We have to reckon with the idea that sex, drugs, and rock ’n' roll has too often meant making predators out of musical heroes.
In February, the New York Times reported on alt-country hero Ryan Adams’s history of using his position of influence in the music industry to allegedly lure women and girls into sexually exploitative situations. A few days later, R. Kelly was indicted on sexual abuse charges, the culmination of decades of reporting, complaints and denials. And then at the beginning of March, HBO aired the two-part documentary featuring men who allege Michael Jackson abused them as boys. It’s been a tumultuous spring for the music industry. But what comes next? Is this the beginning of a true #MeToo reckoning in music — or the something closer to the end?
As Hollywood giants have fallen left and right, the titans of the music industry have remained mostly unscathed. Sure, R. Kelly is starting to actually feel the consequences of his actions, and Kesha’s performance of her survivor’s anthem “Praying” at the Grammys was a high-profile rebuke of Dr. Luke, the super-producer she has accused of sexually assaulting her. (He denies it.) Dr. Luke is still producing music. Record executive L.A. Reid who, after leaving Sony amid sexual harassment allegations, launched a new venture less than a year later. Russell Simmons, accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment, also remains a powerful figure in the industry.
A week after the Ryan Adams allegations appeared in the Times, a new trailer dropped announcing the Netflix original movie “The Dirt,” based on the best-selling Mötley Crüe autobiography of the same name. Ironic timing aside, “The Dirt” is a good example of thekinds of music narratives that have long been promoted, despite theiropenly sexist and even abusive undertones.
When “The Dirt” the book was released in 2001, it became a bestseller. Mötley Crüe wasn’t a particularly relevant band at the time. They’d released their worst-performing album the year before, and were touring small markets like Scranton, Pennsylvania and Rochester, New York. So “The Dirt” didn’t sell because of an intense public hunger for anything Crüe-related — it sold because it delivered on the promise of the title. It was full of sordid details about the rocker lifestyle the band embodied, told by the band members in their own voices — “The Game” author Neil Strauss is credited as the co-author — and with the candor of people who’ve only ever been celebrated for telling stories about their rock star behavior.
The movie version of "The Dirt," which premieres on Netflix on Friday, is reportedly more tame than the book. But there are a lot of awful moments in the book. Singer Vince Neil drives drunk and kills Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas Dingley in a car accident, band members and their friends overdose and women are degraded constantly. When it comes to that last part, the band isn’t particularly interested in figuring out how consent plays into their stories, either. Amid countless tales of hookups with female fans, bassist Nikki Sixx tells a story about taking a drunk woman into a hotel room closet to have sex, then sneaking out and sending a procession of other men into the room after him. He writes that “I had probably gone too far” and that he had “pretty much” raped her — but lest you think he’s experiencing self-reflection, in the very next paragraph he recounts the time he and drummer Tommy Lee brought a homeless woman to Lee’s bed for sex, then stole her clothes.
All of these stories are told with just the barest pretense of shame — yeah, these guys know what they did was bad, but there’s almost no contrition, just a “can you believe we got away with this crazy shit” incredulousness. That’s what made the book a bestseller, and what sent Hollywood on a 13-year journey to adapt it into a movie.
That’s what the trailer promises, too. “The Dirt” exists so people can watch rock stars act like rock stars. Or at least — what we think rock stars are supposed to act like. There’s a longstanding tradition of honoring rock stars for transgressing against society’s mores, and as those mores evolved, the standard of what was transgressive kept getting pushed further afield. Elvis’s hips were shocking in the 1950s. A few decades later, if you wanted to shock the squares the way rock and roll tradition demanded, your behavior had to be pretty far out there. It’s intuitive — when a 21-year-old Rihanna wanted to own a sexually aggressive persona, she brought in Slash to record a song called “Rockstar 101.” When 23-year-old Post Malone decided to rap about how he was living large, he released a song called “Rockstar.”
But this conception of a rock star is fundamentally at odds with the goals of #MeToo. Mötley Crüe may have written one of the biggest tell-alls, but they’re hardly the only band whose degrading treatment of its female fans is arguably indistinguishable from sexual assault — even as that treatment is heralded as an example of glorious excess. Remember the story of Led Zeppelin and the mud shark, or of Axl and Slash peeing from their hotel balcony on female fans in Argentina (a story recounted in Eric Weisbard’s book on the band, “Use Your Illusion”), or of the Red Hot Chili Peppers cornering and harassing seemingly every female reporter or label rep they came in contact with for years.
The list goes on. And on. Red Hot Chili Peppers vocalist Anthony Kiedis writes about the 14-year-old he says he committed statutory rape with in his "vivid and inspiring” memoir. (The alleged encounter was also immortalized in the Peppers’ raunchy “Catholic School Girls Rule.”) And the Rolling Stones, whose bassist Bill Wyman was 47 when he allegedly molested a 13-year-old he later married, sold concert t-shirts in the 1990s boasting about the band’s propensity for “under-age sex.”
These kinds of NSFW backstage/hotel room/tour bus encounters are what people are talking about when they gush about "sex, drugs, and rock ’n' roll." And it’s this legacy that is still being emulated by the next generation of rockers, wannabe and established. When Post Malone sings “I feel just like a rock star,” he doesn’t mean he’s about to pull off a face-melting guitar solo; He means, “I’ve been f****n’ hoes and poppin’ pillies.”
Trying to parse what is and isn’t consensual doesn’t even make sense using that frame of reference — is it possible to establish consent in an environment full of mountains of drugs and massive power differentials? Similarly, to return to the Led Zeppelin example, can a 17-year-old girl really consent to being tied to a bed by her favorite musicians while their tour manager allegedly engages in bizarre, exploitative sexual behavior?
As long as this is the celebrated lifestyle of high-profile musicians, expecting any sort of #MeToo reckoning for musicians is basically impossible. You can’t watch “The Dirt” one day and then expect women to come forward and be believed with their stories of assault and abuse the next. Until we reckon with the idea that sex, drugs, and rock ’n' roll often meant making predators out of musical heroes and survivors out of their fans, we can’t expect anyone to hold the culture that let that happen accountable.
Dan Solomon is a writer based in Austin. His work appears regularly in Texas Monthly, Deadspin, and elsewhere.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think.