Steel Panther are halfway through their set when they get bored with ribbing one another and start roasting the crowd instead. It’s a Wednesday night at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood — where the band just wrapped its three-week residency — and the onstage banter about which band member has the best abs, the biggest penis, the most plastic surgery and gets the most ass quickly escalates into an insult match aimed specifically at the female fans in the audience.
There are expletive-laced jokes about fat women, white women, Mexican women, old women, Asian women, gay women and black women. No cheap joke is spared at the expense of race, size or sexual preference.
The great thing about having sex with a Mexican woman, lead singer and former David Lee Roth impersonator Michael Starr (real name: Ralph Saenz) says at one point, is that she’ll clean up your house afterward. Drummer Stix Zadinia (also not his real name) hits the splash cymbal and the kick drum, as if to further emphasize the not-so-subtle punchline. Ba-dum-ching! Get it?
The uncomfortable gag doesn’t end there. Guitarist Satchel (also his stage name), wearing a bushy brown wig and a fishnet tank top, takes it a step further, diving into the first notes of Ritchie Valens’ Spanish-language hit “La Bamba.” Starr sings along, changing the chorus from “Baila la bamba” to “Pa-pa-pussy.”
Perhaps the off-color quips should come as no surprise from a hair-metal band that sings “I wanna sink my summer sausage into that double chin” on a song called “Fat Girls” and “Wrap a tuna roll on my dick and the bitch is on her knees” on a power ballad called “Asian Hooker.” But it’s hard to imagine any other successful touring band getting away with the kind of humor on which Steel Panther has built a career, touring the world and releasing several chart-climbing albums over the past decade.
When it comes to their overt racism and sexism, Steel Panther manage to escape any major criticism because of their reputation as a self-aware parody band. But there’s just one problem with that: Steel Panther say they don’t see themselves as a parody act.
“The label of being a parody band is not something we put on ourselves,” says Starr, who, as a veteran of the Sunset Strip music scene and a former frontman for L.A. Guns, has far more metal cred than comedy chops. “We just truly sing about shit that makes us laugh.”
Steel Panther obviously are striving for humor in many aspects of their image, lyrics and live show. Nothing illustrates that better than bassist Lexxi Foxx's constant application of makeup and hairspray using a handheld mirror, which becomes a running gag throughout the show. Steel Panther are hardly asking to be taken seriously. But when the audience becomes implicated in the performance, the line between parody and authenticity gets blurry. Sometimes, an offensive joke is just an offensive joke.
When I get Starr on the phone a little more than a week after walking out of his show, my stomach in a knot from watching a woman in a kimono writhe onstage to the sound of “Asian Hooker,” I half expect him to do the interview in the aggressive, foul-mouthed persona of the exaggerated rock-star character he’s invented. Some part of me hopes it will all be revealed to be part of an elaborate, highly choreographed comedy performance in which he and his Spandex-clad team of metalheads never shatters the illusion of 1980s debauchery and ignorance.
But the voice on the other end of the line sounds sincere, making self-deprecating jokes about his age (51) and apologizing for having to reschedule because of his physical therapy. He also defends his onstage shenanigans, insisting that the band is just having fun and not serving up a winking critique of misogyny, as some fans have suggested online. When asked about his jokes aimed at Mexican women, for example, Starr shrugs off the question, suggesting that because he insults all races equally, it’s fair game.
“You can’t leave out the white trailer trash, because that would be racist, too,” he says. “And as far as getting away with more than other bands would … look, if Bono can get up and talk about political stuff onstage and Kanye West can say the shit he’s saying, fuck, we can do whatever the hell we want. Think about it.”
Bono using his massive platform to advocate for world peace and human rights hardly seems comparable to Steel Panther using theirs to perpetuate race and gender stereotypes and beg women to take off their tops. And to be fair, nearly every time West opens his mouth at a concert, award show or other public event, his words are immediately subjected to immense scrutiny. Taylor Swift, through her spokesperson, was among a chorus of critics who slammed a song on West’s latest album, for example, for having “a strong misogynistic message.” (In it, West boasted, “Me and Taylor might still have sex/I made that bitch famous.”)
Steel Panther are, of course, not nearly as famous or as influential as U2 or Kanye West. But don’t let the title of their latest album, Live From Lexxi’s Mom’s Garage, fool you; they’re also not a struggling local garage band. The album is currently lodged in the top 10 on Billboard’s comedy chart, right up there with such actual comedians as Daniel Tosh, Chris Hardwick and Brian Regan. Since signing with a division of Universal Music Group in 2008, Steel Panther have booked sold-out concerts in places like Sweden, Australia and the U.K., where Starr says they’re much more famous than they are here in America.
The band has come a long way since performing under the names Metal Skool and Metal Shop at the Viper Room in the early 2000s, where Starr says having a beer bottle chucked at his face made him realize “that not everybody loves heavy metal like we do.” The gigs eventually became a hot spot, attracting celebrities like Steven Tyler, upon whom Starr says he used to practice his heckling routine. The Sunset Strip club also was where the band gained a reputation for inviting women onstage to take off their clothes. “Who doesn’t like to see chicks dancing? That’s why strip clubs are so popular,” says Starr, who adds that the longtime staple of their shows evolved organically. “Girls enjoy the band and they’re having a lot of fun. They want to get onstage.”
I’d seen Steel Panther perform years ago in Las Vegas, so when I found myself at their show in Hollywood this month, I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into. Heckling, nudity and profanity are all fine by me. But something about watching their act performed virtually unchanged — at a time when even the world’s biggest pop stars are declaring themselves feminists and musicians are routinely forced to issue apologies, pull music videos and cancel gigs following accusations of sexism and racism — was deeply jarring. Times have changed and Steel Panther's act no longer feels like a harmless celebration of rock machismo, even if it is played for laughs.
So is the band facing any new pressure to stop making racial and gender-baiting jokes? “It’s 2016. Shit’s different now. And America is …,” Starr’s voice trails off as he searches for an answer and then realizes he doesn’t have one. “Whatever,” he says. “I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been asked these questions.”
Steel Panther’s act is tough to pinpoint, existing in a strange gray area that defies easy categorization. On the one hand, they’re clearly a throwback to the 1980s hair-metal scene. But on the other, they’re not a cover band or a tribute band — although they initially formed as one, a move that Starr says allowed them to sign a record deal and then eventually write their own original songs and stop “trying to be all serious, sing about shit we wanted to sing about.”
That includes, presumably, singing about such favorite subjects as “Fat Girls” and “Asian Hookers.” But Steel Panther have too much musical talent to be in it for the laughs alone — and, even more troubling, they’re the first ones to admit it.