty mere years before.

Much of Le Tigre also identified as queer, and its music was a reflection of that. Tracks like “Hot Topic” shouted out queer icons like Vaginal Creme Davis and Billie Jean King, while “Viz” was Samson’s ode to lesbian visibility. The group also took queer openers out on tour, like Seth Bogart’s then-band Panty Raid or old Portland buddies The Need. It can be hard for Gen Z to imagine, but at the turn of the 21st century, there were precious few spaces for outspoken queer art, or even just queer joy.

Le Tigre also inspired conversation. On “What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes,” Le Tigre uses lyrics to debate the issue of art vs. artist, wondering if notorious actor/director John Cassavetes is a misogynist or a genius, a messiah or an alcoholic. Though the song was recorded over 20 years ago and reflected a chat that had been happening in feminist circles and women’s studies classes for about as long, it foretold a discussion that, today, we find ourselves having almost daily as we struggle to reckon with our once enthusiastic love of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, or the TV series Louie.

That’s not even considering the countless debates we’ve had and acted on involving less well-known performers and businesses. When SoCal punk label Burger Records faced accusations of sexual abuse by its artists and management, fans quickly turned their backs, saying they wouldn’t support a place where women were maligned, hurt, and discriminated against. Bands like SWMRS, The Growlers, and The Buttertones have all faced assault and abuse allegations themselves, leading to whole scenes of musicians banding together to call out creeps who will no longer get a pass, a record sale, or even a show (There’s even a TikTok movement). The music business is at least trying to move forward into a more righteous era like the one Le Tigre envisioned.

Le Tigre also moved punk and indie rock further into the art world. Though music and art have long been fairly cozy bedfellows, Le Tigre added dimension to what smaller club bands could do at live shows, often running quirky visuals behind them as they performed. Part of this push forward could have been due to technology — projectors, quality camcorders, and editing software were becoming more widely available at the time — but the band used art even before it could afford a video projector, enlisting then roadie Samson to project individual slides from the back of the room.

The group’s fusion of art and music didn’t come out of nowhere — Benning was and is still a very well-known artist, having exhibited at places like MOMA — but the group’s insistence that one could fuel the other or that both could fuel activism in tandem seemed like a novelty at the time. It’s the norm now, with acts as varied as Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Childish Gambino relying on an intense fusion of art and music to promote their visions for the future. Even smaller artists have gotten in on the act, with groups like Crumb, George Clanton, and Wand using outlandish or otherworldly visuals to take their live tracks to another level.

When it was announced late last year that Le Tigre was reuniting for This Ain’t No Picnic, a Goldenvoice festival coming to the LA area later this summer, skeptical viewers could have seen that announcement as a cash grab. Though they never technically broke up, Le Tigre haven’t played together in over a decade. Seeing as how Bikini Kill’s reunion tour sold-out dates across the country in 2019, it’s easy to understand how Hanna and co. could look at an offer and see big dollar signs.

What that supposition misses, though, is that Le Tigre remain as vital now as they have ever been. It’s sad, but tracks about female oppression, bodily autonomy, and the everyday microaggressions experienced by queer people, women, and minorities are as vital now as they were then. Audiences need to hear their frustrations voiced, and they need reminders that there can be a brighter tomorrow if we all work together. Bands like Le Tigre have helped fuel that fire, and those who have learned from them will be the ones to keep it burning.