Creative Destruction of 1980s (Counter) Culture: Appetite for Destruction and The Garbage Pail Kids

The Regan era was one of continued Cold War, “Just Say No,” and Coke II and Pepsi challenges. It was the era that brought together Guns N’ Roses and Garbage Pail Kids.

Guns N’ Roses’ debut album Appetite for Destruction (1987) marked the resurgence of classic hard rock after years of highly electronic New Wave pop. The album was welcomed by fans who longed for authentic in-your-face rawness. The album featured a number of tracks representing what today we would call “destructive” lifestyles and activities, from heroin addiction (“Mr. Brownstone”) to sadist culture (“Welcome to the Jungle”). The songs were vehicles for listeners to feel a part of a counter culture that had been seemingly anesthetized by the Reagan years. But there was more than just the music that helped GNR stir controversy and increase record sales.

After Axel Rose was told it would be distasteful to use the exploding spaceship Challenger as cover art, he turned to Robert Williams’ painting Appetite for Destruction (what the album was supposed to be titled before this is a mystery). Williams’ painting depicts a robot, dressed as Robert Crumb, founder of Zap Comix, the iconic underground series of the 1960s that critiqued mainstream culture. In William's painting, Crumb has with a bear trap head and towers over the woman he presumably raped. In the background, a strange creature--perhaps Rat Fink-like Hell's Angel with long metal blades for teeth-- floats towards the robot. While some suggested this character is poised to avenge the woman, the creature’s purpose is unclear. Knowing the graphic image would stir controversy, Williams recommended that GNR choose a different image, but the band decided to use Appetite for Destruction, arguing the work was “a symbolic social statement, with the robot representing the industrial system that's raping and polluting our environment.”[1] Not everyone agreed with GNR’s interpretation. Many stores refused to stock the album, leading GNR producers to create a second album cover that was less controversial. However, the original cover was ultimately relegated to inside the cover, which didn’t stop feminist groups from protesting the band, arguing the image glorified rape.

Williams, known for pop surrealism, “lowbrow art,” and his affiliation with Southern California car culture (the so-called Kustom Kulture and Rat Fink aesthetic of the 50s and 60s), claimed the painting had no deeper meaning and was “intended to have no more meaning than a picture on a cocktail napkin, and if they appear to some people to be more than tightly rendered cartoons, well, those people are right.”[2] So then, what is the purpose of portraying a woman being raped by a robot?

While Williams has been criticized for objectifying women—showing them naked on hot dogs, sandwiches, and tacos—he has never offered any insights into why, except that he loves a woman’s ass and a woman’s ass is more beautiful than the stars or any mountain range[3]. And while it is perhaps easy to understand the conflation of sex and food—important human drives—what about the rape of a woman by a robot? Is it more than a commentary on Crumb's sexual appetite? Is the fact she is selling miniature robots a commentary on capitalism?

It is also worth noting Williams was affiliated with underground comix scene. Also a part of underground comix was Art Spiegelman who, along with several others working for Topps Company, created the Garbage Pail Kids, trading cards parodying the expensive and infamous Cabbage Patch Kids and which were released in 1985.

As pointed out in 30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story, the Cold War was not yet over, Reagan was president, people were going crazy for Cabbage Patch Kids (there seemed to be a deep craving for orphans in the 80s, e. g., Different Strokes, Punky Brewster, Rags to Riches, E.T., Alf, etc.), and the creators of GPK wanted to challenge the cultural milieu of the era. (In this sense, one might argue GPK should be taken more seriously than Williams' "Low brow" art that is arguably sexist.) While some Garbage Pail Kids are a direct parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids, others are political in nature. For example, “Adam Bomb” shows a kid with a mushroom cloud exploding out of his head. Others include “Snooty Sam,” “Rappin Reagan,” and “Alice Island.” And each character has a twin--allowing GPK creators to get a two for one on each character.  In the Garbage Pail World, there isn't only Rappin' Reagan but also his twin “Ray Gun.”

But, like Guns N’ Roses, who became a commercial success by selling more than 30 million albums, the Garbage Pail Kids became iconic in their own right, though co-creators Mark Newgarden and Jay Lynch question this success. Newgarden explains the cards were made for mass production and for the kids, not collectors and obsessed fans. Jay Lynch compares the Garbage Pail Kids to graven images. He said, “The image of the Garbage Pail Kids stopped becoming satire and started becoming holy icons that just exist in and of themselves.”[4] He criticized Mad Magazine creators for losing sight of their satire and commercializing their content as well. Lynch said creators often made one issue with multiple covers in hopes collectors would buy multiple copies of the same issue. 

But isn't this what the 80s were all about: buying two and throwing one away?

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[1] Goldstein, Patrick. 1987. ""Geffen's Guns N' Roses Fires a Volley at Pmrc." The Los Angeles Times. Aug. 16. Accessed Oct. 27, 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-08-16/entertainment/ca-1533_1_artwork .

[2] Deriso, Nick. 2017. The History of Guns N' Roses Controversy-Courting 'Appetite for Destruction' Cover. July 27. Accessed Oct. 27, 2017. http://ultimateclassicrock.com/guns-n-roses-appetite-for-destruction-cover-controversy/.

[3] Acid Head: The Conceptual Realism of Robert Williams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHUMbgZhc0s

[4] 30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Kids Story (2017).