Creativity Rocks: Guns n’ Roses n’ Creative Directors
In the fall of 1988, the band Guns n’ Roses released a music video for their third major single, “Paradise City.” It was a pretty big hit on MTV. Though the video clocks in at a hefty 6:49, the plot is simple: Band in stadium; band rocks crowd. The most artsy it gets is some black-and-white footage mixed in.
Fast forward five years and G n’ R is the biggest band on the planet and can pretty much do whatever they want, artistically. And what they wanted to do was an expensive and rambling ten-minute video for the song “Estranged.” Here’s the plot breakdown:
Black screen. Webster’s definition of the word “illusion.” SWAT teams and paramedics storm a house. Helicopters! Flashlights! There’s Axl, passed out. Cut to band in stadium. Band rocks crowd. Cut to Axl playing with kids. Sad supermodels watch band on TV. Axl turns into a ghost. Ghost Axl wears a Charles Manson t-shirt. Axl in fetal position in the shower. Cut to a hilltop mansion. Everyone is wearing white. More dictionary definitions. A life-size crucifix. A white stretch limo. Cut to an airstrip. A cargo plane. Dolphins swim around inside cargo plane. Sad supermodels watch dolphins. Dolphins swim up Sunset Boulevard, past the Roxy. Guitar solo—Slash seems to be hovering above the ground? Cut to an oil rig at sea. Axl jumps off the oil rig into the ocean. Axl refuses life preserver. More dolphins. Axl pets a dolphin. Second guitar solo; Slash rises up from the sea, walks on water. Another helicopter. A high-top sneaker sinks to the bottom of the sea. More Webster’s definitions. The sneaker says “Axl.” Cut to Axl sitting on a sofa…with a dolphin. Onscreen handwriting says “Lose your illusions. Love, Axl.” The End.
As a creative director, a big part of my job is helping people be more creative. But sometimes it’s about helping creative people know when to quit. Removing that one extra layer of copy or design that seems a little too clever, too flashy, too indulgent or is trying just a little too hard.
Somebody needs to be the one who says “Do we really need that second helicopter scene?” or “How many dolphins is too many?” or “Maybe, just maybe, a swan dive off an oil rig is gilding the lily.” In 1993, Axl could have used some boundaries. He could have used a creative director.
Then again, I’ve certainly done my share of lily-gilding and dolphin-hoarding as well. So maybe what Axl really needed was a client. Or a budget. Or maybe just a card in his pocket like the one advertising legend Bill Bernbach used to consult when clients gave him a reality check:
“THEY MIGHT BE RIGHT.”