Even though several friends listen to Appetite for Destruction as if it was the pinnacle of ’80s rock, I can’t help but start laughing whenever Axl Rose reached one of his classic falsetto yelps. Maybe it’s just because the idea of that rock ‘n’ roll mating call being a classic part of the music as a little silly, or maybe it’s because when Rose tried his signature siren at the MTV Video Music Awards a few years back, it sounded unhinged and closer to an animal’s death rattle than vocal virtuosity.
But then again, I doubted many looked at Guns N’ Roses — at least, in its present form — as anything respectable in the least. It’s been 17 years since the group released Use Your Illusion and their fans — and just curious onlookers — have been wondering what would become of their rather ominously titled Chinese Democracy.
Well, it’s here. But now I’m confused by what everyone expected. Or at least those who seem to balance American culture on their own literary scales.
OK, so I’m talking about Chuck Klosterman. He seems to exist on a different plane of existence with his praise for Chinese Democracy. He’s got some good points on the album, which, if evaluated in a vacuum, is actually pretty decent. He notes how ridiculous some of Axl’s production tricks are and the infusion of nearly every musical technique he knows, and how many of the times what he thinks he’s doing and what he actually ends up doing are separated by a gaping hole as large as Rose’s ego.
But Klosterman, who loves to muse and riff just a hair too far, seemed to overstate the importance of Chinese Democracy. Chuck gives Guns N’ Roses the wonderful privilege of having the “last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file.”
Just because the album is called Chinese Democracy, that doesn’t give one license to overstate its grandeur or impact. First off, albums are still, despite the ability to unbundle them with makeshift iTunes singles, marketed as a collection of songs. Concept albums might become more prevalent as the art form has to prove itself, but singles-only production lost its luster a long time ago and won’t be coming back anytime soon. Second, as much I would love to imagine a solid lineup for Guns N’ Roses, this album credited 14 studios, spanned 15 years and still has remnants of ex-drummers and guitarist “Buckethead.” Static it ain’t. This is just the collective workings of one controlling, spindly one-time hair metal (now cornrow-laden) hero.
But Klosterman’s right — this album is more important than the MP3’s or ACC’s most people will take in.
And that’s what disappoints me. Chinese Democracy is a great glam rock album. In fact, it may be the pinnacle of achievement that proves once and for all why Guns N’ Roses were worth more than all the Poison’s and Motley Crue’s put together.
But also know that American musical tastes since the 1980’s have survived on the three R’s — re-listen, review, revise. When the turn of the century came, a slew of young acts came out of the gate aping classic rock formulas, to which the media claimed “retro is in!”
Wolfmother revived Led Zeppelin. And Jet ripped off Iggy Pop and ’70s rock. And everybody generally did what their idols were doing 20 to 30 years ago. Never did I think there would be an act that would try and mimic Hall & Oates, but after seeing Baby Teeth last year at High Noon Saloon, I stood corrected.
But I think we can all agree: There is no need for a hair metal revival. Power ballads aside, the stadium-sized, over-the-top, coke-induced, Behind-the-Music, faux-masculine androgynous rock that reached its most respectable musical accolades with Van Halen — and it’s most absurd with tribute bands to Whitesnake — died with Nirvana. Ashes to ashes.
However, Klosterman’s nostalgia and cultural cache — combined with the fact that Chinese Democracy actually does rock — could not only spark interest in that anomaly of artistic expression but also encourage others to recreate the genre in their vision. After all, if Axl Rose spent 15 years on album and actually made something that could be described as “literary” by one of the top cultural critics of our time, maybe there can be depth to the excesses of rock.
For those under this delusion: Listen to “Cherry Pie.” If this is the most elaborate extended metaphor a musical genre can come up with, there aren’t exactly leagues of meaning to explore.
So please, to all you nostalgic culture mavens out there, celebrate Chinese Democracy if you must, but don’t take it as a call to arms.
Jason Smathers is a senior majoring in history and journalism. Does Axl Rose inspire you to play guitar with your teeth and ware skin-tight leather pants? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.