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They're more than just pretty in punk

Women in garage rock bands want to be known for their guitar licks, not their girly looks.

January 01, 2003|Eric R. Danton | Hartford Courant

Instead of gasping its last breath, rock music proved startlingly vital in 2002, the Year of the Scruffy Man. With a load of lo-fi histrionics, garage rockers such as the Strokes, the Hives and the Vines landed prominent display space in pop culture. There were magazine covers, prime-time TV, high-profile concert tours. All were lauded as possible rock 'n' roll redeemers. And all of them, as it happens, are men.

Then there are bands like the Donnas and Sahara Hotnights, girl punks who can rock with the best of the boys but don't get the same kind of attention. They get more press for their girly looks than their guitar licks. They are more often described as sexy than hailed as rock saviors. Sure, Spin magazine declares the Donnas "just might be the coolest band in America," but golly, doesn't their lip gloss look great?

"Every year, a band comes out [that's hailed as] the saviors of rock and roll, and I'm like, 'We are rock 'n' roll. What's going on?' " says Torry Castellano, the drummer for the Donnas. "I don't know why we can't save rock 'n' roll too."

It won't be for lack of trying. A slew of talented women in garage rock bands are writing the same kinds of loud, unpretentious, stripped-down songs that have earned accolades for their male counterparts. But rock has always been a boys' club -- mostly male bands playing to mostly male audiences where women are along for the ride, with their boyfriends in the crowd or with the band backstage. There have been exceptions over the years, of course. Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the Runaways, the Go-Gos and Sleater-Kinney, among others, are groups made up of women who rock as hard as any guy.

After a decade dominated by hair-metal and then grunge bands, women again have assumed a more prominent position playing in, and fronting, rock combos. Shirley Manson is the public face of Garbage, Karen O sings for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bikini Kill founder and prototypical riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna now heads the trio Le Tigre, and Meg White plays drums in the White Stripes.

Still, women in rock often draw attention less for their musical prowess than for how they look in a tight T-shirt. A story in the November issue of Spin noted in the second sentence that Castellano was "wearing excellent lip gloss" and "speaks in a candy-girly voice." The article eventually mentioned that she's a mean drummer too.

"It's hard, because I think a lot of people, when they write things like that, it's not like they're being mean, you know. It's not like they're putting us down. But at the same time, it's like, 'Oh, they're just so cute, and they're California girls' or whatever," says Castellano, whose San Francisco Bay-area band recently released its fifth album and major-label debut, "Spend the Night." "I wish we could talk more sometimes about actual playing and stuff, rather than how we look."

Maria Andersson, the singer and guitarist for Sahara Hotnights, says rock music itself is intrinsically sexy, but she and her band mates have no desire to emphasize their sex appeal.

So why aren't they lauded as effusively as their male counterparts? Novelty, for one thing.

While female performers are plentiful in pop, folk, country and R&B, there are simply fewer women playing rock music.

"There are a whole lot more male-dominated bands, that's how it is," Andersson says.

It's even more frustrating for women in bands less well-known than the Donnas, who have the PR machine at Atlantic Records helping to hype the group.

"You're automatically compared to the Donnas and to Sahara Hotnights or to whoever is the girl band of the day," says Judita Wignall, who sings and plays guitar in the Halo Friendlies, a Long Beach quartet. "Guy bands aren't automatically compared to each other. Creed's not automatically compared to the Hives; they're both guy bands, but they're completely different."

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