It's easy to get hung up on the Donnas. The six-year-old quartet of Palo Alto teen-agers are sweet and poppy like a warm gob of Bazooka Joe. They're ebullient like a garage band after five beers on payday. Their short and trashy rock 'n' roll songs are immediate, planted firmly in the present: Almost everything happens tonight. (And tonight is usually Friday or Saturday.) There are good songs on the radio, there's cheeba in the cigarette papers, there's a "shake in the action." The most urgent words in rock -- gimme, wanna, c'mon, c'mon -- figure into almost every song on both the band's new American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine and its vinyl-only 1997 self-titled album.
But last week at the Bottom of the Hill, the contradictions the group projected -- honest-to-god undergraduate-thesis kinds of contradictions -- were more interesting than the look, the rock, or, for that matter, the shtick. The Donnas -- who, inspired by the Ramones, each go by Donna and the first letter of their last names -- are milk-drinking vixens, slutty good-girls. Their nymphet sexuality, matching T-shirts, and scrubbed-blank-generation aesthetic suggest that the foursome understand base rock 'n' roll concepts of image and packaging. The Donnas, however, claim that they mean every word. At the Bottom of the Hill, they sang and played and postured like they meant it. Things didn't get much deeper than their song titles: "You Make Me Hot," "Outta My Mind," "Leather on Leather." The Donnas are often compared to the Runaways and the Ramones, with flashes of '70s and early '80s hair metal thrown in; the concise points of their brief tunes -- the 10 songs on American Teenage last all of 25 minutes -- come quickly; and the Donnas almost always deliver a bad-girl payoff ("I want some quick and easy satisfaction") by the time they reach the first chorus. And at their show, they covered AC/DC's "Shot Down in Flames" and Kiss axeman Ace Frehley's "Speedin' Back to My Baby" nearly note for note.
Wait. Ace Frehley? Sorry. Ace Frehley is a punch line. But no, the Donnas are not being ironic. If I can lapse into the language of addiction, the Donnas are irony enablers. They don't behave ironically; the audience does. The guys -- it's mostly guys -- at the show did just that. There were, of course, devil fists. I saw air guitar.
There are two ironic things about irony. One is that if you're not completely in command of the concept you end up looking, at best, like an insincere asshole, at worst, like a blundering idiot. (Alanis Morissette accomplished both in the power-alternative number "Ironic." Rain on a wedding day is not ironic, it's inconvenient.) The second ironic thing about irony is that if you really succeed, the audience can't trust you.
Don't get me wrong. I love irony. It makes O. Henry stories really sting, and I think it's truly fascinating that the appropriation of a subversive 19th-century French intellectual tradition can be used in the 1990s to sell Swatches.
But irony is over. The "Death of the Hippie" was announced in a 1967 cortege through the Haight. Twentysomethings were never organized enough to get a "Death of the Slacker" march together, but it probably should have happened one or two years ago, or sometime between the failure of Might magazine and whenever those Sprite anti-ads started running on TV. Culturally, hippies resonated in the mainstream for about five years, and on the fringes through today. That probably means we'll be getting more washed-out irony through the millennium, and there will be pockets of smirkers until about 2018.
Today, with a couple of brilliant exceptions (like Beck), the most exciting things in rock are irony-free. Folkie Elliott Smith's amazing three records succeed on absolute honesty. Laugh at Pearl Jam if you want, but the band's four-hour commercial-free radio program back in January was inspiring, and the give-'em-what-they-want Yield is one of the best commercial hard-rock records since the Who's Live at Leeds. And on Sleater-Kinney albums, there is no irony in Corin Tucker's voice, which can bristle like life itself.
There's another issue plaguing the Donnas. Let's call it the Authorship Question. It's serious. As anyone who's read the press clips knows, a couple of years ago manager figure Darin Raffaelli met the young Donnas and wrote a few early singles for them, including the trashy and terrific "Let's Go Mano." He still works with the Donnas, but the band members now say they write all of their own songs. I happen to believe them: Intellectually, the songs are not exactly Elvis Costello tunes, and most of the hooks and bridges are ripped off from Mstley CrYe, Zeppelin, Kiss, and the Ramones anyway. For defining a style, a fashion, and a clear aesthetic rather than mimicking another, they're smarter and brighter than any other group their age. But the songs are still juvenile.
Ironically enough, the Question is the thing that's going to make or break the band. Here's a line to think about: "Are you ready to party with me/ Are you ready to give me some sin/ 'Cause I been waiting all night long/ So c'mon and stick it in." If the Donnas are writing all of their own songs, there's some early '90s fuck-me feminism going on in that tune. We've already wor-
shipped Liz Phair for the same thing and we could stand to pass along some praise in 1998. But if a guy wrote that song, and the Donnas are chirping away at it onstage while some other slobbering guy with a receding hairline in front of the stage lip-syncs the lyrics, well, then, that's pretty creepy.
Thing is, the Question affects the Donnas' image hugely; it's as important to their act as their nubile breasts. A friend who'd heard dirt on the band outside before the show walked up to me during "Rock 'n' Roll Machine" and asked me who wrote the lyrics. I told him that the band did. "No really, who did that woman outside say wrote all of their songs?" he said. "That guy back there," I said, pointing to Raffaelli, who was jean-jacketed and whooping it up behind the merchandise table.
My friend left after five songs.
Bangs, who opened for the Donnas, promised a solid, unironic rock show. On Tiger Beat, the Olympia, Wash., trio's 26-minute debut, Bangs sound real, aggressive, and yeah-but-so-what like Sleater-Kinney. The lyrics are smart and Sarah Utter does something with her singing that's caught between a punk bark and sharply accentuated vocal melodies.
The set started well with "Vintage Piranha," a pretty vicious song decrying a scene-making clotheshorse who's "the biggest puppet at the puppet show." Like most Bangs songs, it's built around Utter's fairly straightforward combination of tough power chords and Gibson SG distortion solos, Maggie Vail's melodic bass lines, and Jesse Fox's bash-and-pop drums. But live, the problem started at the end of that song. Smirks. Grins. An out-of-tune guitar and a shrug. An out-of-tune bass and another shrug. Rolling eyes. Minor flubs, I thought.
On the fourth song, "Baby's Day Out," Utter dropped to her knees during a solo. Uh-oh. Vail, who was singing, finally caught her partner on the floor at the end of the set. She broke into laughter. See, they were being ironic.
Why? Bangs were six days out on a six-week tour. Maybe they were sloppy. Maybe they were plagued by Self-Consciousness, Irony's evil little brother. Maybe they purposefully wanted to undermine really good songs and make them seem much less important.
If you don't believe in your art, your craft, whatever, why fucking bother? Stop wasting our time.
It's really not that way on record, at least directly. On "S.O.S.," Utter says she doesn't want to be a "pretty heartbreaker." "I know that I'll never be/ That girl on your turntable/ That girl on your TV," she sings. The lyrics are supposed to be defiant: Utter's saying that she doesn't want to be a pinup doll; she doesn't want shallow media attention. It's a stance, but it's also a cop-out that I think is caused by the same sense of protection that comes from using a defensive layer of irony at a live show. For contrast, look at Sleater-Kinney's Tucker, who's not kidding around on Call the Doctor when she says she wants to be your Joey Ramone -- she wants pictures of her "on your bedroom wall."
Ironically, the Donnas want the same thing. The inside of American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine folds out into a calendar featuring a beefcake shot of all four in tight pants. You can hang it up by your computer for a laugh.