At perhaps one of the lowest points in the pandemic, in May 2021, a video appeared, like a rose growing out of a crack in the concrete, of a group of teenage and pre-teenage girls of Chinese, Mexican and Salvadorean descent, a veritable melting pot from Los Angeles taking the acrid anti-Asian racism in the air and transforming it into a marvelous punk alchemy and expiation, an about-face that turned victim into victor.
That viral clip was “Racist, Sexist Boy,” a reaction to an experience 11-year-old drummer Mila de la Garza had with a classmate who was warned to stay away from her because she was Chinese. Along with Mila’s 15-year-old sister Lucia, who plays guitar alongside Bela Salazar, a lifelong friend who was the oldest at 17, and Eloise Wong, a cousin of the de la Garzas, 14, on lead vocals and bass, they formed the Linda Lindas, originally a new wave cover band. Their performance at the Los Angeles Public Library proved a living example of punk’s persistence with a nod to garage-band “Nuggets” pop and attracted industry attention. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Karen O, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol (who put them together) were among their earliest enthusiasts. A record deal with Brett Gurewitz’s L.A. punk label Epitaph, home of Bad Religion, Descendents, the Offspring, Rancid and Pennywise, among many other punk stalwarts, was an almost inevitable capper to their first act.
Now, today’s release of their 10-track debut, “Growing Up,” in the grand minimalist tradition of the Ramones, clocks in at less than 30 minutes. But there’s a reason the normally taciturn Pitchfork has dubbed it “potentially the most heartwarming record of the year.” Of course, this isn’t your ordinary group of teens made good. Producer Carolos de la Garza, the sisters’ father, is a Grammy-winning mix engineer who has worked with Paramore, Best Coast and Bleached and bought his daughters their first guitars and drum kit. But there’s no quarreling with the result. “Growing Up” has the group taking its place among a small class of female punk icons that include Lydia Lunch, Poly Styrene, fellow Angelenos the Go-Go’s and, of course, legendary Japanese punk-rockers Shonen Knife.
Instead of dark nihilism and rejection, the Linda Lindas turn their adolescent doubts and teenage neuroses into pop epiphanies. “When I think of things / They always turn out wrong,” they sing on the opening “Oh!” “And when I try to help, it’s never enough.”
But there’s strength in sisterhood, and on the title track, they boast, “We’ll never cave or we’ll never waver / And we’ll always become braver and braver” over a thumping bassline and rolling drums. “We’ll take the good with the bad / All of the times that we’ll have / Make every moment last / We’ll have each other’s backs.”
Sure, there’s still doubt. “Growing Up” was recorded in an epidemic after all. “Talking to Myself” is second cousin to “Our Lips Are Sealed,” musing about “how life just keeps on giving despite all my bad decisions / I’m still here and I’m still living.”
“Fine” has the primal bratty appeal of the Stooges, with an experimental mid-section that hints at future progress, delivered with the “Oh Bondage Up Yours” sass of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks or X-Ray Spex.
“Nino” goes in the other direction, its title feline “a savage cat / killer of mice and rats,” complete with another dub-wise break amidst its “Beat on the Brat” insouciance. “Why” channels such classic Brill Building heartbreak as Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” an impressively churning undertow lending it a throwback pre-punk vibe.
“Cunatas Veces” is partly in Spanish, but offers the perspective of an outsider coming to grips with their uniqueness. “I’m different / Not like everyone else,” sings Bela in English. “And not the whole world / Will understand me.”
“Remember” offers hope for the future, as does this entire debut, “Maybe tomorrow will be / Bigger, better, bolder / Maybe today was just the calm before the storm.” But don’t think anyone handed these ladies their career on a silver platter. “I wish upon a star / A wish can only take you so far.”
With the release of “Growing Up,” this well could be the calm before the storm. If life was fair, these songs would be streaming out of the earbuds of every teenage girl (and hip boy who wants to belong). “Magic” is about being invisible so “no one would judge me for wanting to be myself,” flying over “my problems and mistakes,” but insisting one must experience all of it to achieve a hard-earned success. “Cause in time it’d just pass me by / And in time I’d feel too far away.” These are teenage girls with the wisdom of old souls.
By the time “Racist, Sexist Boy” comes on as the final track on the album, with its “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” meets “Search and Destroy” righteous anger, it already seems like the Linda Lindas have moved on from recrimination to self-acceptance. “Growing Up” charts that course with pop panache and do-it-yourself guile. It’s their party and they’ll fly if they want to.