As studies in over-the-counter music industry psychology go, that of The Donnas is about as charming as a cold, middle-aged hand on the lap. In a fit of punkish overstatement, four late-teen girls craft pseudo-anonymous identities, each operating under "Donna" aliases followed by just a letter (Donna A., Donna R., etc.), then launch into a wink-heavy early career of boy-baiting set to three-chord, Runaway-revisionist antipathy. Midlevel alt-press editorial departments bite at the bait, cleverly embracing the instant irony implied by Mötley Crüe covers, sending the unlikely California collective into the stratosphere, or at least the lower end of the Atlantic Records roster.
Once there, waistlines bulge, creative marketing sets in, real names return and before you know it, you're witnessing the second coming of the second coming of Heart.
"Our first record came out when we were 17, and we're 25 now," argues guitarist Allison Robertson on the phone from her home in California. "So a lot of things have changed."
Indeed they have. Despite the anomaly of an almost-hit (the raucous "Take It Off"), The Donnas have spent a large amount of time chiseling away at your lower senses by way of television commercials and predictable VH1 clip show ubiquity. They seem, if anything, very available.
"We get a lot of coverage in the press, and we always have," says Robertson. "We don't mind doing something like a commercial or an ad, as long as it's something that we like. I remember we got a lot of shit for doing a Budweiser ad, and I was like so psyched. … People were like, 'Why would you do that?' Well, because we drink Budweiser. We're a beer band. It's a great marriage," she says, adding that she does the VH1 things because, well, "I love talking."
But as far as music goes, it's hard to tell what The Donnas love anymore. Their latest record, Gold Medal, has relatively stiffed in comparison to their Atlantic debut, Spend the Night. This turn of events is not too surprising, as Gold Medal delves even deeper into their assumed psyches of late '70s wheedling AOR, potentially alienating the irony-fed masses that lapped up their early schtick. Now they're touring with Maroon 5, something that's either really lame or really ironic.
"After a while we were so tired of being compared to the same things," says Robertson. "You don't want to be too ironic. I definitely see other bands that are so ironic it kills me. I don't want to be like that.
"A lot of people are like, 'What's your guilty pleasure?' We're not guilty about anything. That's one thing that makes it not ironic. We do like a lot of cornball stuff, to some people, but we see the beauty in it. I think this record can be pretty cornball. I think it's really more of a timeless cornball record."
And as guilty pleasures go, the pleasure is apparently all theirs.