Axl and Eminem: reconsidering the musical geniuses

Axl Rose, pre-hairstyle of the damned

I’ve been plowing through a book with such an interesting concept, I’ve considered adopting something similar on this blog (I won’t): Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics is essentially a collection of negative reviews on popular rock albums. Most of the Western world’s famous works are in here, from the Who’s Tommy, to Nirvana’s Nevermind. While even editor Jim DeRogatis admits it’s a bit like a bratty teenager spitting on a blackboard in anger at the woe that is his life (and more than once slams the Baby Boomer generation in what seems like cheap shots), it’s also fun, particularly if the album in question is one you’ve always wanted to verbally piss on yourself.

One such essay is Andy Wang’s take on The MC5’s Kick Out the Jams. I flipped to the back to read his top ten albums first, which includes Guns N’ Roses, Pet Shop Boys, Social Distortion and Jewel, a type of variety that’s both rare and charming. Furthermore, a lot of the essays make really weird, wonderful comparisons (Beach Boys to Depeche Mode, Brian Wilson to David Lee Roth), but Wang pushes the envelope.

There’s a reason why geniuses like J.D. Salinger and Axl Rose and all those guys who wore masks in the World Wrestling Federation in the 1990s turned into recluses. It’s not that they couldn’t deal with the pressures of fame. It’s that they were singularly extraordinary, and they quickly realized that the rest of the world is stupid. (Wang, 51)

Did you catch that? Wang just compared Axl Rose to J.D. Salinger. And J.D. Salinger to masked wrestlers. And all three of them suffer from the agonizing stress of being brighter than everyone they’ve never met. It seems Wang is genuinely invested in believing Axl Rose is one of the smartest men alive, after all, his number one album of all time is Appetite for Destruction. OK, so Appetite is a great album, I’ll agree with that; I appreciate its place in the music-space continuum and even agree it can (and does) rock, sometimes with no logical explanation. But is Axl Rose really in the same league as someone who wrote Franny & Zooey? And someone who body slams for a living?

I won’t bother to claim I’m an expert on any of these things, let alone wrestling, but it’s rather suspect to claim Axl Rose was a veritable genius, particularly when Wang goes on to praise Eminem in one of the only parallels I can get behind: Eminem is a misogynistic wife-beater (“Sit down bitch, you move again I’ll beat the shit out of you!“), Rose hates immigrants, homosexuals, and black people (“Immigrants and faggots / They make no sense to me“). Maybe they should collab? But for what is essentially two angry white boys on an extended rant, this is not the first time I’ve now heard them both referred to as smarter than the average bear. Just what exactly is the science behind taste and will there ever be a universal standard (I hope not, that would make things pretty boring)? Also, J.D. Salinger is the type of guy who has become a hero to the disenfranchised, emotional high schooler, yet constantly peppers his tales with themes of religion, God, and Eastern mysticism. Eminem and Rose welcome listeners to the mean streets of Detroit and the jungle (a.k.a., the mean streets of L.A.). I’m not one to pigeon-hole (I’m fully aware of the other “masterpieces” created by said artists), but clearly, I am missing something here.

I have no doubt that all three in question probably believe they are simply phenomenal human beings of intellect and wisdom (when I think Axl Rose, I do not think “humility”), but what’s more accurate: the way you conceive yourself, or the way others conceive you? Are Axl Rose and Eminen genuine masters of the craft (musically; I won’t get into Rose’s approval of a music video where a man becomes so distraught at rainfall, he dives into a wedding cake)? If not, what makes a musical genius? Should one or two controversial  works have the power to shatter a lifetime of achievement? And if Rose is so smart, how come he can’t sport a flattering hair style?