2
Feb 01

Say Something Else

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Me, Le Tigre and the Internet Backlash 

Kathleen Hanna has an idea. She sings it thoughtfully, like she’s still rolling it over in her head, like it’s still no more than half a hunch. “It seems so eighties / or early nineties / to be political / where are my friends?”. The next quarter-second is the gap between thinking of something and committing to it – and then: “GET OFF THE INTERNET! I’LL MEET YOU IN THE STREET!”

Le Tigre’s new From The Desk Of Mr Lady EP kicks off with “Get Off The Internet”, another spiky disco-garage (not that garage, silly) fusion, just like the ones that made their album so tough and so good. It came out in January 2001 and I would call its timing brilliant. The predicted commercial backlash against the Internet – the ‘correction’ of an inflamed market which saw 50,000-plus jobs vanish in the USA last year – has spread fast, chiming with the wider culture on- and off-line. The amount of time Americans are spending online has started to slide, and saying you work at a ‘dotcom’ leads to worried looks from relatives: meanwhile the newspapers rustle and whisper “recession, recession” and the music mags smack their lips, only half in irony, at the thought of hard times coming.

The sneaking feeling that the Internet is a greyer and lonelier place to be, or at the very least that there might be better things we could do with our time, infected online culture too. Two months ago I thought maybe one of the people whose sites I read regularly was planning to write a book – now I can name five or six who are, easily. That’s a good thing – but it’s telling that these people aren’t seeing online projects as the way to channel their creativity any more. For me the disillusionment hit in November and kept growing – of course the Internet was a magnificent way for anyone to say anything they wanted, but what was being said? I’m not pretending I was the first or even the millionth person to start thinking along those lines, of course, but when doubt hits, it hits hard. There seemed to be so much potential, so much spirit, online, and so little will to turn that spirit into anything which could materially improve the offline world.

Obviously, I was and am part of the problem. The parts of the web in which I move – personal sites and music criticism – are good for hand-wringing articles like this one, for making lonely people feel less so and for telling you about a few good records. Two out of three of these are worthy goals, but for all the web veteran’s typical sneering at e-commerce, the potential it offers for the elderly or housebound, say, to buy groceries and books and medicine is more useful than anything anybody will ever write in a weblog. I personally have done nothing in two years online to make anyone’s life comparably better.

In one of those elegant coincidences popular historians adore, the jokey ‘Bloggie’ awards for weblogs were given out on the day before news broke that pyra.com, the company which provided the ‘Blogger’ service upon which maybe two-thirds of weblogs depend, had run out of money. The much-vaunted ‘weblog community’ reached a peak of self-celebration – or self-disgust, for those who hated the idea of the awards – and then found itself suddenly confronted with the realities of a market in freefall and a social and economic system in which ‘self-expression’ is a synonym for ‘money-loser’. “It feels like the end of an era” noted Salon Magazine, correctly – and fittingly, the era ended with eloquent and emotional essays by Pyra’s founders and staff, themselves webloggers.

I know what you’ve been thinking, of course: “Why should we judge online achievements by the offline improvements they effect? Why should ‘usefulness’ be a criteria for anything?”. And I agree with you – a vast part of me does. But I don’t know whether that’s the part I should be listening to, because the other part of me is saying that while uselessness and beauty and abstraction and frivolity are wonderful things, they are considerably more wonderful as part of a world that is as just as we can make it.

All of which wheels us back to Le Tigre, whose record I have been listening to unceasingly since mid-January. This being the 00s, irony piles upon irony: I downloaded the track from Napster, I am writing about it on the web, and what is more this lashing song is the first pop record about the Internet to have ever remotely convinced me. Needless to say it has not ‘done the rounds’ of the ‘net community in the way Barcelona’s synthpop novelty, “I Have The Password To Your Shell Account”, did last year. The Le Tigre track suggests things about the Internet and the culture it interlocks with that the ‘net community may be uncomfortable with. The net community might respond that they are ‘bored with’ these things, which these days tends to mean the same thing.

The point Kathleen Hanna is making is that a combination of fashion and lack of will have pushed politics off the agenda of traditionally liberal individuals (musicians, young people), leading to a situation where the politicians who still are able to muster some energy – the right wing, as it turns out – have the country almost literally handed to them. Judging by her invocation of the street, she’s not a supporter of oppositional party politics, but the sort of grass-roots, group action which a lot of people online pay lip service to. (How many times have I seen No Logo recommended on web pages? Maybe thirty, mine included. And how many times have I read first-person accounts of grass-roots action on web pages? Maybe three, mine not.)

Hanna’s suggestion – and a suggestion, one hurled chorus line, is all it is – is that the Internet is complicit in this loss of will. Why might she think this? Because the community of the Internet allows physical and social bonds to atrophy in favour of distanced emotional and intellectual bonds. Because the culture of the Internet then becomes one of discussion rather than action. Because the mechanics of the Internet – screens and mouse clicks – favour novelty and the reduction of information to tiny chunks, meaning even the discussions reach conclusions painfully rarely.

There are exceptions, of course. But I think if that’s what she means, Hanna is right. She is also, of course, leaving a hell of a lot out.

The late 1990s were the decade where I fell half in love with America, and the Internet was a big part of that: after spending my teens bleak and horrorstruck at how untalented most of the people I was meeting were and how lazy I was, it was beautiful and inspiring to find people online getting off their arses and writing, writing, writing about the stuff they cared about. Most of them weren’t great writers, but they were getting better; some had the seeds of something amazing; all of them were at least doing it. So I did, too. America turned for me from a stereotype into a place where people my age were creating fantastic things. This is the story of the Internet, of course, the story every ‘web community’ from Geocities to Blogger rests itself on – you can do it! And yes, you can do it. But the story doesn’t end there – the question which the web communities don’t ask, the only question worth asking really, is: what do you do next?

Kathleen Hanna asked that question when she helped found Le Tigre, and she’s asking it in the song she’s singing, the one that I’m listening to at a time when a lot of people online are finding themselves forced to ask it. I’ve been asking it myself for a while: I’m writing this article to try and maybe convince myself to answer it, and soon.

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