top of page

Bad Boys

So what’s the appeal of bad boys? Let’s be clear that the real “bad boys,” are the ones who have failed, the incarcerated felons, the sexual abusers, the ones whose misuse of power to their own advantage costs everyone around them, “country gentleman” or not. They are not appealing, but repelling. What we mean, really, are the rebels, the revolutionaries, the creative artists who break the bad old rules, rules really meant to retain order and support the status quo. We’ve talked before about the gender differences in speed of arousal, in the bouncier little blue balls in the quincunx that produce the platykurtic curves -- the ones with fewer values clustering around the mean, and more on the extreme asymptotes. So there are more men than women who are CEOs or Senators, but also more who become incarcerated criminals, or die violent deaths (and maybe the two extremes are more similar than we’d like to think). You may not get one extreme without the other. The rapid arousal, and, in the realm of sexuality, the more obvious signs of genital vasocongestion, may also make physical aggression more likely. Along with the anatomical differences that not only produce greater upper body strength, exaggerated in the masculine swagger (shoulder-width being the last thing to mature in adolescent males), there is the testosterone fueled risk taking, and the challenges to power, and to alpha male status, by which males negotiate their dominance hierarchy. And yes, for reasons of evolutionary biology, women are more likely than men to value signs of dominance in a potential consort (remember that these are hugely overlapping curves, and we are always talking only about relative, not absolute differences, too often oversimplified and dichotomized). Of course, what constitutes “dominance” and position in a status hierarchy may vary culturally and historically, and look quite different in a warrior culture than in a cognitive, technological one. And indeed politics, everyday interpersonal as well as governmental, also produces alliances.

Yes, power, as Henry Kissinger notoriously pointed out (as did Napoleon Bonaparte before him), is the ultimate aphrodisiac. So the alpha male is at the pinnacle. But for a species with an extended childhood, with a lifespan now increased even further than the biblical three score and ten, alpha males tend to be both older and not readily accessible. So for a young woman whose biological clock has not yet begun to tick too loudly, what is the best bet for developing a long-term mating prospect? Now, note that this isn’t necessarily what she is thinking; what she says she prefers may look a lot different, but this may not be what plucks her strings. Why not an alliance with that “bad boy” challenger, that rebel, that revolutionary, or that creative traducer of the status quo? Alpha males don’t live forever, and who is likely to be the most obvious, if not always the most successful challenger (which may also require a fair amount of long-term strategy, alliance building, and persistence)? Particularly if that “young turk” also shows signs of real talent, ability, and courage? Interesting that the alpha male shows the higher levels of serotonin that marks confidence and focus, versus the lower levels of those non-alphas doing the risk-taking that can fail -- but may be his best chance for success, and yours. Serotonin is part of the process, and rises with the elimination of the previous alpha male. Too low, of course, and you may have the omegas who will stay in the shadows, who may be at risk of depression or suicide. Who was it, Gore Vidal, who once said that since it is power, not sex, that is the true motor of human life, young men no longer swallow fish or cram themselves into phone booths, they kill themselves.

One measure of competitiveness may be a potential consort’s capacity to rise above his opponents on the athletic field, and there is no dearth of anecdotal evidence about the exciting appeal of the winners, or even those who give them a run for their money. But these are not only mere games, they are also games played by long-established rules, for which it may be the leaders, the coaches, or the team sponsors who have the real power, not the players. But what about those who have the temerity to break the rules, to change the game, or invent new ones? It’s not really the innovators who are “bad boys.” They are the quiet nerds behind the scenes, playing the long game anyway. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg may be the ones that win in the long run, the real movers and shakers of cultural change, but they are playing long odds, and they really don’t stand out until they are well along the road to success.

One could run down a whole list of bad boys, from gods like Zeus, a very bad boy indeed, but hardly the challenger, unless you consider his challenge being to Hera. But then there is Dionysus, or even Hades, abducting Persephone (who then chooses to stay with him, at least part of the time). Achilles was certainly a bad boy. Remember in the horribly miscast Troy of 2004, with Brad Pitt as Achilles? Eric Bana as Hector was perfect, and one can accept Orlando Bloom as the playboy Paris, but Achilles? I imagined him more like Tom Berenger as the scar-faced veteran in Platoon. Still, Achilles is “fleet of foot” and surely did have something like that quick kill stroke. More importantly was his regular opposition to Agamemnon, king of kings. Romeo? Lovestruck innocent. But how about Tristan, or Lancelot, both turning their Lords into cuckolds, but risking it all for their beloved? For 20th century moviegoers, of course there is James Dean, or Marlon Brando in Rebel without a Cause, and Sean Penn managed to retain the “bad boy” in many of his roles. We don't even need to tak about Johnny Depp. Risking it all for love may be in the bad boy repertoire, even when failed -- think “all my love’s in vain,” from the blues song by Robert Johnson (even if your memory is the version by the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger). I even loved Jimi Hendrix singing “I’m gonna buy this town, give a piece to you,” in “Hear My Train A-Coming.” Willing to break the rules, for you, and to share what resources he wins. Even the ultimate husbands of Disney princesses have crossed the bounds of class, or even species. Of course in the #me,too era, we need some caution. Is Belle’s love for the Beast not Stockholm Syndrome?

For rule-breaking, but also for energy, visibility, and attention, to say nothing of sexual threat, nothing beats Rock and Roll. From Eddie and the Cruisers, before playing for a college audience, “You’ve got all the advantages: ivy walls, lecture halls, full dress balls, and you get the Cruisers for the nasty stuff.” Down and dirty. Or as George Thorogood put it, “Bad to the Bone.” George Thorogood live in Clarkson, MS

“I make a rich woman beg

I'll make a good woman steal

I'll make an old woman blush

And make a young girl squeal.”

Like my favorite bad girl feminist Camille Paglia said, “Rock and football are revealing something true and permanent and eternal about male energy and sexuality. They are revealing the fact that women, in fact, like the idea of flaunting, strutting, wild masculine energy.” She claimed that if you "live in rock and roll" as she does “you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women. It doesn’t repel them.” She also blesses it, saying “Masculinity is aggressive, unstable, combustible. It is also the most creative cultural force in history.” She ties it to Romanticism: “All the Romantic archetypes of energy, passion, rebellion, and demonism are still evident in the brawling, boozing bad boys of rock, storming from city to city in their lusty, groupie-dogged trail.” She also acknowledges that “the romantic outlaw must have something to rebel against. The pioneers of rock were freaks, dreamers, and malcontents who drew their lyricism and emotional power from the gritty rural traditions of white folk music and African-American blues.”

Rock may indeed be a victim of its own success, and that what once signified rebellion is now only a high school affectation. But for those of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s, the signifier still retains its power. Our rock heroes were products of art schools who read poetry, studied Hinduism, and drew on psychedelic visions. The Doors were named after Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, which was our psychedelic bible.

The Rolling Stones were named after a proverb attributed to Erasmus, and used in “Like a Rolling Stone” by folk artist Bob Dylan, who recorded this just as the Stones were forming and playing blues clubs in London. Sure, it may have been at least in part a PR ploy by their manager to contrast The Beatles, the “nice boys,” to the Stones “outlaws,” but it certainly worked -- "I wanna hold your hand" vs "Let's spend the night together." It was the scruffy, smoking and drinking Jagger and Richards who were getting busted.

They released “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in the political heyday of May 1968, and recorded “Sympathy for the Devil” in June. They still tour, and “geriatric” though they may be, 50 years on, historical blues artists often performed well into their dotage, and you don’t see many bands playing to an audience of a million and a half people on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, as they did in 2006.

It was AC/DC, formed in 1973, who played “Rock Me Baby” (“‘til my back ain’t got no bone”) and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with the Rolling Stones in 2003. It was hearing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” on a Hollywood street after seeing Apocalypse Now in 1979 that got a buddy and me to do a redux of our “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” trip to Vegas in 1975. I was in California in 1979 as a PhD student in psychology, attending the first Cognitive Science Society meeting in San Diego. My first serious refereed publication was “Metatheoretical Issues in Cognitive Science” in 1981. But “if you want rock, you got it,” and there is no better energy than in “Live Wire,” and nothing more dangerous than “lock up your daughters, lock up your wives” from the 1976 “TNT.” The first summer after my divorce, my kids and some friends used “Shot Down in Flames” in a home movie they were shooting about Amelia Earhart, but wrecked the scene because they couldn’t stop themselves from dancing. It was after the “secondary trauma” of being at a workshop with Bessel van der Kolk on trauma and recovery that, stopping at a friend’s house, I saw the very epitome of Bessel’s “rhythmic motion in community,” in a thousand-ciliated crowd dancing in unison to AC/DCs No Bull tour, live in Madrid. I felt healed. Their concert at the Tbilisi airfield in Moscow, right after several students were killed in the aftermath of the KGB coup, was also healing. Angus Young, interviewed before the concert said “They’ll become one big village,” and we saw the differences between security forces, teenage fans, and Party members in suits disappear, and I have used the footage in lectures on the neuropsychology of trauma and its treatment. Orthodox priests are leading a parade of mourning, people holding candles on a Moscow street, church bells ringing solemnly in the background, when you realize the film’s producers have overdubbed the video with “Hells Bells.” I still had to get up and dance with my 2-year old son when the firefighters of the animated 2014 Pixar production Planes: Fire and Rescue dropped the needle on “Thunderstruck" as they rolled out to fight their first fire. I’ve got history; only sad that I missed these working class boys, starting eir 2008 tour in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Nothing can really make the mythic point better than the speech given by Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler on the induction of AC/DC to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"To that thunder from down under that grabs you in the lower forty, and gives you the second most satisfying surge that can rn through your body, that lit a fire in every kid that grew up born to break the rules...the fire rages on...."

"The litmus test of what rock does: Does it make you clench your fist when you sing along? Does it scare the hell out of your parents and piss off the neighbors? Does it make you dance so close to the fire that you burn your feet and still don't give a rat's ass? Does it make you want to boil your sneakers and make soup out of your girlfriends panties?"

"AC/DC is the ultimate middle finger aimed at the establishment."

bottom of page