22 February 2007

Twilight Of The Donnas?

I've never been in a band that threatened to be the next big anything, so I suppose I should consider it a blessing that I also never had to be the subject of those "Whatever happened to...?" articles that get written about bands that might appear to be past their sell-by date. Like this one, for example, where the Bay Guardian tries to put as positive a spin as possible on the Donnas having been either dropped by or voluntarily left Atlantic Records (I will say that I've never heard of a major label allowing an under-contract band to leave if they thought there was any money to be made from them) and, after several years of playing arenas, being back to venues like San Francisco's 300-capacity Bottom Of The Hill.

It sounds like a sad story, though to be fair, the Donnas did have a pretty good run there, getting a chance to live out far more of a rock and roll dream that most of us ever get to witness close up, let alone be at the centre of. Personally I've never been a big fan of the Donnas' music, not because there's anything wrong with it - they're prodigiously talented musicians, and have worked incredibly hard for many years to achieve the success that they got - but because it's just not really my cup of tea. Too much rock and not enough punk would be the simplest way of putting it, I guess, but I will say that I liked them a lot better earlier in their career. Not, as it's popular among purists to say, in their pre-Lookout days, because I'm not even very familiar with their material from that time, but I thought their first couple records for Lookout showed promise.

People often ask me about the Donnas, assuming that I signed them to Lookout, but of course I didn't; they were brought to the label by the then-husband-and-wife team of Christopher Appelgren and Molly Neuman, somewhere around the time I was getting ready to leave the label (no connection, I assure you!). Would I have signed the Donnas myself? Probably not, but not because I didn't think they were good enough, just that I made it a general policy not to work with bands, no matter how great their potential to be popular, if their music wasn't something I could get fully enthusiastic about. Bands and managers were forever approaching me with charts and statistics telling me how many records they were sure to sell and/or that they sounded "just like" Green Day or Operation Ivy or Screeching Weasel, and I was forever knocking them back because if I couldn't a) enjoy working with the people involved on a personal level and b) genuinely love the music, it just wasn't worth it to me.

As far as getting along with the Donnas, I only met them once - no, not true, I met them two or three times, but only hung out with them once - and found them charming, pleasant, and fully committed to their music and the label, so (a) wouldn't have been a problem. But (b) would have been, and I've often wondered why, because many of my friends like or even love the Donnas' music. But then a lot of the same friends love Joan Jett and/or the Runaways, and I've never really got into them, either. My take on this, simplistic as it may be, is that the harder the Donnas tried to "rock" (perhaps I should render that as the corny and clichéd "rawk"), the less effective they got.

I've often explained this to those who asked as seeming as though the Donnas were trying to prove that they could rock out just like the boys (or better than the boys, for that matter), and while that's not an unworthy goal in itself, I feel it stopped them from reaching their full potential. I'd contrast them with my favourite all-girl band of all time, the Go-Gos, but the same principle would hold true for a couple other great but less commercially successful all-female outfits like Tiger Trap or Frightwig: although these latter groups couldn't have been unaware that by virtue of being all women they were an oddity in the male-dominated world of rock, they didn't bother making that an issue. They simply played their own music to the best of their ability, expressing themselves not in opposition or reaction to any kind of pre-existing dynamic or male-dominance paradigm, but as the unique human beings and artists they were. There's never been another band like the Go-Gos (or Tiger Trap or Frightwig), and this can't help partially being an expression of their female-ness, but far more importantly, it's an expression of their musician-ness and and their artist-ness.

Now the Donnas may be techically more adept than any of the aforementioned groups (though I find it hard to believe that anybody could be much better than the Go-Gos), but it always felt as though they were letting themselves be driven (in the sense of reacting to/against the male rock dynamic) too much by outside forces to fully be themselves. Or maybe it's that the specific male dynamic they were reacting to - the bombastic, butt-rock, shagging-groupies genre of rock-metal - is to me a largely worthless and uninteresting social phenomenon, certainly not one worth reacting to except to diss and ridicule it. Unfortunately, the Donnas seemed to want to emulate it, not just in their music and lyrics, but in their interviews, where they seemed to want to portray themselves as sexual predators every bit as voracious as the frat-boys-in-leather-trousers who've been dished up to us as rock idols ever since the 1970s and 80s.

It never rang true with me, either; unless I was completely hornswoggled by the Donnas' manner on the occasion I hung out with them, they weren't like that at all in real life. True, they did insist on being taken to Vancouver's rather tame version of Hooters, mainly because two of them weren't yet 21 and thus couldn't get inside an American one, but nonetheless they came across as anything but the sex and party monsters they seem bent on portraying themselves as in the media. In fact they talked mostly - in very demure terms, too - about their various boyfriends and fiancés. So I always had a problem reconciling their onstage and on-record personas with what I knew of them - or at least thought I knew - in real life. And while that sort of dichotomy or image-mongering may be quite common with mainstream bands, I've always had a problem with it when it reared its head on the punk rock scene.

Anyway, the article says that despite having left their label, the Donnas are moving ahead with making a new record, and maybe they'll surprise me with this one. Especially now that the pressure to deliver a big major-label-style hit is off, they might be able to get back to basics and make the kind of music that made them want to play rock and roll in the first place. Of course if it was always their goal to be the female equivalent of 70s butt-rockers or 80s hair-metal, I'm afraid I can't offer them much encouragement or advice, because I never understood or felt at home in those worlds. If I were their manager or producer (and I imagine they're thanking their lucky stars I'm not), I'd be urging them to think more Ramones, more Go-Gos, more Spazzys. But girls have to do what girls have to do, and despite my reservations and regrets about the way things have gone so far, I wish them all the best.


Amy said...

This might be my favorite post you've ever written. I'm not a big fan of the Donnas' music. My problem with them is the exact same problem I have with the majority of all girl or female fronted groups. The girls always seem like they're trying too hard or trying to prove something. It irritates the hell out of me.

I'm a huge fan of the Go-Go's too. They're one of the few girl groups that I actually like. They might be the only ones now that I think about it. They just played the music for what it was and I never feel like I'm having any female bullshit shoved down my throat when I listen to it. They don't try to over do it with the vocals or cop retarded attitudes to show how tough they are, which is exactly what I see in a lot of female musicians.

My friends always tell me that I'm hard on female musicians because I'm in a band but that's really not it. I don't even feel like I'm being hard on them. In my opinion, there are just way more guys out there that are doing a much better job. I'm not trying to hold anyone against what I think of my own abilities or anything like that. I hold female artists to the same standards that I hold males to and unfortunately, the females rarely cut it for me. It's like they're so focused on being a girl and proving that they can do everything the guys can do that they forget what's really important. That being the song writing. It's like, I don't care that you can sing and play an instrument and get drunk and go through millions of relationships...just write a decent song and I'll be happy.

Getting back to the Donnas, there are reasons beyond their mediocre music for me not to like them. I don't like how Lookout (Molly Neuman) seemed to put all its other artists on the back burner when the Donnas came along. It even continued after they went to a major label. I remember seeing an ad for new releases on Lookout after the Donnas switched to a major. The ad mentioned the Donnas' new album (their first major label one) and then mentioned the "other Lookout bands" in small print at the bottom. That's all it said. It didn't even list the other releases. I don't know but I just kind of think that's some bullshit. I've always liked a lot of the bands that were on Lookout and I thought that was a shitty thing to do to them. Oh, and you weren't with Lookout anymore, so I'm not blaming you or anything. I'm just bitching about it.

So, there's my rant. Sorry it's so long.

Dave said...

Amy, you sound like someone who has yet to experience the joy of Thug Murder. Best all-girl punk band I've ever heard.

Nicely put, Larry. I'm as unamazed by the Donnas as you are, for mostly the same reasons.

Amy said...

I'll have to check 'em out. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Alas, my one chance to get namedropped in your blog and I was entirely overlooked!


crystal said...

one could argue that there are several bands like tiger trap that put out records. cub and heavenly just to name two.

Larry Livermore said...

I was a big fan of both cub and Heavenly, which is maybe why (after listening to them so much for so many years) I don't see that much similarity to Tiger Trap.

Granted, I always used to say that Heavenly and Tiger Trap had one thing in common, in that their lead singers possessed the two most beautiful voices in their respective hemispheres in the persons of Rose Melberg and Amelia Fletcher. But apart from that, Heavenly were two boys and two girls, so hardly a "girl" band anyway, and were definitely less punky and rocky than TT. cub were a great band, and an all-girl band, but their best stuff (the first record and a half, in my opinion) was far more indie and cute than Tiger Trap.

But yeah, I could have cited cub as an example of an all-girl band that had its own unique sound and didn't try to rock out "just like the boys," except that unfortunately in their latter work they did fall victim to a bit of Donna-itis (though I alway suspected it was more a result of touring with and being married to one of the Muffs (no, not all three of them, just Lisa M!) that spurred cub in that direction. The results, sadly, were terminal.

crystal said...

that's weird! i swear that i typed "go sailor" instead of cub. but there it is, in plain sight. i stand by both though, even if my mind is going.

and i love the go-gos, cub, heavenly and go sailor so we agree! and i dislike many girls in rock n roll for the same reasons you wrote about here. interesting.

Larry Livermore said...

But Go Sailor (who I also enjoy a lot) are also a mixed band (two girls and a boy). That might be a minor detail, like the boy drummer Bikini Kill had, except that in Go Sailor the boy in question (Paul Curran) contributed a great deal to the artistic and aesthetic content of the band.

crystal! said...

i guess i think that a band can be "like tiger trap" without being an all girl band. i think i missed a big point you were trying to make. sorry!

Recovering Donnaholic said...

Here's something that may be evidence that the so-called parting of ways between The Donnas and Atlantic Records was not what the band try to portray it as. Last May, they posted on their public message board (which has since had the plug pulled on it) an announcement (the contents of which can be read here) that they were leaving Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, they took a trip with Molly Neuman to London and Madrid for no apparent reason. Considering those are two cities that Molly likes to visit, I suspect the trip was a gift from her to the band to try to cheer them up.