The Progress Melter – Steel Panther and the Extent of “Comedy”

This should go without saying, but women have always had the ability to excel at playing guitar, and they often have. The rock and metal scene specifically has benefited from the contributions of players like Chelsea Wolfe, Liz Buckingham (Electric Wizard), Simone Dow (Voyager), Nancy Wilson (Heart), Lori Von Linstruth (Ayreon), Sarah Longfield, Laura Pleasants (Kylesa) and many more. What has changed (at least partially) is the acceptance of women as capable performers by the majority of the metal community. Growing up, a metal band having any non-male member was seen as an endearing oddity by my circle of friends. This has thankfully become an accepted norm, and when a band like Baroness adds a player like Gina Gleason, a good portion of our community views it exactly how they should: not as an odd edition of a female member, but as a band enhancing their lineup with a talented, accomplished guitarist. As a result, we’ve seen the guitar industry respond with their own recognition of female guitar players. Perhaps the best example of this is Ernie Ball Music Man partnering with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) to create a custom guitar. The axe was designed specifically with Clark’s input and includes features and effects pulled from experience and expertise as a player.

Unfortunately, if you’ve followed the music blogosphere this week, you’ll know all of this was meant to set up yet another installment of “The Problem with Metal.” Despite women in general deserving respect and female guitarists proving they’re equal to their male peers, “comedy” metal band Steel Panther and TC Electronic seem to feel differently. The duo collaborated on a preset guitar pedal effect called the “Pussy Melter,” a pretty bad name accompanied by a very bad description: “When we met up with Steel Panther’s oh-so-humble guitarist, he had only one condition: that the tone be as wet as the ladies on the front row.” Though TC Electronic said the effect was released a year ago, it just recently drew the ire of a number of prominent female guitarists, including Michelle Zauner from Japanese Breakfast and Raphaelle Standell-Preston from Braids:

In the handful of days since, TC Electronic removed the effect from its website and issued a statement saying “We recognize that the material was inappropriate and we have removed the TonePrint in question from the app and we will take it down from our website as soon as possible. We sincerely apologize.” For their part, Steel Panther took a…different approach when responding to the situation. The band’s guitarist Satchel tweeted “I’m working overtime with TC Electronics to re-release the “pussy melter” tone print under the less offensive, more politically correct name of the “Butthole Burner”. Don’t worry- it will still melt your pussy, ladies.” Stix Zadinia, the band’s drummer, chimed in with “Today has been really entertaining online. Again, I’d sincerely like to express my love of pussy, weed, partying and heavy metal. @Steel_Panther is a lifestyle.” Some of the band’s fans – or apologists, at the very least – also jumped in with some thoughts of their own:

The main issue I and many other Heavy Bloggers have with Steel Panther is their misleading dedication to being a caricature of 80s hair metal. The band fetishizes the days when the genre’s music videos, song lyrics and general aesthetic oozed with enough toxic masculinity to power a frat house for the five or six years it would take its pledges to graduate with their B.A. These themes are prevalent enough in their music to essentially become a textbook example of what was wrong with the genre in the first place. The “spoof” is as thin as it can be, considering the band seemingly lacks any self-awareness of the meaning behind their actions and aesthetic.

Though there are many issues with Steel Panther, the main problem in this instance is the way the “Pussy Melter” uses a crass, juvenile joke to harken back to a time when women were a prop for metal musicians to do with what they will. And in a time when female musicians have finally been recognized as having talent and agency in the industry, it’s particularly problematic to have a popular band, prominent music company and a portion of the metal community be completely content with preserving a cringeworthy period in the genre’s history.

And to nip this fun little argument in the bud, the company was in no way “forced” to pull the pedal effect. It’s always funny how the free speech crowd seems to think the First Amendment only goes one way. Somehow Steel Panther should have the freedom to use whatever name they wish (which is true), but people offended by it have no right to voice their opinion and start a petition to ask that the name be removed. No government agency swooped in to force TC Electronic’s hand; they are an independent company who chose of their own volition to change the name.

In conversations I’ve seen and had personally, the most common response is “Who cares?” This is an admittedly minor issue considering the unending catastrophe that is our current political situation. But then again, the act of conceiving and naming this pedal was so obviously problematic and should have only taken a sliver of social understanding and decency to understand why it shouldn’t have moved forward. And considering the fact TC Electronic pulled the product of their own volition, they clearly understood to some extent that the decision was misguided.

Unfortunately, the sentiment of “Why should I care” isn’t a surprising question coming from non-women metal fans. As we’ve discovered with the response to our posts on misogyny in metal and Neo-Nazism in black metal, there’s a severe disinterest from the metal community to empathize with marginalized individuals. As a straight, white, non-religious man, I can’t fully empathize with the offense given by a sexist pedal effect or Neo-Nazism in black metal. However, both of these issues anger me deeply as a person, and despite not being able to share the personal experiences with sexism felt by the guitarists who called out Steel Panther and TC Electronic, it’s really effortless to understand why it’s offensive and needlessly problematic. And similarly, it was effortless to express that in this post and to generally strive to act in a way that doesn’t perpetuate these types of misogynistic themes.

Again, for most non-woman metal fans, there’s no direct reason for them to care. To them, it’s no big deal, and the mantra of “suck it up or get out” is once again directed at anyone who complains. But if we want to continue fostering a genre that’s a breeding ground for a diversity of ideas, that naturally comes from artists who hail from a diverse array of backgrounds. And the more we tolerate needless garbage like the “Pussy Melter,” the less inviting metal seems to outsiders of the genre, particularly women. If we’re comfortable leaving the reigns of the genre to people who think immature gutter humor is a hill worth dying on, then I guess we’re content with continuing to alienate potential fans of the genre we all love.

Scott Murphy

Embracing the “Parody” Status

People will argue to hell or high water about Steel Panther’s “parody” status, where there is a valid argument to be made when the band’s entire gimmick revolves around ramping up the 1980s glam metal aesthetic. Anyone who has seen Steel Panther live knows that their performances are astoundingly goofy, the band members acting as if they’re more concerned with their images than the music they’re playing, exampled by guitarist Satchel whipping out a handheld mirror and hairspray to make sure his massive hair stays in place. Anyone who knows the band personally will tell you that they’re the most consent-conscious, sweetest men on the planet.

However, that’s really not the point. Any internet-savvy individual will also make the connection between satire and this oft-used quote regarding satire—”satire requires a clarity of purpose and target lest it be mistaken for and contribute to that which it intends to criticize.” This means that for people to “get the joke” in whatever is being satirized, the message of the satirizer needs to be clear and the target made available.

To point: if Steel Panther are to wholly embrace their status as a parody act, their act should truly be a parody and not merely an exaggeration. People familiar with the glam movement of the ’80s know that the major acts that arose from that time had only three major themes—sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. KISS, Poison, Mötley Crüe and more all made careers out of the love in pushing their bodies to the extreme in whatever vice they chose, oftentimes several at once. And these themes weren’t just in their music, they were in their lifestyles. Any interview will reveal the reality of being in a major act.

While Steel Panther embody the spirit of rock’n’roll’s years past, the problematic nature of their lyrical content (and, in turn, their live show) has a diminishing place in the modern musical landscape that points towards a more progressive, inclusive social structure. If Steel Panther is meant to be an extreme exaggeration of what a movement of music embodied, why shouldn’t all aspects of Steel Panther be extreme exaggerations?

The suggestion here is that Steel Panther widen their proverbial umbrella. That is to say, their comedy routine should punch in more directions than down. The theme of women as objects of sexual desire is still fairly practiced in all modern genres of music—it’s an easy subject to write around. But with a greater understanding of the world around us and the sheer variety of individuals that make up our incredibly diverse society, Steel Panther would do well to perhaps include not just cis women, but men, trans individuals, non-binary, and more as the subjects of their sexual desire—really run the gamut of who they would fuck.

Cis, heterosexual men wanting only cis women is easy and normative and writing around that subject is easy. Giving in to your own hedonism and wanting to grind against just about everything is ludicrous, but just reasonably wacky enough to take this bit to the next level. What Steel Panther need to do is truly be a celebration of excess and absurdity.  If they were to do that, they would be holding up a mirror to the hegemonic, outdated and exclusionary reality of what glam metal was/is about and call for a broadening of the horizon of what’s an essentially regressive genre and its aesthetic. In short, they’d be actual satire, sharp and cutting to the core of the thing they ridicule. As long as they shy back from that attitude and continue to write songs about objectifying and having sex with cis women they’re not brave, they’re not critical and they’re not satire; they’re just another bunch of men looking to give expression to their sexual aggression, albeit it in a “funny” and “comedic” way.

Kyle Gaddo

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus