Hey folks, did you see this?
Soak that in for a minute. W. Axl Rose and Sebastian Fucking Bach are twitter-torching the MAGA crowd. The only way this gets better is if Bach had said “your capitalist letters.”
Now, get in the wayback machine: It’s somewhere in the very early ’90s, that period just before “alternative” when hair metal still reigned supreme. You’re in your favorite record store with the $10 your dad just paid you for mowing the lawn. You can afford exactly one cassette tape, and you want something perfect.
You’re a teenager and pissed at the world and though you’re not nearly capable of putting it into words, you’re starting to get the sneaking suspicion that systems like government and business are fucked up for precisely the same reason school is, because the world’s rules are made by the mean kids and enforced by those who want the mean kids to like them.
You’re literally looking for music to fix this, with the sort of naiveté that only afflicts pubescent kids and 43-year-old rock writers. Listening is an act of faith: You want to spend that hard-earned $10 on a personality, a stand, not just a band that “rocks.” You want to be able to say, 30 years later, “This guy gets it.”
And you wouldn’t be choosing Axl Rose or Sebastian Bach.
Which means, if you’re like me, you’re utterly confused how, even if just for a few short moments in time, Mssrs. Rose and Bach have become the voice of pop culture reason. Sure, Axl has been taking political swings at Team 45 for a while, way before Kanye West’s dalliance with (and subsequent apostasy from) the MAGA horde. Sebastian Bach? Isn’t he a musical theater guy? (Rose is definitely the more enigmatic of the two, which almost makes me like Bach’s sincerity more.) Still, how did two guys who symbolized self-aggrandizing rock and roll excess end up here? And Tommy Lee. Even fucking Tommy Lee jumped on this California fire shit.
Music and politics are both capitalist mythbuilders; we elevate heroes because they purport to speak to our values, no matter how ill-formed or insecure, and we canonize them as long as they don’t stick around long enough to fuck up too badly. But in his heyday, Axl Rose was an egomaniacal Nero of a rock star. “One In A Million” didn’t use the words “Nerf guns” and “fatheads” but absolutely did use words that started with “n” and “f” to express anger about anyone who wasn’t a scrawny white hillbilly from Indiana, proving Axl to be Part Of The Problem. Sebastian Bach, a dewy-eyed asshole adored by the most dedicatedly right-wing girl in my school (Hi, Ann!), wrote roller-rink parking lot second-base grope songs and wore a T-shirt that said “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.” And I dare you to say Tommy Lee has performed a drum solo more memorable than the sweet nothings he muttered to Pamela Anderson: “Fuuuuuuuck babe.”
Can you be anymore insensitive you fucking moron— T❍mmy L33 (@MrTommyLand) November 10, 2018
So yeah, there’s no way your ten bucks would have gone to these guys. That $10 would have been spent on bands who spoke to that pain gestating in our souls, whose art veered more closely to the merger of the political and personal that you, or I, or we, craved. Stuff that wasn’t yet hammered into your brain via MTV but was plastered all over the walls of your record store: Sex Pistols. Smiths. Smashing Pumpkins. Artists like John [fka Johnny Rotten] Lydon, or Morrissey, or Billy Corgan, all stylistically different but definitely united in some heretofore uncharted outsiderdom. That’s who got the $10 that you handed to the white Rasta kid behind the counter, who may have been nodding his approval or may have just been nodding off.
But as those idols don MAGA caps or embrace full-blown InfantWars conspiracy theories, we were, obviously, wrong. Lydon’s career has been a steady stream of diminishing returns since PIL’s Metal Box, while he’s doubled down on his role of contrarian so many times that he’s down to pocket lint and ego. Morrissey, for all the strange appeal of his self-napalming emotional wretchedness, has long deserted the idea that his sterilized pathological pain was intended to touch someone in a meaningful way, outside of cancelling concerts. And the Pumpkins? Seriously, I only wish Jim Morrison had lived long enough to tell Billy to stop aping his faux-deep poetry schtick.
But there you go: Johnny loves Trump and Brexit; Morrissey gripes about immigrants and repeats the same old “Hitler was a liberal” nonsense you don’t take from your drunk uncle Carl; Billy can’t find his guitar picks under all his tinfoil hats.
Maybe it’s misguided to ascribe stone-tablet permanence to the idiots we elevate to rock stardom. Maybe we need to be open to surprises. Maybe it’s just the sheer ridiculousness of the world we live in. But if Axl Rose and Sebastian Bach have evolved from their turgid trashbag roots 30 years ago to speak some sort of truth to power, I’ll take it. Axl, you still only have one legit good record under your belt, and Sebastian, I loved you on Gilmore Girls. Keep fighting the good fight. Glad y’all are on the side of the angels, if just for a few hilarious tweets.
And yeah, in afterthought, that $10 would have been best shipped right the fuck to Chuck D, but Fear of a Black Planet was maybe too fucking real, and you can’t expect kids to get it right the first time. In music, and politics, and our personal struggles, sometimes we forget how important redemption can be, even if just for a split second.