Are Guns N' Roses Still Relevant?

L-R: The original and modified covers of Guns N' Roses' landmark 1987 album Appetite For Destruction
L-R: The original and modified covers of Guns N' Roses' landmark 1987 album Appetite For Destruction
Geffen Records

According to one of our local Live Nation reps, only a couple of thousand tickets remain for Guns N’ Roses’ August 5 concert at NRG Stadium, and Houston is one of the top-selling markets on the tour. The venue alone speaks to the kind of public interest in GN’R that remains nearly 30 years after their epochal debut, Appetite For Destruction, quite an accomplishment because we’re also talking about one of the most problematic bands in rock history. Consider that Axl Rose et al. haven’t released an original album in eight years, and that one, Chinese Democracy, is remembered much more as a notorious monument to Rose’s runaway ego than for any kind of positive musical achievements. But Slash, Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler have rejoined the fold, the band killed at Coachella this spring — hobbled Axl singing from his “throne” and all — and reviews from the tour thus far have been largely positive, more or less. So is this “Not In This Lifetime Tour” the triumphant return of a band of true rock and roll warriors, one of the very few of their ilk who can command such a large audience anymore, or a cynically nostalgic attempt to go out in a hail of pyro (and cash) as nothing more than Les Paul-toting holdovers from a bygone era? That’s what we wanted to find out.

Chinese Democracy was eight years ago. If they weren't already just a legacy act (and a punch line to every long-delayed album-release joke for almost two decades) even in 2008, the gap between Chinese Democracy and any significant band activity has been enormous. For comparison, another long-inactive group that had its last high-profile release in 2008 was Gnarls Barkley, whom I would also struggle to call relevant today. The difference is, they were at least relevant then; I challenge anyone to hum a single line from Chinese Democracy. It's a far more likely bet that one would know half the lyrics to "Who's Gonna Save My Soul.” Add another 17 previous years of relative inactivity to the mix and you have the McDonald's of bands — it's somehow still everywhere, but you don't know anyone who cares.

Eh, not really. Sure, the tour announcement was a major one, and the venues are packed, but it's mostly a nostalgia act. Rock has changed so much in the past 30 years that Guns N' Roses simply doesn't resonate the way it once did — particularly with the Chinese Democracy fiasco and Axl Rose being a hermit and a generally miserable person. This smells of a cash grab, and who can fault the band for that? They're going to line their pockets off years of hard work, and there's no shame in that. But this isn't a comeback tour; the band isn't going to showcase any new material that alters today's musical landscape. It's simply a once-great band trotting itself out in front of folks who want to remember their youth, the leather jackets, long hair and devil-may-care spirit.

As a music-making entity, GN’R are totally irrelevant. As we all have no idea if this reunion is anything more than a cash grab – which is fine, by the way – it's silly to think of them as anything other than what they are: a beloved band out to make some money while they still can. GN’R themselves are certainly not interested in being relevant; look no further than the fact that Skrillex is the opening act for the show instead of any number of deserving rock acts that could make use of the chance to open up for some rock legends. 

So while GN’R the band is irrelevant, their tour is incredibly relevant because for all intents and purposes, this is the end of an era for hard rock music, an epilogue lap for a genre that was once mighty. How many rock acts, let alone loud rock acts, could you name that could play NRG Stadium outside the rodeo? U2, sure. Foo Fighters, possibly. Coldplay, very maybe. Metallica, but only if it were a farewell tour. Hard-rock fans might be consistent in that they show up when their bands come to town, but the truth is their share of the marketplace is shrinking. Gone are the days when rock stars were the actual rock stars of music, replaced by a rotating cast of pop divas and rappers. GN’R harkens back to a time when a band that could rock balls had a place in the national music conversation. Those days are gone, but for a night at least, you can cosplay like it was the good old days. That counts for something.

I would personally feel like a terrible human being to conclude that an artist's music doesn’t matter. Regardless of relevance, popularity or impact, I feel all music matters and that there is always something for someone. That being said, it's very hard to be interested in anything GN’R are trying to accomplish now, whatever that may be. This reunion tour means a lot to people, and I am not talking down on that sentiment by any means. Go and hear the songs you love (if you have hundreds of dollars to shell out for tickets) and have a good time. But there is just not a shred of me that believes that this band is a band again because they want to play next to each other, be creative and craft meaningful music. And with that, it's just hard for me to get behind them.

Twenty-nine years after the release of Appetite For Destruction, Guns N' Roses have finally settled into their role as a classic-rock nostalgia act, even if they spent decades trying to stave off their inevitable fate. And why shouldn’t they? Lord knows concertgoers would rather hear Slash play alongside Axl instead of any of the various side projects or solo material he’s worked on in the new millennium. Few want to see Axl try something new after the Chinese Democracy fiasco, either. It’s 2016, and they don’t need to worry about preserving their legacy. Hell, even Pavement did the reunion tour. Their influence may not be as pronounced as that of many of their contemporaries of the ’80s, but to the packed crowd at NRG next weekend, they’ll matter for two hours. What more can you really ask for?

Of course Guns N’ Roses is no longer relevant, not even close to it. Outside of an ’80s-’90s nostalgia act that’s guaranteed to sell tickets, they have no claim on current American music culture. Sure, you could argue that they were a pivotal band that influenced rock — which would be correct if we were in 1988. But we’re not; those days are long gone. In addition to that, their limited significance in metal is far overrated by a loquacious, delusional fan base that insists GN’R are rock deities. No, they are not. They had two great albums, partied away their talent, and became stereotypical rock queens muddled in dramatic infighting and ego wars. They are not what Jimi Hendrix is to guitar, Black Sabbath is to metal or even Madonna is to pop music. They are just Guns N’ Roses, part of a genre much larger than they will ever be. If they make new hit music, resurrect the Paradise City, instead of standing on music that’s now decades old, then they'll be relevant. For now, they are the jukebox fodder of a thousand pool halls and bars on a Saturday night, hardly relevant to anyone outside of a beer-soaked reminiscing session about a time when mullets and monster trucks were cool.

Tucked in a storage closet at my house, there’s a VHS home movie of my cousin J.R. lip-syncing “Welcome to the Jungle.” At the time, he was maybe 11 or 12 years old and going on 40. He gyrates in a way no prepubescent should be familiar or comfortable with, with a too-knowing twinkle in his eye. The answer to whether Guns N’ Roses matters today lies in the few minutes of that footage. The band’s legendary badassery was responsible for legions of rebels just like him, guys and girls who latched onto what was sexy and nerveless about rock and roll, all at a time when the synthesized whine-pop of bands like A-Ha and Tears for Fears threatened to steal away all our primal urges in favor of thinky-feely stuff. J.R. needed that band at that time and so did others who are now the sexy and nerveless adults in our thinky-feely world. Today, Guns N’ Roses might be like a VHS tape — dated, hard to watch and likely to break at any moment. But who they once were still resonates in sold-out stadiums and in the hearts of fans who found their own confidence in the band's bravado.

During the late '90s, just as I was entering my teenage years, I purchased the only Guns N' Roses album I've ever owned. A few upperclassmen seemed to talk about the band incessantly, so I walked a few blocks up the street from my high school to the record store, where I saw a used copy of The Spaghetti Incident?. It wasn't a bad album, from what I remember, but the thing is that I don't remember much about it. The guitar work was solid, as was advertised by the older kids, but it wasn't memorable enough to reel me in and turn me into a bona fide fan. All the band's hits were on regular rotation at every bar and pool hall I frequented during my high-school and college years, so I'm familiar with the group's hits, but neither the songs nor the band's supposed fans ever came across as sincere.

It seemed like a big joke that everyone was in on. Like "Sweet Caroline" or "Don't Stop Believing," I wonder if even the people who put their hard-earned dollars into the jukeboxes were fans of the music. Were they pranking their friends? When I comb through old photos of myself and find one in which I'm wearing something overly dated and tacky, I usually show my friends. "Hey, guys. Come look at how silly I used to look!" And my friends usually laugh in solidarity, and we end up sharing embarrassing stories and pictures of them in return. To me, that's what Guns N' Roses feels like: a big joke that everyone is in on, and fans ironically blare the band's music as moms and dads alike wonder how they ever fit into those leather jeans. As a period piece, the band is still relevant; as musicians, not so much.

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