An Oral History of L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead’
What began as a breakup lament turned into one of the grunge era's most indelible hits
As ’90s alt-rock anthems go, L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” was a perfectly immediate slice of “bubblegrunge,” simultaneously channeling the noisiness of an active trash compactor with the effortless pop of opening a soda can. When deadpan vocalist Donita Sparks delivered the lyric “Just say no to individuality,” she echoed the ironic detachment of the previous year’s most popular chorus (something something “entertain us”), and the song enjoyed a brief ubiquity in 1992, spending 20 weeks on the Billboard Alternative Song charts. Yet it didn’t stick around for as long as it should have. Hell, when CSS covered it at Coachella a few years ago, they credited it to Daft Punk.
In part, this was because L7 — aside from one notorious tampon tossed into a Reading Festival audience — were relatively gimmick-less: They didn’t contrive an iconic wardrobe, their live shows didn’t include manic meltdowns, and they weren’t urging young women to go out and form bands. Rather, they were repeatedly asked to represent something that they didn’t, which invariably pissed them off.
“There was the girl band thing, there was the foxcore farce, there was the Seattle band farce, there was the grunge-rock thing,” Sparks told SPIN in a 1993 cover story. “We’ve been around longer than all that stuff. Basically, we’re a rock band from Los Angeles.”
Formed in 1985, but crystallized in 1988, the quartet was composed of Sparks, guitarist-vocalist Suzi Gardner, bassist Jennifer Finch, and drummer Dee Plakas; they chose L7, a ’50s slang term, meaning “square,” because, Sparks says, “We did not want a gender-specific name.” Earlier tracks like “Shove” had a grittier energy, and the other singles from 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy — “Wargasm” and “Shitlist” — sounded more deliberately ferocious.
But “Pretend We’re Dead” felt spontaneous, reactionary, and, yeah, contagious. SPIN caught up with Sparks, who wrote the hit, in the midst of working on a DVD to celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary, and we learned exactly how close she came to making this a love song (spoiler: not very).
When was the last time you listened to “Pretend We’re Dead”?
Oh God, are you kidding me? I never put it on. I almost watched the video for you, but I didn’t have time. I was rushing out of the bathtub.
Okay, then, let’s start at the beginning: How did you come up with this song?
I was in my apartment in Echo Park listening to the cassette I’d made, trying to write some lyrics. I was heartbroken at the time. I was actually devastated. And the first thing that came to my mind was, “I just pretend that you’re dead.” And I didn’t mean it in a malicious way, not like I wanted him dead or anything, but I truly felt that the only way I could get through this was to pretend this guy was dead. I had to mourn him. And then immediately, in my mind, I’m like, I’m not writing that. It’s just not gonna happen. What about, “pretend we’re dead”? I liked that because that was a children’s game. And then it became kind of a commentary on Reagan/Bush–era apathy. I don’t think I’ve ever told that story, actually.
I had no idea it was personal!
Yeah. I hope I’m not blowing it for anybody, but that was the process. At that time, there was no room for showing vulnerability in our band, so love songs were out of the question. No one knew about it. It was a personal suffering. So there you have it.
When you say there was no room for vulnerability, was that a mutually agreed-upon attitude?
No, it was never discussed or anything. That was my personal feeling on it. We chose fierceness and humor over vulnerability because we were, you know, navigating challenging waters — women in hard rock. You had to be tough. Suzi and I wrote “Let Me Fly” on that record, which was about a breakup. We were both referring to exes in that one, but there was no pining going on.
Are you happy, in retrospect, that it isn’t a love song? That it morphed into an anthem?
Oh, it’s not a personal story at all now. I chuckle to myself to think that that was the first thing that popped into my head. I never think of that guy. I’m friends with him now, and I’m glad it never worked out.
Did the rest of the band share the enthusiasm for the song? Was there jealousy over the fact that it was yours?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a compliment from my bandmates, except for Dee. Dee’s always neutral. Dee loves all of our stuff, and she will compliment everyone. The rest of us are kind of…there was a healthy competitiveness.
How did L7 feel about that particular song getting popular, because it was certainly poppier than “Shove” or “Shitlist”?
Well, it’s interesting, because I love bubblegum. I love the Archies, I love the Beatles, and at the time, I was really trying to suppress that side. I didn’t know what I was doing; I was just doing it. It’s the greatest feeling to see people on a dance floor dancing to your song. There’s nothing wrong with catchy in my mind, but at the time, I would have to suppress that because we were a hard-rock band.
Did “Pretend We’re Dead” become your “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in the sense that you got sick of it and didn’t want to play it anymore?
Of course we wanted a hit, but when you get a hit, if you’re from the underground, you get almost embarrassed about your hit. It’s so fucked up. All of a sudden, it starts to separate you from the scene that you came from. It can get weird, but I remember we’d have all sorts of shenanigans going on during that song. Our roadie used to come out and iron during Suzi’s lead, or he’d bring out a leaf blower, and during the whole breakdown when I’m not singing, he’s, like, leaf-blowing. God, why did we do that? I think I was just kinda bored. Now I feel like it’s so stupid. Don’t shit on your hit. We’d always end up beating it up live because our audience would be so frothy and we’d be so frothy and Dee would be really amped and she’d just start playing it faster and faster. The kids just wanted to go apeshit to that song.
Have you been happy with the usage of the song in movies and video games?
Back in the day, we were very discerning about usage. There were a lot of requests for stuff that we said no to. How Pet Sematary Two got in there, I don’t know. I don’t remember. I think we were like, “Oh, the Ramones have a song called ‘Pet Sematary.’ It’ll be cool.” Now that’s the only stream of income for so many people. The paychecks are very welcome.
How about being featured in Rock Band?
I don’t play video games, but yeah, I’m cool with that. It’s fine.
Rock for Choice [which Sparks started with the Feminist Majority Foundation to support reproductive rights] was one of the more memorable things to happen during that era. Did you feel politicized at the time?
No, we were shooting off our mouths about a lot of stuff. When we got enough clout, we played benefits for years, for all kinds of things — Greenpeace, reproductive rights. Then we decided to start a rock organization. Abortion rights were so threatened at the time, and they still are. It was incredibly urgent. We stepped back from it once it was off the ground because we started getting a lot of questions about it. It became a focus in our interviews instead of our music. We haven’t been involved in years.
Did you find the “women in rock” narrative of the ’90s limiting?
Yeah, when we were naming our band, we did not want a gender-specific name. I wanted people to listen to our music and go, “Who the fuck is this?” I didn’t really want to be lumped in with anybody. Us being women wasn’t a political platform. When we first formed the band, we had a boy drummer — that didn’t work out, and then we did look for a woman thinking it would be less of a hassle. There was a lot of fatigue with that topic for us and I think for every other female band out there. We wouldn’t do group interviews. If we found out it was a piece on women in rock, we wouldn’t do it because we felt like we deserved our own place, our own article, without being lumped in by gender. There were people after us that embraced that, but we didn’t. We deserved our own place. We fought for it.
What’s the status of L7 at the moment?
I want to do the DVD and I’ll be soliciting contributions from fans and stuff. But there sort of is no status. We have been approached for a reunion kind of thing. That remains to be seen, and you know it would take some…it’s all good. It’s just, we’re on our own right now. All of us.
Does it make sense to you that people get excited about things 20 years later?
It seems like a long time ago, but it also doesn’t. This record came out in 1992, and if I think about a band from 1972, I would’ve thought that was a loooong time ago; 1972 is a long-ass time ago. It just blows my mind that now I’m the older one. Even with the flannel shirts and everything that we used to wear — I don’t think we look that out of style! Maybe kids think, “Grunge. Oh, Jesus.”