"I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl." - The Who
We love best the bands who treat us like shit.
Sure, we might admire a band like U2 that is grateful to us, that plays the songs we want to hear, that plays their heart out every show because they believe they owe it to us, but secretly, we think a little less of them for it.
I heard a story about a guy who spent half an hour getting up the guts to walk up to Alex Chilton in a bar to say, “’September Gurls’ changed my life,” only to have Chilton reply, “Yeah, thanks. Can you get me a glass of water?”
We like our rock stars bitter, troubled, sneering, and unapproachable because we need them to be different than us. For this reason, we indulge and sometimes even worship behavior we would find inexcusable in the people we see everyday.
Taking an objective standpoint, there’s nothing special about it. It takes a certain amount of diligence to pick up a guitar and become decent at it, but really, almost anyone can do it. However, people don’t get into rock and roll to be ordinary. Rock and rollers are misunderstood, friendless in their formative years, and the guitar is a savior, lifting them above the quiet anonymous masses into something better than ordinary.
Sid Vicious was just another dumb, scabby kid thrashing around in front of the stage before someone strapped a bass on him. Without the Sex Pistols, would Sid Vicious have gotten hooked on smack, stabbed his girlfriend, and died of a drug overdose? I think the odds are reasonably good. The main difference is that no one would have known or cared.
The most important lesson that the life of Sid Vicious shows us is that it is better to be in the band than with the band. In the band, you can be Sid, with the band you’re lucky to be Pamela de Barres.
The icy reception that greets female musicians trying to join the boys’ club of rock and roll is well-covered territory. Less considered, however, is the difficulty that women have being accepted as audience members and fans. The roles typically afforded to women in the rock and roll tradition are subject and admirer, and without the hordes of girls who have become both, the music loses its center. The legacies of Elvis and the Beatles are inseparable from the screaming, crying, clothes-ripping girls in the crowd. If playing rock and roll really does elevate the musician from the masses, women are giving an extra boost.
Rock and roll, historically and primarily, expresses a male aesthetic. As a result, men can be “with” the band as audience members or autograph seekers in a way that taps their musical tastes and cultural sensibilities rather than their sexuality. Unfortunately, the impression with which these rock and roll archetypes leave us is that boys’ lives are changed by rock and roll, while girls’ lives are changed by rock and roll stars. On television and in films, and to some extent, in reality, teenage boys cover their bedroom walls with Jim Morrison and Pink Floyd posters in order to assert their own perceived coolness, while teenage girls select posters that suggest only which musicians they find most attractive. In Roger Corman’s Rock and Roll High School, Riff Randall may obsess over her Ramones records, but all she really wants is Joey. The same goes for Penny Lane and her groupie buddies in Almost Famous, who claim “it’s all about the music” while they are traded to the band for a case of beer.
That said, I don’t really have a problem with songs like “Brown Sugar” or “Norwegian Wood” or even with lines like “If her daddy’s rich take her out for a meal/If her daddy’s poor just do what you feel,” because those songs make no secret of what they think about the girls in the audience. It’s in songs like the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” where a woman’s legitimacy as a fan and audience member is most undermined, because these songs assert their contempt in terms so sensitive and well-meaning that we almost buy them.
There is nothing wrong with the opening lyrics of “The Kids Are Alright.”
I don’t mind
Other guys dancin’ with my girl
I know them all pretty well
In fact, it’s a refreshing image, one that joins two popular but almost always separate themes of rock and roll songs: the “best girl” and the rock and roll show. And the speaker isn’t jealous or possessive or philandering — the relationship described in the song comes across not only as wholesome, but also genuinely sweet. “The Kids Are Alright” is a step out of character for the Who, but I’ve never heard a song that better captures the innocence of your first band, playing to a room that’s mostly your friends, but having the time of your life and feeling like a real rock star.
For all of this innocence, however, we see the ambition that’s really at the heart of the song in the next lines, “but I know sometimes I must get out in the light/better leave her behind where the kids are alright.”
From the very beginning, the song sets up the distinction between the “special” rock star who craves the attention of the crowd and the girl he wants as part of that crowd — one of the good kids who doesn’t have the gift. By the end of the first verse, the sentiment expressed with “I don’t mind other guys dancin’ with my girl” loses its significance because it’s a hollow gesture. The other boys aren’t a threat because, like the girl, their energies are centered around what’s happening onstage.
With the greatest rock and roll songs, the speaker and subject become every listener, every boy becomes Buddy Holly, every girl becomes Peggy Sue. The problem with “The Kids Are Alright” is that a male listener, whether he has rock and roll dreams or not, identifies not with the “kids,” but with the rock star who’s “gotta get away.” It separates him from the mindless, gyrating crowd, and exempts him from loyalties to his friends and his girl in the name of something “higher.”
It is often mentioned that the genius of “Peggy Sue” is the near absence of direct description, which makes it easier for the listener to identify with both the speaker and the woman. “The Kids Are Alright” is equally vague in its descriptive qualities, but where Peggy Sue is open to speculation, the character of the girl in “The Kids” is imposed upon her, to the point where the speaker’s desires become her own. He might not mind other guys dancing with his girl, but if he did, you can bet she wouldn’t be.
As a female listener, this song makes me feel shoehorned into a role with which I am not at all comfortable. The girl in the song is sweet and innocent, a great girl for the club, the wrong girl for the road. She is one of the girls Elvis chastely and publicly dated, on the condition that they not demand too much nor ask too many questions. I might be more willing to buy the speaker’s excuse “I had things planned but her folks wouldn’t let her,” if this was a song about a love thwarted Romeo and Juliet style, but it’s not. It’s a song about the musician’s naked ambition to “get out in the light.” It’s a song about the selfishness of rock and roll dreams.
That’s why, when he claims, “I know if I go things will be a lot better for her,” I want to spit, not only because the speaker presumes to know what’s in his girl’s best interests, but because this line is a fucking lie. What this song’s all about is, “I know if I go things will be a lot better for me.”
But to tell the truth, I have no problem with that line of reasoning.
That idea, which is at the core of “The Kids Are Alright,” is an undeniable truth of making it big in rock and roll. You bolster your ego in your hometown — you get your crowd, you get written up in the local papers, you hone your craft, you record your first album. Then you get the hell out of town. Because if you don’t, the next big local band captivates the attention of the club kids and the independent newspaper, while your band starts drinking too much and stops writing new songs.
It’s an ugly reality — abandon the people who made you as good as you are for a big town and a big label, and effectually, sell them all out, or sell out your rock and roll dream, and wake up one day, forty and bartending with $30,000 worth of equipment rotting in your basement.
The song expresses an urgency about making it big that is real, but the methods used to elicit our empathy are not, because of the different expectations we have of male and female fans. It is alright for a rock star to indulge in a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” relationship with his female fans, and certainly, no one really judges the rock star who chooses a cheering crowd over his girl. At the same time, nothing will sour an audience faster than the band who sells out its fans for the big time.
And what we’re not supposed to notice in “The Kids Are Alright” is that this is a song about a band who sells out.
Instead the focus is placed on the girl who, though she is there in the club alongside all the other kids, is considered as something less than a fan. She’s only there for her man. Worse, instead of being in a position to react to the “sell-out,” so to speak, her passive role in the song makes her able to be consoled and placated and convinced that it’s all in her best interest.
What we come away with is the idea that women are fans to whom nothing is owed. The idea of the girl in the crowd is crucial, but the girl herself is disposable.
While I could have taken my examples from anything from heavy metal ballads to Dylan songs, I wanted to take a closer look at “The Kids Are Alright” because it’s a song that I love. For that reason, “The Kids Are Alright” has always embodied for me the paradox of being a feminist who loves the Who and the Rolling Stones, and AC/DC (for years I’ve wrestled with the question: is “You Shook Me All Night Long” a cock-wagging affront to all women or the greatest love song ever written?) Reconciliation is not the answer; because at the end of the day, when the money truck rolls up to Mick Jagger’s house, it doesn’t really matter if I can forgive him for writing “Brown Sugar” or not.
Once again, I believe that the answer lies in Sid, who comes closest to bridging the gap between fan and groupie.
Regardless of gender, the audience is fetishized when it turns its attention to the band onstage, and in turn, the band itself becomes an object, the very currency of cool. We feed off of each other’s energy and objectification, each believing that we control the situation. The audience demands a particular song, gobs or cheers or ignores the band completely, while the band attempts to maintain a balance of keeping the crowd engaged and keeping it at arm’s length. This dance that takes place is, by necessity, a dance of man or women.
Show me a band with no female fans, and I’ll show you a terrible band. Crowd control or sexual control or complete control, we’re all in it together.