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Building a Better Democracy

The secret influence of Guns N' Roses' most infamous album on 2013's most popular music

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the human race is constantly moving forward, and those who think the human race is gradually regressing. I belong in the former camp, even if it sometimes seems like there’s a preponderance of evidence suggesting I’m a fool for having this allegiance. It’s just how I’m wired. No matter what, I am militantly pro-present. It is my belief that when you look at the big picture, and take into account all that’s been built on the foundation of collective experiences that encompasses mankind, it’s obvious that 2013 is the no. 1 best year in the history of the planet. When 2014 arrives, I’ll argue that year is the no. 1 best year for Earth, too, though I’ll know deep down that it won’t be as good as 2015. Believing this requires looking beyond our mistakes — no matter how egregious, offensive, or moronically expensive1 — and realizing that our culture thrives on trial and error, and most of what is good now is the result of moving on from something bad in the past.

Here’s one example of how this is true in 2013: The institution known as The Long-Awaited Comeback Album once inspired dread and trepidation, and now it doesn’t.

In the pre-2013 world, artists who took six, seven, 10, or 20 years between records — because they gave acting a try, because they explored lightly funky side projects with Flea and/or Danger Mouse, or because they spent millions of dollars and zillions of studio hours on would-be masterpieces that were rotting from the inside out — rarely recovered their lost momentum. For every Extraordinary Machine, which arrived after a six-year break between Fiona Apple records and unexpectedly became her career benchmark,2 there are other, largely forgotten disasters like Second Coming, which killed the Stone Roses’ career as definitively as the buzzy ’80s Brit-rockers’ self-titled debut from five years earlier launched it.3 Even when Long-Awaited Comeback Albums were really great (like Michael Jackson’s Bad, which came out five years and one troubled Jacksons reunion tour after Thriller) or at least decent (like Metallica’s Load, which came out five years and four haircuts after the Thriller of ’90s metal albums, Metallica), the problematic stew of overworked ideas and overwrought hype rendered them not entirely satisfying.

Flash forward to ’13. For the first time, there’s an established pattern of Long-Awaited Comeback Records not only turning out well, but being as well liked as anything in their creators’ discographies. Just look at the impressive list of notable artists and bands that have released new music to widespread acclaim after prolonged absences this year: Queens of the Stone Age (six years), Justin Timberlake (seven years), Daft Punk (eight years), Boards of Canada (eight years), David Bowie (10 years), the Mavericks (10 years), and My Bloody Valentine (22 years). Three of them (Timberlake, Daft Punk, and QOTSA) debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart.4 Bowie entered the chart at no. 2 and garnered his best first-week sales of the Soundscan era.5 The other records will likely rank with the most commercially popular work of their respective artists’ careers. This is to say nothing of how well they’ve been received critically — opinions may vary on how exactly good each album is, but it’s generally agreed that there are no clunkers in the bunch, and at least a couple of these records will probably appear regularly in year-end best-of lists.

It’s no wonder that groups both celebrated (Kraftwerk; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Dismemberment Plan; Mazzy Star) and not so celebrated (Toad the Wet Sprocket!) are now lining up to put out their first new records in years — or in some cases decades. And then there are the albums that are rumored to come out in the near future, including some of the most talked-about “long wait” records of all time: D’Angelo, the Avalanches, the Wrens, and the reunited Blur. At this rate, Dr. Dre’s eternally delayed Detox could suddenly appear on iTunes tomorrow and it might not even be terrible. This is the amazing reality we live in now. Anything is possible.6

How did it happen? To understand this golden age of perpetually late and yet reliably worthwhile music, we must reassess the defining Long-Awaited Comeback Album of the 21st century, and perhaps in all of pop music history. Only then can we appreciate why Chinese Democracy had to die in 2008 so that other records could live in 2013.

Axl Rose

Chinese Democracy turns five this November, though Guns N’ Roses’ sixth studio album actually feels much, much older than that. In some ways, it is much older than that — while it’s arguably the most talked-about record of the last 10 years, Chinese Democracy is remembered mainly for the 14 years (and more than $13 million) it took to make. It is, unofficially, the costliest piece of music ever recorded, and the most famously belabored. It was reportedly almost finished in 2000, a relatively scant seven years after GNR’s previous record, The Spaghetti Incident? Then Axl Rose hired Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker to help shepherd the album to completion. Only Baker did the opposite — he talked Axl into rerecording all of the songs, in spite of the monumental expense. Axl was always fearless like that when it came to defying time,7 but time eventually caught up with Chinese Democracy and exacted its merciless revenge. For years, it was widely assumed Chinese Democracy would never come out; in retrospect, the delay is all anybody cares about.

From the beginning, Chinese Democracy was regarded with the kind of gobsmacked fascination that heralds the discovery of an ancient corpse that’s been perfectly preserved for centuries in a slab of Arctic ice. The album was a curio of a distant time that had devolved into an unfrozen sideshow attraction that most people were content to pass by quickly without any further investigation. It lives on less as a collection of music that exists and can be heard by anyone with a Spotify account or access to a neighborhood used-CD store (where copies of Chinese Democracy are always in abundance), and more as a cultural reference signifying titanic hubris, dashed hopes, and a comically self-destructive disregard for smart career management. As music, Chinese Democracy is merely the second-worst GNR record; as a figure of speech, it is shorthand for the grandest of boondoggles.

All of that aside, Chinese Democracy is better than you probably remember; at least it’s better than I remember.8 After it came out, Chinese Democracy was instantly cast off from the rest of GNR’s work. The personnel around Axl were different, what a new Guns N’ Roses record represented to the public was different, and the audience’s expectations were different, to a near-oppressive degree. But when I recently revisited Chinese Democracy, I was surprised by how not different it was from GNR’s other albums.9 It might not trawl the same syringe-spiked Dumpsters where Appetite for Destruction lives, but it’s not far off from the hammiest sections of the Use Your Illusion albums. My two favorite songs on Chinese Democracy, “Street of Dreams” and “There Was a Time,” sound like offspring of the Axl-communes-with-dolphins epic “Estranged” off of UYI II. The album’s catchiest track, “Better,” is the poppiest song in the GNR catalogue next to “Don’t Cry,” if you can get past the poor man’s Trent Reznor industrial-rock coating. Kelly Clarkson should’ve covered it. She still could, really.

The worst that can be said of Chinese Democracy is that large swaths of it still sound unfinished — which is ridiculous given the amount of time and money that went into the record’s endless gestation period, though it speaks to the difficulty (if not impossibility) of tying together glittery Elton John–at–his–most–Liberace balladry with leathery grind-metal and soul-jazz sex jams (among the many inchoate threads that fray wildly on the album) into a coherent package. No matter how much effort was put into Chinese Democracy, it was destined to be an utterly confounding package to anyone outside the cabal of maniacs residing inside Axl Rose’s head.

Timberlake

In terms of how the album was marketed and contextualized for listeners before it was released, there were two major errors made in the lengthy run-up to Chinese Democracy that subsequent artists can learn from (and probably have learned from, if only subliminally):

1. Don’t let the backstory overshadow your record.

I just mustered a mild defense of Chinese Democracy‘s musical merits. But even I wouldn’t argue that revisiting this album is as much fun as revisiting articles about this album.10 The morsels of lunacy served up in the reporting about Chinese Democracy‘s origin story have already been picked over many times. I couldn’t possibly rehash them again.

OK, maybe just a quick rehash of some of the greatest hits:

• In 1997, a record executive sent Axl Rose some CDs made by different producers so that he could pick one to work with on Chinese Democracy. Axl responded by driving over the CDs with his car.

• Axl visited the studio so infrequently in the late ’90s that one of his engineers, Billy Howerdel, formed a band with GNR’s then-drummer, Josh Freese. The group was called A Perfect Circle, and its debut album, Mer de Noms, came out in 2000 and sold 1.7 million copies. A Perfect Circle put out two more albums in the early ’00s, several years before Chinese Democracy was released.

• In the early 2000s, Chinese Democracy was running up a monthly tab of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. This included $62,000 for Axl’s band members, $14,000 for the album’s chief engineer, $25,000 for a recording software engineer, and $6,000 for each guitar technician. (GNR’s label, Geffen Records, informed Rose that it was cutting off his money supply in 2004.)

• When Axl’s handpicked guitarist, Buckethead, expressed misgivings about staying in the band, Axl took him on a trip to Disneyland. Later, at Buckethead’s request, Axl built him his own chicken coop out of wood planks and chicken wire in the studio. Buckethead decided to leave GNR anyway in 2004.

When people could finally hear Chinese Democracy, the reaction wasn’t excitement or curiosity — it was resentment, especially in the media, as writers quickly discovered that they enjoyed talking about the album far more than listening to it. “With Chinese Democracy now an honest-to-goodness Actual Thing … the cottage industry of writing about it in the abstract is, like so many other industries right now, being shuttered, its personnel scuttled and forced to find real work,” wrote Spin‘s Steve Kandell. “The only way the record could have lived up to its legend would have been to never come out at all; that it is instead merely, ultimately, a fair-to-middling rock album is nothing to get mad at.”

Consider this: My Bloody Valentine’s m b v was even more delayed than Chinese Democracy. It’s possible that MBV’s Axl Rose–style recluse genius figure, Kevin Shields, drove over an equal number of compact discs and built just as many nonfunctional chicken coops during the making of his record. But if that stuff did happen, it was successfully kept under wraps. There was no “cottage industry of writing” about the making of m b v. All that mattered was the music, which delivers precisely what most My Bloody Valentine fans wanted out of the follow-up to Loveless — a record that sounds a lot like Loveless, but also just different enough that it feels fresh. This brings us to the other big mistake made with Chinese Democracy:

2. Give the people what they want — which is usually a slight variation of what they already have.

What killed Chinese Democracy? A person described by the New York Times as a “recording engineer who was there” put it this way: “What Axl wanted to do was to make the best record that had ever been made. It’s an impossible task. You could go on infinitely, which is what they’ve done.”

Axl Rose spent the better part of two decades trying to come up with the sound of rock music’s future. He understood that doing this required shedding almost everything that defined GNR in the past,11 and he was perfectly fine with doing that. As he sang once a long time ago, “yesterday’s got nothing” for Axl Rose. Like a small handful of pop visionaries before him — Brian Wilson and Michael Jackson are his copilots in this arena — Axl was obsessed with inventing music so revolutionary and universal that it could only ever exist as an inarticulate idea in his imagination. Attempting to communicate this idea with the mere mortals in his audience would be Axl’s undoing, and not (only) because he was misguided in his ambition or because his vision of rock’s vanguard was indebted to music that was more than a decade old when Chinese Democracy wrapped. What Axl didn’t understand is that people didn’t want new ideas from him. They wanted a competent re-creation of music they knew they already liked.

That’s what records like Random Access Memories, The 20/20 Experience, m b v, and The Next Day have provided this year. All of them are more successful than Chinese Democracy, in part, because they’re more modest. They stake out well-trod musical territory associated with each artist — feel-good disco, old-school soul, early ’90s indie, and ’70s classic rock, respectively — and traverse it with admirable skill and a cautious approach. Together, they’ve remade the Long-Awaited Comeback Record as a concept analogous to a solid ground ball single rather than a home run swing. Nobody in 2013 is trying to make the best record that has ever been made — the aim is more like, “Let’s make the record that the majority of our potential listeners will enjoy.” This is a more sensible (and somewhat less endearing) goal. The upside is that none of these records will go down in history like Chinese Democracy. The downside, of course, is that none of these records will go down in history like Chinese Democracy.

Filed Under: Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Music

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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