Chinese Democracy: A Review of A Review (or, Where the Fuck is My Free Fucking Dr. Pepper?)

All right. The first issue I have with Chinese Democracy is that the folks at Dr. Pepper made a promise and then were not technologically equipped to deliver on this promise. The window for getting the free Dr. Pepper has closed with me on the wrong side of it, despite two solid hours of attempting to get the fucking site to work. See, I was gonna review that Dr. Pepper on this site today because I’m sure as hell not gonna give Axl Rose my money so I can tell you what you already know about Chinese Democracy. But we’ll deal with that later.

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Times has come to my rescue – their “pop critic”, Ann Powers, wrote a huge story on Axl Rose’s magnum dopus and I have chosen to critique her critique in lieu of actually paying money to listen to an album I know will be of less artistic quality than Death Magnetic. Probably.

But first, I wanna tackle this “exclusively at Best Buy” deal that Axl made. I know Guns ‘n’ Roses is not the only band that has gone the exclusive release route (AC/DC originally put their new album out exclusively through Wal-Mart and Smashing Pumpkins released a special Target-exclusive version of their last shitty record). But, by releasing an album exclusively through a store that does not exclusively sell music, Axl Rose has helped put a nail in the coffin not just of independent record stores but in the experience of buying albums. Now look, I know we’re all digital nowadays and I’ve certainly got an expansive mp3 collection (don’t worry Axl and Lars, I didn’t steal your shitty records), so you may be thinking, “Matt, who gives a shit about the record buying experience?” Well, motherfucker, I do. When I walk into a music store and see the rows and rows of discs, aisles of musical wonder, usually sorted by genre, I get a thrill unmatched by any other feeling. It’s like Jacques Cousteau must’ve felt before jumping in the ocean. I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna find in there most of the time, but I’m usually gonna walk away with a treasure (I even, on my last trip to Amoeba Music, scored a $7 used copy of Redemption Song, the excellent and definitive biography of Joe Strummer). Or, more precisely, a pile of treasures. When I ask the flunky at Target about a band I like, I get a blank stare, as if I’ve switched a light off in his brain or spoken in some long dead, dark language. Sure, I can get Smashing Pumpkins and Kanye “Self-Declared Voice of His Generation” West at Target but, like all thinking people, I don’t give a shit about those two particular artists. Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy can sell albums cheap because they make money by selling a lot of other products. Amoeba Music sells music, books, and DVDs while still managing to donate some of their proceeds to preserve the rain forest (I shit you not); so who’s exclusively releasing through them? Well, everyone who releases a Live at Amoeba EP, such as TV on the Radio did. Or The Hold Steady, who released a live acoustic EP exclusively through members of the Independent Music Retailer network (not sure I got the name of the organization right, but Amoeba is part of it; basically, it’s a large group of independent music stores across  the nation). Bands that are exclusively releasing through Wal-Mart and companies like them are making the implicit argument that they care about making the most money possible. Obviously, that’s their right and obviously, if you took 14 fucking years and millions of dollars to make your shitty little record, you might be a little bit more concerned with your profit margins. But the fact is, I reward bands that want to make music, not bands that want to make money (Honestly, who wouldn’t want to make money playing rock ‘n’ roll? But there are bands that are focused on their music first – bands like Wilco who have gone so far as to say that they don’t exist to make CDs per se but to create music. Bands that put music ahead of money make better music and thus, deserve my money. Bands that simply want my money – like Kiss, who can definitely go fuck themselves – do not deserve it and never get it). TV on the Radio and The Hold Steady make their livings off of their music. I’ve read that Matt Berninger from The National didn’t quit his day job until right before they started work on Boxer. I guess what I’m driving at here is a question of hunger. Young, hungry, independent acts do what they have to do to make music, including hanging on to the day job a little longer (I work two jobs so that I can pull my weight launching my little band). Old, tired, washed up acts, apparently ink exclusive deals to pump out their crap through giant chain retailers and then have the gall to blame the death of the record industry solely on downloading.

One of the (many) flawed arguments of the no-downloading crowd is that every downloaded album is money out of the artist’s pocket. This assumes that everyone who heard the album for free would have purchased it if only they couldn’t get it for free. Slash, one of Axl Rose’s former pals, lamented that Axl would lose a lot of money on Chinese Democracy because some jackass streamed seven or nine leaked tracks on his blog. Of course, at the time, there was no guarantee that those were finished tracks from a finished album, no guarantee that those tracks would appear on a finished album, and no guarantee that people who downloaded those leaked tracks would automatically skip out on buying Chinese Democracy. Unless, of course, they discovered from those tracks what I intuitively understand – that this album, like its creator, is a bloated mess. Smart bands adapt to the downloading phenomenon in various ways – Bloc Party offered a 10 dollar download of Intimacy a month before it came out and then gave me a total of four bonus tracks for free later. Radiohead famously let people decide what to pay for In Rainbows. The Hold Steady (I love those guys, but you knew that) streamed Stay Positive in its entirety on their MySpace page and then slapped three bonus tracks on the physical release. The Flaming Lips have released the coolest deluxe version of a movie or CD I’ve ever seen – the Christmas on Mars deluxe release includes a T-Shirt and a bag of popcorn!

So anyway, Ann Powers apparently went to the Best Buy and got a copy of Chinese Democracy. She went on to not only compare the album to Citizen Kane but also to compare Rose to Orson Welles (in personality, not physical stature). She later credits Rose with “Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness.” You might get the feeling that Powers really fucking loved Chinese Democracy, but, at the end of the day, Rose’s “lyrics, like the songs’ musical twists, are hard to praise”. So after a long article that makes an interesting attempt to capture the magnitude of Chinese Democracy’s release (many writers have already focused on how much of a fucking farce the whole process has been; genuine kudos to Powers for trying to give it more of a fan perspective. The problem is, the farce crowd is right on this one), Powers is forced to admit that the actual music, the thing people have been waiting 14 years for is hard to like. That’s not exactly album-of-the-year material.

Now, I will admit that I have not listened to the final product. And I’m not going to download it either. I will, however, give Chinese Democracy a fair hearing on Bollocks! as long as I don’t have to pay for it. If you bought the album and will let me borrow it or if I get it for Christmas (by some strange magic), I will give it an honest musical critique. I am, at the end of the day, a music lover and I’m willing to have my mind changed – I used to hate hip-hop until I found some artists that opened my eyes to the potential of that genre. So I’ll make a promise to those of you out there who pre-hate me for pre-hating Chinese Democracy: if a copy of this album, a legitimate copy, falls into my hands in some manner that keeps me from putting money in Axl Rose’s pocket, I will:

1) listen to the album and judge it on the music, keeping my hatred of Axl Rose separate from my appraisal of the music he makes

2) render that verdict on this blog with my usual literary zest

And

3) if Chinese Democracy manages to please me more than it displeases me, I will purchase a copy of it and a copy of Metallica’s Death Magnetic and give them away to the first two people who can convince me they deserve them. I’ll find some fun way of determining that.

The odds that a) a copy of Chinese Democracy will come to me for free and b) I will like it more than not are about 1 billion to 1 against. But I’m willing to keep an open mind, despite the fact that I have no free Dr. Pepper to enjoy while I do it.

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