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Maura Johnston

Maura Johnston is a writer and editor who teaches at Boston College and edits the culture periodical Maura Magazine. She has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time, Billboard, and Rolling Stone; her byline also appeared in a number of publications that have succumbed to 21st-century industry tumult. She lives in Boston.

“When You're Talking to Yourself and Nobody's Home: The Odd Malleability of the Hard Rock Frontman”
When Slash and Duff McKagan left Guns N' Roses in the mid-1990s, W. Axl Rose was the only remaining member who had been on its breakthrough Appetite For Destruction—he took the name for legal reasons, even though Slash's siren-like guitar solos and Duff's rugged basslines were just as integral to the band's perceived vibe. Axl's voice, though, remains the clearest signifier of the Guns N' Roses sound; it could plumb depths as easily as it could summon piercing high notes, delivering his sardonic, caustic lyrics in a singular way.

Hard rock has been a commercial force for four-plus decades, and rock's manic nature invites a certain amount of tumult. But for a genre where the personalities of lead singers have been so crucial to their attendant bands' appeal, hard rock has had an unusual amount of frontman turnover. Arena-filling acts aren't immune from having a rotating cast of leading men: Van Halen ditched David Lee Roth's cabaret stylings for the shaggy charisma of Sammy Hagar and, briefly, the Leading Player showmanship of Gary Cherone; Mötley Crüe brought journeyman John Corabi on for their self-titled 1994 album. Bands that influenced the hard-rock generation, like Queen and AC/DC, introduced new lead singers in the wake of their frontmen passing away. Acts still touring clubs experience fantasy baseball levels of turnover: Warrant has been fronted by former Lynch Mob singer Robert Mason since 2008, while Jizzy Pearl, whose lye-lined pipes made his band Love/Hate's debauchery boldfaced, has toured with L.A. Guns, Ratt, and Quiet Riot.

This paper will look at how bands with rotating cast members are viewed by fans and those critics who pay them heed, and how putting a new person up front colors not just long-beloved anthems but new efforts under storied names. (It'll probably also reference the much-rumored-at-this-point Guns N' Roses reunion, with a look at what actually makes a bunch of guys getting back together—whether onstage at Coachella or in a dingy club—worthy of the "reunion" tag.)

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