Guns N’ Roses is apparently on tour this summer and, for the first time in over 20 years, their classic lineup is more or less intact. Against all odds, Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan have mended their longstanding rifts and are appearing onstage together for the first time since 1993’s Use Your Illusion Tour. The group is of course legendary, and it’s great to see them back together. Like most rock fans, I enjoy songs from their debut Appetite for Destruction, as well as subsequent hits such as “November Rain,” and their Dylan cover “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Doors.” These are the songs that constitute the bulk of their set list this summer, and for good reason. This column, however, is concerned with a song not on that set list: a nasty little piece from 1988 called “One In a Million.” The song caused great controversy in its day, but is now largely forgotten. It is well worth talking about this summer, however, as the issues it brings up are as pertinent in the current political climate as ever.
Written by Axl Rose, the song recounts the singer’s experience of being hustled in LA’s Greyhound station as a young, aspiring rock star. At its core, the song is about feeling vulnerable as a “small town white boy” in a big city but clinging tightly to a radiant sense of worth and purpose — a sense of being “one in a million” — expressed in the chorus. What makes the song controversial, however, are the sentiments this sense of worth is partly built on, revealed in the song’s verses. Those sentiments: white supremacy and nativism, homophobia and even a little policophobia for good measure. “Police and n****rs…,” Axl sings on the first verse, “Get outta my way/Don’t need to buy none of your gold chains today.” In the second verse, Axl abstracts from his Greyhound experience to call out other minorities: “Immigrants and f****ts,” who “come to our country and think they’ll do as they please/like start some mini-Iran or spread some fucking disease.” The message is clear enough: Axl is one in a million, and one of the reasons for this is simply that he is a good ol’ white, hetero, English-speaking American surrounded by parasitic outsiders. Certainly the song’s message makes it appalling enough to dismiss immediately, but to do this would be to miss an opportunity to deconstruct it. In fact, “One in A Million” offers insights not only into white nativism and homophobia, but also into the tight relation these forms of hate often have to toxic masculinity.
I recently had an unnerving situation of my own in a Greyhound station. It was entirely my fault and based on bad judgment. I followed someone who offered to help me find my bus for about five minutes, even as my gut screamed that we were heading in the wrong direction. The man looked possibly homeless, jaundiced and was wearing dirty clothes. In retrospect I think he might have just been confused, but when I finally regained my common sense, I was pretty sure he was leading me somewhere isolated to be mugged. I got myself out of the situation promptly and without harm, but the event really shook me up. I felt truly stupid. I kept looking over my shoulder, feeling like everyone around me could be a threat, and that I was not capable of defending myself. I am not used to feeling that way. It is a feeling that I’ve built much of my gendered self-image — my image of myself as “a man” — around avoiding.
I expect that this is the feeling which inspired “One in a Million,” and it is a deep, complex feeling well worth channeling into art. Thus the song finds Axl simultaneously at his most human and at his most utterly reprehensible. In the years following its release, amidst the storm of controversy which naturally followed, Axl offered all sorts of unconvincing arguments for why the song did not actually express bigotry. Many of these centered around the fallacy that the slurs used in the song did not designate entire groups, but subsets within those groups: not all black people, just the ones who make money in dishonest ways, not all gays, just the ones who rape men. Elsewhere, he tried to justify his rancor with personal experiences. The experience described in the song of being hustled by a group of black men. The experience of nearly being raped by a man whose couch he’d crashed on for a night. As for the policophobia, Axl had apparently been harassed by cops throughout his life for having long hair and dressing rock n’ roll. None of it, however, was even close to a justification. Indeed, a few years later it seemed that Axl had come to terms with the fact that the lyrics to“One in a Million” were in fact hateful. In an interview with RIP magazine, he offered a less defensive explanation of the song, saying, “It was a way for me to express my anger at how vulnerable l felt in certain situations that had gone down in my life,” and that he wouldn’t write a song like it again. The question, then, is why Axl’s anger took such a noxious form. How does vulnerability become hatred?
Looking through photos of Axl from the eighties, some play directly into the fast-living cock rocker image he tried to project. But in many of them he looks strikingly boyish, and it’s not hard to imagine him being hustled or harassed. Unfortunately, traditional gender roles hold that accepting this vulnerability, is weak and “feminine” and that the “manly” way to deal with it is to transmute it into aggression. The toxic masculinity that defined much of the ’80s hard rock milieu, of which Axl was a central figure, must have exacerbated this greatly, and I have no doubt that this was the origin of at least some of his bigotry.
But what if things had been different? What if this nonsense gender role hadn’t taken such a toll on Axl’s psyche? What if his vulnerability had moved him towards recognizing the vulnerability of others: toward compassion rather than hate? This sort of thing is barred by toxic masculinity, but ultimately it’s not hard to imagine: Axl seems so maddeningly close. What if his experience of being harassed by cops led him to a greater sympathy for those people of color, harassed by police regardless of the length of their hair? What if his experience of being nearly raped led him to a greater sympathy for women, subjected to such things vastly more often than men?
There’s good reason to believe that Axl, now 54, has progressed significantly in his views. When GN’R made their stop in Orlando just a couple of weeks after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, they posted on their Twitter account a short video and the words “49 Roses… #WeAreOrlando:” a tribute to the 49 victims slain in the attack. The video depicts the classic GN’R bullet logo flashing in colors of the rainbow — the colors of the gay pride flag — before sprouting 49 roses along its edge. The video is simple, but moving, and a definitive sign that Axl has come all the way around from at least one of the types of hate expressed in “One in Million.” What if Axl had had this greater level of sensitivity in 1988? What if he’d written a song in which being “one in a million” was not contingent upon your race, your sexuality or your nationality? “One in a Million” could have been the most beautiful in all of GN’R’s catalogue, but as it is, it is a permanent and shameful scar.
Matt Pegan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Love With the Modern World appears alternate Mondays this semester.