Girls Gone Wild 

The Donnas invade the malls of America.

Recently, I found myself in a mall and wandering into a trendy, dimly lit clothing store called Hollister Co. I'd never heard of it before, but it seemed to be an Abercrombie & Fitch with better stitching and less pornography. Standing among the fake palm trees and the racks of synthetically aged T-shirts, I saw at the register several CDs the target-marketers had deemed "cool" for perfect-bodied teens: the dude-rock of Audioslave and Pearl Jam, the sensitive-guy emo of Jimmy Eat World, and the parent-friendly punk of Good Charlotte and Something Corporate. But there was one surprising inclusion: Spend the Night, the fourth album from the Bay Areabased Donnas and the only females represented in the Hollister music selection.

In that bastion of middle-class premasculinity were four young women who played loud, audacious pop-punk specifically for women. Looking out from the '70s suburban bedroom (complete with sad-kitty picture) on the album's cover, the Donnas seem to beam with happy mischievousness -- a stark contrast to the oh-so-serious stance and expression of all the other (male) bands.

This newfound, major-label popularity is long in coming. The Donnas formed in 1993 as Ragady Anne and played high school battles of the bands before releasing three albums on indie Lookout! Records under their current moniker. From the beginning, they've been devotees of sounds and styles popular before they were even born and have proved prophetic of the current garage-rock minitrend: musicians taking similar stage names (Hives, Datsuns), women taking a more prominent place (Meg White, Sahara Hotnights), and bands reviving the three-chords principle (Hives, Strokes). Not that girl groups are anything new or that the Donnas are all that sonically innovative -- the Runaways, the Go-Go's, and even Sleater-Kinney have walked this avenue -- but perseverance has made them industry veterans, outlasting scores of similar bands that had more industry buzz and record-company dollars behind them.

Just as their sound and style are nostalgic for a time when three chords and attitude was all rock-and-roll required, the Donnas are reminiscent of a pre-PC moment when sexual predators rocked out to great applause. Then, of course, the musicians playing those three chords and the people rocking that sexist attitude generally were men. The Donnas take that strange misogyny -- which has since seeped into "modern rock" -- and reverse it. In their songs, they play the aggressors on the prowl, and men become disposable eye candy, there to be used, abused, and confused.

While those other Hollister acts peddle predictable PC posturing, a snot-nosed punk sensibility, or even outright misogyny, the Donnas are daringly predatory in their sexuality, shameless to showcase their promiscuity and their use-'em-and-lose-'em attitude toward the opposite sex. On the single "Take It Off" Donna A. (Brett Anderson) boasts, "I'm on my second drink/But I've had a few before," then drunkenly demands her male companion live up to the song's title: "I'm tryin' hard to think/And I think that I want you on the floor." Meanwhile, Donnas C., F., and R. (Torry Castellana, Maya Ford, and Allison Robertson, respectively) blast loud guitar rock like the Ramones' dream dates. Such is a typical Donnas song: heavy with searing riffs, highly quotable lyrics, and righteous attitude.

Part of the fun is that the Donnas have impossibly high standards. Style and physique are important, but the Donnas find the men who haunt their scene too scruffy and conformist. They dismiss the guy in "Dirty Denim" for his prefab hipster fashion: "Your pants are slung way too low/I see stuff I don't wanna know/I wonder why you're so moody/Is it 'cause you ain't got no booty?" And on "Not the One," Donna A. sneers, "You were hot 'til you took off your shirt/So skinny, babe, it makes my eyes hurt."

Fortunately, the Donnas are neither self-conscious nor academic in their feminist reappropriation of a traditionally phallocentric medium. Above all else, their music is designed to be -- and is -- fun. On Spend the Night, they're loud, brash, funny, smart, wild, and witty. (Rhyming Tennessee with Hennessy is a nice touch, and attributable to any of the aforementioned adjectives.) And, while they are throwbacks to a long-gone era, they aren't cheaply nostalgic or ironic. In fact, they can't be: If they were a joke band, the joke wouldn't be funny, as it would reduce them to objects -- nothing more than cartoon dominatrices in skintight jeans, pin-ups for guys with a fetish for girls with guitars.

Instead, the Donnas present themselves as four normal young women in complete control of their lives, their bodies, their sexuality, and their blood-alcohol content. Even when they cut loose and go wild, control is still theirs to lose. At a time when stores are sexualizing the joy out of youth with preteen thongs and absurdly tight baby-T's, the Donnas seem like role models. I can't think of a more heartening sight at the mall than Spend the Night on sale.

The Donnas

with OK Go

The New Daisy Theatre

Wednesday, April 16th

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