MP3 Killed the Rockstar: The Downfall of Guns N’ Roses


Disclaimer: The following post contains the author’s views and not Bloomsbury’s.

My 33 and 1/3 book on Use Your Illusion I and II is the only one of my seven books, as author or editor, to have no acknowledgment section. David Barker, who edited the series back then (2006), read the manuscript, accurately predicted that Guns N’ Roses fans would hate it, but said he liked it and we should go ahead and publish the thing. For a good stretch, it was the worst selling title in the series. The conceit, applying Nicholson Baker’s U and I, a book on John Updike that Baker wrote about his half-remembered take on Updike rather than undertaking new research, but here used to create a UYI and I based on my own blurry impressions, all but guaranteed that.

It was a weird moment. (Isn’t it always?) In music terms, MP3 filesharing had decimated record sales. In music journalism terms, Craigslist and Google had done even more damage to the alternative newsweeklies and music magazines that supported criticism, with pageview counts for web versions of the writing demonstrating how little regard most readers had for such “think pieces.” In personal terms, I was trying to restart my academic career, writing a dissertation I had set aside a decade before to write and edit at Spin and the Village Voice. That wasn’t going too great, either: my advisor from back in the day hated the writing style I had developed over the years. I got through the first chapter anyhow (professional writers learn to accommodate overbearing editors), switched advisors, and prepared to begin chapter two. But first, I gave myself about a month to write the UYI book and remind myself what I was meant to sound like.

The book was tossed out into the world fifteen years after the fall of 1991, when so many blockbuster albums, expected and unexpected, had come out – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica, U2, Michael Jackson. Apart from an album of cover songs, Guns N’ Roses had not been heard from again. Initially, that seemed like a story about metal bands of the 1980s giving way to grunge bands of the 1990s. I had always liked GN’R: during the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” takeover I often preferred the music of Axl Rose’s struggle to the music of Kurt Cobain’s triumph. But it was Nirvana’s rise, with all the questions it raised about where marginal punk music had been and where the mainstream version of it was going, that brought me enough paid writing to consider leaving grad school, and Spin enough expanded revenue to hire me on as an editor in a position that hadn’t existed before; a new line, we’d say in academia.

The collapse of Spin and the Voice changed the Guns decline into something more widely applicable; my whole tribe of critics had become stymied Axl Roses now. if Axl, like Kurt, according to Chuck Klosterman (seemingly the only widely read music writer in 2006), was a “redneck intellectual,” then the whole enterprise of turning out essays on albums could be understood as something equally absurdist. No one cared. And that motivated my book. If Axl was disposable, rock criticism was disposable, Generation X had long since become Generation Ex. I let the fragments of my former identity merge with everything else in the rubble. Good times!

Chinese Democracy album cover

Another fifteen years have gone by. The dissertation was approved and became my tenure book, Top 40 Democracy, followed by a much crazier recent tome (Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music) that I got to write wholly on my own terms. Music industry revenues have been picking up, thanks to streaming subscriptions. It’s still hard to make a living writing critically about pop music, though those who pull it off are a much more diverse lot than they used to be and their heroes are, too. As for Axl Rose and his Guns, Chinese Democracy did at last come out. They can sell out big venues for as long as they want to, so long as they stick to the original repertoire. A strong cross-section of the world still attends arena rock shows. I’m not sure where this leaves my 33 and 1/3 book as a reading experience: it seemed wrong to reread it for this piece, since the book itself deferred re-listening to UYI.

Instead, the only contact I have had with my 2006 words came from hearing them in the new series podcast (not a category that existed back then). Prince Paul, who produced De La Soul, recipients of my first paid record review, for San Francisco Weekly in 1989, was the host. The guests were 1980s metal stalwarts Sebastian Bach and Riki Rachtman. An actor read an excerpt from the book. It went on for a bit. Sounded completely out of place. “Wow,” said Prince Paul. “That was just a lot of ca-ca,” Rachtman said after a second passage. He and Bach denied that hair metal ever existed, at least as a term in the 1980s. Maybe so! Sebastian Bach defended his punk credentials – a “poseur” (his word, and that was punk) would not have spent years as a street musician living off girlfriends. My sister texted me: “I had such a crush on bach until I went to a skid row concert and he was such aa moron lol.” The comment I was expecting got made: “don’t talk about something if you don’t like it!” But I do like it, Riki, just not how you like it.

I could refer you to the pages in Songbooks on José Esteban Muñoz and his concept of “disidentification,” though an upside down and backwards appreciation of a straight white guy by another one was hardly how the late, great performance studies theorist (and Gun Club fan) intended it. So let’s just note that as the podcast episode came to an end, Sebastian Bach said Appetite for Destruction, GN’R’s debut album, was the sound of a band with no money, UYI  the sound of a band with too much money. Rachtman made a point to pay tribute to “Estranged.” They will never know it but they agree with me!

Use Your Illusion I and II cover

Eric Weisbard has been writing about music since 1989. He edited the Spin Alternative Record Guide and was a senior writer there for ten years. At Experience Music Project, the Seattle music museum, he put together the travelling exhibit “Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights” and he organized the annual pop music conference.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top