Bringing us up to date before my weekly musings start again properly, I ought to mention the Download festival. As you may have guessed, it is mostly the setting for a rant as far as this blog’s concerned. Rest assured, I did enjoy a long weekend of camping and great music. And I was even recognised as the lead singer of Harlequin’s Kiss while I was out and about…
However, what I want to talk about is why Steel Panther’s performance that weekend put me off them for life.
Steel Panther, for those unfamiliar, are a parody band. They write funny songs full of exaggerated misogyny and obnoxiousness, taking the lyrical tone of an early 80s Motley Crue to ludicrous extremes. Their look is based on the mid-80s, pretty-boy, spandex kind of rock, very reminiscent of Poison. They borrow riffs from big hits, and their banter with the audience between songs is a Spinal Tap kind of parody of what your rockers were doing in the 80s. The ironic nostalgia, affectionately mocking the excesses of 80s rock, has won the hearts of new young rockers and the old guard alike. Or so I thought. That’s the positive view of what they do, at any rate.
The problem with this kind of parody is that you can’t go far enough that everyone will see it as a joke. Take Ali G, who my classmates in late 90s Doncaster didn’t realise was supposed to be funny because the character is a deluded idiot. They thought his behaviour was normal. Or take Fight for Your Right to Party by The Beastie Boys, which was meant to be a hip-hop trio lampooning their macho-douchebag rock contemporaries. Until those macho douchebags adopted the song as an anthem. But this is a purely academic issue. What really bugged me was the closing 10 minutes of their live show.
I caught the end of the set, sitting on the slope above the arena while I waited for The Pretty Reckless to appear on another stage. Between songs they do a comedy sketch where the guitarist, Satchel, tells us how much he loves Download while the bassist, Lexxi Foxx, keeps saying, “didn’t you say that about Sonisphere?” It’s an old joke, but nobody’s watching this stage for the originality. Then, after another song or two, it’s time for that closing spot they do where they get some girls from the audience on stage.
Now, I have to break off a minute to make a point about the current social climate. In years gone by, a girl in the audience sitting on a dude’s shoulders and lifting her top would have got her some camera time on the big screen. Now, the directors don’t seem to go actively looking for those girls, and even cut to something else instead. The rock scene is made up of two extremes – the posturing meat-heads that were infamous in the 80s, and the well-read, politically active types who’ve seen the light of feminism and related movements. And I think the meat-heads are a dying breed.
Anyway, the girls get on stage. They pose with the band. They’re drunk. One already has her top off (case in point: only shown on the screens in long shots). One brunette clearly fancies Satchel, and so walks up behind him, drapes her arms over him and jiggles his crotch with both hands.
So Michael Starr, the singer, begins by getting the girls to walk down the protruding catwalk part of the stage (which I’m sure wasn’t there last year – I think Aerosmith wanted it). Just as Tommy Lee might have done, he suggests that the girls all take their tops off. One or two do, but the ones that don’t are offered no further pressure. Then Starr suggests some other mild ludity, and Satchel (as the comedy role for this spot) suggests some ludicrous, self-serving ludity as an alternative and is ignored. Not comedy gold, but clearly a joke. Then Starr says he wants to set a record, because nobody’s ever played a whole song at Download with three girls making out with each other on stage all the way through. Satchel chimes in that nobody’s played a whole song at Download while three girls are sucking off the guitarist. He then has to prevent the brunette from helping him live the dream.
Why was this all a big deal? Well, Steel Panther are a parody. So they’re trying to take the piss out of the bands that did this (and Motley Crue were certainly still doing Tommy Lee’s “tiddy cam” as recently as 2006). The problem is, society hasn’t moved on enough to make the whole thing ironic. So while putting a veneer of irony over the affair, four guys on stage are peer-pressuring a selection of audience members to Get Their Tits Out for the Lads. And in not realising that Satchel’s aside may be taken seriously, the Steel Panther guys clearly don’t realise that a rock audience has evolved with decades of using sexuality as a way of sticking it to authority. At the end of the show, Starr asked the audience to give the girls a cheer. The quiet half-heartedness of the applause was a demonstration of how uncomfortable the display had been for Download’s Sunday evening crowd. I suspect many of those who did cheer felt like I did – an uncomfortable tension between the convention of giving a cheer to audience members who were part of the show (like a magician’s audience dupe) and the fact that we really didn’t want to condone what just happened.
The worst of this is: if Steel Panther are parodying the fact that we used to do this shit last century, then they know what they’re doing. So this whole affair makes them hypocrites for mocking the very flesh show they’re exploiting these women to give. And it is exploitation. These same girls certainly wouldn’t have got their tits out for you, and probably not for me. Give me a platinum album and a rock festival stage and that might change – and that’s my point. Famous guys get female attention and they’re exploiting that amenability to make a sex show on stage that will surely sell tickets. Or if they’re being smarter than that, if this is about us as an audience not getting the joke, about them holding up our lust for bare boobs and these girls’ willingness to expose themselves for a rock band that’s just a joke (honest, guv!), then they’re cynically exploiting the nostalgia of the followers of 80s rock bands. Laughing at us up their sleeves because their joke is on us. Which would make them the kind of intellectual musical snobs that sneer at us for liking such a vapid art form as hair metal. You know the type – they usually like The Smiths. Either way, be they exploitative hypocrites or playing a sneering and meta practical joke, all I can say after this unpleasant end to a show is: fuck Steel Panther.