On January 18, Rock of Ages will take its final bows as a Broadway show. In honor of the occasion, I’ve decided to finally write this essay, which has been sitting on my back burner pretty much since this blog was created.
Before we get started, I’d like to make one thing clear: this essay is not about the 2012 film. I’ve never seen the film.
You see, I have a deep and abiding love for the Rock of Ages stage musical. I first saw it during a very difficult time in my life, when my marriage to College Sweetheart (referred to in that link as The Girl From Washington Heights) was unraveling and professionally, I was swinging back and forth between temp work and unemployment. Rock of Ages’ colorful, escapist fun and its City of Dreams message helped me through, silly as that may sound. I listened to that soundtrack over and over that winter, and other times I was low.
So when the film first came out, I checked its Wikipedia article (I have a weakness for spoilers, so sue me), and learned that the filmmakers had replaced the urban developer from the musical with Catherine Zeta-Jones’s character, a self-righteous champion of censorship who was defeated through the power of slut-shaming.
I was. Not. Happy.
While I understand that a story may require changes as it transitions from one medium to another (very few people were saddened by Tom Bombadil’s absence from the Lord of the Rings movies), I was…mildly put off by a character and a plotline who seemed to be added because the original wasn’t misogynist enough.
In other words, I have vowed never to see the movie, and I curse the names of everyone involved for ruining something that should have immortalized the show I loved and brought it to a much-deserved wider audience.
Anyway. With that out of the way, to business:
For those unfamiliar (and who didn’t follow that link), Rock of Ages is a celebration of Eighties rock and roll, set on LA’s Sunset Strip in the mid-late Eighties (the Wikipedia entry says 1987), just when the hair bands were starting to die. It is gloriously cheesy, and it acknowledges its wall-to-wall clichés with a nod, a wink, and a “You know you love it”. Its protagonists are Drew Boley (just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit) and Sherrie Christian (just a small town girl, living in a lonely world – also, Sister Christian, whose time has come), two young dreamers who have both come to the Sunset Strip to Make It Big.
Where else would they go? As our narrator tells us: “Back in the day, if a fella had a dream, a fifth of Jack, and a decent amount of hair, there was nowhere else to be.”
Of course, in a show as cliché-ridden as this one, our two young dreamers follow the usual pattern: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl. But this time…it’s a little different. This time, there’s no outside force that keeps the young lovers apart – no rival, no disaster, no gross misunderstanding that could be cleared up if they would only listen to each other. No, Drew and Sherrie are kept apart by the fact that Drew is a Nice Guy™.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a Nice Guy™ is not the same creature as an actual nice guy. A Nice Guy™ is one those pathetic specimens who, upon realizing that he likes a woman, will become the woman’s friend instead of declaring his intentions openly. He then waits for the woman to realize that, because he’s so Nice, he’s better for her than all of the “jerks” she’s been dating, and that they should be together.
Seriously. A Nice Guy™’s idea of a happy ending looks like this:
As depressing as that is in itself, Nice Guy™-ism can actually lead to more serious problems. The fact is, real life rarely works out according to the Nice Guy™’s fantasy. The woman goes blithely about her life, unaware that her friend is anything but that. Meanwhile, the Nice Guy™ grows bitter. He wonders how nice he has to be for how long before this woman actually notices him. Or maybe she does. Maybe she enjoys stringing him along, having a refuge in his unconditional affection while she has her fun with good-looking jerks. Every conversation about her relationships – especially complaints or conversations about sex – begins to seem like a deliberate, cruel tease. Before long, the Nice Guy™ decides that all women only want assholes, and that he should become an asshole himself if he ever wants to get his share of pussy.
Which is where we see the difference between a Nice Guy™ and a nice guy.
To be fair, many shy young men go through a stage where they show some Nice Guy™ symptoms, and most eventually realize that the real solution is to put on their big boy pants and ask – either ask this particular crush, or admit that they waited too long and need to remember the lesson for next time.
How does this all relate to Rock of Ages? Well, part of the overall problem is that a lot media – being created by nerdy guys grown to adulthood – reinforces the Nice Guy™ fantasy. The Boy, despite being sort of a schlub, wins over The Girl not because he does anything in particular, but because sooner or later she realizes that he’s been so good to her for so long that he deserves her.
Rock of Ages, in contrast, not only shows Nice Guy™-ism for what it is, but shows us why it is A Bad Idea.
As so often happens in stories like this, Drew and Sherrie fall downright stupid in love the moment they see each other. You know, the annoying teenage kind where they find evidence of compatibility in the fact that they both say “No way” (in 1987, mind) and like Cherry Slurpees.
It isn’t long before they take the perfectly reasonable step of going on a date. Both of them being completely skint broke, this date is a simple picnic in the hills overlooking L.A. As they sit there, looking out at the city lights, Sherrie confesses to being a little bit nervous. And it is at this point that Drew starts fucking things up:
“Don’t worry. It’s cool. I mean…look. We’re just a couple of friends, right? Looking at stars, drinking wine coolers. No pressure.”
The narrator isn’t buying that bullshit for a second: “Man, he’s gonna kick himself later for that ‘friend’ crap. The curse of the nice guy! See, you think it’s the smart play. Ease ‘em in with friendship! But the fact is, what they really want? What’s really goin’ on in that head…”
Of course, Drew has no way of knowing what the narrator knows, and which Sherrie reveals to the audience, which is that she would have gladly sat on his dick right then and there if he’d only let her know he was amenable, but that’s the point. What Drew is doing isn’t real friendship or even real niceness – it’s pursuing a strategy, and it’s a strategy that’s not only self-defeating, but which causes actual damage later on.
An indeterminate time after that wet firecracker of a date, the bar where Drew and Sherrie work – Dupree’s Bourbon Room, a thinly disguised stand-in for Whiskey A Go Go – is playing host to superband Arsenal for reasons related to the overall plot. The lead singer of Arsenal is one Stacee Jaxx, a thinly disguised stand-in for Axl Rose, who no sooner arrives in the Bourbon Room before he starts hitting on Sherrie.
Now, Sherrie doesn’t realize that Drew is “easing her in”. As far as she knows, she misread what she thought were signs of attraction, and they’re just friends. At the same time, she’s both star struck and a fan of Stacee Jaxx specifically – and probably horny into the bargain. With that in mind, she would have been more than happy to duck into the Ladies’ Room for a quickie with Stacee and leave it at that.
Stacee, however, showing traits of a PUA before the words “pick-up artist” acquired capital letters, feels the need to turn his seduction into a melodrama. He wants to know what love is, and he wants her to show him.
Worse, Stacee’s penchant for cruel mind games isn’t satisfied by leading Sherrie to believe that their tryst meant more than it did; immediately after he’s “allowed” her to seduce him (because he’s too worried that they’ll hurt each other…right, that’s the ticket), Stacee leaves the ladies’ room and demands that Dennis Dupree, owner of the Bourbon Room, fire Sherrie because she brings “bad energy” to the concert. Dennis, a decent fellow in a tough situation, asks Sherrie to go home for the night instead, but in her anger she quits (he almost certainly would have taken her back if she asked, but even when she calms down, she’s too proud).
This is exactly the sort of thing that a woman might want to talk about with a friend, but remember, Drew isn’t actually her friend. He was “easing her into” a romantic relationship, and he feels betrayed by that bathroom quickie. And boy, does that make him look like an asshole.
In many other stories, what happens next could be seen as the narrative punishing Sherrie for breaking poor Drew’s heart: Sherrie flees the Bourbon Room and gets a job as an exotic dancer, while Drew gets his big break (one of Stacee’s bandmates, seeing Stacee’s treatment of Sherrie, cold cocks him, and suddenly Arsenal needs a fill-in lead singer).
But this story doesn’t quite work out that way. Drew is a hair metal rocker when the genre is just starting to die; after that first successful night, he can’t get any more work, and his manager gets him a part in a boy band instead. Meanwhile, while Sherrie’s job certainly isn’t what she came to L.A. to do, her kindly boss (“Justice Charlier, mother to lots of lost souls on the Sunset Strip”) explains that many small-town girls hoping to make it big in L.A. end up making their living this way. In other words, this is just the part of the story where both of them make their journey through the Underworld. When they meet on the street, both are embarrassed by their new jobs.
Unsurprisingly, they argue about that last night in the Bourbon Room, and Sherrie finally calls Drew on his bullshit: she was crazy for him; he said they were friends. Later, he almost musters the guts to confess his feelings to her, but happens to show up at Sherrie’s workplace while she’s being pawed by Stacee. Against all logic, Drew gets angry at her for this, and storms off, causing himself to miss Sherrie delivering unto Stacee a well-deserved beating.
Justice later fills Drew in on what he missed, the narrative once again confronting Drew with how much of a moron he is.
Finally, Drew hits his own personal rock bottom – his music career already over, he’s now working as a pizza delivery boy – and he mourns aloud that no one’s dreams have come true. This is when the narrator performs an odd reverse fourth-wall break, and informs Drew of his status as a character in a musical – specifically, as the protagonist. He is the one with the ability to create happy endings…and he’s already been given many chances: the meeting on the street, the night in the hills, and others.
Finally figuring out the real solution described above, Drew makes a desperate run through LA and catches Sherrie just before the midnight train takes her away. As tends to happen in romances, the dramatic apology is enough, Sherrie still loves the dummy in spite of everything, and we get our happy ending.
I’m not going to say that Rock of Ages is some sort of classic of feminist literature. There’s a bit too much focus on Sherrie’s butt for that. More importantly, Sherrie forgives Drew a bit too easily for some fairly nasty treatment, and – though this may just be a symptom of being not-the-protagonist – she has little real agency, being bounced around by the actions of one man or another until one finally chooses to do right by her.
But what Rock of Ages does right, it does very right. Another show might have supported Drew’s POV, making Sherrie look like a blind fool for ignoring the Nice Guy™ right in front of her eyes while chasing after a high-status asshole like Stacee, until she was punished by the asshole’s cruelty and “rescued” by the Nice Guy™.
Instead, it’s more than clear that it’s Drew’s Nice Guy™ strategy that prevents him from getting together with Sherrie in the first place, and his unfounded resentment that keeps them apart after that. Just in case you miss it, various characters tell him directly. Several times.
As for Stacee, he doesn’t fit the usual place in the Nice Guy™ narrative. He isn’t the “jerk boyfriend” who doesn’t respect Sherrie, tricking her into believing he loves her when all he wants to do is use her for sex. Sherrie didn’t expect any kind of long-term relationship when she met him, and she would have been happy to have sex with him for its own sake. He told lies he didn’t need to tell and played his cruel mind games not to win anything, but just because they amused him – in other words, he was an out and out villain who needn’t have come between Drew and Sherrie at all, except that Drew put him there.
For these reasons, and for many more (mostly because it’s fun and awesome), I would recommend that you see Rock of Ages…but it’s kinda too late. Sorry. This snuck up on me. Oh, well, keep an eye out for the revival. These things always come back.
Do not see the movie. It is no substitute.