Let's face it--Britney and Christina are not romping across stages in their undies because they can't decide on the appropriate outfit for battling the patriarchy. Yet these days, hardly any sex kitten can be taken seriously as a strong female artist, even if she doesn't pierce her bellybutton or sprawl for a Rolling Stone centerfold. When she wants to have her beefcake and eat it too, she's called a do-me feminist. And if she wants to satisfy her desire for oral gratification by singing about political autonomy as well as pleasure, she's chided for talking with her mouth full.
Female musicians have recently been eager to tell the public all the sordid details of what a girl wants--what she really, really wants. Unfortunately, all too many girl singers stop wanting much of anything once they've seduced the 'N Syncster of their choice. Still, just because the girls-kick-ass mantra has grown tiresome enough to induce the longest beauty sleep in recent female musical history doesn't mean feminism is dead. Quite a few all-girl bands are still lining up to march into the bedroom, grab a handful of ponytail, and shout, "You've had your fun, girlie! Now go downstairs and burn the house down."
The Donnas, sadly, are not one of these bands. Although these Cali tarts pride themselves upon being sexual predators, their do-me-first feminism was actually plotted by ex-Supercharger member Darin Ruffaelli. It was he who constructed their jail-baitin', glue-huffin' hussies look, re-christened them each "Donna," and began writing all their songs when they were still in junior high. Ruffaelli essentially pimped out a postfeminist, indie-rock mirror image of a boy band: a group of test-marketed heartthrobs complete with the preppy (singer Donna A.), the slut (drummer Donna C.), the bad-ass (guitarist Donna R.), and the baby face (bassist Donna F.). And though the girls eventually ditched Ruffaelli to record their own songs, they continued to flimsily disguise their boy-pleasing lyrics as sexual bravado.
The new year brings Turn 21 (Lookout!), an anniversary Donna A. celebrates by singing about sex in a bathroom stall with men three times her age. And older men seem to be teaching the Donnas more than just make-out techniques--their Monsters of Rock riffage and trash-mouth boasts about "spendin' every night with a different date" are pirated straight from the golden age of Mötley Crüe and Poison. No wonder these gals cannot compete in the punk boys' club--they're too intent on demonstrating that imitation doesn't have to be sincere to be a form of flattery.
After three albums that essentially rotate between the same three chords, these ladies seem stuck on turning the same tired trick--insisting that the girls from Heathers could so have learned to play Ramones songs. And keep playing them and playing them. Oops, they did it again.
While the Donnas spent the late Nineties honing their coquettish complacency, Kathleen Hanna was dismembering her old riot-grrrl regime and arranging a new coup. The Bikini Kill frontwoman had been raging about empowering youth through radical social change since 1991, but when her "What Would Joan Jett Do?" T-shirts and Lisa-Simpson-with-throat-nodules scream began to pigeonhole her as little more than a third-wave poster girl, she joined Le Tigre with Sadie Benning and Johanna Fateman to create a raw and original synthetic sound. With go-girl anthems like "Hot Topic," name-checking unsung feminist heroes from Gayatri Spivak to Vaginal Davis, Le Tigre emerged as a celebrated cause on the indie circuit. The band's piecemeal conglomerations of sound bites, synthesizers, and sampled loops overlapped as if mixed by ingenious grade schoolers on Fisher-Price turntables.
From the Desk of Mr. Lady (Mr. Lady) distills the band's hyperbolic, ultrapolitical rush to EP length. On the disc's first track, "Get Off the Internet," Hanna rabble-rouses, "I'll meet you in the street/Destroy the right wing!" On a bumper sticker, these lines would be nothing more than cheese-puff slogans for teenage politicos. But the tension between Hanna's screech and Benning and Fateman's analog tape-loops gives the song a fresh, grassroots immediacy that makes you want to run out to the sidewalk and form a league of street activists.
And on Mr. Lady, meeting in the streets means more than fighting for women's rights. "Bang Bang" protests the Amadou Diallo murder in New York. Meanwhile, the absurdly funny "Gone b4 yr home" backs a boy's naive musings about salary gaps between men and women with clumsy, just-learning-to-play synthesizer overtones. Then there's "They want us to make a symphony out of the sound of women swallowing their own tongues," a jump-cut jumble of clueless responses to questions about feminism. Using these blunders as the basis for an innovative piece of music, Le Tigre turns third-wave confusion into constructive art. Even if these songs have little direct political impact (after all, "Bring me Giuliani's head!" isn't likely to incite anyone to decapitate Hizzoner) they do have the potential to mobilize young women--like a giant teach-in with a brand-new beat.
Is it unfair to compare the Donnas with Le Tigre? Maybe. How many girls would be rocking along with "Too Fast for Love" if the Donnas had changed the lyrics to, "Too busy demanding pay equity to be concerned with the patriarchal construct of love?" But maybe that's the problem. While Turn 21 insists that girl bands can be sexual and in control at the same time, the Donnas are so focused on flaunting their sexuality and their supposed control they never bust out of their tuff-chick straitjacket. The sloppy instrumentation and political instability of Le Tigre, on the other hand, never pretends to be in control of a world its band members are set on changing. And that's enough to kick any fan up off her ass and make her hit the ground running for president.