The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie

Art Tavana: What Guns N' Roses Tells Us About the American Dream

How Axl Rose reflected a country desperate but unwilling to move on from a worn-out postwar consensus on national identity, gender roles, and global hegemony.

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In 1987, just two years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall would usher in the beginning of what Francis Fukuyama would later call the end of history, the rock band Guns N' Roses released Appetite for Destruction, an album that would go on to become the best-selling debut L.P. in the history of rock and roll.

Packed with hits such as "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child o' Mine," and "Paradise City," Appetite for Destruction wasn't just another record. It was a cultural milestone, at once the culmination of decades of trends in popular music and the closing out not just of the rock era but a society-wide flirtation with excess, fear, anger, and nihilism. For the next five years, Guns N' Roses and particularly the band's frontman, Axl Rose, would personify an America in rapid flux and change, desperate to move on from a worn-out postwar consensus on national identity, gender roles, and global hegemony but equally terrified of wading into uncharted waters.

The new book Goodbye Guns N' Roses: The Crime, Beauty, and Amplified Chaos of America's Most Polarizing Band, by Art Tavana, is an extended essay on the cultural legacy not just of a band but of a period that informs contemporary debates on politics and culture even as it recedes from our memory. 

Tavana, an L.A.-based former writer for Playboy and L.A. Weekly, talks with Nick Gillespie about the attraction of popular nihilism; Axl Rose as the dispossessed son of middle America; how the band's racist, xenophobic, and homophobic song "One in a Million" reflected national anxiety over coming political, social, and economic change; how the group's beef with Nirvana, another band that couldn't quite make it into the post–Cold War era, illustrates the limits of rock and roll; and what comes after the end of corporate mass culture.

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  1. Ooooo – pretentious, navel-gazing, psuedo-intellectual horse shit about a bunch of assholes! That’s sure to be interesting!

    1. Yeah, Fonzie should stick to Velvet Underground and pretending they were significant

      1. Did Gillespie start a band? Or even, a sympathetic heroin habit?

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  2. “…post-war consensus on national identity, gender roles, and global hegemony.”

    Those were the days, my friend,

    1. Post-War? What war was post in 1987?

      1. The war on drugs.

  3. Well I doubt Guns N Roses resonates with the kids 30 years on. The ones from the late 80s probably didn’t like Elvis or Chuck Berry either. When these Zers finally grow up and realize the world isn’t custom made for their benefit, then we’ll see how much they think they can trash biology.

    1. “The future belongs to the young!” Nope, the young grow old, and a lot faster than they think.

  4. “the band’s racist, xenophobic, and homophobic song…”

    radicals and racists, don’t point your finger at me, I’m a small town white boy, just trying to make ends meet.

    1. Came here to say this. The song is clearly about the “small town white boy” having a hard time adapting to all the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the big city, especially the human diversity. Calling it “racist, xenophobic, and homophobic” while required by today’s pop culture, is deliberately missing the point.

      1. That’s the narrative the press established at the time, so it became “the truth.”

      2. Morons did the same thing about Money For Nothing and got it pulled off the air until they censored the word faggot even though the entire song is about how stupid lowbrow blue collar workers are.

        1. One of the most sanctimonious songs ever written.

        2. Now, it would be for the “chimpanzee noises” line.

          I think it’s hilarious that they got Sting—of all the sanctimonious rock personalities—to sing backing vocals.

      3. “they” successfully changed definitions. Using a slur is now = racist. In fact, racist doesn’t mean racially bigoted or supremist anymore, but instead, anything I don’t like from someone not identical to me. The suffix Phobic doesn’t mean what it’s defined as, and have become a label similar to a scarlet letter. This simplification left out all the nuance and context. So let’s forget about an accurate representation of a stranger from a small town, walking down a big city street, watching cops harass passersby, the neighborhood fence in your face, hawking a coat full of stolen jewelry, a racially segregated community resistant to merging with society, or the spreading of a disease that makes covid look like a paper cut, primarily by the homosexual population. Really the biggest problem here is the racist, xenophobic, and homophobic white guy walking down the street.

  5. how the group’s beef with Nirvana, another band that couldn’t quite make it into the post-Cold War era, illustrates the limits of rock and roll

    I’m not exactly sure what Nick is alluding to here. Rock and roll has NEVER driven cultural change; it’s always been a reflection of changes that were already taking place within the broader social landscape. For all the bellyaching and posing that rock stars, especially from the 70s to the early 90s, liked to do about “fuck the corporations, maaaaaan,” the fact of the matter is that rockers only went as far as the music labels were willing to take them. Even bands with legitimate cultural clout like the Beatles were mostly following trends, not setting them (Rubber Soul might be the notable exception here, as the music and the album cover in particular basically set the popular aesthetic of the counter-culture in the late 60s. They didn’t really start acting like hippies until Revolver, though.).

    GnR’s portrayal in the media at the time is that they were somehow more “dangerous” than the other hair metal bands from the Sunset Strip or the ones who came out of the eastern US like Cinderella and Bon Jovi. But really, when you read their biography, what’s notable is that, like a lot of those other bands, all they did was play their gigs and then get drunk or high off their ass the rest of the time. Axl himself made a very commercial decision to put Sweet Child O’ Mine on “Appetite” because he knew they wouldn’t get much airplay if the album didn’t have a power ballad that MTV would push.

    Their supposed rivalry with Nirvana wasn’t even anything the press made it out to be. It was a complete fabrication out of the blow-up that happened at the MTV awards, because Courtney Love and her borderline personality disorder wanted to see a fight happen.

    Hilariously, the Nirvana guys actually had the audacity to call GnR “corporate rock” even though they were both financed by Geffen. Cobain was probably the biggest poser of the entire alternative era, which makes the fact that the music press deified him as “the voice of a generation,” particularly apt for a generation that’s basically been a bunch of bandwagon hoppers for most of its existence.

    1. I’m not exactly sure what Nick is alluding to here. Rock and roll has NEVER driven cultural change; it’s always been a reflection of changes that were already taking place within the broader social landscape.

      Nick’s an aging Boomer who still thinks The Ramones and Lou Reed were subversive “underground” musical groups. Boomers are the single most fucking self-involved group of people to ever grace the planet. They think everything from their music to their clothing styles was not only utterly original and authentic but also represented the peak of culture before or since. Say what you want about Millennials and Gen Z. They’re insufferable in their own special ways. But their entire doomer nihilism aesthetic is based on the realization that everything is shit and all of their cultural landmarks are steeped in irony.

      1. It’s ironic that the Boomers who, by and large, made Peter Pan syndrome a way of life and “SCREW YOU, DAD!” a motto, are being kicked to the curb by today’s youth.

      2. “But their entire doomer nihilism aesthetic is based on the realization that everything is shit and all of their cultural landmarks are steeped in irony.”

        I thought that was GenX’s schtick, no?

        Anyway, Z does some silly shit, but a lot of them are reachable by people posting at an ostensibly Libertarian website. Thank God.

    2. Axl himself made a very commercial decision to put Sweet Child O’ Mine on “Appetite” because he knew they wouldn’t get much airplay if the album didn’t have a power ballad that MTV would push.

      This underplays the commercial banality; ‘Sweet Child’ was put on because there were no ballads, ‘November Rain’ was left off because two ballads is too many, despite multiple subsequent albums containing multiple ballads.

      1. Well, that. And it’s 8 something minutes long.

        ‘Whippin’ Post,’ I don’t mind the length. November Rain, I do.

  6. Mr. Brownstone is the best song on the album.

    1. #facts

    2. I’ll drink to that!

    3. Your alright Dillinger!

    4. Rocket Queen, but damned if your song doesn’t have a fantastic riff and groove.

      1. And your song has a work schedule I aspire to, which makes it even greater. It’s truly an awesome song, on what would be a Greatest Hits album for any other band.

        And I don’t worry about nothing, no
        Because worrying’s a waste of my time
        The show usually starts around seven
        We go on stage around nine
        Get on the bus about eleven
        Sippin’ a drink and feelin’ fine

  7. also ironic is the Rocket Queen Riot (lol) in STL in 1991 because one. guy. was. filming. now the whole crowd watches concerts through their phones while they record.

    i have a Riverport Amphitheatre seat in the memorabilia room from the melee.

  8. what comes after the end of corporate mass culture

    So this is the post-corporate mass culture era? That seems… what’re the word I’m looking for? Ah, yeah, abjectly wrong.

    1. Please pass the word salad dressing

  9. a worn-out, post-war consensus on… gender roles

    lol.
    *dabs free space on woke bingo card*

  10. What I find more interesting is that parts of the album have been cancelled

  11. The best thing going here are the comments.

    Terrific observations.

    I am gen x and i confess; growing up I really wanted GNR to be relevant. They certainly became huge, and Appetite for Destruction is a very good album start to finish.

    My musical taste is many, many times more diverse then it was in the late 1980’s when I was a “small town” (teenage) white boy. (as is my life)

    I always thought (i.e. tried to convince myself- and others) that the song “One in a Million” in a kind of naive way was commentary on the social inequalities and the ignorance of the uncultured, uneducated, rural, white population and their shallow, antiquated thinking. (fucking- dumb- hick- racists is how that should read.) I realize this take on “one in a Million” is really ambitious on my part, but like I said, I WANTED GNR to be relevant. I looked for deeper than existed meaning in tunes like Civil War and Paradise City and others… I doubt the band was mature enough to really make any important cultural commentary let alone mass social influence.

    In recent years Axl (who was an asshole… I know from 1st hand experience) has tweeted informed commentary and opinions (dare I say “woke”) mostly on #45 and the state of the U.S. Which does not absolve his misogynistic past, but it is refreshing to see him aim his “asshole powers” at someone who deserves it.)

    Will Zoomers discover the music of Guns-N-Roses, and will it have any resonance? Probably not. However several 16-19 year old’s work for me, and they know the songs. I am a chef and I play many diverse playlists in my kitchen, Guns makes the rotation- Except i skip” One in a Million” if it pops up. (shrug)

    IMO rock and roll bands have little chance at reaching mass audiences in the same way they did from the 1960’s-2000’s.

    Streaming services and how the industry has changed, as well as the fact that other genre’s are more popular, seem to limit their capacity to appeal very far beyond those who listened to them when they were young..

    I agree that most of the time music and musicians tend be influenced… as opposed to influencing… sometimes providing energizing observation, rarely world changing action.

    This middle aged dude would find it pretty cool if the reunited GNR were to release a good, culturally relevant album.

    Or if the music they are allegedly working on… just kind of rocks… that would be cool enough… but I’m not too optimistic… on either count.

  12. Their rockin songs are great. Their power ballads are awful.
    My friend sez that Axl sounds like Ethel Merman on their terrible cover of Live and Let Die 😀

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