By Renée K. Nicholson
Evan calls them “bitchin’,” betraying his California roots and never-ending supply of boyishness. I embrace that Gen-X-y “meh” when it comes to most metal bands of our era. But Evan appreciates the group’s ridiculousness, suggesting that I watch the film The Dirt, loosely based on the biography of the band, which I’ve yet to do.
According to Evan, the film best illustrates that they barely have a working brain cell among them, and that it probably belongs to Nikki Sixx.
Still, Mötley Crüe reigns as one of the top-selling bands of all time. Bitchin’ indeed. The embodiment of 1980s glam metal hedonism and excess, there is something unmistakably American about Mötley Crüe’s success. The band doesn’t have to be musically talented or even clever, just colorful in its antics. Even the umlauts in the band’s moniker serve as accessories, purportedly lifted from the spelling of the German beer Löwenbräu.
Lion’s brew. Not even hipsters touch Löwenbräu.
Another 80s icon from the music world, Madonna, said in interviews that her aim in life was to “rule the world.” In the 1980s, it seemed she just might succeed at that. The self-dubbed Material Girl of the material decade, Madonna also embodied excess and hedonism, albeit in a different musical style as well as the way she presented herself from the members of the Crüe. She rolled, slithered, and dry-humped her way to pop stardom with such hits as “Like a Virgin.” Amped up sex appeal, meticulously choreographed moves, and provocative costuming cemented her status.
Material Girl and Mötley Crüe—it’s an unlikely cocktail to mix.
For their 2019 straight-to-Netflix biopic, Mötley Crüe member Tommy Lee decided that what the soundtrack really needed was a glammed-up metal version of the aforementioned Madonna hit. He called it, “Fucking genius.”
He also proclaims lead singer Vince Neil’s singing of it, “Sort of ironic.”
Listening to the Mötley Crüe version of “Like a Virgin” captures the excess and hedonism leftover—perhaps hungover?—from the 1980s in a way that can only be described as awesomely super bad. Losing the synth-y quality of Madonna’s original, Mötley Crüe attempts to butch up the sound, playing as though punching their instruments. Vince Neil, unconvincing virgin that he is, sings a parody version that’s more sonic herpes than ironic cover. It doesn’t even feel like hard rock. It’s too adolescent to take seriously and too hardwired into our pop culture’s history to dismiss.
Maybe I fail to overcome the misogynistic brand of debauchery that fueled Mötley Crüe’s fame when I take in their “Like a Virgin” attempt. Perhaps my listening, tinged with memories of such Crüe hits as “Girls, Girls, Girls,” can’t overcome their comparison of women to “toys.” I don’t hear any irony in the cover. What it sounds like to me is mockery.
Or, perhaps, it really is that bad.
The cover has that quality to it. You know, the one where a bunch of aging dudes tell themselves it’s a good thing to sing Madonna songs, either a spontaneous impulse or the product of a dare. Devoid of nuance, it churns along, seemingly unaware of anything that might lend itself to credible irony. Madonna’s original sounds intimate, fun, with that kind of wide-eyed wonder at one’s sensual experience. It sounds like the Crüe pokes fun, adult men attempting a schoolboy prank. Is it so much to ask the Crüe, in these later years, to actually care? Of course, it could be that the whole point of Crüe cuts is that they don’t care—don’t give a damn, in fact—revealing their complete lack of giving a fuck.
Still, it pisses me off.
Not pissed because “Like a Virgin” holds a particular special place in my 80s memories. Not pissed because Madonna represents my youth or young self. Pissed because, over decades, bands like Mötley Crüe view women only as objects, even in the wake of #MeToo. They manage to objectify women via cover song. If “Like a Virgin” often feels problematic to me in Madonna’s own voice, too celebratory of the male gaze, then making fun of it doubles the insult. The Dr. Feelgood-izing of “Like a Virgin” infuses the song with male privilege and perhaps even indifference to a moment where the way the culture views women continues to be redefined in ways that favor agency.
What I’m saying is this song makes me want to kick these guys in the nuts. Bitchin’.
If that sounds extreme, let’s consider where women are in 2019, as the song is recorded. We’ve got Supreme Court justice “I like beer” Brett Kavanaugh on the bench. Upcoming presidential elections still hamper women candidates with likeability issues, while the actual president acts in a wholly unlikable way—bullying via tweets, for instance. When women are the focus of these missives, the level of bullying intensifies. And maybe I’ve bumped up against glass ceilings in my own smaller way, and so I just don’t have patience for the antics anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m almost 50, and maybe it’s because the version really is just so bad, and maybe it’s because of a whole bundle of microaggressions and other tough memories accrued over years.
Thinking about Evan, I can’t help but hear how he intones bitchin’ with just enough mockery in his voice that I know when I play the song I won’t be surprised to find that what he actually means is: “This is just bad.”
Suggesting a different song, Evan surprises me when he suggests an actual rock-out cover. We listen together to The Bangles rendition of “Hazy Shade of Winter.” It does rock, this band of all women best known for pop hits like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Prince-penned “Manic Monday.”
When asked in an interview, Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe couldn’t say if Madonna had heard their version of her song. But I imagine her taking over, costuming them in elaborate bustiers and long lace gloves. Can’t you see Madge, as the Brits call her, coaching and coaxing them through “Justify My Love” and “Hey Mr. DJ.” Or the 80s hits, like “Borderline,” “Lucky Star,” “Into the Groove.” Imagine Madonna teaching Tommy Lee to vogue, bleaching Nikki Sixx’s hair. I’d say tease it, but the Crüe has hair-teasing down pat.
At nearly 50, I want to believe we have moved to a more inclusive place, but instead, I’m reminded of times I felt out of place simply by virtue of being born female. In one of my early jobs out of college, I worked in an office of mostly men. All the supervisory roles held by these men, they often posted work-related memos over the urinals in the men’s bathroom. In these days before email, such tactics were considered acceptable.
“That’s where the most people will see it,” I was told.
I’ve always wished I had the moxie to strut into the men’s room and pull the memo off the wall. Or simply the guts to file a complaint in more official ways. Perhaps the current me, older, wiser, might, but not the twenty-something me. She was dutiful, polite, hard-working. I knew I needed out of that toxic culture, but where to go? There would be Crüe-like cuts everywhere, and when you say that, it’s like saying you hate men, even if you don’t. Even if it’s just the “Girls, Girls, Girls” business that rankles, a woman’s worth defined by sex appeal.
I’d end up figuring out that I wanted to be a writer. It took me a while to find the confidence and the voice to pursue it.
And this, I know, lurks under my listening of Mötley Crüe’s “Like a Virgin.” To me, these men enjoyed success that felt unearned, the birthright of privilege rather than talent or work ethic. They’re men who said what other men wanted to say but often didn’t. Bitchin’ redux. As if 40 years wasn’t enough, the boys, bloated and beer-gutted, are getting away with it as they always have.
Except maybe not.
I’ve made fun of other bands making silly covers, and lauded versions that blow my mind. Even those I make fun of, like the dudes in Weezer covering Toto’s “Africa,” can point to this Crüe cut and say, “well, at least we didn’t do that.” And so the bar for self-respect sits a bit lower, set back to a time and place I can’t quite ditch or shake off.
Instead, I leave this cover, in search of others, ones that both offer new takes and pay homage to the originals. The cover as remaking, not rehashing. The way I’d like to see versions of myself as remaking, getting better, finding new ways. The way the best covers do.
Renée K. Nicholson is the author of two collections of poetry, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2014) and Post Script (Urban Farmhouse Press, forthcoming 2020), the forthcoming memoir-in-essays, Fierce and Delicate (WVU Press, 2021) and is co-editor of the anthology Bodies of Truth: Stories of Illness, Disability and Medicine (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). To learn more about Renée, check out her website at www.reneenicholson.com, and she can be found on Twitter at @summerbooks1.