Love Songs of a Dirtbag
This piece contains language that some readers may find offensive.
When Matty Healy told an interviewer recently that he’s obsessed with the duality of having a dick, was he joking? It’s hard to tell. A little context: In that conversation, as throughout The 1975’s new album, the singer was commenting on the curses and blessings of his gendered existence. The potency and fragility of it; also the pleasure. Masturbation jokes abound on Being Funny in a Foreign Language, adding a certain saltiness to its passionately delivered romantic catchphrases, expressions of loneliness and self-doubt, protests against being misunderstood and pleas for forgiveness. It all adds up to a disquisition on what it means to be a man — to be Healy, specifically, white and entitled, a media darling and cannily self-made bad boy — in 2022. Masculinity can be comical, Healy loves to point out, even when it threatens relationships, inner peace, the world itself.
Dick jokes aren’t universal, no matter how artfully Healy deploys them throughout Being Funny alongside allusions to his bisexual imagination and examples of women breaking his heart with a carelessness that equals his own. As one of pop’s designated millennial spokespeople, he’s happy to confront his own limitations and connect them to the era that made him — alongside familiar 1975 themes like The Problem of Being Extremely Online, this album addresses cancel culture, climate crisis and gun violence — but this time, he speaks from his body’s center when he confronts these universals. Some of the jokes and a lot of the pain on the album can cross gender lines; anyone with a broken heart might, as he poignantly puts it, take solace in conjuring the presence of an ex by “coming to her lookalikes.” Elsewhere, though, Healy’s definitely talking about masculine problems and missteps.
Across the course of the album’s thornily seductive dance-pop bops, he expresses anxiety about being “cucked,” offers a take on incel mass shooters which is somewhat muddled in its mix of outrage and empathy and invokes the word “ego” as a marker for male arrogance more than once. Tightening up the genre-swimming sprawl of previous 1975 albums, Being Funny is romantic music for cynical observers ready to give love a try, and Healy’s honest move throughout is to acknowledge that even when he’s at his most tender, his manhood gets in the way. “I would go blind just to see you,” he moans in “Happiness,” a song that bubbles up like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” only to wind up not in a pink-lit nightclub but back with Healy, alone at home, wallowing in stimulating memories. “God help me, ‘cos I’m never gonna love again,” he exhales at the song’s peak. It’s a buoyant anticlimax, and it is pretty funny — a self-critical takedown of the urges that embarrass and drive him.
Clutching himself to himself, the Matty Healy of Being Funny aims to be earnest, to open up in a way that he insists only love can make him do. In these songs, though, he mostly remains alone inside memories, fantasies, dreamed-up dialogues. This is an album about breakups, equal parts wistful and fatalistic; that part of Healy’s current art is apparently autobiographical, since he recently ended a two-years-plus long relationship with his fellow millennial pop protagonist, FKA twigs. But it also articulates an existential stance. There’s a name for the kind of guy Healy tells us he is within these deceptively blithe ballads and dance floor burners; it’s one that’s suited rock stars like him, with their disheveled charisma and well-annotated little black books, for years. Critiquing masculinity while maintaining his position within the enduring hierarchies that put those bad boys on top, he’s the one you love to roll your eyes at. He’s a dirtbag, baby, in a long line of antiheroes who interrogate the shapes of male privilege from the inside, even as they benefit from its persistence.
From the first time Mick Jagger sang “The Last Time” to this year, when power players like Kendrick Lamar and Bad Bunny are both fighting and playing with masculine stances, Healy stands out as just one guy redefining the dirtbag role, and doing it with exceptional savvy. He’s tuned into the vibe — he talks about listening to “dirtbag left” podcasts, wears the rumpled fashion, reads the right books. Throughout Being Funny, Healy teases and challenges both his listeners and himself with a portrait of a young man on the edge, but not really, because the dirtbag is that perennial outsider who’s alway really ready for center stage.
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Healy (with the title of one of The 1975’s self-aware songs scrawled on his stomach) performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2016.
I knew a lot of dirtbags in my early twenties, my wild single days. A hungry kid jumping from bar hookups to bad boyfriends in pre-techified San Francisco, I often unflinchingly leapt into their arms only to realize neither I nor anything in the universe could fill the void in their sad, guarded hearts. The term had been coined a couple of decades earlier by the mountain-climbing daredevils who sometimes showed up in the same circles as the bike messengers and skateboarders we met in our bars or at our low-wage service jobs. Yet we could instantly identify the type, also inspired by the disorderly example set by Healy hero Jack Kerouac: beautiful and vaguely smelly, possessing ropy tattooed muscles developed anywhere but a gym and one constantly worn cool clothing item (leather jacket, skull ring, motorcycle boots). Their soulful bloodshot eyes evaded the glances thrown by the unruly girls and exploratory boys who would tame them. Until they got interested, then they’d slink away with you.
We identified these dirtbags not by name, but with a nod toward whatever preoccupation guaranteed that something would always be more important to him than a friend or a lover — especially the phrase, “Oh yeah, he’s in a band.” True to their passions alone, these dissidents staged surface rebellions against the usual masculine ideals of strength, stability and openly acquired power – while ultimately reinforcing them. For the dudes who splayed themselves across the face of El Capitan in the 1960s, “dirtbag” meant anyone who put a passion for climbing above anything else: status, income, creature comforts and especially relationships. Their grimy mountaineering backpacks — their dirt bags — were home. The dirtbags I knew operated the same way to serve different passions, like writing short stories with a surrealist tinge or building sculptures out of garbage or chaining themselves to the fence at a nuclear power plant. Or, most frequently, playing music and maintaining the nocturnal, habitually high rock and roll lifestyle that went with it.
Here’s a partial list of dirtbags I knew before I turned 25: the rangy blond painter with whom I spent one night in an unheated North Beach studio, awakening surrounded by his nudes with him nowhere in sight. The fedora-wearing trash rocker who dated me for a month and then left my New Year’s Eve party at 11:40 p.m. so he could kiss some other girl guaranteed to dump him sooner than I would. The sad-eyed record store clerk of indeterminate age (32?) who invited me to his garage-slash-studio-apartment to watch Liquid Sky on VHS and slept next to me on the mattress on the floor but chickened out when it came to going farther since, I guess, I had just turned 21. The perpetually hungover singer-songwriter who didn’t let the fact that he couldn’t get over his ex-girlfriend stop him from dating every girl or boy who thought they could solve that. The scarf-wearing postmodernist who wrote me a love poem only to tell me my blue eyes were really just a metaphor for tourism and, after a long chase, proved disappointing in the clutch. For these boys with the faraway eyes, I forsook more solid suitors (a fencer! a photographer who owned his own studio!), burned an endless supply of bodega candles and wasted so much precious time.
Dirtbags often possess the very advantages that leading-man types like Harry Styles (who likes to pretend he’s one, though he can’t help his prom king genes) also enjoy. Often they also have some money, usually from family but sometimes from a lover or even a patron who believes in whatever passion might someday pull this social rebel into a position of real influence. Unlike the frat-bro alpha males who openly flex their entitlement, the dirtbag only takes that patriarchal center stage when necessary to sustain his security or further his favorite pursuits. He wants his writing to be published, his cause to win, his band to play the big venue. Opting out of power is very difficult to persuade yourself to do when the culture hands it to you as a birthright. “Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?” Matty Healy asks in “Part of the Band,” a song from Funny that stages an argument about privilege within a skittish arrangement recalling the elder masters of such circular inquiries, Steely Dan. The allure of the dirtbag lies partly in the fact that he entertains such questions, though he only infrequently thinks them through.
Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Healy (with microphone) and the other members of The 1975 (from left: George Daniel, Ross MacDonald and Adam Hann) accept the award for British Album of the Year at the 2019 BRIT Awards.
The “dirtbag” designation is ubiquitous in 2022, the latest Year of Our Man in Crisis. In fact, dirtbagism is often presented as a solution to that crisis, a way that men can be charmingly themselves, apart from the mainstream of male toxicity. In The Atlantic, Adrienne Mattei celebrated dirtbags as bemused nihilists who opt out of capitalism’s ideal of upward mobility in favor of living in the moment – something we worrywarts should all occasionally do. In I-D, Veronica Phillips paired the dirtbag with the post-feminist bimbo, extolling the critiques of gender roles these funny characters provide by both overinvesting in and deconstructing them. These insights into dirtbagism celebrate the lineagae as a source of fun and erotic liberation. Totally valid. Who hasn’t loved a surfer, a through-hiking would-be novelist, a guy who knows all the best weed dispensaries? These prodigals of the patriarchy present a much better set of options than the incels, macho men and Proud Boys who populate the aggrieved manosphere.
Dirtbagism remains an unstable category years after it was first codified, big enough to include many variations. Today, it mainly flourishes in three distinct ways, all of which surface in Healy’s songs. First, there’s the comic version, the teenage masturbator he celebrates and gently chides in satires like “Part of the Band.” This is the dirtbag as innocent youth, unable to articulate ambition or realize even modest desires, but not too concerned about those things. This heartwarming creature, also embodied in the “teenage dirtbag” TikTok trend and by mulletted doll Eddie Munson on Stranger Things, is all innocence and aimlessness, a hyperlink to more relaxed, if mostly imaginary, good times. He defuses male power by laughing at it through a sativa haze.
A second way to imagine the dirtbag is as an emotionally driven, harried, somewhat broken, idiosyncratic man who’s gone off the grid in pursuit of a passion that compromises his ability to fulfill the norms of success. This is Matty Healy to a T, telling his family in “Wintering” that he’ll barely be back for Christmas, sending sincere but basically useless apologies for the state of the earth to kids half his age in “The 1975.” The soulful dirtbag is the type most often seen on prestige television, in inexhaustible variations that have expanded the role and brought it up to date for a culture that values a multiracial and sexually fluid ideal. In fact, it was Donald Glover who arguably conjured the current version of this dirtbag into existence in the groundbreaking dramedy Atlanta — from his own character of Earn, ambitious but self-sabotaging, to LaKeith Stanfield’s dandyish wild card Darius, to the thrillingly unmoored and increasingly androgynous cool girl Van, so beautifully realized by Zazie Beets.
Since the dirtbag is ultimately an expression of male privilege, though, including racial and sexual entitlement, it’s not surprising that Glover’s hold on the category was challenged this summer by a new contender. Jeremy Allen White’s portrayal of the downwardly mobile chef Carmy Berzatto on The Bear inspired a thirsty cult and many conversations about the glory of following your dream, even if it leads to oblivion. Sleeping in his dirty chef’s clothes in a one-room Chicago apartment, Carmy never dreams of a lover, apparently, only of the macho, dead brother who broke his heart and the perfect sandwich he wants to make in his honor. That Carmy’s existential predicament — the breadth of his talent always battling his inability to get out of his own way — so poignantly echoes the life and legend of the restaurant world’s lost Odysseus Anthony Bourdain only makes his embodiment of the dirtbag all the more poignant. Like the now-mythic Bourdain, Carmy is rough but possesses a noble soul. He solves the crisis of masculinity simply by being an alpha male in softer, soiled clothing, insisting that the workaholism and self-absorption he feels no need to escape serves a higher purpose that justifies whatever harm he may do.
A third take on the dirtbag, harder to swoon over but connected to an even deeper antihero lineage, is the truly marginal man whose desire for redemption counters his genuinely nihilistic tendencies. This is the Matty Healy of 1975 albums past, the one who dabbled in heroin and imagined himself a robber and shouted, “F*** your feelings, truth is only hearsay.” It’s the new noir antihero, everywhere in crime stories true and imagined. Seriously, name one male star of a popular murder show who isn’t a bit of dirtbag, doffing his cowboy hat or hoodie toward Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces or, looking further back, Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo. The most memorable of these noir scions, like Bill Hader’s delusional hit man Barry Beckman in Barry and Domnhall Gleeson’s extraordinarily pathetic serial killer Sam Forster in The Patient, show us how far dirtbagism can go in arguing that the pressures of being a man can explain, if not wholly excuse, even the most heinous behavior.
Throughout Being Funny, Healy dips into these three variations on the dirtbag archetype to create empathy for himself as someone who feels marginalized in his own life. Of course, that feeling is at least partly an illusion, since as a white man and a rock star, Healy’s still more secure than 99 percent of his fellow humanoids. An awareness of this paradox is key to the dirtbag’s appeal. “I’m gonna stop messing it up,” Healy repeats in “Happiness” as the beat sweeps him up. But he knows that if he wants, he can go on messing things up pretty much forever.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Healy (with guitar) and drummer George Daniel onstage during the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
For all of the screen stories powered by antihero charisma, dirtbag energy has found its most powerful outlet in music, especially since rock and roll made being young and filthy an ideal. An appropriated and hybridized take on Black resistance music, early rock and roll blended various outsiders styles — Beat, cowboy, biker — with teen energy to lend cultural definition to the idea of youthful rebellion. Youthful male rebellion, that is, at least on stage. That seed remains, more than half a century after rock became a dominant force. When the fabulist and diehard rocker Baz Lurhman’s biopic of rock’s problematic patriarch, Elvis, was released this past summer, we were introduced to Elvis the Dirtbag, beautifully played by Austin Lucas with a sinuous slink and a knowing gaze. This Elvis is a wild creature, doomed to dull domesticity by a money-hungry huckster who didn’t value his natural subersiveness or the instinctively anti-racist attitudes he held before capitalism imprisoned him.
In reality, it wasn’t Elvis but the next generation of rock stars who really made dirtbagism an art. Keith Richard’s pirate schtick, Bob Dylan’s impenetrable impishness, Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic dismantling of racist cliches about Black virility — these performances by rock’s most worshiped heroes offered young fans questioning the roles their parents laid forth for them a chance to dream differently about themselves. Sharing the spotlight with women or, beyond Hendrix and a few others, non-white men was not a priority for these badasses — they were too busy elevating themselves, even when they expressed a debt to the Black men whose moves they copped. As rock evolved into gender-bending glam and socially disruptive punk, dirtbag variations proliferated and became iconic: Richard Hell declaring himself the louche hero of the Blank Generation, Iggy Pop doing backbends and growling “I need more,” Joey Ramone offering the view from the basement.
In 1980s rock, dirtbagism flourished mostly on the margins, within the indie scene. This is one of the interesting paradoxes of Matty Healy’s stance: His band’s spirit is that familiar one of indie, left-of-the-dial refusal, even though its sound excavates mainstream pop sources much more frequently than it turns toward elders like The Replacements. On Being Funny, Healy isn’t so far off from the Paul Westerberg of “Unsatisfied” when, describing the desolation of the newly dumped, he sings, “I sit in my kitchen with nothing to eat, with so many friends I don’t want to meet.” He understands the pathos-generating potential of self-sabotage. And the way his mind flits from noise to genuine insight throughout the love songs he can’t offer in a simple way recalls the constant self-questioning of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the dirtbag’s favorite deep thinker.
There is a through line that connects The 1975’s indie side to its love of shiny beats: James Murphy, whom Healy admires so much he’s said he should be paying the LCD frontman royalties. Healy’s James Murphy fixation is the bridge connecting The 1975’s dance-oriented rock to earlier, more shambolic dirtbags like Wilco. When they were released in the mid-to-late ’00s, Murphy’s songs hit like the hungover morning after indie rock’s final bash, employing a post-hip-hop and EDM sonic palette to the existential angst of the aimless, self-destructive, fruitlessly questing hipster. Along with other New York hedonists like the Strokes, Murphy kept the dirtbag POV alive in the early 21st-century, when rock, like the American economy, became more frictionless and technocratic. It was a time when the bad boy’s oppositional stance almost seemed outdated: Clean-cut heartthrobs like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard inhabited masculinity almost as an afterthought, projecting entitlement in the gentlest way possible. These stars were like the nerdy Silicon Valley techies who hadn’t yet awakened their machismo by taking up crossfit or climbing the world’s highest peaks. They didn’t need to be dirtbags. They were nerds, crafty and innovative and quietly sure of themselves.
Before that moment, of course, came the apotheosis of dirtbagism in rock, when the stance unexpectedly entered the mainstream. In between the slackers and the technocrats came Kurt Cobain, wearing jeans with holes the size of his heartaches and, in the most famous rock lyric of the 1990s, yelling “A denial!” over and over again. With his hair in his eyes, he directed his ire at a money-driven culture, including the swollen corporate rock scene, where it seemed that the independent spirit of the dirtbag no longer carried much currency. Nirvana and their Pacific Northwest peers presented all three classic variations on the dirtbag by being born in suburban and small-down heavy metal parking lots, raised by punk uncles and mountaineers — Bob Whittaker, scion of one of the sport’s most famous families, was Mudhoney’s early manager — and mining marginal existences for both fun and angst. As with any subculture absorbed into the mainstream, though, grunge couldn’t maintain its haphazard spirit of resistance. Some stars, like Cobain, fell under the weight of the contradictions. Most, like the members of Pearl Jam, grew up and became responsible progressives playing benefits for Ralph Nader and Bernie. It would take only a couple of decades for the Northwest to go from the capital of dirtbagism to an unaffordable tech mecca. “A denial” has taken on dark new meanings: The Proud Boys ape grunge styles, and incels express anxieties about sexual disempowerment that strangely echo Cobain.
The rock world The 1975 occupies is a new one, transformed by younger generations questioning the genre’s history of handing the spotlight to skinny, sexy white boys when so many capable women and people of color could do better. It’s interesting to note that today, Healy’s main rivals in dirtbag attitude are rappers, running the gamut from queer innovators like Tyler, the Creator to popular inheritors like Machine Gun Kelly. Not surprising, though: The dirtbag has always represented opposition to power from within, an opting out that becomes a new path instead of a challenge from beyond patriarchy’s borders. From the 1960 to the 1990s rock ruled the zeitgeist; now hip-hop determines the culture’s shifts. So in place of The Rolling Stones, we have Drake, a quintessential Type 2 dirtbag whose softness and aura of genial alienation only reinforces his unwavering belief in himself, and The Weeknd, a dramatic marginal man who adopts monstrous attributes as a way of exposing the bad habits of his manhood. These stars owe a debt to the individualists who were once considered marginal geniuses, but are now acknowledged as paradigm-shifters: Andre 3000, who showed rap that a freak could be as powerful as a hard man; and D’Angelo, R&B’s own Carmy Berzatto, who insisted on making art by his own rules when the entertainment machine would have had him take any other route.
Following the paths laid down by these Southern romantics, a range of soft refusenik boys are now playing with dirtbag mythologies in subversive ways. They occupy different points on the weirdness spectrum, from dreamy Omar Apollo to playfully wasted Cuco to charming Bartees Strange. One of the most intriguing artists working this new variation on the dirtbag is Steve Lacy, who’s come into his own as a purveyor of internal worlds that blossom into new perspectives. His fractured soundscapes create spaces where he can be fluid about everything — his sexuality, his ambitions, commitments of any kinds. Talk about duality! The aptly-named Gemini Rights unfolds like a river running two ways as Lacy’s bent voice articulates a constant stream of contradictory hopes, frustrations and desires. He’s not telling stories that can be easily absorbed; that’s his form of dirtbag self-possession. Shy and aloof, tender and oversensitive, dreaming and distracted, Lacy brings us back to the soulful dirtbag with a new sense of possibility: The self he projects through his songs is more aware of his foibles and less attached to maintaining his self-righteous loneliness. He wants to connect, even if he takes the long way. “I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit,” he drawls on the unlikely hit of the year bearing that name, before asking the subject of his affections if he can do the same to theirs. Second-guessing himself, hanging on to that spirit of elusiveness, he’s written the dirtbag anthem Matty Healy has to match.
Steve Jennings / Getty Images
The 1975 in 2019.
The dirtbag will likely be with us forever, as long as men still inherit forms of power some aren’t quite comfortable claiming: He’s a cipher and a safety valve, letting enough steam out of conventional gender roles to allow them to adapt and survive. But he can make a fatal turn from independent spirit to bigot and menace. It’s not a big leap from the dirtbag’s style of outsiderness to the incel’s conviction that others must pay for his marginalization; all it takes is a little more anger, the loss of that flicker of self-awareness. Worse yet is the appropriation of dirtbagism’s creative outsiderness within ideologies grounded in hate.. The same impulse that led hippie bikers and California country rockers to imagine themselves as cowboys, or that made punks emulate 1950s biker gangs, leads fascists like the Proud Boys to wear the same haircuts, leathers and tattoos: The longing for a mythical masculinity divorced from the corrupting influence of the mainstream, whether that mainstream is corporate America or Reaganism or an Oval Office that has room for a Black man and a biracial woman. When its adherents refuse self-critique, dirtbagism can veer not away from toxic masculinity but straight into its heart.
In his affecting memoir of coming of age and reckoning with toxic masculinity, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Isaac Fitzgerald writes of his consternation when he realizes the haircut that he’s come to love is in fact that neo-Nazi high-and-tight look. “I get that if you took a photo of me and put Alt-Right Poster Boy underneath it no one would really blink,” he writes. Not exactly pleased that the tattooed-biker do that gave him confidence was now sending highly problematic dog whistles, he endures the awkward phases of growing his hair out. Then he finds a queer-run hair salon and figured out how to stand apart in a different way.
Like Being Funny in a Different Language, Fitzgerald’s memoir evokes the confusion men who consider themselves beyond the strictures of traditional roles — gender, class, political, even sometimes racial — experience when they find themselves behaving in questionable ways. Dirtbagism, it turns out, is only a partial solution. When it comes to creating alternatives to the patriarchal status quo, men actually have to surrender some privilege, not merely question the effect an elevated status has on their own souls. This can be a painful realization, a disappointment. But it also opens up new possibilities, pointing toward a life that might be less damaging to others, and less lonely.
After sharing his own account of having to make painful changes in order to escape the masculine trap, Fitzgerald writes, “To any young men out there who aren’t too far gone I say, you’re not done being yourself. You can keep growing. Growing, it turns out, is what this life is all about. Don’t fear change, fear being only who you are right now forever.” On Being Funny, Matty Healy seems to be aiming for such wisdom. “I thought I’d done anger / I thought I’d done shame / But I’ve always been the same,” he sings in “Human Too.” This dirtbag might actually be changing, even if he’s not gonna change his socks.
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