Somewhere around January, we’ll be publishing Eric Weisbard’s GNR book in the series. This is how it starts:
Welcome to the season of the blockbuster. On August 12, 1991, Metallica released Metallica, their Bob Rock produced sell-in, with “Enter Sandman” detonating the MTV Video Music Awards. On November 26, Michael Jackson bought number one for Dangerous with the soon circumcized final section of the “Black or White” video. In-between, a scad of once and future giants of pop music released albums in time for Christmas. Pearl Jam’s Ten (August 27) and Nirvana’s Nevermind (September 24) portended grunge. Garth Brooks’s Ropin’ the Wind (September 10) proved, thanks to the newly installed SoundScan, which measured actual sales rather than the rock-weighted guesses of store clerks, that country music was its own behemoth. MC Hammer’s pop-rap Too Legit to Quit (October 21), successor to the ten million selling Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, sold a quick three million and then not a copy more after people actually heard it. Mariah Carey’s Emotions (September 17) was indifferent for her (three million at first, five in all), huge for anyone else. And U2 cemented their status as the most enduringly beloved band of rock’s second generation with an album whose title seemed like a media stunt: Achtung Baby.
But the weirdest blockbuster of them all that fall was Guns N’ Roses’s Use Your Illusion I and II, released on September 17, a pair of 75 minute CDs with virtually the same cover sold separately in an act of almost colossal arrogance. GN’R had a right, though. Their first album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, had been certified 8x platinum in 1991, on its way to an eventual 15. Rock was still the biggest musical genre, hard rock was still the biggest kind of rock, and GN’R were the biggest hard rock band of their day. The first single from Use, “You Could Be Mine,” appeared first on the Terminator 2 soundtrack, and the video featured the movie’s unstoppable machine men. Consumers were supposed to be equally unable to avoid Use Your Illusion, which like all post-Thriller blockbusters of that time was planned to play out over several years, relived in multiple single releases and videos, tours, spinoff products, and press provocations. And on one level, it worked: the albums instantly claimed the top two chart positions, ultimately sold seven million copies apiece in the U.S. alone, and spawned videos as leviathan as “November Rain.”
Still, Use Your Illusion was also a disaster, the epitome of the rock bloat that alternative was about to come and try to slay, the album that fifteen years later Axl Rose is still struggling to follow up, the end of Guns N’ Roses, heavy metal on the Sunset Strip, and the entire 1980s model of blockbuster pop/rock promotion. Look back on the artists of that holiday season now: Kurt Cobain killed himself; Michael Jackson was shamed out of the spotlight; Garth Brooks retired from releasing new albums; Metallica went into therapy; Pearl Jam recast themselves as a jam band; Hammer is a semi-recurrent VH1 episode; Mariah Carey’s ambitions gave her a nervous breakdown on Total Request Live. Only U2 have kept the missionary rock dream alive, first by seeming to scorn it (and embrace anti-rock sounds and stances) with Achtung, then self-consciously reclaiming it with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Bono’s global campaign to end third world debt. The luck of the Irish!
For a time, gigantic albums still materialized as accidental novelties: the Titanic and Bodyguard soundtracks, Hootie, Alanis. Country music, conservative by nature, held on longest: Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks. Hip-hop lived large, but rappers couldn’t hit the same numbers: that genre never became the overwhelmingly dominant force in the industry that rock had been. Celine Dion gets her own book in this series, so let’s leave consideration of her rare ability to interpose a global pop model on the domestic American market to Carl Wilson. The general rule still holds. An era had passed. The idolatry required to sustain albums on a 1970s or 1980s scale could no longer be met by a popular culture whose niche markets were collectively far more valuable than its consensus heroes. Television has “American Idol”, neatly detaching the mass audience from the album making process altogether. It isn’t clear how much longer CDs will be sold in stores.
Use Your Illusion, then, arguably marked the end of rock in the weird shape it had taken when the sixties ended: mass culture masquerading as oppositional culture, with the bully’s swagger to prove it. All these years later, Axl Rose is still caught in artistic limbo. Yes, he has been grappling with a specific album, Chinese Democracy, but it goes beyond that. He doesn’t have a format anymore. He has become rock’s Norma Desmond, the silent film star trapped on Sunset Boulevard in Billy Wilder’s 1951 Hollywood apotheosis. “I am big,” you can imagine him saying. “It’s the music that got small.”