At some point, the all-girl punk band stopped being a novelty and started being a reputable occupation. It’s no longer unusual to see and hear deadpan young women pounding out power chords and snarling at the useless pieces of male flesh who muddy up their lives.
Such progress is commendable, but something’s been lost en route to respectability, as it has with boy punks. In a rare instance of unearthing a video not filmed in the ’80s, VH1 Classic occasionally airs a vintage clip of the Runaways, the jailbait-special ’70s band that brought us Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Lip-synching their ode to salacious stuttering, ”Cherry Bomb,” these glam-punk bad girls are still mesmerizingly tawdry nearly 30 years after the fact. Rewatching the video one night reminded me that, when the Runaways arrived, I and my equally inhibited teenage friends didn’t know whether to laugh or be very, very afraid.
Which brings us to the Donnas, the Runaways’ closest modern equivalent. The Donnas are your prototypical contemporary girl punkers. Their primitive early albums were made for the same indie label (Lookout!) that was once Green Day’s stomping ground, and they borrowed the Ramones’ idea of giving themselves the same name (first, in their case). Back in the late ’90s, they essentially sang about the same things as they do now. The songs on Gold Medal, their sixth album, are still concerned with living the vida rock & rolla and eviscerating male zeros: the unnamed pathetic superstar in ”Is That All You’ve Got for Me, ” the ”guy with a wandering eye” in ”It’s So Hard,” the inconsiderate slobs targeted in ” Revolver” and ”Have You No Pride.”
Like many a punk band before them, the Donnas have grown tighter and more instrumentally competent with each record; in other words, they sound less punk and more metal and hard rock, a process that began with 2002’s Spend the Night (their first since signing with Atlantic) and continues with Gold Medal, in which guitarist Allison Robertson (yes, the same-name gimmick has been sacrificed too) relies on a fair share of late-period Keith Richards licks. Combine those riffs with don’t-tread-on-me attitude, and you end up with a good number of charming, old-school-rock nuggets, like ”I Don’t Want to Know (If You Don’t Want Me), ” the unplugged skiffle title track, and ”It Takes One to Know One,” in which singer Brett Anderson sings, ”I may not be a man, but you’re not one either.”
Yet, as with many of their peers’ stabs at maturity, professionalism often replaces raw power. With their well-scrubbed sound (less aggressive and, alas, cowbellheavy than that of Spend the Night) and Anderson’s evenkeeled delivery, the Donnas are now a likable, proficient band. They’re the Runaways without the sleaze and borderline incompetence — but also without the danger, the sense that they could lose their cool at any moment and derail into glorious anarchy. They’ll surely inspire a new generation of young female musicians the way the Runaways did. But they won’t scare the crap out of anyone in the process, and sometimes you wish they would.