This week, Guns N’ Roses made a big announcement: they would be reissuing their most famous album, 1987’s Appetite For Destruction.
The album, which included Welcome To The Jungle, Paradise City and Sweet Child O’ Mine, would reappear as a five-CD, seven-LP extravaganza, comprising not just the original record but a follow-up EP, G N’ R Lies, and a whole bunch of extra recordings.
But there was one song among that collection that would not be making the cut this time around: One In A Million.
That might have had something to do with the lyrics.
In the song, singer Axl Rose proudly used a racist epithet to describe black people and said homosexuals – also referred to with a slur – and immigrants “make no sense to me”.
They come to our country
And think they’ll do as they please
Like start some mini-Iran
Or spread some f–––––g disease
The song was controversial at the time. Rose defended himself in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, saying: “I don’t like being told what I can and what I can’t say.”
But the fact that the reissue is appearing without One In A Million still raises questions about how to judge a piece of culture in the decades after it was made.
What’s going on here?
Bands, particularly big Baby Boomer and Gen X acts, re-release classics like this from time to time – it’s a way of milking some extra cash out of the back catalogue.
This re-release comes with buttons, stickers, flyers, posters, patches and photographs, and all up will set fans back nearly $1000.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said the move was indicative of our current cultural preoccupation with the past.
“Nostalgia has had a stranglehold on our pop cultural production for a number of years,” she said.
We are looking backward via the reproduction of series like Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls and The X-Files, as well as new shows like Stranger Things and films like Ready Player One.
But, Dr Rosewarne said: “We are also doing that with a more critical lens, being aware of how some of our past pop culture wasn’t as sensitive in regards to race and gender as we are now”.
Can you judge old cultural artefacts by modern standards?
That’s a tough question.
“I think we have got this tendency to go through an old episode of Friends, for example, and sit there and spotlight how racist or homophobic or transphobic episodes of Friends are, as opposed to recognising that that’s a 20-year-old show,” Dr Rosewarne said.
“The culture has moved on but the television show itself doesn’t get to move with us.
“I think we need to be really careful about revisiting old popular culture with our 2018 lens on and condemning it by the standards we are judging new pop culture with today.”
Dr Rosewarne said the reissue of Appetite For Destruction landed in a bit of a grey area.
“If it’s just a literal re-release, as opposed a re-recording, you could say, ‘they probably should have left it intact’, in the sense that it was a cultural item from when it was released originally … and therefore said something and spoke about something happening at that time culturally.”
Charles Fairfield, associate professor of popular music at the University of Sydney, said while it was not fair to judge works from a previous era by modern standards, artists today could take the initiative and acknowledge when a work has not aged well.
“It would be in an artist’s interest to say, ‘You know what? There are some problems. Here they are, we are sorry about them. But we have changed, we have moved on’.”
He believes this kind of public reckoning with the past is something we will see more of.
“Especially around issues of sexuality – transphobia, homophobia. I think they are going to keep cropping up.”
Has this kind of thing happened before?
In the mid-80s, Dire Straits released a song called Money For Nothing, the lyrics to which were written from the perspective of a retail worker talking about the musicians he saw on MTV.
“See the little faggot got the earring and the makeup,” Mark Knopfler sung, using that same offensive word for gay people.
In later years, Knopfler would reportedly change the lyric in live performances to include the word “queenies”.
In 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled the song should not be played on private radio stations because its lyrics breached rules around ethical portrayal.