One of the cringiest things I ever did in high school was watch two episodes of Daria and, without a trace of irony, post on Tumblr – “Daria is me. She lives my life.” Yes, the emphasis was included.
In retrospect, my sincerity is especially embarrassing because Daria most definitely did not live my life. I graduated high school in 2012, a decade after Daria went off the air, and my theatre-kid tendencies probably wouldn’t have mixed with Daria and Jane’s ‘90s disaffection. But I think what I actually found so appealing about the show wasn’t its storylines or character arcs but its stance, its vibe. During a time when I felt compelled to present a cheery façade, Daria presented the possibility of an alternative, a way of looking at my surroundings that acknowledged the shittiness of the world I was being pushed into.
Listening to “Better Than Life,” the sixth track from Grrrl Gang’s debut album Spunky!, I imagine that the members of the band may have felt a similar sense of recognition. The song’s seething two-chord progression and lead vocalist Angeeta Sentana’s deadpan presence directly recalls “You’re Standing On My Neck,” the Splendora track that served as Daria’s theme song. But where Splendora’s song was sleek and two-dimensional – fitting for a story about teenagers with black-and-white worldviews – “Better Than Life” is spiky and ambivalent, narrating a more existential disconnection. “I’ve been flirting with death / Just to see what it has to offer,” Sentana intones. “Maybe it’s better than life.”
The band loves to pull this trick. Spunky! is a record that directly quotes the bassline from The Breeders’ “Cannonball” on one song and features the lyric “I’m a useless cumdump” on another. It’s fun to play a game of spot-the-influence with Grrrl Gang’s songs, but what really lingers after Spunky!‘s brief runtime are the band’s raw explorations of anxiety, despair, and shame.
That’s not to say that the record isn’t fun. Because it’s fun as hell. Early highlight “A Fight Breaks Out At a Karaoke Bar” delivers exactly what its title promises – a speedrun-paced chronicle of a night at a karaoke bar that descends into a brawl; as the chorus shifts up to escape velocity, Sentana gazes at the scene around her and sings, “Oh, how fun it is!” As if in response, Sentana and Edo Alventa’s guitars start dueling in the wreckage as the drums bash and the bass pirouettes. After two rambunctious minutes, the song staggers to a close as if it’s worn out from all the chaos.
Spunky!’s first half follows this pattern closely. Its songs are punchy and punky blasts of young adult frustration and confusion, slathered thick with singalong hooks. “Can’t see what lies ahead / I’m not a fucking psychic,” goes one song. “Mascara’s running and I’m high / Why did you all leave me behind?,” opens another. If the songs weren’t so energetic, the lyrics might feel self-indulgently despondent; if the lyrics weren’t so harsh, the throwback sparkle of the arrangements might feel derivative or kitschy. By placing these contrasting energies in such close proximity, the band can channel what made their inspirations so invigorating without coming across as simply a reference machine. Instead, they’re able to contextualize their own experiences, drawing strength from their forebears as they try to live through the modern world.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on “Cool Girl,” which marks the album’s midway point. The song’s opening salvo is right in line with the preceding tracks’ hard-charging energy, as Sentana shouts “I wish I was a cool girl” over one of the record’s moshiest guitar lines, cymbals crashing with every syllable. It’s easy to imagine Sentana writing these lyrics while gazing at a poster of Kathleen Hanna. But as the song progresses, it gets noisier and angrier; Sentana’s voice rises into a snarling yelp and more guitar noise creeps in at the edges until, suddenly, it collapses. All that’s left is a seesawing guitar line and the lyric “I want to tear my skin apart / It never glows in the dark,” repeated over and over. It feels like a fantasy of rockstar cool giving way to a grimmer reality.
From here, Spunky! briefly descends into a deeper kind of misery, peaking with its longest and most atypical track, the dreamy “Mother’s Prayers.” If the rest of the album pulls from the pointed amateurism of riot grrrl punk and the melodic appeal of power-pop, “Mother’s Prayers” feels more in line with the strung-out dissolution of grunge and shoegaze; the song floats on a heavily chorused guitar line and a restless bassline, drums pacing moodily underneath. Sentana’s lyrics are direct and unsparing – “Now I’m just a dream / That could never be true” – but her delivery feels uncharacteristically disembodied. It’s only at the song’s climax that she seems to spring back to life, her voice wavering and softening as she sings, “I’ve burned myself alive / To keep the flame alight.”
From one perspective, it’s a raw and vulnerable admission of self-destruction, seeming to offer no way out. But in a strange way, it’s also an expression of hope, articulating a determined belief that something about the fire is worth the pain it takes to keep it burning. After Sentana delivers this line, the song fades out and then comes back in with a wordless, dreamily beautiful outro. Despite the pain and absurdity of the world, there is a reason to dream another way of being.
Listening to Spunky! sent my brain through a time portal, reminding me of a million bands I’ve loved: Splendora, The Breeders, Hole, Potty Mouth, Los Campesinos!, Joanna Gruesome, That Dog. I listened to these bands throughout my young adulthood, when I was doing that young adult thing of fighting to figure myself out while also trying to have as much fun as possible at the same time. I often failed, because I was trying on other people’s ideas about who I should be and what I should be doing. When I look back, I remember periods of intense misery and disconnection, opportunities lost, connections severed. But I kept trying anyway, because sometimes I’d get something real and lasting.
It reminded me of my high school friend Will, who burned me three Bikini Kill CDs to play in my car after I told them how much I loved “Rebel Girl.” At one point, they asked me out, and I said no when I wanted to say yes. I fell out of touch with them before high school ended; I think they transferred schools, but I’m not sure now. I think of them whenever I listen to “Rebel Girl.” I hope that they’re doing alright.
More than anything, that’s what I hear in Spunky!. I hear not just their references, but the grit, the vigor, and the sense of community that animates good punk and indie rock from any era. Life still sucks; connection and understanding are still rare. But it has to be possible to find those things in some sweaty underground bar, somewhere. The world might feel like a pit, but as Sentana yelps on the title track, “I was born in the pit.”