Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the Global Times, the nationalist tabloid cousin to the staid People’s Daily, which has decided to get indignant about the new Guns’n’Roses album, “Chinese Democracy”. It’s not that the Chinese people don’t have some cause to be angry. After all, the title is somewhat provocative, and the title track itself makes mention of the dreaded FLG. It also includes the following verses, which are pretty much worth getting angry about simply on artistic grounds alone, regardless of nationality:
Cause it would take a lot more time than you
Have got for masturbation
Even with your iron fist
All they got to rule the nation
When all we got is precious time
All they got to fool the nation
When all I got is precious time
Yep, you’re on the artistic edge when you’re rhyming “masturbation” with “nation” in an oblique criticism of China’s political system. Or maybe you’re just on your second bottle of Wild Turkey and your sixth line of Bolivian fairy dandruff. Who knows? Either way, as a musical critique of China, it’s ways from the sly, ironic rage of Roger Waters’ “Watching TV” (which is itself a ways from Waters’ best work). And Waters played live in Shanghai not very long ago, although I doubt he played that particular song.
But Guns’n’Roses? Guns’n’Roses? The band singer that took so long to get this album out that the phrase “Chinese Democracy” is now, with perhaps unintentional aptness, a music industry euphemism for a project that never ends? My friends, if you’re getting worked up about this record then your yardstick for cultural relevance is perhaps in need of some recalibration. And fortunately for you, Imagethief can provide that recalibration. In terms of gross influence on society and popular consciousness, Imagethief rates Guns’n’Roses circa 2008 thusly:
Arguably, Miley Cyrus is also past it, and should be replaced by the cast of “Twilight”.
All pop acts, and most pop-culture in general, reflect a particular moment in time. There is no such thing as “timeless rock”, only formerly timely rock that has aged well. I say that as a bona-fide classic rock fan who learned to play bass by jamming over Hendrix records, Pink Floyd, Zep, The Stranglers, and other dinosaurs. Guns’n’Roses, for all their hostility and edginess, needs to be recognized for what they actually were: The last of the LA hair-metal bands. The final, angry stand of a cornered ’80s genre. “Appetite for Destruction” came out in 1987, but languished for a year before it gained real notice. By the time “Use Your Illusion” came out, in 1991, about the time I was launching my college radio career, the band still had some juice but in fact most rock fans and and the industry itself were already up in Seattle trying to figure out exactly exactly what a “Mudhoney” was.
Some rare bands and pop musicians endure, reinventing themselves to stay relevant. That’s why, although I don’t much like her music, I have fair respect for Madonna. She has accomplished the near impossible with almost twenty-five years of pop-music success and reasonably consistent relevance. (Although, note to Hollywood, please don’t let her approach either end of a movie camera ever again.) But most bands, even if they do successfully endure and reinvent themselves, have a peak when they hit maximum alignment with the zeitgeist. Even those that stay successful thereafter are usually living on borrowed time and aging fans, like a human body that deteriorates inexorably after the late teens no matter how healthy it is kept.
So let’s take that equation and add to it not releasing an album for seventeen years. Just how long has it been since the last Guns’n’Roses studio album? When it came out, Deng Xiaoping was still a year away from making his famous “Southern Tour”, the climax of the factional battles that resulted in China’s economic opening to the world. Going after them could be considered quixotic, if Don Quixote had tilted at pinwheels.
Thus, when the Global Times published the headline (via CNN), “American band releases album venomously attacking China”, lent credibility to Chinese net gossip that the album was a Western plot to “grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn”, and wrote that the the record “turns its spear point on China,” they were committing a classic PR sin: Drawing attention to an unworthy critic.
Let’s illustrate this principle. Let’s say you’re Enormocorp, a gigantic, publicly listed conglomerate with its fingers in a myriad of businesses that span the globe. One day a small, pimply boy with his finger jammed up his nose walks up to you and says, “You suck!” What is the correct response?
The correct response is something along the lines of turning to your friend and saying, “Did you hear something?” It is not putting out a global press release on your non-suckyness, sending your CEO to do the Sunday talk shows to refute suck allegations and publishing white papers on all the anti-suckage measures that you are undertaking. Doing this is drawing attention to an unworthy critic, someone who’s ability to genuinely affect public perception is essentially nil. We call this “PRing the problem.” Global Times has PR’d the problem.
But I suppose it’s their job to do so. The angry rhetoric will play to readers and shift newspapers, which is the real job of any newspaper. So while it makes little sense from a national PR or defending-Chinese-ears point of view, it makes plenty of sense from a business point of view. As long as you don’t mind the cynicism of accepting that a legion of people who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered will probably stampede to Baidu to run MP3 searches for “Chinese Democracy” (or the Chinese nanny-defeating linguistic spoof thereof) as a result of the article.
Personally, Imagethief thinks the Foreign Ministry, which was quoted in the same CNN article, had it dead right when they were asked about the album:
“We don’t need to comment on that.”
Note: Imagethief owns “Appetite for Destruction” and considers it one of the great workout records of all time. He has not, however, listened to “Chinese Democracy” yet. Who knows? Maybe it rocks.