I bought my copy of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy today. It leaked last week, and I downloaded it then, and of course I'm sure I could have the label send me one this coming week, but I still felt like it was worth a trip to Best Buy to pick up the physical object. So for $11.99 plus NJ sales tax, I got myself a copy.
The first line of Chinese Democracy's album-opening title track is "It don't really matter." And that's what I've been thinking about for months now, as the album's release date approached: Does it matter?
I think it does, but in more of an Animal House way ("I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part") than anything else. Axl Rose, like Michael Jackson, is a man who creates his own context, and Chinese Democracy does the same thing. It can't be compared to the other five Guns N' Roses studio releases (Appetite For Destruction, G N' R Lies, Use Your Illusion I and II, The Spaghetti Incident?) because Rose and keyboardist Dizzy Reed are the only people to appear on those records and this one. Also, it doesn't sound much like the band's earlier work. Some things are the same - it's bombastic, and his yowl is unmistakable, if coarsened by time. He's still got a taste for power ballads, too. But there's a cyber/"industrial" edge here that's a little bit Rob Zombie, a little bit Nine Inch Nails, and a little bit J-pop. When I first started hearing leaked tracks in 2007, one of my strongest impressions was that you could replace Rose with Ayumi Hamasaki and the songs would lose none of their power. Chinese Democracy doesn't sound dated, but it doesn't sound like anything else on the radio in the 21st Century. (Which is a good thing; no matter what one may think of CD, anyone with ears can admit that an album of Axl Rose attempting screamo, nü-metal or post-grunge mopery would have been infinitely more cringe-inducing and horrible.)
But again, context matters. MTV, which Guns N' Roses used to rule, ran a documentary this week explaining to their current viewership who this band was and is (and, presumably, why they should care more about this album than, say, the new Fall Out Boy disc). But MTV is dying. So is the record industry, which will never again spend on anything the kind of money they gave Rose for this project. The biz is flailing around, attempting to come to grips with the Internet and declining sales through stunts, "deluxe editions" of albums, 360 deals, et cetera. But Axl Rose, like Michael Jackson, continues to live and work like he thinks it's 1998. Look what you get for your 15 years of waiting - a single CD. No bonus DVD with a documentary on the making of the album; no videos (yet); no exclusive tracks on the digital-only edition; no link to buy Guns N' Roses ringtones. I guarantee there will not be a deluxe edition of this album in six months with three more songs and a T-Pain cameo. We'll have to wait and see whether, as Sebastian Bach (whose Angel Down is a pretty goddamn terrific hard rock record that deserved to sell better than it did) told me and several other journalists in 2007, it's the first volume in a trilogy to be released between now and 2012. But for now, this is what we've got, and it feels like the last blast of the Music Industry That Was. Axl Rose is the last rock star; whatever one may think of what he did with them, no one will ever again have the opportunities he was given.
But I'm left wondering who's impressed by that stuff? I was drawn in by the egomaniacal bombast of it all, but I'm 36. When Appetite For Destruction came out, I was 15. I saw the video for "Welcome To The Jungle" when MTV was only airing it late at night, as part of Headbangers' Ball. Do kids these days - those who are 15 now - give a crap? I doubt it; I certainly didn't care the year before Appetite, when the Rolling Stones put out Dirty Work, their first album in three years. Is Axl Rose hoping there are a few million guys in their mid-30s or early 40s who are gonna buy this record? If he is, he might just be proved right. A lot of them are probably listening to more country than metal these days, but they'll come back - maybe on Friday, when they're at Best Buy shopping for the kids' Christmas presents.