In Penelope Spheeris’s notorious 1988 rockumentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, KISS’s Paul Stanley is interviewed while lounging in bed with a bevy of lingerie-clad groupies; W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes chugs a bottle of vodka in a swimming pool; Odin’s Randy O canoodles in a hot tub with bikini girls; Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry brag about spending millions of dollars on drugs; and Taime Downe, Faster Pussycat’s lead singer and the proprietor of popular Hollywood hangout the Cathouse, admits that women can gain entry to his nightclub faster if they wear “sleazy” outfits.
But when all-female metal band Vixen is interviewed in Decline II, they come across as much more sensible, with drummer Roxy Petrucci even joking that her motto is “sex, drums, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Three decades later, former Vixen frontwoman Janet Gardner — whose story is featured in a new three-part documentary, Paramount+’s I Wanna Rock: The ‘80s Metal Dream — tells Yahoo Entertainment that she and her bandmates never felt they had the freedom to wildly party and let it all hang out in the ‘80s like their male Sunset Strip peers.
“I think that people would’ve been like, ‘Oh, sloppy, drunk sluts — that’s not appealing!’ But with men, it’s cool because they’re ‘bad boys,’” gripes Gardner. “There was definitely a double-standard that we had to contend with, but that we were well-aware of. We knew we couldn’t be doing the same things the guys did and get away with it.”
Gardner explains that in a sexist hard-rock era when almost every woman on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball was a “video vixen,” the band Vixen had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. “There were definitely people that were skeptical that we could really do it, and that we would be accepted doing it,” she recalls. “There was a lot of us fighting to prove the fact that we were a real band, just like any other guy bands. There was a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s just a novelty!’ or ‘Do they really play?’ It was very difficult to get past a lot of that.”
This meant there was no room for error — but the scrutiny and skepticism Vixen faced ultimately made them better musicians and a tighter unit.
“I think we were lucky that we were so heavily scrutinized that had we gone up onstage drunk and falling down, it would’ve been the end of us,” Gardner muses. “Because we were scrutinized more than the male bands and eyes were always on us, and because we knew that there was a danger in screwing up in any way, we were all pretty disciplined. We busted our ass on the road. We practiced all the time. We worked hard — harder than the guys. And so, I guess that was a good thing, in a way, that we weren’t really allowed mistakes.”
Gardner recalls that even before Vixen were signed to EMI and released their gold-selling self-titled debut album (which turns 35 this month), they had to behave when they were still playing local gigs and handing out fliers on Sunset. “We knew if we didn’t maintain a certain amount of decorum, even while we were just hanging out, that it would be bad for us. So, we always made sure if one of us was getting a little too drunk or something, we took care of each other. We made sure that nothing bad or scandalous happened, because we wanted people to know we’re a band and we work hard.”
As it turned out, there was also an upside to this situation, as it protected Gardner (a Mormon-raised youngest of five siblings who always had “a sort of naive innocence” and a “little girl from Montana inside me”) and her bandmates from the predatory rockers that were always prowling the Strip. “We would just kind of keep to ourselves, and we always took care of each other. There was no leaving anyone there to take off and do something else. We were always in a tight group, and I think because we stuck together, we weren’t an easy mark to pounce on.”
However, even with their work ethic and sisterhood, there was no escaping the “blatant objectifying of women” in the scene — and Gardner, as the most visible, front-and-center member of Vixen, had to deal with that the most. Once again, double-standards applied.
“We had to be very careful; there was a line we had to navigate,” Gardner explains. “Like, with Jon Bon Jovi, it certainly didn’t hurt him that he looked sexy! But because we’re women, it was a more delicate dance. Like, we wanted people to listen to our music, listen to what we have to say, listen to our art, but yeah — sex sells. It just does. So, sex appeal was important. It was tough.”
Gardner ruefully remembers one night when she pushed her sexy image a bit too far, and it “taught me a lesson. Onstage I wore a fairly short skirt and a shirt with a pretty fair amount of cleavage, and then in a local rock magazine in L.A., BAM, the photos from that show came out — and there was one that was a total up-crotch look! And then in another photo, I was kind of bending over to the crowd, and it was a total boob shot. I thought it was a great show. I thought we sounded great, played great. But this photographer’s takeaway, and what he chose to share with the rest of the world, was: ‘Here’s her crotch. Here’s her boobs. What else do you need to know?’”
“That was the last time I dressed like that. The next show we played, at the Troubadour, I had a blouse up to my neck, leather pants, tall boots that went all the way up. I was showing absolutely no skin. But then you still can’t win: There was a record company guy there that said, ‘Man, she needs to loosen up a little!’ So, people were always saying, ‘Oh, it’s too sexy,’ or ‘There’s not enough sex.’ What can you do?”
Eventually Vixen became MTV stars, and she says it was their 1990 appearance on the inaugural season of one of that network’s most groundbreaking series, Unplugged, that marked a turning point their career. “I was really proud of us. Rolling Stone loved to ignore the whole [‘80s metal] genre, and that was the first time that they ever actually reviewed something that we did,” she says. But even then, Vixen didn’t garner total respect.
“Rolling Stone was very kind and said very nice things about us, but then they said something like ‘a surprisingly strong vocal performance from Janet Gardner.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s really backhanded!’ Because OK, thank you for saying it was a strong vocal performance — but why was it surprising? Either you’re not paying attention to us and what we do, or you don’t want to believe that what we do is real and honest. It was interesting to see comments like that.”
Nowadays, a Gardner-less Vixen lineup still tours, while Gardner, who holds down a day job as a dental hygienist, still performs and records in the rock duo Gardner/James with her husband, Justin James. Gardner does wonder sometimes, considering how Vixen totally bucked the odds in the male-dominated ‘80s — touring with the likes of Scorpions, Deep Purple, and Ozzy Osbourne and scoring a top 40 single with “Edge of a Broken Heart” — that they’ve been somewhat erased from rock history. She hopes “maybe that will change” with the release of I Wanna Rock.
“I have seen that occasionally people will send me something and go, ‘Why aren’t you guys mentioned in some top-female-bands-of-all-time kind of list?’ I figure, the way that [critics] try to erase us is sort of the way they try to erase legitimacy of the whole [hair-metal] genre in general,” Gardner theorizes. “I don’t know any other reason why that would be the case, because we were as accomplished as any male musicians, in my opinion: amazing players, well-schooled, lots of hard work, lots of practice. Maybe they didn’t take us seriously because of the way we looked. I don’t know.
“But on the other hand, there are female musicians that come up to me and say, ‘You guys inspired me to form a band!’” Gardner adds with a grin. “So, if you get a few of those, it’s all good.”