GOING DOWN ON THE DIRT
Motley Crüe gets a very untimely upgrade
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was standing on the platform of at Union Station in Los Angeles waiting for a train alongside a bunch of members of L.A. hard rock bands when one of them — a rat-faced little guy with bad skin, a big shock of dyed black hair and a ton of acne and eye shadow — began to graphically demonstrate different ways he, in his own parlance, liked to “fuck Japanese girls.”
He lifted his legs and gyrated suggestively. He got on his knees. He bent over a pretend ass and flailed at it wildly. He made high, stupid, squeaky noises in imitation of what he said they sounded like when he did this. He talked loudly about the pros and cons of cowboy and reverse cowboy, and then announced why he preferred to do these things with Asians. It was, he said, because they were “tighter.”
I want to apologize for the nasty and graphic nature of the preceding sentences which may well have made you feel just as bad reading them as I did listening to them, i.e. sick to your stomach. When I heard them, tears popped into my eyes, which I choked back. Listening to him felt like being brutally, mentally, molested. But because I was waiting for a train, I was unable to walk away; and anyway, I was working, reporting the grand opening of the Hard Rock Café Tijuana. He, and I, and everyone on that platform, had been invited by the management to go on a junket which involved a train ride down the coast and then a bus ride across the border, so all I could do was stand there and listen.
In retrospect, I realize now that the band member knew exactly how uncomfortable he was making me, and probably wouldn’t have said any of it if I hadn’t been there, but at the time, this didn’t occur to me. That was my assignment and there were rules about covering it, and the rules didn’t include describing the obscene conversations of the subjects, especially since, as the very, very rare female rock critic in that milieu, I was only allowed to do things like this on sufferance. Had I complained, I’d never have gotten another assignment.
Later on, in San Diego, as I walked down the aisle seeking a seat on the bus, he and his friends all chanted, “Show us your tits!” I flipped them off and they all laughed cheerily. They knew and I knew that we were going through the motions. They didn’t really want to see my tits at 11 o clock in the morning; it was more like we were all taking part in a weird pantomime of what hard rock bands were expected to say to any random female when found in that particular situation — i.e. going on an all-paid trip Mexico.
This incident came back to me as I watched The Dirt, the new biopic on Netflix about the band Motley Crüe. Motley Crüe were the masters of this particular form of cheery old sexism; the Tijuana-bound bands on the bus, whose names I can no longer remember, were very pale imitations of them, but they and their brethren all reveled in this kind of sexist idiocy. The Dirt tries to make a case that this sleazy ambience and objectification was some kind of rebellion against Reagan era conservatism. In the opening montage, a bunch of images of “80s evil” flash by, including bad women’s fashion, some decency crusaders and Nancy Reagan. That those things were terrible is true. That some bands — like the Weirdos and X, who are name-checked on a marquee at one point in the film — fought that through their aesthetic choices is true. What’s false is that Motley Crüe were part of that fight. Nope. They were part of the problem, pure and simple, fundamentally entwined with mainstream culture, mainstream politics, mainstream mores, mainstream sexism. Any movie that argues otherwise is telling some other band’s story, not this one.
A lot of people will enjoy it anyway, because most people love clichés and there’s a ton of female nudity in it, but objectively speaking The Dirt is a terrible movie, full of breathtakingly bad acting and extremely poor dialogue. I had a hard time watching it without fast forwarding a lot, but it did do one thing, and that is, remind me forcefully of that era. Motley Crüe walked the earth in the mid-1980s til the very early 1990s, a time when the bands I loved, like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and REM and Nirvana, represented their exact opposite values — and a time, also, when almost all rap music was just breathtakingly fun and great, even when it wasn’t also being utterly, righteously, real. I was filled with loathing and disgust for the Crüe and their brethren, partly because their music seemed shallow and stupid by comparison but mostly because the drug and groupie scene both oppressed me personally and grossed me out.
At that time, I did not have the language or the theoretical framework to describe why their degrading use of women in all their music and imagery was so horrifying to me, because I hadn’t been to grad school yet. I just saw them as an evil force. Alas, The Dirt doesn’t quite capture that force, because like so much of history, it is revisionist, beginning with a very early party scene in which we see Tommy Lee giving head to a woman while spraying the crowd with whiskey (or something). While the mise en scene (“wild party!”) may be relatively true, the porny detail is not, simply because such an event would have been performed by two women while the men all watched.
This is not to say that The Dirt disregards that era’s obsessions with dick: there are not one, but TWO, scenes in which the band members discuss business at a table while a random woman, stuffed under it, services them with blowjobs, one by one, surpassed only by the number of scenes of sexual antics in hotel rooms. Later, Ozzy Osbourne (i.e. actor in a frightwig) gives the band some sage advice about not partying too hard and burning out — a clear, if heavy handed, foreshadowing where the film is going to go — before snorting up a column of ants and then his own, and then the band member’s piss. But…why? It’s unclear. Is it an homage to the greatness of Ozzy? Is it meant to mitigate all the scenes of them degrading (or just hitting) women by pointing out that they were out of their heads? Is it meant for shock value, like all the rest of it?
In a recent interview about the film, guitarist Nikki Sixx told Entertainment Weekly writer Katherine Turman that although they were ashamed of some of their actions, “the good news for everybody is this band never abused power, that it was definitely consensual.” In some ways, and with some exceptions — like, oh, maybe the sexual assault Sixx recounts in his book and now denies because, of course he would — I think that’s probably true. At least I hope it is. Despite many disgusting incidents like the one I witnessed at the train station, I never felt physically threatened around that band or bands like them, but only because the women they were humping in my vicinity were so clearly delineated from the likes of me. With hindsight, I understand now that those women, for whatever sad reason, probably truly wanted to be screwed in front of everybody by Motley Crüe; and thanks to the democratizing force of Pornhub and Tinder, the kind of debauchery once reserved solely for rock stars — gang bangs! threesomes! penetrating people with food and animals! — can be easily accessed by everyone.
A lot of other things have changed since then as well, of course, but it would be way too simple to laud this film for its depiction of the past by saying, “Those were more innocent times.” The thing is, for Motley Crüe, degrading women in their songs, videos and in public wasn’t just fun, it was a brand thing, a way of dogwhistling to a certain type of fan — and frankly, that’s also true of this film, which was co-produced by the band itself. As Spencer Kornhaber points out in his article in the Atlantic, the biopic omits many real life details about what garbage people this band was made up of, including the fact that Tommy Lee went to jail for battering his then wife Pamela Anderson, Vince Neil pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in 2016, the band had to settle a lawsuit with a security guard who alleged they said racist slurs to him, poured beer on him, and directed the crowd to attack him at a 1997 concert, and that Neil’s DUI manslaughter car crash caused two additional passengers to suffer brain damage. Without mentioning those things, The Dirt is able to sanctimoniously hawk itself under the hypocritical title of “a cautionary tale,” but in fact, it is a celebration of a lifestyle, not a condemnation of it. According to Sixx (again, speaking to Turman), ”If you’re making a movie in 2019 about the colonial period and burning witches, and society wants you to remove it because we don’t burn witches anymore, that’s not honest film making.” Fair enough, although when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure that we, as viewers, are as likely to learn something from watching an in-depth history of the depravity of Motley Crüe as we are from the history of the depravity of the Salem Witch Trials.
I see on social media that many people I know are enjoying this film because they see it as fun, corny, or that kind of bad/good hybrid that some people like to wallow in, and it’s true that its very shallowness, as well as the phony, intermittently-ironic, kitschy style, matches the shallow, phony, kitschy badness of the band itself. That can be fun to watch, if you’re not me, and didn’t have to experience some of it. It’s not hip to say so, but in addition to wishing that he’d told the real truth about this band, I also wish that the director had broken the fourth wall either more times or fewer, and had included one single female character that wasn’t either a shrill bitch, or nude, or on her knees.
Despite reminding me of those days and highlighting its ultimate meanness, The Dirt didn’t make me angry, or give me PTSD. Instead, the overwhelming feeling that wafted off it was pathos. There were a number of ways in which that kind of hair-band was pathetic in the first place, at least to me and my friends, and the great thing is, we had the absolute pleasure of watching Motley Crüe’s whole ridiculous aesthetic destroyed in months by a band called Nirvana. They were pathetic then, but how much MORE pathetic to be someone in that band now, 30 years down the road? If nothing else, The Dirt does show four absolute jackasses, and if people are laughing at Motley Crüe rather than with them, it’s understandable. Unfortunately, I know who is taking that mirth to the bank.