Skanks, But No Skanks

WE WATCH MTV THE WAY THOSE uptight society prudes in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" flip through Hustler. Some slick new video by some dopey new band comes on, and we instantly bemoan their lack of originality, the grating bellow or shriek of the singer's voice, the ridiculous devil's prong or baldie or Mohawk haircut and the appalling sum of money the entire spectacle obviously cost. But we keep watching. The latest compulsively horrendous offering on MTV is No Doubt, a pop-ska band from Anaheim, Calif., whose second album, "Tragic Kingdom," has sold more than 5 million copies and whose current video, "Don't Speak," is in eternal rotation. Watching "Don't Speak," you might notice that singer Gwen Stefani has a thin, tuneless voice, that her lyrics about heartbreak are awkward and clichEd ("Our memories, they can be inviting/But some are altogether mighty frightening") and that the song's opening riff is stolen directly from Aerosmith's "Dream On." But none of that matters. No Doubt demands to be heard. Stefani has the blondest hair, the barest midriff and the most shamelessly ingratiating style on MTV. She has a quality in high currency: skank appeal.

Skankiness is tricky to define. It's a certain post-grunge je ne sais quoi that has to do with sexiness in such clanking, chugging overdrive that it teeters on the edge of grossness. It's not limited to women: the artist formerly known as Prince is a bit skanky when he cuts a bellybutton window out of his skintight jumpsuit. And that guy from Marilyn Manson is so skanky that we wouldn't touch him with a 35i-foot pole; we'd be afraid his face might fall off and crumble like old plaster. But skankiness is most easily expressed by women. And right now there's a real skank brigade on MTV. Rapper Lil' Kim, whose album "Hard Core" mimics a porn movie, makes li'l Stefani look like the girl next door. Shirley Manson, singer for the savvy alternative-pop band Garbage, is a mean skank: her voice seethes with such gnarly disdain in songs like "Supervixen" that we fully believe her when she hisses, "I can take you out with just a flick of my wrist." You don't have to read Hustler to know that there's something richly sleazy going on. These women don't want our love and respect the way Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner and Marianne Faithfull did. They want to conquer us. They want our cash. They're seducing us now, but they're going to dump us as soon as the sales tallies, Nielsen ratings and video music awards come in.

Politically correct neo-feminists would probably argue that all this brazen sexuality on MTV is progress. Ten years ago, practically the only woman on the channel was Tawny Kitaen, wife of David Coverdale, front man for the cheesy pop-metal band Whitesnake. Tawny had stiletto-heeled stilt legs, a centerfold's figure and about 20 gallons of flowing red hair. She rolled around on the hoods of cars and spread her legs and helped sell millions of records. Well, now women can roll around and tease the camera and it's their band! Whoop-dee-do. Stefani, Lil' Kim and Manson deserve some props for their music. Lil' Kim has a tough, bawdy rap style, and her album "Hard Core" features amped-up funk and smoky grooves. Garbage's self-titled debut album has an impressive swirl of acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and swanky pop hooks that actually push alternative rock in a new direction. And No Doubt has a pleasing, punchy sound that borrows from '80s British new-wave bands like Madness and Bow Wow Wow.

But it's hard to imagine any of these bands reaching its current level of success without the front women doing their shtik. BOUGHT AND SOLD OUT IN U.S.A., says No Doubt's kitschy album cover--right, we get it, that's not a joke. One of the most endearing things about Stefani is the way she simultaneously apes both feminist and bimbo stereotypes. "I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite/So don't let me have any rights," she sang in No Doubt's bouncy, peppy single "Just a Girl." It was the year's most ringing declaration of not-quite independence, moderate self-esteem and quasi conviction. But we feel like party poopers complaining about it. As Larry Flynt says, it's a free country.