American rockers Guns N’ Roses are no stranger to controversy. They’re one of the most hard-rocking and hard-partying bands in history, possessing an unapologetic attitude, giving their music an edge that has attracted millions of fans, allowing their music to be everpresent for over 30 years. Whilst this edge might be handy in terms of commercial aspects, it’s also meant that the band have found themselves in trouble on numerous occasions over the years, and for good reasons.
Whilst there are many different explanations for this, perhaps the most notable chapter of controversy the band has had was after the release of their second album, G N’ R Lies, in 1988. The successful follow up to their debut Appetite for Destruction was bought by many of those who had been captivated by its predecessor, but most of them found themselves shocked and turning off the album when they got to track eight.
The cut is called ‘One in a Million’, and bar the sort of tracks you might get from openly Nazi groups such as Skrewdriver, it makes a claim for being the most bigoted and offensive song ever released in popular music. Racist, homophobic and generally discriminatory, it was here that the public were handed the first real taste of a side of Axl Rose that has since seen him get embroiled in controversy on numerous occasions.
The song is based on a real-life experience that Rose had when he was getting trouble from a group of Black men at a Greyhound bus station, a time when he first set foot in Los Angeles after leaving his native state of Indiana.
Infuriated by the incessant hustling of the group, Rose decided to pen a song. However, it wasn’t just the Black community in which he directed his anger, it was immigrants in general, Iranians and the LGBTQ+ community. Even though Axl Rose has never been one to mince his words – or use the most floral of langue – the crass nature of his prose here will shock those who aren’t already familiar with the track.
Telling the story of his journey to the City of Angels, one of the first portions of the lyrics reads: “So I thumbed it down to sixth in L.A. / Maybe a Greyhound could be my way / Police and niggers, that’s right / Get outta my way / Don’t need to buy none of your / Gold chains today / Now don’t need no bracelets / Clamped in front of my back / Just need my ticket, ’til then / Won’t you cut me some slack
If the N-word wasn’t enough to make your stomach churn, particularly when you note the vitriol that makes up that particular passage, the third verse is beyond the pale, as the frontman takes aim at the immigrant and gay community as a whole. Rose sings: “Immigrants and faggots / They 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 fucking disease / And they talk so many goddamn ways / It’s all Greek to me”.
Interestingly, in the last verse, Rose seems to acknowledge the bigoted language he’s employed and shirk any responsibility for it. He infers that he’s just an uneducated small-town white boy, trying to make ends meet and that tacitly, this language is appropriate for him to use, as they use it back home. Living is enough for him, and he doesn’t need claims of racism or prejudice: “Radicals and racists / Don’t point your finger at me / I’m a small-town white boy / Just tryin’ to make ends meet / Don’t need your religion / Don’t watch that much TV / Just makin’ my livin’ baby / Well that’s enough for me”.
Another element of the song that catches the eye is how the essence of the chorus is in complete opposition to the hatred espoused in the verses. Rose inverts the song here, and talks of himself in the third person: “You’re one in a million / Yeah that’s what you are / You’re one in a million babe / You’re a shooting star / Maybe someday we’ll see you / Before you make us cry / You know we tried to reach you / But you were much too high / Much too high / Much too high / Much too high”.
“I came up with ‘We tried to reach you but you were much too high,’” Rose explained to Mick Wall in 2002. “I was picturing [friends] trying to call me if, like, I disappeared or died… The chorus – ‘You’re one in a million’ – someone said that to me once, real sarcastically. And it stuck with me… When I said ‘Police and niggers / that’s right,’ that was to fuck with (band associate) Wes (Arkeen)’s head. ‘Cos he couldn’t believe I would write that… The chorus came about because I was getting, like, really far away; like ‘Rocket Man (song)’, Elton John… Like in my head. Getting really far away from all my friends and family in Indiana.”
We can understand the point about getting really far away, but even in his darkest period, when his drug abuse was at its worst, Elton John never wrote a track hating on minorities for a perceived slight that. The chorus and the reasons that Rose provided to Wall in the interview also heavily indicate that at the time, the Guns N’ Roses frontman was struggling from a severe bout of hubris, which won’t come as a surprise.
Although Axl Rose was clearly very angry about what had happened to him at that bus stop, it also seems that there was an element of him trying to cause offence by employing taboo language, which might have impacted the extent to which he took it, which you could argue is a similar thing to what comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle attempt, although their sarcasm is evident. However, this assertion falls flat when you note the following statement he made.
In 1989, Rose attempted to get his point across in Rolling Stone: “I used words like police and niggers because you’re not allowed to use the word ‘nigger.’ Why can black people go up to each other and say, ‘Nigger’, but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it’s a big putdown? I don’t like boundaries of any kind. I don’t like being told what I can and what I can’t say. I used the word ‘nigger’ because it’s a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. The word ‘nigger’ doesn’t necessarily mean black. Doesn’t John Lennon have a song ‘Woman Is the Nigger of the World’? There’s a rap group, N.W.A. – Niggers With Attitude. I mean, they’re proud of that word. More power to them. Guns n’ Roses ain’t bad . . . N.W.A. is baaad! Mr. Bob Goldthwait said the only reason we put these lyrics on the record was because it would cause controversy and we’d sell a million albums. Fuck him! Why’d he put us in his skit? We don’t just do something to get the controversy, the press.”
In that Rolling Stone interview, Axl Rose revealed all. It’s classic bigot sentiment that he displays here. Why can’t a white man use the N-word but Black people and groups such as N.W.A. can? Well, there’s a straightforward reason: reclaiming a word that was a ubiquitous weapon of racism from white folks to the Black community for hundreds of years.
Black people using the N-word is a symbol of the community taking back their identity and reforging their history, which was dominated by slavery, white power and nativism for so long. It’s about the lived experiences of an entire race; therefore, for people such as Axl Rose to use it, it just comes across as crass, thoughtless, insensitive, and at the very worst, racist and jealous.
Pick any of the aforementioned adjectives and you’ll be able to apply them to the ensuing anecdote. After the song was released as part of the album in 1988, the band and Rose attracted much criticism from fans and industry peers, who accused them of racism for their use of the N-word. So, when the band and Living Colour supported The Rolling Stones in Los Angeles in 1989, Living Colour guitar hero Vernon Reid publicly discussed the song during his band’s performance.
After hearing this, Rose suggested Guns N’ Roses play the song in their set “just to piss them off”. Regardless of how “far away” he felt he was during this period, this type of behaviour is genuinely breathtaking. I think by this point, it’s safe to say that the racist element of the song far surpasses any comedy or shock value that Rose was trying to display.
It is claimed that by 1992, Rose had changed his perspective on the song and his lyrics, and he admitted that he wrote the racist parts of the song because of that one bad experience at the bus station. “I was pissed off about some black people that were trying to rob me,” he conceded. “I wanted to insult those particular black people.”
Revealing himself to be what every bigot is, vulnerable, in his final comments made about the track later that year, he admitted that he’s just a little man in a great big world, and that this sense of not being in control was actually the driving force behind the song: “It was a way for me to express my anger at how vulnerable I felt in certain situations that had gone down in my life.”
Responding to the other accusations that he was a homophobe, for the use of the F-word, at first, Rose declared that he was a “pro-heterosexual”. He asserted: “I’m not against them doing what they want to do as long as it’s not hurting anybody else and they’re not forcing it upon me”. Speaking of a negative experience in his past, he claimed that once, an apparently friendly man let him crash on his hotel room floor and then tried to rape him, a horrific experience by all accounts.
Again though, this reflects Rose’s complicated relationship with the past and that one traumatic experience with a group of people is enough for him to hate them as an entire population, another traditional behaviour of a bigot.
However, once again, he softened his perspective and asserted that he was not a homophobe and deployed another trick straight from the bigots handbook. He posited that some of his heroes such as Elton John, who certainly influenced the track’s chorus and Freddie Mercury, as well as the head of the band’s record label, David Geffen, were gay or bisexual. Does this make it justifiable? One would argue no.
The most pertinent point about the song’s provenance comes from Axl Rose’s bandmates. In 1988 guitarist Izzy Stradlin told Nick Kent that the lyrics were simply meant to mirror the tense race relations of Los Angeles at the time. If true, it clearly shows what side the band were on.
Explaining what this actually meant, in 2019 bassist Duff McKagan said: “One thing about Axl is if you’re going to try to compete with him intellectually, you’ve lost, because he’s a super smart guy… He’s a super sensitive dude who does his studies. When we did that song, I was still drinking but he was way ahead of us with his vision of, ‘Something’s gotta be said.’ That was the most hardcore way to say it. So flash-forward to now. So many people have misinterpreted that song that we removed it … Nobody got it.”
McKagan’s assertion simply does not stand. There’s nothing smart or implicit about Axl Rose’s work here. It’s clear that a couple of traumatic experiences he had made him so angry toward minorities that he decided to pen a song displaying his hate for them.
If by this point it wasn’t readily evident that Axl Rose and the song are bigoted, McKagan dropping the “something’s gotta be said” line is perhaps the most typical phrase that someone can use when they’re about to cross the line. Shame on him for arguing that we had the problem and that Axl Rose was actually trying to say something hyper-intelligent that the rest of us could not comprehend. The song delineates Axl Rose’s thoughts on minorities clearly. There is no way to misinterpret it, and the proof is there for all to see.
Listen to the track below.