Of course being a teenager is depressing and horrible, but it’s the idea of the teenager that’s so wonderful.
—Miriam Linna (drummer for the Zantees), 1978
The Donnas, none of whom were born when Miriam made that statement, do “depressing and horrible” as if it’s loads of fun; it’s their teen torment and they’ll party if they want to— which is essentially what all of punk rock does anyway, throws 96 parties in three minutes, one for each tear drop, though the Donnas are more likely than other punks to put on display that it’s supposed to be a party, fun with a capital U.
The mere reality of being a teenager and bored out of your mind is the terrible pain of being thwarted and unable to connect to what’s going on around you—because none of it connects to what could be vital in you. But set it all to the Donnas’ fast-beat rock’n’roll, and boredom and restless ness become the great motivators, they turn you into a little speedball— I’m thinking of energetic and unhappy Dorothy Malone scooting around in her ’50s sports car in Written on the Wind: she’s young, she’s dissatisfied, she’s going to cause trouble; she’s zooming through and it’s a bright color across your screen.
The Donnas play Ramones-style eight-to-a-bar power chords but with metal and glam poured on top—the riffs get harder and the rhythm more propulsive with each album. Their new LP, The Donnas Get Skintight, is their most propulsive and has the most sleaze-metal guitar, inspired by the likes of Kiss and Mötley Crüe. The concept stays Ramones, however: each Donna might as well wear a small name tag that says, “Hi, I’m Donna, and we sound like the Ramones.” The Ramones themselves in their 1970s heyday had portrayed existential heartbreak and murder and politics and everything else as teen boy-girl exploitation melodrama, three-minute pop trash, but this was their way, actually, of pointing to their own idiosyncratic, expressive, personal man-woman melodrama, and their songs were touching as well as fun. The Donnas in contrast do everything as generic teen boy-girl hyper fun and hyper conflict, nothing idiosyncratic or personal; the basic patterns are I’m going into my room to turn up the volume and keep you out, I’m gonna lure you in, skin against skin, I’m gonna call you up, I’m gonna ignore your phone call, I lust for you, I don’t want you, I’m roaming the street, I’m at the party, I’ll shake in the action, I’ll steal your man, I wanna get some stuff, I wanna drive away with you, baby, I’m dangerous and dark and I’ll track you down. I’m fast, I’m hot, you’re with me or you’re boring. The scenery is bedrooms, record players, telephones, phone machines, streets, cars, car stereos. The sound is rock’n’roll, the time is night.
And the pronoun is “I.” I’ve got a dark side, I’m drinkin’ for two, I’m searchin’ the streets, I’m about to stir things up. But the Donnas’ I has a we in it. This is a legacy of old rock’n’roll: group “heys” and “yeahs” and calls and responses. It’s also yet another legacy of the Ramones, all the sports chants and shoutalongs. A Donna goes “I turn up the heat,” and the other Donnas are shouting “well done” right next to her. And they’re a team in girl-unity chanting “B-O-R-I-N-G.”
But there’s a distance to it—the guitar riffs all seem to come from 1973 to 1983, and the words are just this bratty teen I-don’t-care lust machine—it’s as if the Donnas are poking at life with a stick, from several feet away: they’re poking around in the embers of someone else’s fire and seeing if they can get something to blaze forth. And somehow they get the fire going, consistently. This is because the tunes are good, the band rocks, the words are funny. “You thought I would be brokenhearted, maybe I would if you weren’t so retarded.” The music makes me laugh and dance, I really adore it, though it doesn’t touch me deeply, since it’s just these young women playing at being brats and having a good stomping time of it; yet I can imagine their music gaining feeling as it goes out into the world, if by some good for tune there is a hit single and it gets played at real parties by
real bored teenagers.
And I can imagine some kid somewhere singing the Donnas’ “I Wanna Be a Unabomber” from a couple years back and then getting suspended and arrested in post-Columbine hysteria, and suddenly the words are deep and meaningful and they matter:
I hate all the kids at school
Bam b-bam b-b-b-bam b-bam bam
They all think that they’re so cool
Bam b-bam b-b-b-bam b-bam bam
They just like to sit and taunt me
Turn those kids into salami
The lyrics are an obvious gag, but the rage and humiliation they refer to are real. The “bam b-bam b-b-b-bam b-bam bam” are sung as joyous rock’n’roll nonsense syllables, equivalent to ramalama la-la rama lama. So it’s a party: life is fucked, we’re fucked, let’s rock.