Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Appropriate for Destruction

Last year I wrote this essay as an assignment for The Believer. At the last minute it was pulled. I was really bummed, as it was going to be the biggest thing I had done up to that point, plus I had told every living soul about it in the preceding months leading up to it's publication. But such is life.
Tomorrow I'm going to be on Feminist Radio on KPFK, 90.7 at 7 pm, talking about rock n roll and feminism, duh. So, in honor of this joyous event, I decided rather than let this essay that meant/means so much to me wilt away in obscurity, I would debut it here, finally, proudly. It's resting place and rightful home. It's rare that I post an entire academic piece on the blog, so I hope you enjoy.
Lots of love,

Appropriate For Destruction

Sweetness is a virtue
And you lost your virtue long ago- “Locomotive”

I was in a relationship with Axl Rose. The boy I had waited twenty years to be with, without ever having met, the one I spent my life dreaming about, was about to stand naked in front of me. And I felt nothing. As I undressed, t-shirt--hopes of making the cheerleading team in 9th grade, jeans--father daughter dance I never went to, socks-- holding my breath in the back of the auditorium, waiting to be called student of the week, bra--not going to college, underwear--the shame of never having had anyone to push me toward it. I took it off. He was here now, stringy, blonde, heavy metal hair, some cheap Sunset strip tattoos, silver, pleather chaps over ragged jeans, a flannel left over from three years earlier, not yet having come back into fashion. “Do you have Appetite for Destruction?” I asked, as he put his hands on me and pressed his mouth to mine.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
I pulled away, walked to the C.D tower. “Find it.” He followed. Under the lamp the body shimmer on his cheeks picked up light. “Uh, I have Use Your Illusion” He turned it over in his hand.
“That’s perfect, actually.” If it was happening now, like this, after all this time, and it was turning out to be like everything else, a built up expectation that failed upon arrival, then I would take it back. I would not let losing my virginity be one more thing to feel sad about. Slash lifted the room, came punching out of the speakers in violent thrusts. I closed my eyes. And then I heard him: “Get in the ring motherfucker! And I’ll kick your bitchy little ass!” His legs- long, matchsticks possessed with the power of the red slippers, he couldn’t stop spinning, sliding, shifting, not having let them rest since they ran out of Indiana, until they were so tired he willed them to forget they had ever been there, his voice snarling and whining with dissatisfaction- with his place in society, with his rejection of self. His red hair a flame to grab on to, a snapping firecracker, his body a fluid line, kicking and weaving itself away from youthful expectations. I don’t remember my first’s name, but that’s all right, because on the night of my twentieth birthday, I fucked Axl Rose.

But oh the taste is never so sweet
As what you’d believe it is-
Well I guess it never is- “Locomotive”

Six years earlier, I had stood in line at the Tower Records in Pasadena, California, trying to remember the lyrics to a song I’d heard on the radio. “Why do we crucify ourselves?” I sang to the cashier with pink Betty Page bangs and L7 shirt, “Every day, I crucify myself, nothing I do is good enough for you.” She huffed, I followed, “Amos,” she said, dryly, pulling it from the middle of the “A” section and handing it over. I stared, transfixed by the cover, Tori, a confident figure in blue; a small smirk on her face, as if to signify self-awareness, ‘you can’t trap a voice in a wooden box’. Much later when I finally sat down and read the actual lyrics, it turned out that I had memorized many of them incorrectly, but it didn’t change the terms of urgency and realness I’d felt at fourteen, coming through the speakers on the late night KROQ call in sex show I’d heard it on, alone in my room nearing the AM on a school night. What was important was that I had felt the connection at all. It was the first time I recognized my fear and anxieties expressed in song: invisibility, the desire to be accepted by the popular girls, a silent distance growing, concerning my day to day actions, where before there had been vocalized participation. The next day I pestered my mother the entire ride home from school until finally she stopped at Tower Records, so I could find this mysterious messenger. Relenting with little argument-most likely recognizing the seriousness of the acquisition, a willingness even to venture into Tower Records, a place of much socializing for the city’s junior high set, in my school uniform, which until that day I had made adamant refusals to do anywhere.

This is a song about your fuckin’ mother-
“Mama Kin”

Gender roles assigned to girls by the media culture are confusing, but when inundated with images of sex and purity at lightning like speed, girls fall into the trap of emotional exhaustion- constantly having to guess what to do before you’re asked to do it is bound to result in failure. But the message is further skewed and punishing, media culture assigns the failure to the person who has made the effort to conform. Never in the cycle do we point the finger back at ourselves, as party to the judgment. Websites such as Perezhilton.com, which are hugely popular among teenagers, label female celebrities, many of them underage, as sluts, or whores, for things as seemingly noxious as looking “greasy” or “gap toothed.” Meanwhile Perezhilton simultaneously encourages young people to get out and vote, participate in open dialogues about GLBT rights, poverty, donate money to charitable institutions, or sign petitions- all meaningful causes, but the message then is, ‘I am being asked to be responsible by this source that is also participating in sexism and misogyny, if this person wants me to vote, certainly they are a reputable and trustworthy source.’ The whore and slut labels are absorbed as normal, the accepted burden of being female.
As Maria Raha writes in her book, Hellions, “Sorting out that conflict can lead young women to become consumed with being desirable, especially at a time when social rejection is a daily fear. But when we begin resisting our true spirit- as layered human beings who don’t always want to eat, do, wear or say the “right” thing- the sense of mischief that seems so present in childhood slips away. Instead of embracing our complexity and imperfections and questioning the physical and behavioral standards set for us, we end up turning for inspiration to the examples we’re inundated with on television, in new media, and in our daily lives.”

They won't touch me
'Cause I got somethin'
I been buildin' up inside
For so fuckin' long

They're out ta get me
They won't catch me
I'm innocent
They won't break me- “Out Ta Get Me”

High school was spent caring, caring about boys, caring about parties and booze and weed and grades. Caring about where and who I sat with at lunch, about the way I smelled sitting next to Ian Hawke on the twenty-seventh through thirtieth day of each month, caring about who invited me where and who slighted me, caring about the color of the rubber bands on my braces. Caring about what other girls thought of my looks, throwing hair in my face and wiping off lipstick when they walked by for fear of being ridiculed or called a ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’, wishing with all my might that my face might wipe off as well, smudging all the offending features. Putting lipstick back on once the boys came around.
I turned instead into music, I turned to poetry and the Beats, I turned to Cat Stevens, Virginia Woolf and rockabilly. I turned into a sloucher and I slouched my way into the silent corners of the library, where I tried my hardest to disappear.
Eventually, I graduated. With no college to attend, no prospects to speak of outside of retail and with family issues colliding at breakneck speed, I finally dropped out of caring.
And then, just like I had heard Tori Amos’s, “Crucify” that faithful night, I heard G ‘n’ R’s, “Welcome to the Jungle”. It was in a friend’s car, a new friend, she drank red wine from beer tumblers and wore bell-bottoms, and had pictures of Motley Crue taped above her lace canopy sleigh bed. I had heard the song dozens of times before that moment, but I had never heard it like I was hearing it then. Driving down the 101 Hollywood Freeway with the palm trees obscured behind street lamps that lit pools of light like hovering spaceships, taking quick sips from a small silver flask. All the sad ridiculousness of having beat myself emotionally, raw, in order to make it out of my teens alive, suddenly came rushing to the surface. I clenched my fist around the flask, fighting the urge to throw it out the window and into the dirty, busted street. My face tilted down, so that my new friend couldn’t see that I was crying. An unholy howl rising from some sulfurous pit of disillusionment had slammed me into unexpected release- the night became clearer, crisper. I heard Axl. The world seemed alive.

I'm a sexual innuendo
In this burned out paradise – “Rocket Queen”

There is something fragile, feminine and menacing about Axl Rose, the way he snarls at the end of a verse, the way he holds himself, eyes closed, as if trying to keep down the pain, the way he slithers across the stage or approaches the mic slowly, in rhythmic half steps, afraid of what he might say, reluctantly grabbing the mic, swinging it gently to and fro, violently yanking it to his mouth, spewing lovesick venom. The way he grabs at his cheeks, pulling on them until his hands get lost in the tips of his long red hair, where, palms open, he pushes the momentum downward, swallowing the orgasm back into the floor. His lyrics tear apart the character of women while next verse over, schizophrenically lifting them back to saint like status. Axl straddles a line of uncertainty in his love songs. The songs flirt with rejection, one can’t settle in to enjoy the moment, even in “Sweet Child of Mine”, arguably his most successful ballad, there is the hint of displacement, where should they take their love, when their love is on the run?
Axl Rose has spent his life trying to escape pre-conceptions about who he was supposed to be. As he sings in the song “Don’t Damn Me” off Use Your Illusion I: “I never wanted this to happen/Didn't want to be a man”. In Mick Wall’s biography W.A.R, The Unauthorized biography of William Axl Rose, Axl’s, high school girlfriend recalls an incident in Indiana when he was harassed by cops: He had been walking down the street once, she said, ‘it was probably two o clock in the morning. From the back he looks very effeminate, with his long hair- not common in that area-and very thin legs, and he had a long coat on. These police were making comments, making gestures, because they thought it was a woman. Until he turned around, and they were very embarrassed to find out it was a male. So they started hassling him because they were homophobic as hell. They questioned him and when they found out it was Bill Bailey, who’d obviously been in trouble before, they threw him in jail.’
It’s this mix of unconfined gender and machismo that makes Axl, the figure, electric, unlike, David Bowie, who is at once effeminate and bizarre, embracing his dual nature, his androgynous sexuality. Other hair metal bands used their make-up and feathers as a way of social buffoonery, a cabaret of the absurd. Axl, though is charged, masculinity oozing from every swarthy gesture, human oil and vinegar, unable to mix the two parts into a harmonious existence. Rather, his androgyny is not for show, but an attempt to extrapolate that part of himself he struggles to control, the patriarchal voice inside his head that calls him worthless, that tells him to conform. The self-hating part that despises his misogynist self, his own Indiana cop. His flounces of femininity then, his long hair, rings, and scarves, are organic rather than prescriptive, unlike the Poison’s and Ratt’s that quickly picked up on his seventies boho head bands and Led Zeppelin, leather, skin tight pants. His snakeskin boots and gypsy earrings were attempts to enmesh with the creative part of his identity he could hear calling back on the radio. His first attempts at reinvention. His closest musical and visual allies are not the other metal bands that lined the Sunset Strip, but rather the New York Doll’s--those other angry, confused, broken hearted weirdo’s, with glitter in their eyelashes and dirt underneath their fingernails.

You know I don’t like being stuck in a crowd- “Patience”

The Internet is overrun with young women who have picked up on Axl’s androgynous energy. Youtube overflows with girls not wanting to be with Axl, but be Axl. Literally, dressing up in costume, hitting play on their CD players and acting out some of Guns n Roses most famous songs. Other videos show all girl bands covering such typically male narrated songs as, You Could Be Mine, at blistering Axl like speed. Karaoke video after karaoke video show young girls reclaiming such classics as, November Rain, Sweet Child of Mine and Paradise City, paticular emphasis placed on how they spit out “Where the girls are pretty”.
Street Train, is a normal high school G ‘n’R cover band posting videos of their performances, with one exception, the singer is a petite, redheaded girl, no more than eighteen, who looks more like Axl Rose than Axl Rose does in 2008. Long shiny hair, and a turn with a phrase like a rabid dog on a leash. Another video shows a young woman about the same age, donning a pair of silver aviator sunglasses, bandanna and the same parted long, shiny hair, sitting in front of the monitor and holding a guitar she clearly doesn’t know how to play, strumming out and lip singing the verses to Patience. The power of the exchange lies not in her appropriation but that the entire mood of the song, as well as Axl’s persona, inspired her to add an instrument to a repertoire, where one usually does not exist. Other girls take it a step further. A female comedienne also in her late teens or early twenties, dresses as Axl and during a performance, uses the safety of this costume as an opportunity to verbally assault her audience, screaming “No pictures! I said no pictures motherfuckers!’ Reenacting the Guns n Roses, St. Louis riot, of 1991, when Axl jumped into a crowd to retrieve a camera from a fan, who refused to stop photographing him. Later, Axl, marched off-stage in a huff when he felt his actions were unsupported by the band. Thus ending the show, resulting in a stadium wide riot. After a long verbal rant against her own audience, in which many are seen laughing uncomfortably, our young comedienne also storms offstage, throwing her mic down behind her. Whether a planned part of the routine or not, there is an essence of authenticity to her insults, as if wearing the masque of Axl allows freedom to pontificate, to unleash an anger she was previously unable to express.
Youtube is not the only place Axl’s image has been appropriated. Guns n Roses fan fiction is in abundance, stories pick up and continue like internet round robins. Axl dies and comes back as a ghost to profess his love and agony to Slash, ashamed of his behavior in the previous life. Axl as a victim of an internet stalker who beats and sexually abuses him, Axl as a tyrant who takes Izzy by force and rapes him. In The Melancholy of Axl Rose by Popcorn Rose, one of the hundreds of prolific Axl Rose fan fiction authors on the web, Axl is portrayed as perhaps his most consistent incarnation: rebellious, misfit, smart aleck, unknowingly nerdy, outcast. In each story, there is a nod to his slippery, androgynous appeal:
The teacher sounded slightly uncomfortable… “Er… You next. The girl behind him.”
“I’m a fucking guy!”
Whoa… Sweet… You tell him, dude. Slash thought, smiling. … Okay… I should probably look at this guy. He turned around and saw a boy… Actually, he did look a lot like a girl… With long orange hair and bright green eyes. He was probably the shrimpiest guy in the class, standing there with crossed arms and a tough-guy look on his face.
“Er… Right… Sorry.” The teacher replied. Ah shit… Got the two freaks in the middle of the room… “Would you like to present your speech?”
“Yeah, whatever.” The red-head stood up and looked around the classroom. “My name is Axl Rose, and… Well, I don’t have any time for you normal people. Honestly, you bore the fuck out of me. But if there are any espers, aliens, and time-travelers out there, please, come see me.”

Sometimes I wanna cry
Sometimes I could get even
Sometimes I could give up
Sometimes I could give
Sometimes I never give a fuck- Don’t Damn Me

‘Normal people’, as Popcorn Rose so eloquently refers to them, have tended to bore the fuck out of many girls. With bottled answers and abstract solutions that often have no bearing on what seems to be the monumental importance of their day to day issues- guidance councilors, if the girl in question is lucky- parents, and other role models available at the brink of young womanhood, fail to understand that sometimes not fitting in, after a lifetime of trying desperately to, can come as a relief. At the axis of decision-making, the fork in the road where either you embrace Raha’s, ‘Hellion’s’ or turn to the ‘normal’ people, i.e. media culture, for inspiration and behavioral instructions, Axl becomes an alternative to the pressure, a leak in a balloon which young women can grab onto. Young women are reflected in his complex and contradictory image: Humans who can storm offstage, curse, cry, change their minds and fall to their hands and knees at the power of indecision. Axl walks with the swagger of a man who doesn’t believe he will wake up tomorrow. Exploring his deepest demons in violent songs, he taps into the fear and hatred young women turn onto themselves when their lives become too complicated to share with others: Body image, relationships, depression, and the failure to live up to expectations. Skimming the edges of health and reputation, his complete disregard for political correctness, his naked feelings flying around in the wind for all to see, his damage. Axl literally becomes the embodiment of feminist actualization: escaping gender, and the limits on what can be achieved- from inside the confines of a wooden box. In being himself, an anti-hero, Axl encapsulates the moment of transcendence away from self-imprisonment and toward re-birth. Axl’s reinvention of himself from William Bailey to Axl Rose is of course one of mythic interpretation, but he did it, tearing off the shackles of the past and rushing out-a swearing, fighting, angry effigy.

We've been through this such a long, long time
Just tryin' to kill the pain- “November Rain”

His recently undisturbed Dorian Grey like presence in our collective memories, allowed girls to build their own stories around Axl’s mythology, adding new chapters as they pleased.
It is no mistake that it is Axl Rose who has become mythologized. However, with the release of Chinese Democracy, it is uncertain how this myth will continue. And at the very least, the long convoluted history of it’s making has brought into clear daylight exactly how flawed and human he is.
Of course the last and most puzzling and perhaps disturbing piece of the tale, cannot be ignored. Axl’s other, all to real persona; alleged domestic abuser, misogynist, homophobe and racist.
As I neared my twenty-second birthday and my bad obsession (to borrow a lyric) escalated to a frenzy, I uncovered the sad truth about the real man, William Bruce Bailey, who beat his wife Erin Everly so bad that she filed for divorce, or the man who allegedly, according to court documents, dragged model and ex fiance, Stephanie Seymour, by the hair, through shattered glass. Revelations that shocked--I had been turning a blind eye that entire time to the other glaringly, obvious, problematic issues surrounding Axl Rose and Guns n Roses, most of all, his lyrics.
To re-read those lyrics at twenty-two, with new eyes, brought a deep and profound sadness. His humanness was no longer in my favor, and I started to wonder if it ever had been, or if Axl Rose, as I now believe, was and always had been, for Axl Rose. I could no longer reconcile the man with my own illusions about whom I had made him and what I needed him to be: a symbol of transformation, a new form of radicalized sexuality. He started to fill out with flesh and color. I started to see the real person, who lived and breathed, somewhere hidden away in Malibu, working obsessively on Chinese Democracy, while the world continued outside his tower walls, fighting whatever demons refused to release him. I had to release him. The alternative was that I start to justify his actions, and become the very thing I had resisted in the beginning: complacent.

Honey, don’t stop tryin, an’ you’ll get what you deserve. –“My Michelle”

In a perfect world, the role of Axl Rose would not need to be appropriated. There are the Patti’s, Debbie’s and Chrissie’s, but as pop culture rolls along, the list of empowered women in rock--in the mainstream--is shrinking. We need new voices to be heard, we need to pull the Marnie Stern’s, Mika Miko’s and Erase Eratta’s out from the shadows of the underground. We need women who perform the same functions as Axl, without the repercussions or reproach. So that they can duplicate and proliferate, like the fan fiction, spun from that powerful, attractive, rock n roll, mystique.