Aerosmith's 'Dude (Looks Like a Lady)': The Real Story

Several years ago I listened to an interview with Desmond Child, a massively successful songwriter you might not have heard of but whose music you've definitely heard. Desmond is gay and has been openly gay for a long time. He was describing working with Aerosmith on their hit "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," and something really caught my attention (WARNING: this interview contains an offensive slur for transgender people):

Desmond: ...Because of my success with Bon Jovi, John Kalodner -- the famous John Kalodner, legendary A&R man -- asked me if I would go up to Boston and meet Aerosmith. They had never written with an outside writer, and they were not happy to see me. They were going along with it to please John Kalodner, but they were not that happy about it.

Steven (Tyler) was much more friendly, as he is, and was very generous, really, and showed me a song that they had started called "Cruisin' for the Ladies." I listened to that lyric, and I said, "You know what, that's a very boring title." And they looked at me like, "How dare you?" And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing "Dude Looks like a Lady." It was kind of a tongue twister that sounded more like scatting. He got the idea because they had gone to a bar and had seen a girl at the end of the bar with ginormous blonde rock hair, and the girl turned around and it ended up being Vince Neil from Motley Crue. So then they started making fun of him and started saying, "That dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady." So that's how that was born. That's the true story of how that was born.

So I grabbed onto that and I said, "No, that's the title of the song." And they looked at me like, "Are you kidding me?" And then Joe (Perry) stepped in and said, "I don't want to insult the gay community." I said, "Okay, I'm gay, and I'm not insulted. Let's write this song." So I talked them into the whole scenario of a guy that walks into a strip joint and falls in love with the stripper on stage, goes backstage and finds out it's a guy. But besides that, he's gonna go with it. He says, "My funky lady, I like it, like it, like it like that." And so he doesn't run out of there, he stays. It's funny, because they used that song in Mrs. Doubtfire, and then it was like every four or five year old child in America was able to sing that song. It was like; do you realize this is about a tranny? (Laughing).

If you think about how far back that was, it was a very daring song to sing, and everyone went with it. It's not like the polarized society we have now, because that was before gay people really started fighting for their rights and nobody cared about it and everyone thought that they could make fun of us. So they accepted the lyric, and not only that, went for it. (Laughs) I don't know if anyone has looked deep enough into the song, but it's a very accepting song, and it has a moral that says never judge a book by its cover, or who you're going to love by your lover.

Songfacts: Have you ever talked to Vince Neil about this song?

Desmond: Oh yeah, I told him the story. He had a good laugh. He knows that. He knows that he's the one that was paid homage to in "Dude Looks Like a Lady."

The interview took place in 2011. The song was recorded in 1987. So Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Kiss, etc., were all working with an openly gay songwriter in the mid '80s. It really stuck with me that the band was concerned about not offending their gay audience. Or that they were aware of their gay audience. Or that they had a gay audience.

Now, Child uses the term "tranny" in the interview, and I remember hearing that and thinking, "Man, did you have to go there?" I wouldn't say it destroys the interview, but it definitely makes me think less of him, because the story was funny without the slur. It wasn't necessary to establish any part of the story or his credibility. It was gratuitous, and I feel that it's important to point that out in this context, because it actually proves the point about Fox News that taking potshots at transgender folks is mean and demeaning and certainly undermines one's credibility.

Fast-forward to Fox News' recent decision to use Aerosmith's song to denigrate Pfc. Chelsea Manning. As with most attempts to do this, the media got the song completely wrong: The song is not mocking a man for looking like a lady; it's describing the sex appeal of a transgender woman. It's the same old story: They've similarly misused songs by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tim McGraw, Maroon 5 and so forth. They don't listen to the lyrics. They don't think. They fall for a good hook, but instead of getting drawn into the music, their minds stop there.

The members of Aerosmith were not out and avowed allies of the LGBTQ community in the 1980s. They were a rock group with a song co-written by an openly gay man and didn't want to offend anyone. In his 2011 memoir Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler described a sexual encounter he'd had with a man, writing, "Gay sex just doesn't do it for me. I tried it one time when I was younger, but I just didn't dig it." That's pretty straightforward. In the same book he went on to write that he preferred his female groupies to be freshly showered after a show. Sigh. Well, that's another post.

"Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" was not some great homage to the LGBTQ community, but it was something. It was risky, and the back story is interesting, and it proves (to me, at least) that conservative pundits at Fox News and other outlets underestimate the art of most modern musicians and misunderstand their values. That's something.

Sadly, Aerosmith can't stop Fox News from abusing their song, but they can speak out, like Adam Levine did, and I hope that they do. Aerosmith isn't perfect, but Fox News got this whole song wrong. Just consider the lyrics:

Never judge a book by its cover,

Or who you gonna love by your lover.

Sayin' "love" put me wise to her love in disguise:

She had the body of a Venus; Lord, imagine my surprise!

That, that dude looks like a lady!

That, that dude looks like a lady!

That, that dude looks like a lady!

That, that dude looks like a lady!

Baby, let me follow you down. (Let me take a peek, dear.)

Baby, let me follow you down. (Do me, do me, do me all night.)

Baby, let me follow you down. (Turn the other cheek, dear.)

Baby, let me follow you down. (Do me, do me, do me, do me!)

Ooh, what a funky lady!

Ooh, she like it, like it, like it like that!

Ooh, he was a lady!

Two lessons to be learned: 1) Listen to the entire song and decide for yourself what it means (don't let Fox News decide for you!); and 2) we need more artists to "reclaim" their music by speaking out when it's abused, even when they don't have legal standing to stop it from being abused. It still matters that they distance themselves from any misunderstandings.

As a caveat, perhaps Fox News and the tea party should stick with the musical repertoires of Ted Nugent, Kid Rock and Meat Loaf. Why not give some love to those who stand by you, right?