Using Illusions - The Rise and Fall of Guns N’ Roses on MTV

Sandra Canosa


In one of their earliest rock press profiles, Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose told Kerrang! magazine: “I watch MTV and it’s hard not to throw shit at the TV set because it’s so fucking boring. ”Seven years later, he’d be accepting the MTV Video Vanguard Award and the band’s own video for their song “November Rain,” would be one of the station’s most popular clips.

Guitarist Slash once called MTV “a channel that helped us out, but that we didn’t care for” – but that’s surely an understatement. Without MTV, Guns N’ Roses might have been just another metal band lost to the history books. And without Guns N’ Roses, MTV might never have found the formulas that work – and those that don’t.

Between 1987 and 1994, Guns N’ Roses perfected and then obliterated the hard rock/heavy metal genre. Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, has sold more than 30 million copies in its lifetime and stands as the iconic apex of the glammy, heavy, hairspray-and-heroin-fueled Sunset Strip scene of 1980s L.A. It’s not just that they succeeded in bringing metal to the masses: they transcended the genre itself. Axl’s high-pitched caterwauls and Slash’s furious guitar licks may contain all the classic trappings of hair metal, but it was the way GnR crafted their image through MTV music videos that launched the group out of the niche-market bins and into the mainstream.

But in the end, MTV also proved to be the band’s downfall. With no limits to their financial resources or artistic egos, Guns N’ Roses were free to push the medium to its extremes: sometimes the risks paid off, demonstrating both what the band and the music video form itself was capable of. Other times, the very limitations of MTV became all too clear.

The band’s first video, for 1987’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” works a heavy hype that would come to define the band’s mythology. In peak glam form – teased hair, tight pants, fingerless gloves – the band doesn’t just sing of the depravity and sin festering in Los Angeles; they look the part, too. A loose narrative cuts through the performance, where a young and innocent Axl is forcibly corrupted into a tattooed, TV-loving rock star. “When I saw this video,” Chuck Klosterman writes in his heavy metal memoir, Fargo Rock City, “…I realized that Axl wasn’t welcoming me to the jungle, people were welcoming him. Suddenly, the whole album made a lot more sense: Axl Rose was screaming because he was scared.”



With a growing reputation in the press for excess of every vice, the “Welcome to the Jungle” video set Guns N’ Roses apart from the rest of the glam metal pack in a subtle but significant way: Rock’n’roll wasn’t a fantasy life, an idealistic escape from reality full of bright colors, fun parties, beautiful women, and skintight lycra. It was reality, one where, as the foulest degenerates of a morally bankrupt society, they had no other choice but to deal however they could. They were genuinely disturbed – and they threatened to bring us down with them.

The band’s next three videos, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (1987), “Paradise City” (1988), and “Patience” (1989), all build up this “authentic” badassery while mirroring also the band’s growing stardom. Moving from rehearsal space to stadium shows to recording studio, the very place settings of the videos work to offer viewers a “backstage pass” into life as a rock star.

“Patience,” in particular, starts to fuse video narrative with the individual band members’ personalities and public personas: Slash pets a snake as a series of women enter and leave his bed; Izzy Stradlin communes privately with his guitar; drummer Steven Adler socializes in the lounge; bassist Duff McKagan cleans up after himself; Axl Rose smashes up a telephone for no good reason. By the end of the ‘80s, with just one album and an EP under their belt, GnR were the world’s biggest band and the rock’n’roll darlings of MTV. Every video was a smash, even as the group’s hyperbolic lifestyles seemed destined to crash and burn. By this point, Guns N’ Roses weren’t just a band; they were characters in a soap/rock opera, each new video a fresh installment in their thrilling docudrama.

With the release of Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991, however, things started to take a much more cinematic turn. The “Don’t Cry” video is just the opposite of its predecessors;  where earlier spots focused mostly on the performance of the song with snippets of narrative or backstage drama, “Don’t Cry” is almost entirely narrative, and a puzzling one at that, where Axl winds up looking up from beneath a gravesite marked with his own name.



While “Don’t Cry” might have stood alone as a striking concept video, it took on added weight with the band’s next two major videos for “November Rain” (1992) and “Estranged.” Because of their common themes and imagery, the three make up an informal “trilogy” of sorts in Guns N’ Roses lore and certainly stand as one of the most ambitious undertakings in music video history. Most MTV clips at the time were between three and five minutes long and might have cost $100,000 – 200,000 to produce; “November Rain” and “Estranged” are both over nine minutes each. The first cost $1.5 million to make; the latter, perhaps as much as $4 million.

Although “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain” might be ostentatious when compared with their old videos, they did succeed in capturing the public’s attention and interest. But without dialogue or a clear story arc, the plot remained fuzzy. Many hoped the “Estranged” video would answer questions raised by the first two; it didn’t. From a wedding to a funeral, from the desert to the ocean, the narrative only became more erratic, and the indulgent, overblown pompousness of the whole project (e.g., renting out an entire ocean liner for filming) was clearly starting to wear through.

In their later videos, GnR greatly tested the limits of the music video format and ultimately crossed the threshold of what will and won’t work in the medium itself. Attempting to stretch a complex narrative across not just one but three videos without any use of dialogue or musical breaks proved too pretentious for most audiences, especially in a pre-YouTube era devoid of instant recall. The purpose of the video is to sell the song and the artist that comes with it; the more Guns N’ Roses tried to ignore those imperatives, the more they suffered as a band. Soon every member of the original Appetite for Destruction lineup had quit or been fired, leaving Axl very much estranged indeed.

The ability to maximize the music video’s potential is what brought GnR their fame and fortune, but when they toed out too far into the realms of exploration, the format just couldn’t support what they were trying to do. Their experiments helped define exactly what music videos could and couldn’t do for a rock band, how they could work and why they might fail. Just before leaving for good, Slash said: “I’d really like to get us out of this whole million-dollar video ballad thing. As much as I love (‘Use Your Illusion’), there was just a little too much thinking going on.”


Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.


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