Let’s Talk About Guns N’ Roses’ “One in a Million”
Last week, Guns N’ Roses announced a reissue of their 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction. The reissue will be released in a variety of packages, depending on how much money fans are willing to spend; these include a super-duper extra-deluxe limited edition box set version, which costs a thousand dollars, and a slightly-less-super-duper extra-deluxe version, which costs a mere $179. Both of these versions of the reissue include seven of the eight songs on GN’R Lies, the band’s 1988 EP.
The song that’s been omitted? “One in a Million,” on which Axl Rose infamously said some truly heinous shit. In addition to demanding that “police and n***rs stay out of my way,” the track includes this verse:
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 God damn ways
It’s all Greek to me
Unsurprisingly, “One in a Million” was always controversial, likely by design (in 1992, Rose told Rolling Stone, “I used words like police and n***rs because you’re not allowed to use the word n***r.”). To hear it from Slash, the band’s biracial lead guitarist, the fact that “One in a Million” ended up on Lies at all was due mostly to Rose being a petulant, contrarian brat (which is not hard to believe). When asked about the song in 2016, Slash had this to say:
“I was offended. That was a brash, ignorant kind of statement Axl made. I knew where he was coming from, once he explained it, but that didn’t validate it to make it worthy of putting on a record. We had issues. But the more issues we had, the more adamant he was about putting the song on there. I was hugely embarrassed that it was on something that my name was on. It was a tough little period.”
And so Lies arrived with an apology for the song on its very cover…
…sort of. There is, in the most technical sense of the word, an “apology” for the song on the cover, but it’s very brief and tucked away amongst a whole lot of other text, some of which is every bit as hateful as the lyrics themselves. After rhetorically asking the reader if they’ve ever “been made to feel like you don’t belong here by an individual who can barely speak English” or “attacked by a homosexual,” the text concludes:
“This song is very simple and extremely generic or generalized, my apologies to those who may take offense.”
Even Rose admitted that’s a weak-ass redress in a 1992 interview with RIP, where he confessed that “Going back and reading it [now], it wasn’t the best apology, but at the time, it was the best apology I could make.”
Unfortunately, Rose never actually offered a stronger condemnation of the song, instead opting to blame his own fans for misconstruing its message. From that same interview:
“My opinion is, the majority of the public can’t be trusted with that song. It inspires thoughts and reactions that cause people to have to deal with their own feelings on racism, prejudice and sexuality.”
“However that song makes [fans] feel,” the singer later added, “they think that must be what the song means. If they hate blacks, and they hear my lines and hate blacks even more, I’m sorry, but that’s not how I meant it.” Rose took this blame-shifting stance further when speaking to Rolling Stone in 2000, at which point he vowed that beginning in February of 2001, all future pressings of Lies would omit the track, not because he felt remorse for having written it in the first place, but because the lyrics were “too easily misinterpreted.”
But that was bullshit, too. Rose never made good on the promise to delete the track from newly-pressed physical copies of the album, and it’s readily available on streaming services like Spotify to boot.
So how does Rose actually feel about the song? The contrast between his words (and those of Slash) and his actions certainly send mixed messages. Superficially, at least, he always seemed like an unlikely bigot: he hung out with Ice-T and The Pet Shop boys, declared Elton John and Freddie Mercury his favorite singers, wore Public Enemy and N.W.A. merch, and spent the majority of his time with a Brazilian family (who he appears to genuinely love, but are also, we must note, his employees). On the other hand, he is a high school dropout from a conservative Christian family in small-town Indiana, and he was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Of course, none of that automatically makes him racist, homophobic, and xenophobic… but purely from a psychological and sociological point of view, those things make it seem less-than far-fetched that he could be racist, homophobic, and xenophobic.
The decision to exclude “One in a Million” from the Appetite reissue certainly doesn’t help clarify the vocalist’s stance (assuming that Rose was consulted and that the decision wasn’t made by management or the label… but given Rose’s controlling nature, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of the decision). Even if his intentions are noble (If everyone involved in the creation of the song regrets it, why include it with a commemoration of their greatest creative achievement? Why keep passing it down to future generations of fans?), he has continued to handle the issue poorly. You can’t run from or rewrite history, especially in the Internet era (a lesson I would have assumed Rose had learned by now), and it’s stupid to even try (Did anyone in the GN’R camp really think no one notice this was the one song from Lies not included on the reissue? How did they not see the flood of articles like this one coming a hundred miles away?).
What Rose should have done — and should still do — is grant an interview, or at least release a statement, in which he finally denounces the song once for all. Because we all fuck up, but we’re also all (hopefully) improving ourselves on a regular basis. It’s how you handle your fuck-ups that ultimately tell the world what kind of person you are.