'Roses' lost before translation in China
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Can an aging American rock band bring down the communist government
Based on all the sound and fury surrounding the release of Chinese Democracy,
the latest album by hard-rocking Guns N' Roses (GNR), one might think so. The
China National Publications Import and Export Group - the state-owned monopoly
responsible for importing all music to the mainland - has instructed record
stores not to bother ordering the eagerly anticipated and long-awaited album,
GNR's first in 15 years and its first release of original material in 17 years.
Moreover, although Chinese fans can listen to Chinese
Democracy on the band's Myspace page, the album's official website has been
blocked on the mainland and the band roundly denounced in the press and on the
Internet. One outraged netizen reportedly characterized the album as part of a
Western conspiracy to "grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn."
If that is the case and this album is the most potent criticism of Chinese rule
that the West can offer, then the world can expect a glorious rebirth of
totalitarianism in the 21st century.
If you are middle-aged, you may remember GNR as the angry young band that
captured the imagination of the student-led democracy movement that culminated
in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But only the 46-year-old lead singer
and songwriter, Axl Rose, remains from the original group's heady early days of
youthful hedonism and rebellion, and when he now sings of “sitting in a Chinese
stew” the visual image itself is off-putting enough to undercut any vague
political point that may be intended.
Whether you like hard rock or not, this is a silly album - made even sillier by
the fact that it has taken 15 years to produce at a reported cost of more than
US$13 million. In the end, Chinese Democracy seems more an example of Western
self-indulgence and excess than it does a legitimate criticism of China's
Indeed, the only thing sillier than these 14 new GNR songs is the censor's
paranoid reaction against them in Beijing. If a government is this
hypersensitive and over-reactive to criticism as vapid, puerile and ineffectual
as this, then maybe it really is in trouble.
Rose may be lionized by those in the rock world who see this album as the
heroic culmination of the singer's iconoclastic dream and implacable will.
After all, virtually everyone in the music industry advised him to drop this
costly and seemingly interminable project, but he carried on relentlessly in
what diehard fans see as an archetypal battle pitting the artist of vision and
principle against a corrupt system that has neither.
It is hard, however, to discern that vision and principle in the musically
convulsive and often lyrically incoherent songs on this new album. Ultimately,
the cost - both financial and human - may be the real message. Rose's failed
quest for hard rock perfection is one reason Geffen Records has fallen on hard
times and certainly the main reason that the singer is the last man standing
among the original GNR members. His not-so-grand vision has spelled the end of
the band as it was known in its prime.
There is also an undeniable subtext to Rose's long-postponed, ultra-hyped and
ultimately anticlimactic release of this album: if you are a petulantly
obstinate prima donna of a rock star, you can get away with anything - even a
$13 million blunder whose credits are so bloated with multiple sidemen,
producers, engineers and technicians that there is no discernable GNR anymore;
instead, there is Axl's Army. No less than 14 studios were used to record the
album, and songs have up to five guitar credits. Using five guitars in one
ordinary rock song is akin to lighting a simple room as if it were a theater.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the grand production, the album was doomed to
be a disappointment following GNR's 17-year creative drought. The band's last
album - The Spaghetti Incident?, released in 1993 - is a collection of punk and
glam rock cover songs. Sales were disappointing in comparison to the tremendous
success of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II in 1991, the last time
GNR fans had heard original songs by the group before the release of Chinese
So it has been a long wait. Way too long. After all, this is not the great
American novel the world has been pining for - it's heavy metal.
Strangely, about the only people still taking Rose seriously appear to be
Rolling Stone rock critics and Chinese censors. Both parties should lighten up
and put Chinese Democracy in perspective. But, of course, it not so difficult
to understand why the release of this album is such a big deal in the world of
rock; what's more puzzling is the reaction in China, where censors have
responded as if devotees of the Falungong or the Dalai Lama himself were
banging the guitars and screeching the lyrics to these songs.
And what of these lyrics? Are they so incisively critical as to represent a
threat to the Communist Party and its leaders? Here's a sample from the album's
title song - you be the judge:
It don't really matter
You're gonna find out for yourself
No it don't really matter
You're gonna leave this thing to somebody else
If they were missionaries
Real time visionaries
Sitting in a Chinese stew
To view my dis-in-fat-u-ation
I know that I'm a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falungong
They've seen the end and it can't hold on now
'Cause it would take a lot more hate than you
To end the fascination
Even with an iron fist
All they got to rule the nation
When all I've got is precious time
It don't really matter
Guess I'll keep it to myself
Said it don't really matter
It's time I look around for somebody else
Let's stop there, although the song goes unmercifully on in a similar vein. At
least, Rose doesn't have to worry about his lyrics being lost in translation -
they are lost before translation.
Why should Chinese leaders fear the insipid ramblings of an aging, egomaniacal
rock star? It would be more politically astute to turn this song over to their
propagandists to be used as an example of the shriveling intellect of the West.
No one in China is capable of writing a song this stupid.
But if there is anything that compares in magnitude to the colossal ego of an
American rock star, it is the paranoia of the central government. Wary and
watchful even in good times, now that the global economic meltdown is hitting
China, President Hu Jintao and his leadership team are worried about anything
that could spark social unrest.
The World Bank recently revised its estimate of China's economic growth for
next year - from 9.2% to 7.5% - despite Beijing's injection of 4 trillion yuan
($586 billion) into the country's economy. While 7.5% growth may have Western
governments drooling with envy, in China - a still-developing nation of 1.3
billion people, most of whom remain poor - it is not enough. Exports are
shrinking fast and factories are closing in droves as waves of now-unemployed
migrant workers return to their home provinces with no work and no relief in
The general consensus among analysts is that, after 30 years of stunning
economic growth, anything below 8% in the coming year could cause a social
backlash. And it is important to recall that the land-grabs and income
inequalities associated with China's phenomenal period of growth have already
prompted many thousands of so-called "mass incidents" - protests that often
turn violent - over the last several years.
Anything that could ignite a protest that transforms into a movement is the
leadership's worst nightmare. Therefore, even aging, insipid rock stars are not
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at