The summer after the seventh grade I used to steal my sister’s dubbed copy of Appetite for Destruction and lay out on the lawn with my Walkman turned up all the way. My parents were already getting hit by the first wave of my sister’s burgeoning delinquency, but they never could have dreamed that their docile oldest would resort to theft and secrecy just to hear W. Axl Rose spit “I want to watch you bleed” into her sweet ears.
But for my time with the Walkman it was a quiet summer for me, in 1987. We had just moved from our house in the country to a place in much more suburban southern Maine, and I was waiting to start a new school. I remember feeling confused by the grid of our neighborhood, with houses and yards like glass boxes I could look into but never enter. I had never had neighbors before, but I had always assumed that it meant something a little more social than silent coexistence.
Our new suburban life also meant cable television, and for the first time in my life I had MTV. To me the summer of 1987 was a time of indulging my eyes and ears: watching the neighbors, watching the videos, laying on the lawn with the sun turning the darkness behind my eyes deep red as Axl and Slash ground themselves into my eardrums.
Soon enough I would be in junior high and I would discover R.E.M. and the Replacements and Elvis Costello and the Smiths, but that summer I was a closet metalhead, nursing my obsession in absolute secrecy. Perhaps in other, more urban or less conservative parts of the country, it was okay for young girls to like music about getting wasted and getting it on, but this was New England. I didn’t necessarily think at the time that my Guns ‘N Roses obsession was taboo, I just instinctively kept it to myself. Part of why I loved Appetite was that it made me blush without quite understanding why, and this pleasure seemed to be best enjoyed in private. Which is why, interestingly enough, I never purchased a Guns ‘N Roses album until this past summer. But it wasn’t just me, and that’s even more interesting.
“Nobody got fucked by the Age of Irony as much as Axl,” writes Chuck Klosterman in his book Fargo Rock City. The book is part memoir of his days as a Midwestern metalhead, part apologia for the cultural impact of late ‘80s glam metal. Chuck is about six years older than me, so he was old enough when I was a kid to be a real metalhead. By the time I “got it” that taste in music could be used to stake out territory on the adolescent landscape it was the early ‘90s and glam metal had died the critical and popular death that Klosterman chronicles in his book. I wasn’t thrilled by razor-edged screaming, but I was thrilled by the kind of mad restraint that people like Lou Barlow and Steven Malkmus projected. That was the kind of person I wanted people to think I was not a whiskey-addled groupie or a “Use Your Illusion” Stephanie Seymour supermodel groupie, which really was only a logical outgrowth of the band’s own decadence. If the circumstances of my early adolescence had made my Guns ‘N Roses obsession inadmissible, the cultural climate now made it irrelevant.
But as the Age of Irony waned and the absolutely unironic Britney Spears’ of the world took over, so too the hazy orb of a now-reclusive Axl Rose started to rise again on the horizon. Though they would never say the same thing about Britney, Spin magazine declared in ‘99 that “What the world needs now is Axl Rose”. Almost four years later we’re still waiting for Chinese Democracy, and if the massively hyped yet crushingly disappointing Guns ‘N Roses performance on last month’s Video Music Awards is any indicator, we might be better off not to get our hopes up. Axl’s not hard enough to save the world anymore which is to say he no longer seems to want to tear it down, as his postshow toadying to MTV’s Kurt Loder proved. Of course, no one really cares about Chinese Democracy. They just all want to see someone drive the final nail into the pop coffin and they’ve conveniently forgotten that metal once was pop.
The “greening” (and wheezing) of Axl Rose is not the point, however. The point is that all of a sudden I see indie rock boys wearing vintage metal tee shirts and aviator sunglasses. I’m not talking about the neumetal explosion of the past few years with groups like Slipknot and Korn, because that’s current, and the Guns ‘N Roses thing is nostalgic. Spin has Axl on the cover for this month’s “metal issue”, but it’s a photograph taken in Guns ‘N Roses’ heyday in 1988. Mid-to-late twenties people like me are coming out of the closet about their youthful obsessions: it’s suddenly okay to tell people you like Guns ‘N Roses. It’s so okay that someone (albeit a fantastically intelligent and witty someone) wrote a book about it.
But this nostalgia is a particularly American phenomenon. Its complexity can only be maintained at the center, where pop culture is produced and where fine distinctions can be alternately made and forgotten. I spent the summer in Buenos Aires where I found lots of people who were fanatical crazy Guns ‘N Roses fans not ironic, nostalgic fans, but actual fans. I swear, everybody I met had Appetite in their collection and even young kids on the streets sported Guns ‘N Roses pins and tee shirts in a way that hasn’t been true here in the US for 15 years. They also loved Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” and Celine Dion and the Rolling Stones. Though they do have people who call themselves “heavies” (metalheads) and “punks” and “hippies” as well as a small but active indie rock scene the Argentinians don’t seem to be so self-conscious about genre distinctions as we are. Any and all of the mainstream American acts of the past 30 years are fair game for anyone in Argentina.
There’s not always a lot to talk about when you’re the foreigner, and so if someone would start to talk about music, I’d totally pounce on this possibility for common ground. We would listen to “Mr.Brownstone” or “It’s So Easy”. I would sing along joyfully, delighted to hear music I hadn’t thought about since the seventh grade. The difference is, the many Argentine Guns ‘N Roses fans and, I imagine, their compatriots in non-English-speaking countries worldwide had no idea what Axl was singing about. So they would ask me. “Um, well, this song is about how he thinks it’s really easy for him to um, sleep with whatever girl he wants. And this other song is about how he is addicted to heroin.” Really? They had no idea it was so dirty. They just liked Slash’s lacksadasical guitar, loved the howling vocals, the energy.
Once I was on a bus and I heard a woman singing the melody of “Livin’ on a Prayer” to her toddler. She didn’t know a single word of the song, but the melody was unmistakable. All of this more than supports Chuck Klosterman’s affirmation that bands like Bon Jovi and Guns ‘N Roses were fundamentally popular music. That’s not surprising when you look at the record sales, but it is when you consider the attitudes they copped, the images they marketed. Klosterman writes against the idea that glam metal died because it didn’t mean anything and he does so by painting a portrait of a Midwestern adolescence in which that music meant everything. To this observation I’ll only add that it’s a worldwide phenomenon, in which this very same popularity trumps (and continues to trump) whatever efforts Axl et. al. made to seem like “just an urchin livin’ under the street”. Take away those words, and you’re left with only grind, drive, and howl. Whatever that energy is, it means something in a variety of contexts.
It also is a stunning testament to the power of American popular culture. We can make the whole world sing along without knowing the words.
It seems to me that the reason behind Americans’ seemingly collective decision to come out of the closet about metal is not exactly the long-awaited demise of pop that critics have for so long anticipated. Exhibit A is clearly Britney’s more-desperate-than-usual attempt to look hard at the MTV’s Video Music Awards with her black leather dress and cap, which echoes an outfit sported by appetite-era Rose. And wasn’t there something really glam metal-y about her snake dance a while back? So no one takes Britney and Justin seriously, anymore but who took Axl Rose seriously in 1994? Hasn’t Britney begun her own new-age-recluse-in-the-desert phase, waiting until we’re all ready to admit we loved her when? Rather than oscillating polarities labeled “hard” and “pop”, I see a cycle of indulgence, guilt and confession over our love of what is broadly appealing and by extension what we force upon the rest of the world. Here in the center, we seem to be uncomfortable with pop. We feel smart and pat ourselves on the back when some sea change in the mainstream exposes the little man behind the curtain, whether that curtain be labeled “hair metal” or ‘N Sync.
It’s a little bit gross that American culture isn’t just content to produce and consume the musical equivalent of potato chips it also has to feel guilty about the indulgence, and then elaborately forgive itself. Pop will eat itself? Sure, but pop is bulimic. Poor old Axl’s resurgence is nothing more than the upchuck phase of a 15 year binge-and-purge cycle. And as we all know, it tastes a lot worse coming up than it did going down.