Wide Angle

When All We Wanted Was The Dirt

Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic is a time capsule from when we ate up tales of the debauchery and depravity behind the music.

A scene from The Dirt
The Dirt.
Jake Giles Netter/Netflix

How would today’s entertainment media react if one of the members of Imagine Dragons admitted to punching his ex-girlfriend in the face—or more colorfully, said, “I drew my arm back and, before I could even think about what I was doing, squeezed my hand into a fist and fucking smashed her right in the grille, dude.” There would be an avalanche of internet content—both nuanced and blunt, both well-intentioned and otherwise—debating the ethics of everything: privilege, cancel culture, consequences, rehabilitation, whether or not we can still listen to “Thunder,” etc. It would probably not, however, be paired with a winking, McSweeney’s-lite subheadline like “A SHOWGIRL FROM THE SOUTHEAST LEARNS THAT A JEALOUS MIND LEADS TO EXORBITANT DENTAL BILLS.”

This is just one line inside The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, the best-seller written by hedonistic hair-metal icons Mötley Crüe and infamous dirt-farmer Neil Strauss, a tome recently turned into a wild Netflix romp that premieres Friday. The film, goofy and cartoonish, is being released in the #MeToo era, and tellingly skips over many of the book’s more lurid details—band members stealing a homeless girl’s clothes, penetrating a woman with a hotel phone and having her friend call home on it, drummer Tommy Lee demanding his girlfriend fellate the inhabitants of a hot tub, the rhythm section teaming up for a Revenge of the Nerds–style rape (an anecdote they later retracted). Mötley Crüe were a product of the 1980s, and weren’t putting on airs about turning Sunset Strip into Caligula, as evidenced by the lyrics to songs like “Tonight (We Need a Lover),” “Ten Seconds to Love,” and “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

But The Dirt, published in 2001, was a product of its time too. The landscape The Dirt existed in was marked by a snarky, semi-ironic nostalgia for rock stars and “rock star behavior,” spanning roughly 1998 to 2007. Neil Strauss, with his incisive, deeply researched, extremely intimate interviewing style, was its Barbara Walters, in books, magazines, and newspapers wringing tales of debauchery from Marilyn Manson, Mötley Crüe, Chuck Berry, Rick James, and more. Entertainment media—and media consumed for entertainment—were wringing these marauding hornballs for every scummy detail.

It was a proper about-face from the tone of the early ’90s. (Indeed, it’s telling that The Dirt—the film—signals the death of Crüe’s rock star days with an establishing shot of a big Pearl Jam poster.) The early-’90s boom of “alternative rock” came with a suspicion of the very fame that Crüe sought—see Pearl Jam deliberately kneecapping a single, with leader Eddie Vedder telling Rolling Stone,We didn’t write to make hits.” Unlike Crüe, ’90s alterna-dudes were often using their spotlight for progressiveness and inclusivity. Perry Farrell brought alt-lit bookstore Amok Books on the first Lollapalooza, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain decried homophobes in the Incesticide liner notes, the Beastie Boys published a pamphlet about respecting women in the mosh pit, and Minutemen’s Mike Watt put a Kathleen Hanna answering-machine message about statutory rape on his major-label solo debut. The actual backstage behavior of the alternative era was another story, obviously, and a lot of bad behavior was justified by intellectualizing shock tactics as “transgressive.” However, the public sentiment was tonally light-years from Poison singing “I Want Action” in front of a drum riser painted like a woman’s legs.

It’s hard to say why being a “rock star” came back in such a big way in the late ’90s. The first rumblings began in 1997. In summer of that year, VH1 celebrated Bill Clinton as the nation’s “first rock ’n’ roll president”—right as he was taking full advantage of rock ’n’ roll–style power dynamics with a 22-year-old intern. Weeks later, the channel launched its popular documentary series Behind the Music. Then, in January 1998, Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky finally came to light, and Behind the Music spent the rest of that year broadcasting some of rock’s seediest stories: Jerry Lee Lewis, Rick James, Ozzy Osbourne, Keith Moon, Ted Nugent (“I was a wang-dang addict”), and, of course, Mötley Crüe. Kid Rock’s 1998 breakthrough, Devil Without a Cause, was downright postmodern in its mix of rap, hard rock, and country, but its lyrics were proudly retrograde, looking back fondly to the days of rock excess—topless dancers, fake breasts, cocaine, Jim Beam, and sex in hot tubs. Let Vedder pull his single—Kid Rock was yelling, plainly, in the title track, “I’m going platinum!”

That same year, Mötley Crüe’s own Tommy Lee became the unwitting star of one of the first internet-era sex tapes, with his infamous romp with then-wife Pamela Anderson. The tape is mostly known for helping introduce our era of virality and internet-based celebrity, but everyone who witnessed this cultural moment saw signifiers of rock star life: a yacht, a Jacuzzi, tattoos, and one of the world’s most famous models. A porno called Backstage Sluts 2 featured the appearances, with varying degrees of participation, of members of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Sugar Ray, Sevendust, and Orgy. And that year, Neil Strauss published his first book, co-authoring Marilyn Manson’s autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell—a book with a notorious anecdote about covering a deaf woman in a “helmet” of uncooked meat and then urinating on her.

For the next decade, being a rogue pirate wreaking sexual havoc across America was marketed and sold as an integral part of rock mythology itself. “Rock stars” were outlaws, and tales of their bad behavior were our entertainment: funny in their outrageousness, titillating in their shock, part and parcel of the gig. Sometimes it meant trashing a hotel room, others it meant reminiscing about that time Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman married a teenager. VH1’s 2001 special on the 100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock and Roll History punctuates it like this: “When he met London party girl Mandy Smith, he knew it was time to settle down. There was only one problem [record scratch sound]: She was 14.”

In 1999, Spin put Alanis Morissette on the cover with the line “Viva Rock Stars! In Praise of Flash, Excess, and Bad Behavior.” The stuff the Alternative Nation generation had briefly muted was now back, as evidenced by a small piece on Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst wherein he schemes to visit the Playboy mansion with Tommy Lee and Pauly Shore. But inside, Spin writer Joshua Clover bemoaned “the boy-centric nature of stardom, and the lameness of hotel-thrashing, groupie-banging, jet-set trash.” The issue instead elevated women like Alanis Morissette, Melissa Auf der Maur, and members of Nashville Pussy.

By 2000, however, Spin was all in with an issue called “The 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock”—possibly the era’s best distilment of wild rock star anecdotes as nerd entertainment. Leading with a picture of Tommy Lee in 1984, the issue calls sleaziness “the most enduring rock ’n’ roll tradition” and outlines “the good, the bad, and the hideous; the amusingly repellant and the simply criminal.” All the greatest hits of scumbag apocrypha are there—Led Zeppelin penetrating a woman with a shark, Sid Vicious allegedly murdering his girlfriend—and the snarky headline constructions of the era signaled that this was all a wacky good time. The father of rock secretly videotaping women in the bathrooms of his restaurants? “Johnny Pee Good: Chuck Berry’s Yellow Fever.”

No one walked the line of treating music’s unseemly elements as a cake-and-eat-it-too irony riot like Blender magazine. The post-Maxim print mag took its music writing seriously and had a zeal for cover lines that could best be described as “reluctant, self-aware tabloid.” In a master class of David Letterman–style telegraphing that we’re all in on the gag, one 2005 issue read, “Special Report—Rock Stars: They’re Freakin’ Nuts! P. 30, 32, 36, 44, 66, 89 and 152.”

In the years after 9/11, being a “rock star” became, at first, a winking joke toward the past, but one embraced by the rock stars themselves. Ozzy Osbourne turned himself into a beleaguered sitcom husband on 52 episodes of the reality TV show The Osbournes. Wildly popular video game Guitar Hero licensed classic songs to be played by jokey caricatures. Jack Black got to make 2003’s School of Rock and 2006’s Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, both appreciating and parodying rock star postures—the latter even featuring a cameo from Ronnie James Dio. It was like everyone admitted Spinal Tap was real … but still kind of cool?

Soon “rock bad boy” became simply a fashion statement: Ed Hardy T-shirts, the leather prints and gothic fonts of pop group the Pussycat Dolls, the popularity of tattoos and tattoo-related TV show LA Ink. The apotheosis came in 2005, with the emergence of jukebox musical Rock of Ages, treating the sex-crazy Aqua Net bubblegum of Poison, Bon Jovi, and Quiet Riot like the over-the-top Broadway schtick it always was. Nothing better represents the mid-2000s era of puckish rock stars as a serious-not-serious gag better than the video for Gene Simmons’ 2004 the Prodigy cover “Firestarter”: the dancing bikini girls from ’90s rap videos, the Kiss frontman in a fur, a Dave Navarro guitar spot, a pool, liquor, cash raining from the ceiling, and a corresponding album called Asshole.

By 2007, mainstream rock had shed most of its naughty baggage, save the ’80s and ’90s holdovers in Velvet Revolver or schticky acts like Buckcherry. Rock was partially the arena of good Christian boys and girls like Chevelle, Evanescence, Daughtry, and the Fray. “Rock star behavior” was a trope for funny rap songs like D12’s “My Band” or Shop Boyz’s “Party Like a Rock Star” (Hip-hop’s fascination with rock stardom persists in Post Malone’s No. 1 single “Rockstar,” and its tales of “fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies” have a narcoleptic feel that makes you wonder if it’s exactly celebratory.) Spin even put a nail in it with a memorable 2007 Marilyn Manson cover line: “The Last Rock Star?

And whither Neil Strauss? Well, he famously pivoted to 2005’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and its follow-up, 2007’s Rules of the Game, books that sold millions for detailing how a subculture of men were using psychological tricks and emotional manipulation to convince women to sleep with them. You probably know the rest already: The PUA community became an early incubator for other eventual strains of the “manosphere”—“incels” and “red pillers” and other forms of the unchecked entitlement that arguably helped elect Donald Trump. For his part, Strauss—now a dad, monogamist, and recovering sex addict—rejects the PUA community, but not enough to resist cashing in with a third book about said rejection: The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

The film version of The Dirt doesn’t fully embrace Mötley Crüe’s wild side, but it doesn’t reject it either. It’s better than what that might make it sound like—excellent as a comedy, decent as a drama—but it’s also an uncomfortable reminder of how, not that long ago, “rock stars behaving badly” was a national obsession, instead of a problem that needed fixing.