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The Donnas get real

By Carly Carioli

MARCH 15, 1999:  Some moron at Rolling Stone apparently saw fit to proclaim Jawbreaker the best teen flick since Heathers. This, however, wasn't what enticed me to plunk down seven choppers for 90 vapid minutes of pseudo-hip adolescent baiting. Neither was it the prospect of seeing Marilyn Manson give a few seconds of the ol' in-out to his bride-to-be, Rose McGowan. No, the hook was that the world's greatest teenage rock-and-roll outfit, the Donnas, had landed a gig as the prom band -- and it's the Donnas, after all, who are themselves the greatest teen flick since Heathers, and who have the added bonus of being more or less real, as well as a fascinating work-in-progress.

Jawbreaker is ostensibly about a high-school alpha clique and murder. But where Heathers hinted at the classroom as a microcosm of class warfare, Jawbreaker's teens are uniformly well-off, genetically enhanced, Prada-clad superkids -- which makes the Donnas' entrance, at the very end of the film, a showstopper in more ways than one. Amid a roomful of teen-type cartoons -- a token goth, a token punk, eight zillion jocks and their cheerleader trophies -- the Donnas' unrepentant normality casts immediate aspersions on the filmmakers' utopia. Outfitted in the uniforms they donned for American Teenage Rock N Roll Machine (Lookout!) -- jeans, Chuck Taylors, pastel T-shirts with their pseudonymous monikers in iron-on letters -- they're either a little on the chunky side or too small or too skinny. Their rock poses are studied and gangly, but they know it. A few minutes after they leave the stage, the murderer will be revealed, but the filmmakers' game is up as soon as the camera catches Donna F.'s tummy peeking out from under her T-shirt -- it's as if reality had suddenly bitten the rest of the scene in the ass.

The irony, of course, is that the Donnas are to some extent a "fictional" creation, if you also consider the Shangri-Las and the Runaways to be fictional. The oft-repeated story is that Darin Rafaelli -- who with his bands Supercharger and the Brentwoods refined the art of lo-fi garage punk as a method of making hyperrealist faux oldies that sound indistinguishable from actual '60s obscurities -- discovered the future Donnas playing heavy metal and wrote them a bunch of Ramones-style punk tunes that became The Donnas (re-released last year on Lookout!). It was a scenario with enough drama for a mini-series. I enjoyed it almost as much for the performance-art value as for the music itself: a modern-day Shadow Morton in post-riot grrrl California was sure to piss off all the right people.

And then the plot thickened, with the Donnas rebelling against their lo-fi godfather and taking greater creative control in the form of a bunch of outlandish Kiss and Mötley Crüe licks. It seemed to mark a seismic generational shift: implicit in the drama of Teenage was the idea that the punk-fueled rhetoric of '90s alterna-rock has been such a sham that in the hands of the Donnas the uncomplicated ethos and shameless rockitude of '80s metal exuded a twisted honesty and authenticity.

Earlier this year, Sympathy for the Record Industry released Steal Yer Lunch Money, a 1996 studio session by the Donnas' evil alter ego, the Electrocutes -- who formed as a concurrent, compartmentalized release-valve respite from Rafaelli's invention. And just this past month we've gotten another glimpse of the Donnas working without a net, on a new Lookout! split single with the Toilet Boys.

Garage rock is something like the outsider-art wing of punk. It seeks the very opposite, or at least the absence, of the Rafaelli/Donnas collusion: a spontaneous-combustion warp drive to the dark recesses of rock's primitive psyche. Steal Yer Lunch Money is just such a Holy Grail. Lapsing into primary-school Spanish ("Solamente Tú," "En la Boca") and nonsense babbling straight out of an attention-deficit-disorder handbook, Brett Anderson, a/k/a Donna A., doesn't so much sing as screech, as if she had no greater ambition than to be heard over her noisy classmates; the other three blast out monochromatic nursery-rhyme hardcore. If the words Rafaelli put into the Donnas' mouths seemed note-perfect anthems of teenage thrills and spills, what makes the Electrocutes so irresistible is the chaos of it, the lack of a coherent articulation, the nakedness and the viciousness and the so-wrong-it's-right-ness. In "Pink Piggies" they imagine Lord of the Flies from the mob's perspective; "Eaga Beava" and "Jasmean" descend into bodily-fluid humor ("She thinks she's better than me/Her best friend's name is pee/She thinks she's better than you/Her very own name is poo").

On the insert of Steal Yer Lunch Money the girls are pictured in their version of high fashion circa 1996 -- a thrift-store approximation of executive secretaries -- while beating up some kindergarten kids. On the cover of their new single, "Get You Alone" ("the Donnas' first venture as a completely self-written and self-produced band"), they're dressed in their version of high fashion circa 1999: like something out of a Jordache ad circa 1985. And if for some reason you don't catch what the song's trying to tell you, the look on their faces pretty much says it all: we're in control.

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