Why Donita Sparks Is a Subversive Ray of Hope
L7 musician discusses how to resist conformity
Posted Dec 22, 2016
“When we pretend that we’re dead,
They can’t hear a word we’ve said.”
— From “Pretend We’re Dead” by L7
Donita Sparks does not give a fuck. As the leader of the seminal band L7, Sparks has no time for what you think of her.
In fact, she has made a habit of subverting any attempts to pigeonhole her or L7 by defying norms, challenging stereotypes and overcoming barriers to become a band that “shreds ridiculously hard” (Billboard) and are “scathingly vibrant head-bangers” (Rolling Stone).
You want her to play art punk? Tough shit. She’s playing blistering hard-rock music. You think that women can’t play hard rock? She’ll stick songs like “Bite the Wax Tadpole” up your sexist ass and then for good measure throw her used, bloody tampon at you at a concert.
Think signing to a major label makes you a sellout? L7 is going to have major-label distribution while retaining its indie cred. You want to challenge women’s right to choose? She’ll start Rock for Choice, a series of benefit concerts, and scream pro-choice from the top of the mountain until you have to listen.
And now with the group’s new documentary, “Pretend We’re Dead,” the world is once again getting a chance to learn to follow her example on how to take on the world:
The most subversive thing you can do is to not let others define who you are.
Sparks began her journey to music by being part of the Los Angeles punk-rock scene.
“I think in L7 everyone in the band fantasized about it as a teenager like every teenager does — about being in a rock band or to be someone in the arts who’s famous. Those kind of fantasies come in. But I think as punk rockers, we were much more cynical about something like that — that that could actually happen,” Sparks explained. “Because certainly most of our punk-rock heroes were not on the radio. They weren’t on major labels. They weren’t getting the media coverage that some of the other acts were in the ’70s.”
Interestingly, however, when Sparks decided that it was her turn to play music, she chose to play hard rock. “When Suzi [Gardner] and I started the band, we were from the art-punk scene. We were art punks at heart. But we wanted to play hard rock,” she said. “So, what we were doing was quite unusual, because what was popular in our scene was new wave and experimentation and experimental music and stuff like that. So, it was an anomaly that we were into hard rock.”
And since her existing “establishment” was the punk-rock world, playing hard-rock music was actually a very confrontational, punk-rock thing to do. “For me it was a little tongue-in-cheek as well. It was sincere, but I was never into hard rock as a teenager; so, this was something new for me,” Sparks explained.
“So I was kind of getting a kick out of it.”
Sparks had been used to the punk-rock scene, where musicians such as Patti Smith, Debby Harry, Exene Cervenka and Poly Styrene had already blazed a trail for women, and where attitudes were more egalitarian. Sparks found the hard-rock world to be much less welcoming.
“It was difficult for Suzi and I to get people to play with us. There were quite a few women in the punk-rock scene playing instruments, but not really so much in the hard-rock scene,” Sparks recalled. “And a lot of the dudes didn’t take us very seriously, because guys that were really into hard rock didn’t want to play with chicks at the time. I think they were sort of doing us a favor … . So, that was a bit challenging.”
But Sparks would not be deterred.
“We just toughed it out. Suzi and I could play in our living rooms together all we wanted. But at some point, you have to turn up the volume, and you need to play with a drummer, because if you play electric guitar you want to play loud. We would ask any drummer we knew, ‘Hey, will you play with us? We want to rehearse,” Sparks said. “So, it was tough for a few years … . We were playing with an odd group of people who didn’t quite fit in. But that’s all we had to work with. If you want to do something, you have to tough it out until it clicks. And it may take a long time for it to click.
“We just kept doing it.”
One of the things that made it easier for Sparks to persevere was her original punk-rock ethos; that is, you play music for the fun of it, for the art of it — not as a career.
“It’s much easier to tough it out if you want to do it for fun. I think if you’re doing it for a career, you come off as slightly more desperate,” she said. “I think my drive was more, ‘Let’s do something cool. Let’s do something artistic. Let’s do something fun. Let’s play out of town. Let’s go on a tour. Oh, my God, wouldn’t that be amazing to pile in a van and do a tour?’”
And therefore, by focusing on smaller, short-term goals, Sparks and L7 were, paradoxically, able to build a successful long-term career in music and to record albums on the independent labels Epitaph and Sub Pop.
“We wanted to do it for fun. We didn’t really have any grand plans to make it big or anything like that. We were just doing it for kicks,” Sparks recalled. “As progress happened and little baby steps happened, we reached small goal after small goal after small goal.
“We wanted to be a really good rock band.”
Eventually, when Sparks was able to get the lineup she wanted, it turned out that all of the musicians were women — Sparks and Gardner, as well as bassist Jennifer Finch and drummer Demetra “Dee” Plakas.
But Sparks did not want to be known as a “girl group.”
“I was adamant that our name be non-gender specific when we first started the band. I was, like, ‘I don’t want to be ‘Girls’ anything. I don’t want to have any take on a female name,” she explained. “I’m not saying I don’t like that in other bands. I think that’s really fun sometimes. For me, I don’t want them to be able to tell if we’re male or female.
“I wanted to transcend gender out of the gate.”
Eventually, L7 began recording with Slash Records, which had distribution through the Warner Music Group. And while many of her peers from the punk-rock scene may have had mixed feelings about being connected to a major label, Sparks saw it as an opportunity to take L7’s message to a wider audience.
“There are a lot of bands in the underground that do not want to be on major labels. They want to stay in the underground. They want to be as non-corporate as they can and just stick to their guns with their politics and such,” Sparks recalled. “I, however — and I think the rest of L7 — really wanted to infiltrate the masses. So once we were on a major [label], and getting our own articles and all that stuff, and started getting on MTV, I was really stoked about that.”
In fact, in true punk-rock spirit, Sparks saw being on a major label as an opportunity to spread a subversive message to a larger audience. Songs like “Wargasm” from their 1992 “Bricks Are Heavy” album protested war while singing about masturbation, and “Shitlist” let everyone know that Sparks was willing to hold a grudge.
“If you look at our content, it’s sticking it to the system a little bit because we were getting into kids’ living rooms in the suburbs. And that’s super subversive. Not working with the system — subverting the system. There are so many bands that I heard from that saw us on MTV when they were teenagers. They didn’t see us at an underground club in a cool part of the city. They were out in the fucking sticks, and they saw us on MTV, or they saw us in Spin magazine or something,” she explained.
“And I think that’s super cool to reach those disenfranchised youth who are just clinging on. And then they see this ray of hope for their weirdness on MTV. And that’s fucking great. Because that’s how it happened for me — seeing David Bowie and Iggy Pop on the Dinah Shore show. Or seeing all these square ’70s talk shows that all these cool artists were starting to drop in on.
“And that was so subversive to me.”
Part of what made it easier to be on a major label was that L7 was still part of Slash Records. “We were lucky enough to be on Slash Records that started out as an art-punk fanzine. They grew into a record label, and their first releases were the Germs and X and Violent Femmes. And so their heart was totally in the underground,” Sparks explained.
“And when we signed with them, they had a deal with Warner Brothers for major distribution. So, we had the protective nest of these underground people, [but also] the powerhouse distribution of Warner Brothers. We were just happy that we were with the folks at Slash Records, because I think a lot of people at Warner Brothers didn’t quite get us.
“We kind of got the best of both worlds there.”
And yet, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Sparks found that L7 continued to be misunderstood, labeled and judged in large part because they were women.
“I get the sense that L7 was a bit threatening to the status quo in rock. Our lyrics were a bit more political than other bands, our peers. Our look was a little messier than our peers. We were women,” she explained.
“I think that a lot of the suits at labels didn’t know what to do with us, because we were unconventional. For women in rock, we were unconventional. People like status quo. People in power like the status quo. So any time you’re bucking against that, they don’t like it. They don’t feel comfortable with it.”
One of the ways that sexism manifested was an emphasis on how L7 looked. Sparks thought that she was pressured to “clean up” her look, which was rather striking considering that many of the all-male bands that were contemporaries of L7 were actually celebrated for having a dirtier, unkempt look and being “grunge.”
“Many women in the hard-rock world played the sex card a lot — bustier, big hair, a lot of makeup kind of thing. But we were grungy. We were messy. We were messy gals,” Sparks explained. “I know my management approached me at some point to stop wearing fright makeup because they thought I could be prettier than that or something. ‘Can you not wear the raccoon eyes and the smeared lipstick?’ I refused. But I think that’s something our fans liked about us and about me. Could I have made it more mainstream if I didn’t wear raccoon eyes?
“Who fucking knows?”
But what probably is known is that if hard-rock deejays didn’t feel comfortable with an all-female hard-rock band, then L7 would be cut off from a primary method of driving album and concert sales.
“Why we didn’t get on mainstream rock radio? I think we were a little threatening. Just like the suits at major labels didn’t know what to do with us,” Sparks explained. “I think a lot of hard-rock deejays or who misogyny was part of their shtick with their shock-jock morning shows — and we heard this from actual radio reps at Warner Brothers — they refused to play ‘chick rock,’ no matter who it was, whether it was us, the Breeders, whomever.
“So you’ll notice a lot of the females of that peer group are not multi-multimillionaires.”
Further, Sparks discovered that even magazine coverage differed for male artists versus female artists.
“A lot of publications — and a lot of them still do this — they’ll have their ‘Women in Rock’ issue. And it’s like, ‘Hey, we deserve our own article. And so does Hole. And so do all these other bands. And you’re trying to group us in one issue out of the year. And that’s not OK.” she said.
“We had to put our foot down and say, we’re not doing ‘Women in Rock’ issues, because we refused to be lumped in. We paid our dues. We were a good band that deserved our own article that had nothing to do with any other women in rock. We just wanted to be peers with our peers without gender. And that was a conscious thing we did. And we turned down a lot of stuff. But we also gained a lot of stuff by doing that.
“What that got us was our own article in the regular issue.”
Sparks also found a seemingly benign form of sexism, even at times when they were honored. For example, L7 is routinely referred to as the best or one of the best “All-female” rock bands of all time. And while the accolades are appreciated, Sparks still thinks that she and L7 were being stereotyped.
“That was really a drag. It happened almost our entire career. It doesn’t happen to us now,” she explained. “The new group is less fixated on gender. They’re less fixated on sexual orientation. They’re just more used to it.”
For many people, Sparks’ rebellious spirit is most infamously illustrated in an incident in 1992, when, upon having mud thrown at her and L7, she took out her tampon and threw it at the crowd yelling, ‘Eat my used tampons, fuckers!” But it was her founding of Rock for Choice, a series of benefit concerts to raise money for the pro-choice movement in the United States and Canada, which was a more direct response to those challenging women’s rights.
The concerts were literally a “Who’s Who” of rock at the time, including performances by bands such as Nirvana, Hole, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Salt-N-Pepa and many others.
The enduring recognition of her peers, as seen in “Pretend We’re Dead,” is yet another piece of evidence that Sparks’ determination to not let others define her was the right approach. Her goal of L7 being a great rock band has come true. The movie includes interviews with rock icons such as Joan Jett, Shirley Manson of Garbage, and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, where they discuss L7’s widespread influence.
As an example, Novoselic succinctly states: ‘They had the riffs. They had the songs. They just rocked.”