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Singer/songwriter/feminist (and contributor to the liberal political blog Firedoglake) Donita Sparks is best known for co-founding and fronting L7, the Los Angeles band responsible for the crucial evolution of semi-mainstream music in favor of messy, weird and provocative (or "normal," depending on where you're standing) women. The group, which formed in 1985, even had a powerful impact on boys, including one male friend of mine who relates that "My 13-year-old awakening to feminism was directly linked to seeing L7 twice [in 1994]. They were extremely formative in my sulky, shit-heel teen tastes."
This, really, is the L7-gifted inheritance to adults who followed them as kids in the '90s: They provided solid proof that having purple hair and being mouthy and acting like a jagoff (the oft-repeated story of Sparks throwing a used tampon into an unruly audience makes "Suck my left one" seem almost preppy) was just as available to girls as it was to guys. Which, of course, has a fucking profusion of import for teenagers, male and female alike. L7's music, a heavier and harder grunge take on riot-grrrl attitude, never really slayed on record, but that wasn't the point. "Shitlist" and "Pretend We're Dead" made fans cream whatever was under their cutoffs and thermals. L7 informally disbanded around 2000, and since then, there haven't been any female bands ensconced in the industry nearly as intimidating or challenging to the collective consciousness. Bleak.
Transmiticate is Sparks' first solo effort, and while her L7 style is mostly still in effect, this is clearly a kinder and gentler approach to punkish pop songwriting. "I feel a bit freer to write anything I want," Sparks says. "Sometimes, I would write things that weren't necessarily appropriate for L7. In fact, the song 'Creampuff' [a slow soul number] on my new record I wrote years ago with L7 still functioning, but I didn't think it was right for L7, so here it is now."
Sparks allows that a lot of fans felt empowered by the more assertive material of L7, but, she says, "If it was going to get weird, it was going to get weird in a different way. In L7, darkness was equated with heavy. On this record, darkness is equated with dark pop or dark weird pop."
Sparks doesn't feel a personal obligation to pick up the L7 sword of outsider punk with the same anti-paradigm look, feel and sound, but her musical choices are a familiar and maybe inevitable step for aging grrrls. When older female artists such as Sparks stay pushy-aggro-sexual (without being a ripped-smooth tactical beast like Madonna), it tends not to go over well with their once-encouraging audience (see: Courtney Love). Ageism aside, even a fresh slice of raw, rude talent would find her wares harder to sell this many years later.
It turns out that riot grrrl and the always-dubious "women in rock" movement begat very little change in mainstream music after Kathleen Hanna et al. grew up and out of it. If anything, it's been regressive. Asked which female artists working now have the same freedom to act and look the way L7 or their contemporaries did, Sparks replies, "I hadn't really thought about this until Allison from the Donnas interviewed me fairly recently for Alternative Press. And she asked me the same question. And I guess there's Björk; she's weird. When L7 were signed to a major, the doors opened a bit because of Nirvana, there were the Breeders, there were women wearing no makeup on major labels. I don't know what to tell you . . . I guess you're right."
Sparks is still fighting at least one of the good fights. With Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, Sparks is establishing CASH (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders) Music, a cool-in-theory project that uses an "open source" platform to hook musicians and fans together for fun and profit. With this and the current tour considered, an L7 revival seems unlikely. Sparks says she doesn't feel any nostalgia for that era (despite using a lot of distinctly '80s LA sounds on Transmiticate) and doesn't envision a reunion with her old band happening. But a girl can dream.
Donita Sparks and the Stellar Moments perform with Crystal Antlers, Thinking Aloud and Knives of the Official Disappointment at Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $8.