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The Boston Phoenix Girls, Girls, Girls

The Donnas, Britney, Billie, and more

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 21, 1999:  The Donnas want some attraction. They need some distraction. And, in the great tradition of discerning rock rebels like the New York Dolls, Kiss, and the Ramones, they'd like some party action, too. ASAP. With nothing much in the way of hostages -- unless you count those of us so thoroughly blown away by last year's American Teenage Rock 'N Roll Machine (Lookout!) that we'd eagerly been awaiting the arrival of the new Get Skintight! (Lookout!) -- the four young Donnas from Palo Alto deliver their list of demands on the tough-and-tuneful punk ditty "Party Action" as if attraction, distraction, and, of course, party action were part of some American Teenagers' Bill of Rights currently up for congressional approval.

To anyone who's been following the saga of the Donnas, Get Skintight! is a landmark album of sorts for the band. Because until the release of the "Get You Alone" split single with Toilet Boys earlier this year on Lookout!, the Donnas were under the mentorship of a modern-day Phil Spector/Shadow Morton-style garage-punk svengali by the name of Darrin Rafaelli, who discovered the all-grrrl band doing punk-rock cover tunes in high school, persuaded them to change their names to Donna (as in Donna A., Donna F., Donna C., and Donna R.), and began teaching them catchy original tunes inspired by the blitzkrieg bop of the Ramones. Or, to update the analogy, Rafaelli was to the Donnas what Max Martin is to Britney Spears and 'N Sync -- the guy in charge, not just managerially but artistically. And since Rafaelli was older than the band, particularly in terms of his musical taste, it wasn't surprising that the band's sound was grounded in a sense of history that encompassed everything from the original girl groups of the '60s to the harder rock candy of '70s party-action dudes Kiss to the Beach-Boys-on-overdrive of the early Ramones to the post-punk bubblegum of LA's Redd Kross.

Apparently, the Donnas learned their lessons well. Even without Rafaelli's direct participation, Skin Tight!, which is produced, fittingly enough, by Jeff and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross, more or less picks up where American Teenage Rock 'N Roll Machine left off. They pull off a straight Mötley Crüe cover, "Too Fast for Love," which proves only that the under-21 but no longer technically teenage Donnas know their way around hard-rock clichés at least as well as Nikki Sixx and have a much more fully developed sense of structure and melody. Although the Donnas have now moved on to college in their real lives, Skin Tight! is still set in high school, with its dating games and shopping sprees ("You don't wanna call me your girl/So I guess I'll just go to the mall"), pot-smoking slumber parties ("Hook It Up"), petty vandalism ("Doin' Donuts"), Tiger Beat culture ("Cinderella on my TV/Video games killin' me/Posters of Ratt and Miami Vice/Doin' time with Ginger Spice"), and petty putdowns ("You're a zero on my rock-o-meter/You wanna get hot go turn on a heater" and "You thought I would be broken-hearted/Maybe I would if you weren't so retarded").

It doesn't, however, take a master's degree in sociology or a kid of your own in 10th grade to recognize that Dawson's Creek provides a more accurate picture of high school in the late '90s than the Donnas do. In the wake of the Littleton incident, most of us have been treated to a pretty good if rather grim look inside the average American high school and have seen enough of it to realize that it bears only a passing resemblance to the quaint world of Skin Tight! Hell, even the album title -- as in "I saw you standing by the slurpee machine/White studded belt and skin-tight jeans" -- is an anachronism. If you're a cool kid in '99, you wear your Levi's extra, extra baggy.

The high school the Donnas do inhabit is the mythical "Rock 'n' Roll High School" popularized by the Ramones, a place that was invented in the '70s on TV shows like Happy Days and has remained part of our collective unconscious ever since. Its roots are in the '50s, the decade that saw the birth of rock and roll as a social force and the creation of the teenager as both a marketing demographic and as an independent social force with interests that diverged from those of parents, teachers, and just about anybody else in a position of power. But its relationship to the world in the '90s, where children are so often treated as adults by the courts and advertisers that it's almost pointless to think of the teenager as existing separately from adults, is at best a tenuous one.

If a nostalgic fantasy of high school is the inspiration for the Donnas songbook, well, it's a different and much more common escapism that fuels the work (and play) of more-mainstream teen-girl stars like Britney Spears. Her . . . Baby One More Time (Jive) -- the album, the hit single, and especially the video -- reduces the world to a suburbia of flirtatious romantic encounters and costume changes. Bands like the Donnas traditionally flee from the banality of the suburbs and toward the excitement of the city. Britney represents a much more adult desire to stay put in the safety and comfort of one's own home.

Fittingly, some of the first gigs Britney performed after graduating from her stint as a Mouseketeer and getting axed on Star Search were at malls, and you sense in the bubbly dance-pop confections Max Martin cooked up for her an idealized fantasy not of high school but of a romance-novel adulthood in which there are very few problems that can't be solved with a good boob job. In that sense, Britney aspires to be the late-'90s version of the Material Girl, the one Madonna incarnation that even Madonna has few kind words for. But it's much easier to imagine Britney as the new Debbie Gibson, a one-album wonder whose marquee value and willingness to take direction may lead to a long and prosperous career doing Broadway musicals.

The closest thing to a young Madonna right now may be Britain's answer to Britney -- a 16-year-old pop phenom born Billie Paul Piper who performs under the name Billie and who became the first-ever female solo artist to debut at #1 on the English pop charts when her "Because We Want To" came out last year. (Britney, on the other hand, holds the honor of being the first female solo artist to debut in the Billboard charts with both a #1 single and a #1 album since SoundScan became a determining factor.) Like Britney, Billie got an early start as an actress and model. (The funniest line in her bio: "Billie remains a decidedly down-to-earth young woman: she still lives at home with her family in Swindon," as if there were something strange about a 16-year-old's living at home. Britney, by the way, also lives at home.)

Just out in the US on Virgin, Billie's debut CD, Honey to the B, relies on a mix of urban dance grooves, slick pop production, and a little hip-hop flavor that has more depth and resonance than anything on . . . Baby One More Time. It's a more sophisticated album than Britney's -- with more in the way of soul and reggae undertones, and little touches of polyrhythmic drum programming -- and therefore perhaps a bit harder to digest (though, really, that puts her more on a level with Britney's pals 'N Sync). But it does reflect the same sort of escape to the fantasy of premature adulthood that's so much a part of Britney's act. It's just that where Britney's a passive Lolita posing as visual jailbait, Billie takes a more Madonna-esque approach to using her sexuality, and she isn't afraid to say what she means. "Party on the Phone," for example, is a slo-mo funk ode to party-line sex chats; and words like "sugar" and "honey" get tossed around suggestively in both the title track and the sample-heavy "Love Groove." You get the sense that Billie knows a lot more about getting into the groove than Britney ever will.

Billie and Britney aren't alone in servicing the expanding market for teen stars. Warner Bros. is currently trying to find the right niche for 15-year-old high-school freshman Shelby Starner, a Pennsylvania-bred youth whose debut CD, From In the Shadows, features 13 introspective folk-rock tracks written by Starner herself. Capitol is gearing up for the release of Jordan's Sister, the debut by California singer/songwriter Kendall Payne, whose earnest self-penned tunes recall Jewel minus the yodeling. And though it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of new releases, another one of Papa John Phillips's daughters -- 18-year-old former model Bijou Phillips -- recently debuted with I'd Rather Eat Glass (Almo Sounds), a candid album of personal songs that brings to mind Fiona Apple's debut, only with more bad-ass attitude. Even the Donnas have company: later this year Atlantic is planning to put out the first album by a punky British band called 21st Century Girls featuring four young women between the ages of 14 and 16. All these girls are aimed at different sectors of the youth market. Some may even cross over to older demographics. But in their own ways, they're all looking for the same thing as the Donnas -- attraction, distraction, and, of course, party action.

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