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When it comes to turning pop music into activism, Kathleen Hanna is in a league of her own. Since founding Bikini Kill in the early '90s, the brashest and most fascinating of the riot grrrls has worked from the premise that art never exists in a vacuum. Equal parts meditation and viscera, thought and confrontation, her material is proof that artistic temperament, political engagement, and intellect are as relevant to punk's mission statement as righteous indignation. So, although her provocative rants first got people's attention, her cunning smarts are what keep her uncanny voice vital.
Indeed Hanna has continually evolved as both artist and social commentator. No longer as much of an in-your-face revolutionary, she now fights the good fight with a different set of strategies, as evidenced in the subversive play and heavy thought of her post¯Bikini Kill material. Le Tigre, which includes Hanna, 'zine publisher Johanna Fateman, and underground-video maker Sadie Benning, is like a radical women's collective that articulates difficult circumstances and their grave consequences through the most accessible of cultural media, the pop song. Putting into practice the aesthetic theories that Hanna postulated during her solo stint as Julie Ruin, Le Tigre sounds like the Go-Go's with advanced degrees, underground tastes, and an agenda.
Ranging from artsy-fartsy girl talk to tributes to feminist and lesbian heroes, Le Tigre's self-titled 1999 debut beams with such exuberance and self-assurance that it's easy to forget that the injustices against which the band struggles still predominate. The trio's new EP, From the Desk of Mr. Lady, exudes the same attitude, although now the opinions sound more urgent. Whereas Hanna glibly disses Rudy Giuliani as a "fucking jerk" on the earlier effort, this time around she denounces him with more serious charges, demanding his head on "Bang! Bang!" in the wake of the NYPD's racially motivated brutality. "There's no fucking way/This is not about race," she rails on the grrrlish punk number as sampled news reports provide confirmation (and backing vocals).
Hanna's agitprop pop works because she pays as much attention to form as she does to content. Set to brisk riffs and syncopated beats, "Get Off the Internet" shakes awake like-minded leftists, tying Web surfing to political apathy. "Yr. Critique" and "Mediocrity Rules" offer pithy observations on gender roles to the tune of grungy guitar and shuffling rhythm samples, while "Gone b4 Yr Home" toys with its uniqueness by giving a DIY take on Blondie-like disco. Despite its brevity, From the Desk might be Hanna's best-conceived and most artful work to date. Just don't expect it to be her last word on what's wrong with the world.