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Details - July 1992

An Ordinariness of Mounstrous Proportions
by Mary Gaitskill

Reprinted in 1995 in the book "Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap" with the following introduction:

Well-known for her explorations of women's darker impulses, fiction writer Mary Gaitskilll here examines her lust for Guns N' Roses leader W. Axl Rose, whose enthusiastic political incorrectness and arrogant attitude have made him a dartboard pinup boy for feminists worldwide. Admitting Axl's allure, Gaitskill challenges both the judgmental tendencies of feminists and the mind-numbing hedonism of the music scene. Written two years before Rose was sued by an ex-wife and ex-girlfriend for physical abuse, her piece illuminates the sometimes violent impulses of attraction.

There was a picture of Axl Rose in a magazine recently. The article was about an LA pleasure palace where empty beautiful people - those bastards! - come to shake their booties and girls get in by showing there implants to the doorman. Axl was only mentioned once in the piece, but the picture was perfect. Bloated, bleary, grinning a grin of bewildered entitlement as he pulled up the dress of a clinging girl to show the gorgeous ass upon which he had just written his name, the Axl in the photo was a vector for fantasies of fascination and resentment, a template of full-throttle bawling and bellowing, grabbing and eating. "Really revolting," commented the person who showed me the picture. That's how you're supposed to react, but I don't know... If I was a twenty-nine-year-old rock star and I was out of my skull and a beautiful girl came and wiped herself on me, I'd write my name on her ass too.

Axl (more accurately, Axl's public image; I've not met the flesh-and-blood man) reminds me of a kid I knew in junior high school, a small, pouty, gum-chewing, androgynous brat named Brad. Brad was also someone I had secret empathy for, even though I thought I shouldn't. In a desolate landscape of square brick houses on square sod lawns, one stumped tree per lawn, he proudly slouched and sneered and snot-balled his way through life, wild and sensually cruel; yet stiffly adhering to complex social rules that I, to my dismay, could make no sense of. He wasn't a loner: there were lots of kids like him, and I was scared of them for their wildness and their conformity, both of which seemed to burst from the constricted environment with alarming force.

But I also admired these kids for their beauty, their audacity and panache. I was fascinated by the cruelty that ran through all their discourse like blood. Brad in particular was clever and maddeningly cute; his vicious taunting of the wretched special-ed student had the exquisite refinement of a hot needle. I thought it was wrong and it made me sick, but in its extremity had a horrible intensity that, just in terms of sheer wattage, was stronger than anything else I saw in our sadly bland environment. And teenagers, even quiet, shy ones, need and love intensity, they'll take it where they can find it.

This is what Guns N' Roses music, especially as put across by Axl Rose, is about. Not cruelty specifically, but rather the kind of boundless aggression that can easily turn to cruelty. It is intense and generically fierce - generic because it doesn't have to be directed at anybody or anything in particular, whether Rose intends it to be or not. Some critics like to talk about how "dangerous" or "on the edge" the band are, citing their drug and alcohol excesses as if their music is a result of being really "out there." This is a bunch of shit. It doesn't matter if their nastiness and fierceness is justified by their touted "street" experiences or not. An elementary school kid who's been moved out of the lunch line knows where Axl's furious screams are coming from. A tiny old lady hobbling down the street knows. All human beings know, on some level, of those moments when you want to stick your hand up somebody's ass and tear his guts out. To hear that fly out of the radio, streamlined by Axl's high, carnal, glandularly defined voice, is an invitation to step into an electrical stream of pure aggression and step out again. This opportunity to connect, even indirectly, with an experience of realized power is going to be a seductive sensation for anybody. For people who don't acknowledge this aggression and violence in themselves, it is either irresistibly compelling or very frightening or both - like Brad's appalling meaness was for me. And Axl's aggressiveness can be appallingly mean to easy targets - you know, "faggots," "niggers," "bitches," etc.

I have a male friend who confesssed to me, with certain guilt and embarrassment that once while he was sitting alone in a sushi bar reading about a highly publicized rape trial, his disgust and anger about the rape somehow turned into arousal, and he had to head for the bathroom and beat off. He said part of it was the flat, matter-of-fact journalese with which the violence and obscenity were described; other than that he didn't rationally understand why something that he considered brutal and grossly unjust (the rapists were acquitted) would affect him that way. I think he expected me to hate him, but I didn't. For one thing you can't legislate your sexual fantasies, and it doesn't do much good to suppress them. More important, fantasy is not reality. This person would never rape anyone. (In fact, when he was a juror on a rape trial, he successfully persuaded an ambivalent jury to convict.) People's fantasies are much like dreams in that they are not strictly literal; dream and fantasy images often have a more complex meaning than is immediately apparent. Besides, aggression and sex are both inherently arousing in different ways. Put them together and you can get something strong enough to smash a fist through all your rational defenses. This is the level that GNR is operating on except that it is something everybody, including women, can dip into and experience at whatever depth they want. And nobody gets raped.

Some critics would hurl their History of Rock Vol.1 at me at this point and argue that women are figuratively raped by Axl's misogynist lyrics. At least one critic I've read commented that he thought Axl's female fans lacked self-respect. I understand why he might feel this way, but I don't agree. There is great ferocity latent in women - latent because culturally we still don't fully support or acknowledge it. My fascination with little Brad was partly, in retrospect, a result of a disavowel of my own aggressiveness and meanness. If I couldn't see it in myself, I had to fixate on it in someone else, in an exaggerated form. If I'd been able to acknowledge it and take responsibility for my own like qualities, I wouldn't have had to create this polarized situation where he was on one end being mean and I was on the other end being nice. My fascination with him was, at it's murky bottom, a desire to connect with something in myself and bring it into balance. Similarly, I can imagine that girls, even more so than boys, could look at Axl Rose and feel intense delight at seeing him embody their unexpressed ferocity, and thus experience it temporarily through him. This is an attempt at integration on a gut level and makes the kind of "self-respect" referred to the critic look like a rag.

The niggers/faggots stuff is different. I don't blame blacks or gays who have a problem with Axl Rose. But song lyrics are like short stories; at best they are full renderings of an emotional or experiential state, not statements of how life should be lived or how the writer feels for all time. I once had an argument with a lesbian friend over Axl Rose, during which I asked her if she ever felt like just saying "Get out of my way " to anybody and everybody. Queer Nation and ACT UP sure have. If you like the "fuck you" part of a song, then take it into yourself and let it help you tell people to fuck off; the "who" part is your choice, not the singer's. Who Axl really hates or doesn't hate is his problem and should be given no power.

There are lots of bands that equal or surpass GNR in intensity and aggression, but most of them are nowhere near as big. What gets GNR over is their mainstream and essentially suburban sensibility. (Coming from me, that's not an insult. My sensibility is in large part suburban.) Some smaller grungier bands work out of suburban sensibility - but they give its generality a compulsive aesthetic specificity. Axl, on the other hand, goes straight out and down the center. Take the "Paradise City" video. It's most salient features: huge mobs o' people, big spaces, big noise, bigness period. Come one, come all. The Paradise crowd scenes are an amorphous, mobile, boundless universe that is accessible and ordinary, yet blown up into an ordinariness of monstrous proportions. Nubile groupies pout while boyishly gloating Axl displays a backstage pass reading ACCESS ALL AREAS - nudge, wink - his ridiculous expression of self-indulgence mitigated by an undertone of ingenuous vulgarity that is oddly sweet. (I imagine he had the same look on his face when he made his absurdly banal I-love-lesbians comment to Rolling Stone.) It's the democracy of porn; you don't have to be hip or possess an arcane sensibility to understand where Axl is coming from. But unlike many other mainstream bands, the sexiness doesn't deteriorate into softness or silliness because it's consistently laminated to mobile, boundless fierceness. Lots of male performers gyrate their hips. But when Axl does it the way he does it in say, "Welcome to the Jungle", it's not just his hips. His rapt, mean little face, the whole turgor of his body, suggests a descent into a pit of gorgeous carnal grossness, a voluptuousness of awful completeness where yes, "you're gonna die."

If this sounds like a hormonal response, that's because it is. Axl is obviously sexy. But the resons why go beyond hormonal button-pushing. When I look at him I feel a lot like I'm looking at that little snot Brad again. Only this time I'm not scared. This time I want to embrace him, by "embrace" I don't mean it's okay to be a rude prick and to hate queers. Nor do I mean that I want to find Axl and rip his clothes off. I mean I want to make peace with all elements of myself, and if getting off on Axl helps me do that, than so be it.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Axl joined the ranks of those confessing their childhood abuse. With Roseanne Arnold it may've been soul murder, with Axl it's "My dad fucked me in the ass when I was two." Ay yi yi. According to some people, this means that Axl "just wants to be a victim." Maybe. I would guess not, though. My sense is that Axl has reflexively absorbed the current mood of helplessness with the ingenuous enthusiastic vulgarity he displays elsewhere. He penetrates society in a big way, and it penetrates him back. Actually, it's believable to me that he was abused or at least ignored. When I was young, the mean high school kids I knew looked like inexplicable cruel monsters. Now I think their wildness and aggression were part of their fierce teenage spirit - which as I said didn't have much room to move in its bland environment. When youthful ferocity is ignored and not given real guidance, it can turn vicious and ugly. In this respect Axl's persona is an amplification of an angry boy who has never been taught to develop his intensity and power into maturity, who is therefore wildly flailing about, locked in an endless drama of compulsive aggression that can never be satisfied. My strong reaction to him is is in part an impulse to make it better, for him as well as for me.

Once, I dreamed about Axl. In the dream we were on an airplane flying somewhere. We weren't particularly happy to be sitting together, but it was a long flight and we both fell asleep. When I woke up we had our arms around each other, not erotically but companionably. When we saw what we were doing, we jerked apart and regarded each other warily. We resumed our forward-facing traveling postures, our body language subtly changed by the realization that we'd touched and survived. Maybe next dream I'll get to write my name on his ass.


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©Copyright Alan Hylands 2001