New York Stories: Johanna Fateman

A founder of the punk band Le Tigre battles Giuliani and New York’s new “luxury.”

Mario Tama / Getty Images

We didn’t have a practice space yet. And maybe Le Tigre wasn’t even officially a band at that point, but Kathleen [Hanna] and I were writing songs anyway. It was summertime and noisy in her apartment with the windows open, traffic from the busy avenue floating up, and the bar beneath us getting ready to open. We sat on the floor with our second-hand Ensoniq Mirage keyboard sampler and lifted a couple of bars of an organ riff from an old record. We assigned it to a key on the bottom half of the keyboard and made a warped loop that only rushed a little. Then we found a realistic piano sample on one of the battered floppy disks that came with the Mirage, and loaded it to the upper keys for the unrelenting quarter-note parts that give our song “My My Metrocard” its jangly drive.

That song – which wound up on the first, self-titled Le Tigre album, released in late 1999 – is an ode to New York. The chorus is just the song title repeated in a messy gang vocal because, for us, that said it all: an unlimited-ride MetroCard represented the autonomy and sense of possibility we felt in our new city. Though I’d actually been here for a couple of years attending art school, Kathleen had more recently arrived (from Olympia, Washington, by way of Durham, North Carolina) in the wake of her band Bikini Kill’s breakup. Being artists together in New York was a new chapter in our friendship, and Le Tigre was our phoenix rising from the ashes of riot grrrl.

Le Tigre - My My Metrocard

Our feminist punk scene had fallen apart in a blaze of ’90s-style, hallucinatory identity politicking... or maybe it got defanged by The Spice Girls and imploded under the dull scrutiny of mainstream journalists. It doesn’t really matter. The point is we had new hope and energy, and we’d gotten our hands on some cheap electronics. Our samplers were outdated garbage even back then, low resolution and unreliable, but from a practical, home-recording standpoint they gave us a way to assemble songs in our apartments. And from a conceptual standpoint, our conscious ineptitude with the technology expressed our girl-punk scorn for that particular strain of male expertise associated with electronic music. Also, our pop piracy placed us in a lineage (at least in our heads) with the ’80s artists we revered, appropriationists like author Kathy Acker, photographer Sherrie Levine and the hip-hop group Public Enemy. PE paired the best sample-based production ever with revolutionary lyrics and that was our plan, too: blunt messages of insurgency embedded in a party vibe.

That was our plan: blunt messages of insurgency embedded in a party vibe.

To start the second verse of “My My Metrocard,” Sadie Benning and I yell, “Oh fuck!” (Sadie was in Le Tigre with us for the first year) and Kathleen sing-answers, “Giuliani.” The next line, “He’s such a fucking jerk,” also a call-and-response, summarizes our view of the diabolical mayor who ruled over our beloved city from 1994 to 2001. I recently read a memoir that discusses local radical activism from that era. The author singles out our Giuliani-is-a-jerk lyric as kind of cool – but also kind of corny. Yeah, I mean, that’s fair. While I wouldn’t say we wanted to be corny, we were willing to risk it for the sake of a heartfelt political statement. We thought it was important to be sincere, direct and even didactic when all around us, in so-called hipster culture, lackadaisical irony had supplanted real critique. We rebelled against the post-political fugue state we detected. So even in that song, a kind of love song, we invoked the ugly backdrop of our New York adventures: Giuliani’s campaign against what he called “quality of life” crimes.

His iconic first move was the crackdown on the squeegee guys who cleaned car windows at traffic stops for spare change. Since there was no law against washing windshields, Giuliani had them arrested for jaywalking. People who weren’t lucky enough to possess MetroCards – turnstile-jumping kids, often – were arrested if they couldn’t produce identification. They might spend a night in jail. Sex workers, the homeless and young people hanging out in public were persistent targets in the mayor’s mission to remove from the city streets all irritants to respectable people.

Le Tigre – Bang! Bang!

When we wrote the song “Bang! Bang!” in 2000, we weren’t using that crazy Mirage sampler anymore. With an Akai MPC60 we programmed shorter samples into slightly more sophisticated beats. The MPC had drum pads and more memory, so we were free from the headache of syncing our flawed loops to an external drum machine. I remember how luxurious it felt to have my own curated drum kit, plus a bass note, a trumpet sound, and a siren all loaded at once. But however happy we were about this new way of working, that song emerged from total rage. We wrote it shortly after the four white police officers that killed Amadou Diallo the previous year were acquitted of all charges.

The plainclothes cops had fired 41 shots at the unarmed Diallo, a West African immigrant, as he retreated from his stoop into the vestibule of his apartment building in the Bronx. Daily protests and high-profile civil disobedience arrests outside of City Hall followed the murder, and the acquittal triggered another wave of organized outrage. But Giuliani was disdainful of our grievances, and indignant at what he deemed bigoted anti-cop rhetoric among some of the thousands of protesters.

At peak venom, she mocks the mayor’s imperiousness with her own, shouting, “Bring me Giuliani’s head!”

A year later, Patrick Dorismond was also killed by a cop. Plainclothes police approached him outside a nightclub to buy weed. Not a drug dealer, he was insulted, and there was a fight. He became the fourth unarmed black man to be killed by the NYPD in 13 months. But Giuliani didn’t offer the family his condolences; instead, he dug up Dorismond’s police record and cast him as a violent-tempered troublemaker (though he’d never been convicted of a crime). In contrast, the mayor defended the cop who killed Dorismond as a “distinguished undercover officer” – in other words, a heroic vigilante who did society a favor.

“Bang! Bang!” opens with a newscaster’s report of Dorismond’s killing and closes with a count to 41, yelled by a crowd of our friends whom we had brought into the studio. We wanted to bring the feeling of a real protest into the song, and to underscore the public outrage—it wasn’t ours alone – at the tragic, absurd excess of lethal force used against Diallo that night. Kathleen sings the rest of the song angrily, yelling over a somber beat for the verse and a chaotic one for the chorus. At peak venom, she mocks the mayor’s imperiousness with her own, shouting, “Bring me Giuliani’s head!”

The mayor was the perfect nemesis, an arrogant fucker who enraged us not only with his cruel policies and despicable cronyism, but also with every snide word and smug gesture. Every photograph of his face pissed us off. And today, even though we’re spared his cartoon-like malevolence in regular mayoral press conferences, the programs he enacted are mostly still in place. His campaign against visible poverty, and the NYPD’s harassment of black and brown people – through its pervasive practice of stop-and-frisk, for example – have continued under Bloomberg. It’s all normal now. The civil rights trade-off is just a part of the post-9/11 reality, and the comforts of living in a broadly gentrified city are well worth it – depending on who you ask.

Le Tigre - New Kicks

Le Tigre persevered as a band for a few more years after Giuliani’s reign ended, and the focus of our activism changed as the US war on Iraq began. We had put our eight-track recorders and MPCs away by then and used Pro Tools software to cut up audio. We constructed the track “New Kicks” out of our field recordings of speeches and chants from the massive antiwar protest in Manhattan on February 15, 2003. There was a futility to the march that day; we knew the war was imminent, but it was one of our proudest moments as New Yorkers to see the turnout exceed all expectations. Protestors flooded the streets, shutting down a 20-block stretch of the city across three avenues as the police watched, helpless to contain the peaceful crowd.

“New Kicks” is on our final album This Island (Le Tigre stopped touring and releasing new music in 2005) but, of course, local activism hasn’t stopped. Community groups continue to demand the end to racist policing; the Occupy movement exposed the banks’ corruption of the political system; and just this morning (April 4, 2013) I woke to read that fast-food workers across the five boroughs have walked off the job. Referring to the disgracefully low minimum wage, workers picketing outside a McDonald’s in my neighborhood were chanting, “You can’t survive! On $7.25!” It’s so true, and I couldn’t help but think that would make a great chorus. Though my band never expected, or wanted, our music to take the place of activism or political agitation in the streets, we had this idea that “protest music” could be music that let protest spill into it. We brought it in via sampling, but it also came naturally because we made music the way we lived and the way we talked – as feminists committed to everyday resistance.

After all, you know, Giuliani was a fucking jerk, and I’m glad we have a record of that.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.

By Johanna Fateman on May 27, 2013

On a different note