UK paperback

Chinese Democracy

Appetite for deconstruction

I trust that readers have now had time to digest the awesomeness that is Chinese Democracy by Guns N’ Roses, so thrillingly avant- and après-garde at the same time; and also to daydream about how even more mind-crushingly awesome it might have been were Slash still in the band. ((In a quixotically maximalist attempt at compensation, Axl has employed approximately 1,347 shredders to go widdly-widdly simultaneously on each track, but they never add up to the melodic improvisatory genius of a single Slash.)) But some people aren’t happy with the record. Notably, the Chinese government:

A newspaper published by China’s ruling Communist Party is blasting the latest Guns N’ Roses album as an attack on the Chinese nation […] In an article […] headlined “American band releases album venomously attacking China,” the Global Times said unidentified Chinese Internet users had described the album as part of a plot by some in the West to “grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn.”

I think something must have got lost in translation here. How can you use a pawn to grasp the world? And how can democracy itself be a pawn? What does it get promoted to when it reaches the eighth rank? Benign dictatorship?

The album “turns its spear point on China,” the article said.

So let me get this straight. Axl Rose is playing global chess, using democracy as a pawn, while also holding a spear and pointing its pointy point at, um, China. Which is understandably frightened because it doesn’t have shitloads of nuclear weapons. These are strong allegations for “unidentified Chinese Internet users” to be making against an insaniac heavy-metal genius. ((There is some controversy over what is perhaps the album’s most insaniac moment, the way Axl sings the line “But I don’t want to do it” on “Sorry”. Chuck Klosterman thinks the accent employed here, and nowhere else, is “quasi-Transylvanian” or, alternatively, “Mexican vampire”. For my part, I am sure it is a deliberate impression of Derek Zoolander.))

But wait. Is Chinese Democracy really a musical version of neoconservative foreign policy? Let us consult the lyrics of the song that actually mentions China. It’s called, brilliantly, “Chinese Democracy”:

If they were missionaries
Real time visionaries
Sitting’ in a Chinese stew
To view my disinfatutation…

Not much about invading China and forcing democracy on it there. But the reference to “Chinese stew” as a bad thing to sit in is certainly an affront to traditional Chinese cuisine. Does this image of sitting in a stew, combined with the reference to “missionaries”, even imply cannibalism with Chinese characteristics?

I know that I’m a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falun Gong
They seen the end
And you can’t hold on now…

Oh no, he mentioned Falun Gong, the nutty qigong sect that the Chinese government harshes on as an “evil cult”. What’s more, he seems to be endorsing whatever Falun Gong’s crazy apocalyptic vision ((A Falun Gong practitioner in comments assures us that they do not have any crazy apocalyptic vision of “the end”, which is nice.)) of “the end” is. It’s not looking good. Well, let us suspend judgment until the chorus:

Cause it would take a lot more hate than you
To end the fascination
Even with an iron fist
More than you got rule a nation
When all I’ve got is precious time

“More than you got [to] rule a nation” — well, we can relax: this whole song is merely an allegory, using geopolitical themes to describe a poisonous personal relationship. Right? Well, that is what is printed on the lyric sheet. However, in the first chorus what Axl seems to be actually singing is:

Even with an iron fist
All they got to rule a nation…

And “they” can be none other than the Chinese government, ruling the nation with nothing but their iron fists while Axl tries to grasp and control the world in his fist, which is not iron, but is holding both a pawn and a spear. It’s an exciting confrontation between massive fists, to be sure. Gary Barlow from Take That is trying to join in with his fist of pure emotion, but I’m not sure he understands the stakes.

The outro also has Axl screaming things not printed on the lyric sheet, including:

When your Great Wall rocks, blame yourself

If that’s not pointing a spear at China’s iron fist, I don’t know what is. Still, it could all be a brilliant metaphor, couldn’t it? Let us consult the artist’s own vision of what “Chinese Democracy” means. Back in 1999, Axl said:

Well, there’s a lot of Chinese democracy movements, and it’s something that there’s a lot of talk about, and it’s something that will be nice to see. It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don’t know, I just like the sound of it.

So do I! Do you, readers?

  1. 1  richard  December 11, 2008, 5:15 pm 

    Perhaps an iron fistful of spears and pawns is what you need to tackle “the barnacles of unionism wrapped around their necks.”

  2. 2  Alex Higgins  December 11, 2008, 9:10 pm 

    Well, thank goodness no-one told the CCP about Led Zeppelin’s upcoming project with the working title “Multi-party Pluralism, Union Rights and Tibetan Independence”.

    Sure, it sounds clunky now, but you know Robert Plant can make it work.

    The lyrics go:

    I’ll have as many kids as I want/
    The Dalai Lama watches and laughs/
    And we all sell SAMs to Taiwan

    But it’s mainly allegory.

  3. 3  golfplatz  December 12, 2008, 3:21 am 

    Good on Axl Rose for bringing up this topic, as long as it gets people talking about the prospect of an end to Chinese Communist Party rule, that’s a good thing. Apart from that, the comment about Falun Gong is nonsense–there’s no vision of an apocalypse in Falun Gong literature. I’ve practiced for four years and read all the texts a bunch of times. I don’t even think the word apocalypse is in any of the books. This was, however, a clever piece of propaganda that the communists put out there, and it seems you took the bait without looking into it yourself. Here’s an independently produced documentary on the subject, for example, which could prove interesting: “Behind the Red Wall”:

    And here is some suggested reading:
    Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/824qbcjr.asp (four here, follow the links!)

    Apart from that, a fair review. But of course, I have to say this has nothing on the earlier GnR!

  4. 4  Steven  December 12, 2008, 4:00 am 

    I do apologize: I had indeed not looked into it myself, but merely assumed from Axl’s claim that “They seen the end” that they had some sort of apocalyptic vision, and am heartened to know they haven’t.

    Alex: bravo!

  5. 5  golfplatz  December 12, 2008, 4:11 am 

    Oh, you are very gracious. Well done. Personally, I had assumed the meaning was that the current rulers of China had seen the end of their rule, with all the trouble in China and stuff. But beside that, this is Axl Rose’s lyrics we’re analysing here. I think any regular person is going to have a really tough time constructing a normal narrative out of them!

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