What makes Guns ‘n’ Roses so popular, even to this day?
On the one hand it’s surely their sheer musical talent: Appetite for Destruction is an archetype of hard rock so good that 33 years after its release few have matched it. But I think their longevity lies in the mysterious duality of lead singer Axl Rose, who oscillates between incredible tenderness – Use Your Illusion I and II are full of wistful ballads about time, love, loss and separation – and sickening aggression, as he rails against homosexuality and black people or dedicates a whole track to a ‘joke’ song about killing his lover because “she bitched so much; she drove me nuts.”
I’ve been trying to reconcile those two sides to Axl for two decades, floundering as I try to explain to myself how I can worship a man who yells “back off bitch” simply because, on another song, he can sing sweetly to an absent lover with one of the most beautiful voices you’ll ever hear.
Because whatever you think of a Guns ‘n’ Roses ballad – and I think plenty of things: I desperately love “Estranged.” I think if you took its chords, lyrics and structure and gave them to Bob Dylan or Radiohead it would be a widely accepted masterpiece of modern music – the presence of misogyny and violence is undeniable. That underbelly (some would euphemistically call GnR “raw”) pervades so much of the group’s music.
As much as I try, I can’t take one without the other. In fact, It’s only recently occurred to me that when I listened loudly to Guns ‘n’ Roses in my suburban bedroom, my parents may have been worried. As they sat in the living room of my quiet house in my quiet English hometown, what did they think was happening to their son as words like these drifted down the stairs?
Ya get nothin’ for nothin’It’s So Easy
If that’s what ya do
Turn around bitch I got a use for you
Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do
And I’m bored.
I used to love her, but I had to kill herUsed to Love Her
She bitched so much, she drove me nuts
And now I’m happier this way.
I call my motherBad Obsession
She’s just a cunt now
She said I’m sick in the head
Back off, back off bitchBack off Bitch
Down in the gutter dyin’ in the ditch
You better back off, back off bitch.
How on earth is the singer of those words the same one who sang “Old at heart but I’m only 28 and I’m much too young to let love break my heart. Young at heart but it’s getting much too late to find ourselves so far apart”? How can the same person who sneers “turn around bitch I’ve got a use for you” be the same person who sang so vulnerably in “Patience”?
Whether I like it or not, this is the true face of GnR. For years I wondered how I might reconcile the immaturity and the sexual violence of the Bad Axl Rose with the sweetness, sincerity and humility of the Good Axl Rose. As I’ve aged I’ve realized that transformation, like the caterpillar into the butterfly, was never the key that would unlock their mysteries to me, as if the uneasiness I felt could be resolved and the two sides reconciled. They cannot be reconciled. Rather, at the core of Guns ‘n’ Roses is the privilege that so many men, myself included, are allowed to hold the abhorrent and the admirable together at once.
I think this paradox is all too common among men. I hope that the generations coming up behind me are different, but if I’m honest with myself, I think I was a misogynist growing up – systemically, I still am – and that music like Guns ‘n’ Roses helped cement a worldview it took me the best part of ten years to disentangle. And during all those years – just like Axl Rose, screaming “back off bitch” one minute and “I’ll never find anyone to replace you. Guess I’ll have to make it through this time without you” the next – I was capable of extreme tenderness, too. I think of myself as a kind, thoughtful person, but I can point to extreme lack of respect at best and immorality at worst when it comes to my behavior toward women, and to the relationship that defined my twenties and lasted until recently.
The question isn’t how a man who beats his girlfriend – as Axl Rose is alleged to have done – can also sing love songs to that same person; the question isn’t how a man accused of emotionally abusing his wife – something Axl’s ex-wife alleged – can also sing lines like “How can you say that I never needed you when you took everything?” The question, perhaps, is this: why do we perform this collective gaslighting for men only, one I’ve performed with so many male heroes – hello John Lennon – and one I’ve performed on myself, in order to allow for the evil alongside the good?
People are complicated, we say. Or men are pigs. That’s also a saying. The answer may lie between the two statements, but what I do know is that I can’t think of a non-male Axl Rose. And if they exist, I am almost certain we don’t try to forgive them their violence just because glimmers of light peek through the cracks. Axl Rose wrote “Sweet Child O’ Mine” about his girlfriend – and also beat her. He sang coded lines like “I know that you can love me when there’s no one left to blame,” which sound plaintive in the context of swirling orchestral strings but are more sinister when you consider the context of their abusive relationship: you can hear the over-controlling partner in lines like “I could rest my head just knowing that you were mine.”
I wonder what the other members of the group made of it. I know that Slash has said of the racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant song “One in a Million” that “I don’t regret doing One in a Million, I just regret what we’ve been through because of it and the way people have perceived our personal feelings.” Presumably the hard-partying lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer on the back cover of Appetite for Destruction had no problem with the implied sexual violence of “Welcome to the Jungle,” in which Axl sings about his “serpentine” and boasts “I wanna hear you scream.”
Is Axl Rose a bad person? Is Slash? Are the other members of Guns ‘n’ Roses? Am I? I don’t know. What’s a bad person? How long after a crime should you be punished for committing it? And do displays of sensitivity absolve anything? I don’t know that, either. What’s notably lacking from Guns ‘n’ Roses canon, though, is the apology. There’s no “sorry I abused you” song and I doubt there ever will be.
That’s the thing that might make Guns ‘n’ Roses problematic, overall, or rather being enamored by their music problematic. There’s always going to be a part of me that wants to believe that their world is acceptable. I know it isn’t. But I am still seduced by the absurd idea that there may be a world out there where men drink and take drugs and dominate women and everybody is happy about it.
I wonder if Axl Rose thinks that, or just his fans. I wonder whether he regrets his actions. I wonder what music he would make now, if he made any new music. But still, he tours with the rest of GnR, singing the same songs. And still we cheer.