first round game
(8) vixen, "edge of a broken heart"
(9) damn yankees, "high enough"
and will play in the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Then vote. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/3.
chelsea biondolillo on vixen's "edge of a broken heart"
A brief history (in words and pictures) of my rise toward and escape from high school, and Vixen’s rise and fall from fame—both of which happened between 1987-1991.
A couple of weeks into the 1986 school year, my parents moved from Portland to Oregon City, a mostly blue collar suburb about ten miles away. My city friends warned me about the “preppies” out in the sticks, how they popped their collars, teased their mullets, and listened to hair metal. Though I joked along, I took mental notes about what it would take to fit in out there.
My eighth-grade school picture demonstrates how far I’d managed to not come in a year. It’s not that I was opposed to big hair or shoulder pads—I had the Thompson Twins on endless repeat that year—it’s that I just didn’t know how to do it. My hair drooped lankly by second period no matter what I did. I hated collars and pastels.
The women of Vixen however, were at least publicly not sweating such details. As lead guitarist of the band, Jan Kuehnemund told Aamer Haseem of VH1’s short-lived reality TV show, Bands Reunited, in 2004 of the band’s look, there was “not really a whole lot of planning, on the clothing. What we were wearing was stuff we liked. We were just girls doing our hair, doing our makeup.”
In the earliest publicity pictures of the band-as-we-know-them, they look like they have done it all themselves. Their acid wash and leather fringe look like off-the-rack from Miller’s Outpost or Contempo Casuals. Their hair looks more frayed than styled. They are the kind of glamorous in this photo that the girls who lived next door to me aspired to, which is to say, an LA-by-way-of-the-sticks kind.
Though the kernel of the band formed in St. Paul, MN, the lineup that would become known as “classic” moved to California in the mid-80s to join the rock scene immortalized in ’87 by Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years.
VIXEN “classic” lineup:
Janet Gardner—lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Jan Kuehnemund—lead guitar, background vocals
Share Pedersen—bass, background vocals
Roxy Petrucci—drums, background vocals
When I look at the earliest pictures of Vixen, I see flyover country’s idea of Hollywood metal. This is also what I see in many of the faces from my high school yearbooks.
I picture Linda, an Oregon City girl whose bangs were teased so tall she had to hunch forward to fit in the passenger seat of her mom’s Corolla.
I picture pre-teen Tonya Harding hand-sewing her skate costumes—she would have gone to the high school just one depressed suburb over from mine, if she hadn’t dropped out—using fabric from the Mill End store we all shopped at.
There’s a brief scene in Decline, when Spheeris asks a baby-faced Janet Gardner if she has a back-up plan, in case Vixen doesn’t make it, and Janet says, smiling big, “No such thing. No back up.”
One girl I knew in the 9th grade wasn’t allowed to use hairspray, because her Jehovah’s Witness mother thought it Satanic. But every couple of weeks or so, when this girl got on the school bus, she’d brandish a pink can of contraband Aquanet and announce to everyone that it was time to do her hair. A mob would form as she aspirated glue around and around her head. Hands would reach in to scrunch and push clumps from tip to root. Brushes and combs were contributed to the cause. Then the crowd would part and she’d be laughing and patting at her giant sunburst of a mess of hair, which she’d later have to rip and yank flat before the bus dropped her back off at home. I remember the long hiss from the can, and the sound of all her ends splitting in the afternoon. It didn’t seem like fun, during or after.
That same year, I was old enough to start “running around downtown” with one of my old friends. I gave up trying to fit in with the subdivision kids, and switched to black lipstick (absolutely verboten in my school picture) and the flatter hair I saw downtown. More Calamity Jane, less Lizzy Borden. More Kim Gordon, less Lita Ford.
Vixen, meanwhile was not only into that suburbs-hit-it-big vibe, they were leading the charge. In 1988, they were signed to EMI, and released their first album, Vixen. “Edge of a Broken Heart,” with its big open notes and head-banging 4/4 time, combined with boilerplate lost-love lyrics, was the first single. And that was no mistake: “Edge” was written by Richard Marx (music) and Fee Waybill of The Tubes (lyrics) at the request of their shared label. The album credits on Vixen include four producers, four lead engineers, and fifteen writers in addition to Jan and Janet.
“Edge” made it to number 26 on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year, but it couldn’t hold the spot. While Marx is on the year-end list, with “Hold on to the Nights,” Vixen is not.
Despite it being their biggest year as a band, it still wasn’t easy.
At best, they were ladies first, rockers second. In a flashback clip on Bands Reunited, Jan tells an interviewer, “People would come up to us, and they’d tell us that halfway through the show, they forgot they were listening to a female band. They were just having a good time.”
At worst, they were a gimmick to sell records. Toward the end of the reunion show, Share Pedersen (now Ross) reminisces with her bandmates about how “…at the beginning of every tour, the guys in the other band? and the crew?—remember? At the side of the curtain, to see if we actually played our instruments!” The women all nod.
I like to think, based on the promo picture of the band for “Cryin’,” the second single released that year, they, like me, have heard a bit of goth’s clarion call. They were surely in the process of refining and defining their “look”—Jan’s ‘fox’ striped clip-in hair piece has made its appearance, while Roxy Petrucci has traded her acid-wash bustier for leather. Janet’s hair is less wingy at the temples and Share’s has more height, which suggests a stylist on board.
The weekend before I started high school, I was “missing” for a couple of days. It is worth noting that no one knew this until after I’d come back home. I did not run away. I was not lost. But, I’d been loose downtown with a very bad influence, and once my mom figured out what we’d done, I was grounded for a year. What I see in this picture is a desperate attempt to play the part of someone following the rules. I am wearing colors other than black and I have even tried to pouf up my bangs again, and again, I have failed.
I have always hated this picture.
The women of Vixen, meanwhile, have been touring hard in their picture. They spent 1989 supporting their singles and opening for huge names like Ozzy and The Scorpions all over the world. In August, they played with Bon Jovi, Europe, and Skid Row to a crowd of 66,000 metalheads in the UK. And just a couple of months later, they were back in the studio, but this time, without Marx or Waybill’s writing help.
In another 80s flashback clip, Share says, “the writing is so much easier now, because we trust each other,” but sitting with Haseem in 2004, she admitted that the opposite was true. In 1989, she says Jan and Roxy were trying to find songwriters who could whip up another hit while she and Janet felt, “…let’s keep the writing in the band. No outside writers at all. We don’t need it. Why are we doing it? That’s bullshit.”
By my junior year (no longer grounded), I’d collected around me a host of poor but well-read friends, and we aspired, even if vaguely, to getting the fuck out. In this year’s school picture, I see that bluster and resolve. I’d made a pact with a couple other girls not to smile for the camera. I was proudly wearing a second-hand men’s jacket. This is the year I’d saved up enough for my first pair of Doc Martens.
I was so sure I’d go to art school after graduation that I’d stubbornly refused to sign up for math classes, even though my guidance counselor said I’d need three years of math to get into any “regular” college as a fallback plan. I am clearly saying No such thing—no backup, here.
Vixen, too, were forging ahead, despite rumblings of dissatisfaction from the ranks. The bullshit that Share and Janet had called out in ’89 carried on into 1990. They’d managed to limit their sophomore release, Rev it Up, to one producer, but they couldn’t stop the flood of fill-in writers. Pedersen and Gardner are the sole writers credited on only four of the album’s eleven tracks. The other seven songs are written in part by other people, at least a dinner party’s worth, including members of lesser-known glam metal acts like Keel and Autograph, and writers who’d pinch hit for Eric Clapton, Heart, Elton John, and Whitney Houston.
I know this year was tough on the band personally, but they look the most comfortable in their leather, lace, and big hair, here. That October, they played their new single on the Arsenio Hall Show, giving them a chance to reach a wider audience. Even still, in an interview for his book Flashbacks to Happiness: Eighties Music Revisited (2005), Share told Randolph Michaels “people thought we were lip-synching. They didn’t think it was really us singing!”
My friends and I were headed toward the post-glam grunge aesthetic waving our working-class roots as a stubborn standard, while Vixen were all-in on Southern California’s sheer sleeves, pale pink against shiny black, and brocade-for-days party scene. Somehow, even after years of teasing and curling irons and hairspray, their hair looks better. In this picture, they look a little like they think glam can last forever.
My senior pictures were taken by my grandmother in her front yard, which is now, over a year after her death, my yard. We tacked up a piece of paisley fabric from Mill End and I got myself all goth-glammed out, and she snapped away. I was headed to art school in the fall, as I’d predicted, and I was working hard to carve out some aesthetic for myself that felt true and safe. While crashing hard into Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, I was also listening to a lot of Mazzy Star and Smashing Pumpkins. What I was not even considering listening to, was hair metal.
And it turns out I wasn’t alone. Share told VH1 that the band broke up in ‘91 because Jan was too nice, too swayed by the opinions of others, but also “it just seemed like the whole era was over anyway, and it was just time to call it a day.” To hear the band retell it, they broke up over the suggestion of a second (or replacement) guitarist, but the tension had been high for months. They weren’t alone, either. Many of the bands in Spheeris’s film didn’t make it out of the early nineties. (Though many saw an inexplicable resurgence in 2001, according to their Wikipedia pages.)
Reliving the 80s in the mid-aughts
When I found a YouTube copy of the 2004 VH1’s Bands Reunited Vixen show, I watched with a mix of discomfort and fascination. I hate seeing people thrown together in awkward situations designed for maximum drama. Which is what seemed to be going on as Haseem surprises the bandmates one by one. We see Jan express disbelief that the others will go for it from behind what looks like her office-job desk. We see Janet, who says she’s a stay-at-home mom going through dental hygienist training, bite her lip and say, “I haven’t been singing at all.” Roxy, ever the badass, is of course into it, but says that she’s been “playing [drums] with myself a lot lately.” While Share, ambushed as she knits with friends at a yarn store, and looking every bit the diy-punk-“Stitch n Bitcher” so popular in the early aughts, seems most to have moved on creatively. She’s got other music projects going on, and needs a lot of peer pressure from the other knitters to say yes.
Except, further research found the band had been together in various incarnations for years—all except Share. Janet, who said her “life had gone in a completely different direction” since the breakup, who “only sings for my son these days,” who seemed the most nervous about performing, the most wigged out by the possibility of having to face Jan after all those years—had been playing with Roxy in a version of the band since 1997, even recording an album in 1998. And Jan, for all her quiet anger at getting kicked out, had been playing guitar with Janet and Roxy since 2001. I know that no one believes that reality TV is real, but... For all their early struggle to be taken seriously as musicians, to be seen as authentic rockers, it seemed the phoniest of theatrics.
In 2004, I too went to an 80s party, held not by a TV show, but by a coworker at my newly acquired corporate desk job. I remember aspiring to a John-Hughes-Molly-Ringwald look (not pictured: a wide-shouldered petal pink brocade long suit jacket, which I rented for the occasion), but a certain Vixenesque glam influence is undeniable. I’d also like the record to show that I kept those curls up all night. Turns out there’s no magic to it, it just takes a fucking TON of hairspray.
The women of Vixen would try to spin the reunited line up into a steady thing, but it fell apart quickly. Jan, using the name and three new musicians, released some music in 2005, and then tried again in 2013 to get the original members back together. Share, Roxy and Janet all agree that they’d signed on, but the announcement was delayed by Jan’s sudden cancer diagnosis. She died just a few months later. The three remaining members reunited, as promised, and with a new guitarist they are still touring today. They’ve got 12 dates this year, including three in Europe and one with Lita Ford.
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of two prose chapbooks: Ologies and #Lovesong (Etchings Press, UIndy). Her essays have appeared widely online and in print, and have been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: an Essay Daily Reader. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies, and is a regulatory analyst by day and an online adjunct by night. She lives outside Portland, Oregon on a couple of acres in the shadow of Mt. Hood and blogs irregularly at roamingcowgirl.com .
michael schaub on damn yankees' "high enough"
In 1997, I was sitting with a friend in a bar in College Station, Texas, illegally drinking a weak-ass Pennsylvania beer—this bar’s poor beer selection was the price you paid for its hilariously lax carding policy—when the opening chords of “High Enough,” the 1990 hit from the supergroup (this is maybe a generous description, but whatever) Damn Yankees started blasting from the jukebox.
My friend’s eyes got wide. “I love this song,” he said. “I lost my damn virginity to this song.”
My first instinct was to gently mock him, but I’d lost my own virginity to the Cranberries, whose biggest hit at the time was about children dying in terrorist attacks. Anyway, my friend—I’ll call him Wayne, for the sake of his privacy and also because I’ve forgotten his name; we weren’t all that close—didn’t seem sheepish about the revelation at all. He was, I think, the same guy who told me his sister had once contracted cat scratch fever, which I hadn’t theretofore realized was A Real Thing, so I guess Ted Nugent had an outsize effect on his childhood. It could be worse. I mean, it couldn’t, but God knows we all have our issues.
I can’t remember the exact first time I heard “High Enough,” although it was almost certainly on MTV, in the days when—you know what Gen-X rant is coming—they actually played music videos, and not shows like 16 and Making Reeeeeal Bad Life Decisions and Your Car Was Bad, but Now It Is Good. The video is something to behold. It opens with a sheriff leaning against his car, a woman in a midriff-baring shirt standing by him. “Hey, Sheriff, what seems to be the problem around here?” He replies, “Don’t worry about it, ma’am. Just them damn Yankees.”
(Actually, he says something like, “Doan wurrboudit, mayum. Jes’ them dayum Yankees,” because this was the era when all actors played Southern characters like braying doofuses who have just had dental surgery, thus preventing them from talking like normal people. But I digress.)
The video features live shots of the band performing at an old-timey gas station, alternating with scenes that tell the story of a young couple doing some robbery-type crimes, and accruing a large wad of cash as a result. Soon, the police catch on, and end up (possibly?) killing the young man in a shoot-out. The young woman ends up on death row, so conceivably they were doing more than robbery-type crimes, or they were in Texas, where armed robbery, like loitering and jaywalking, are capital offenses.
As the video ends, the woman walks prettily to the gas chamber or electric chair or whatever, trailed by a long-haired priest holding a Bible and a rosary and chewing gum. In the last shot, we finally see the priest’s face. It’s Ted Nugent! Smiling creepily! He seems pretty happy with the gum, though. Nugent famously doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s just a good old-fashioned guns-and-gum kind of guy.
In retrospect, I’m not sure how I managed to take this song seriously, given the cut-rate Bonnie and Clyde video that accompanied it. But I was 12, too young to care much about the lyrics, but old enough to appreciate the guitar solo, which owned, and the vocals of Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades, who committed heroically to the lyrics, which are...they’re not great, OK? But this is hair metal, and if you’re into it, you’re intrinsically agreeing not to go into too much depth about unskinny bops and final countdowns and teens cumming on and feeling the noize.
So, yeah, the lyrics are unexceptional. “Yesterday’s just a memory” gets repeated a lot. You know what these guys really are not into? Yesterday. They hate yesterday. “Can you take me high enough to fly me over yesterday?” they implore. There’s no good response to this besides maybe a long pause followed by “I...guess?”
And yet there’s something about it. On the song’s Wikipedia page, Blades takes a stab at explaining the lyrics:
'High Enough' was about how you love someone so much and you just don't want to scare them away. And it's like, do I take the next step? And then she freaks out when you go, 'I love you.' And it's like, 'What!?!? I'm outta here!' And you're, 'Wait a minute! Come back!' But then the girl comes back, because in the bridge it's, (singing) 'The next thing I remember I was running back for more.' You know how you get scared at first when you fall in love, and everybody freaks out, and that can't be right. And then you go, Wait a minute, this is great, let's forget about the past. Can you fly me over yesterday?
When I first heard the song, I hadn’t told anyone I loved them, although I guess a pessimistic part of me just assumed that if and when I did, “What!?!? I’m outta here!” would be the response. Even three punctuation marks would be insufficient to describe the incredulity and horror my “I love you” would inspire in a girl, I must have thought. Self-esteem has never been my strong suit; that’s just another reason I suck.
“High Enough” is a song that’s steeped in regret, but it sounded hopeful to me at the time, and it still does, kind of. It’s hard to explain. When I first heard it, I was in the midst of my first crush, on an eighth-grade girl who was really into the Smiths, and a year away from my second one, on a freshman who was really into poetry. (I had...a type.) I wanted to be in love; I was terrified of rejection. I was jealous of the young man in the video, visibly in love with his partner in crime. Part of me wanted to be him. Except for the part where he apparently gets shot to death by several cornpone cops and then Ted Nugent leads his girlfriend to her execution. That, I must have thought at the time, would be less than ideal.
The thing is, the song still gets me, and it’s not like I have an excuse now. I’ve been in love. I am in love. And it’s better than I thought it would be when this song played at the middle-school dances I dreaded; better than the version a guy I knew in high school would play on his acoustic guitar during lunch (he wasn’t bad, but he could never nail the A-to-B-minor transition in the chorus, which, fair enough).
Maybe it’s because I’ve never been able to separate music from nostalgia, and I’ve always found myself nostalgic for the time before I knew how comically painful love could be. I mean, I’m not special, I know that. The only people who get nostalgic for their own heartbreak grow up to be poets (I’m not judging, I’m just saying).
All of that to say: I can’t make a scientific, evidence-based case that “High Enough” is better than the sum of its parts, although its parts rule. It’s a lyrically shaky song from a band whose most famous member is now chiefly known for his years of racist and misogynistic comments. The video looks like it was shot by a film student at a college that’s based in the basement of a bad barbecue restaurant. My love for the song is completely nostalgic, and I realize I’m admitting this at a time when we have all agreed that nostalgia is bad, because, I guess, things are just so fucking great now.
But it doesn’t have to make sense. And maybe it’s better that it doesn’t. The music of yesterday is, for better or worse, inextricable from nostalgia, even though we all pretend that it’s not. (“Nostalgia is a drug,” say people who have never taken good drugs.) I think there’s a small part of everyone that wants to be flown over yesterday, if only so we can look down and see our old selves for a second, as broken and clueless and incomplete as we might have been, unaware of how much better, and how much worse, things were going to get.
Michael Schaub is a journalist, book critic, and regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Austin, Texas, and makes no promises about the height to which he can take you.