Sometimes you just wanna have fun, and sometimes you fake it so real it is beyond fake. And sometimes they’re the same thing. Stella Soleil and the Rondelles both sound like they’re having lots of fun on their new records. Dirty Little Secret and Shined Nickels and Loose Change are candy bar birthday party amusement park good times.
They’re also too pop to be true. So which one is faking it? Who cares? Stella Katsoudas would be the obvious choice. The former ballet dancer and leader of the almost famous Chicago goth-dance group Sister Soleil used to run her own record label and work with Ministry, Chemlab, and Slipknot. Now, all of a sudden, Stella’s all over Top 40 radio and MTV looking like an oversexed trannie Mandy Moore, covering some brainless Central European ditty that requires her to make “mwah, mwah” noises at the end of every chorus. Quick, somebody call the Cool Police! We just found a cell mate for Vitamin C!
“Kiss Kiss” kick starts Dirty Little Secret with faux Middle Eastern percussion meeting hip-hop bounce, synths trying to sound like sitars, head-scratching lyrics (“I wanna be I wanna be/Somewhere close to heaven/with Neanderthal man”—huh???) and, of course, those kissing noises. It’s stupid, frivolous, unnecessary, counterproductive, possibly carcinogenic, and probably capable of destroying brain cells. In other words, a perfect summer song, sublime fluff following in the grand tradition of “Surfin’ Bird,” “Love Shack,” and anything by the Vengaboys. Let me just say that whoever’s idea it was to tailor Turkish pop star Tarkan’s 1999 hit “Simarik” to fit Stella’s curves deserves a seat at the UN. Of course the rest of the album can’t possibly live up to “Kiss Kiss,” but it comes pretty close. Upon first listen, Stella, who cowrote all 11 tracks, comes across as a raving nymphomaniac, asking for it as much in slow-song-at-the-prom wannabe tearjerkers as lusty dance-club come-ons. Then, after a few spins, you begin to realize the line “When you open me/You’re why I breathe” doesn’t have to be sexual. Then she does this Michael Jackson squeal during “Let’s Just Go to Bed,” and the thought passes.
Everything from Stella’s unremarkable voice to her gaggle of producers to her drastic makeover suggests she’s probably been faking it her whole life—and not just musically. But the melodies and beats are so catchy, it wouldn’t make a difference if Stella was a computer-generated cyberbabe or a cartoon rock band made into a feature film.
If Stella Soleil represents all that is allegedly evil and corporate about pop, though, the Rondelles are scrappy, lovable underdogs. Two girls and a boy from Albuquerque who started making girl-group garage pop punk in 11th grade, they found themselves the toast of the indie town before graduating high school, so they moved to Washington, D.C., to be close to their fittingly named record label, Teenbeat. Even though they’re now in their twenties, the group still sounds like they never left study hall, and not necessarily because Shined Nickels and Loose Change collects singles, unreleases, and compilation tracks. Singer-guitarist Juliet Swango, bassist-vocalist Yukiko Moynihan, and drummer-keyboardist Oakley Munson have a gift for nostalgia; their three-chord, under-three-minute tales of long-lost American adolescent rituals and woes have a refreshingly innocent quality that jaded hipsters love, and it’s easy to hear why. So though Stella may have landed the opening slot on the Go-Go’s tour earlier this summer, the Rondelles deserved it even more.
Swango is a rock and roll fox who can be both Sandy and Rizzo, sweet and nasty, sugar and spice. On the Ramones-ish “T.V. Zombie,” she laments loving a boy who prefers the tube to her company, and she sounds like a chorus girl on kickin’ renditions of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and that Christmas booty-shaker “Angels We Have Heard on High” (although the part where the whole band shouts, “In ex-cel-sis De-o!” like a soccer chant kind of shatters the image). Her bitchiness shines through on “He’s Got Heart” (“but not a car”—sorry dude, no scrubs), and the gleeful “Revenge,” in which she yells, “Girls like me don’t know when to quit!” punctuating that last word with a killer pick-slide that brings to mind bright red fingernails on a chalkboard. Moynihan and Munson are dutiful sidekicks, supporting Swango’s rudimentary riffs with uncomplicated, chunky basslines, one- or two-note organ solos and simple, manic drumming (live, Munson plays standing up, one stick banging away at his stripped-down kit and the other playing the keyboard).
Each song is a pink bubblegum ball of energy, detonating as fast as the wick’s been lit, the Rondelles’ hearts and souls in every note. But their dream world of fast cars, cafeteria food fights, soda pop, and television is as phony as Stella’s declarations of undying love for her parade of knights in shining armor. If these gee-whiz-adorable kids live in the same America during the same time period that I do, the Rondelles would have to be home-schooled or Mormon to be as naive as they sound.
Part of me wishes they were that naive, just like part of me wishes Stella Katsoudas really did sleep around. I guess it’s the same part of me that’s a snobby scenester sucker for credibility. Maybe it all comes back to Brenda being my favorite character on 90210 because I knew Shannen Doherty was a total bitch off-camera, too. But I’m getting over that. When Brenda took pleasure in pretending to be nice only to backstab her friends, she was helping me understand what Stella and the Rondelles have known all along: Girls just wanna have fun, and fake can be just as good.