"Fat Axl," Image Control and the Damage Done

Axl Rose, as he'd surely like us to remember him..  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Earlier this week, it emerged that Axl Rose had issued Google with several DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices over a particularly unflattering image of himself wearing a big red bandana, billowing white shirt and a facial expression that can only be described as constipated. The photo, originally taken at a Canadian concert, has since been the object of amusement for an abundance of meme-makers, and Axl -- to say the least -- is not terribly pleased about it. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, just pop “Fat Axl meme” into a Google Image search and wait for the food puns to start rolling in.

Are the memes mean? Of course they are. Are they fatist? You betcha. Are they another example of internet bullying? That one is debatable. There are a multitude of people who believe that, if one chooses to be in the spotlight and readily accepts all of the benefits that come from fame, one must take the bad with the good.

According to a 2013 report from CelebrityNetWorth.com, Axl Rose, that year, was worth $150 million. With the key players from the original Guns N’ Roses line up back together and starting a tour later this month, that sum is set to increase even further. Which makes it all the more difficult to feel sorry for Monsieur Rose, especially given his historically well-documented penchant for tantrums and bad behavior.

In addition, the great irony of all this legal action is that people who’d never even seen the “Fat Axl” memes are now having their attention pointedly drawn to them, and people who had forgotten about them are now returning to have another giggle at the expense of a very rich, very famous, rather easily annoyed person. A legal action to get some unfortunate pictures taken down from the internet is, in 2016 terms, the ultimate in self-indulgence and ego-mania. If half the world didn’t already think Axl Rose was a bit of a whiny baby, it certainly does now.

Of course, Axl Rose isn’t the first star to attempt to destroy photos of himself he doesn’t like, and he won’t be the last. Actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, went to extraordinary lengths to wipe some old photos of himself from our consciousness back in 2013. One of the pictures he was upset about featured him posing shirtless, shaggy chin-length ‘90s hair tousled around his face, with arms embracing a bunch of lilies as if they were a newborn infant. We’d direct you to that image, but, astoundingly, Leto succeeded in wiping it off the face of the earth. (Which, if you ever did see that photo, is rather devastating, because of how incredibly hilarious it was.) Rest assured, if you have a copy of that picture and you try to put it online, Jared Leto will come after you for copyright infringement.

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In the pre-internet age of course, none of this was an issue for The Famous People. Humans didn’t sit at home, chopping up magazines, writing funny things on them and pasting the altered images up around town. We, the general public, mostly saw what the stars and their publicists wanted us to see. Occasionally, something uncomplimentary would show up in a tabloid or gossip magazine, but we had to go to a newsstand every Wednesday and pay money to see it.

I'm sure Axl and Jared -- as dudes that were already famous before the internet was a thing -- look back on those days fondly. Sure, they had a much easier time of it in the ‘80s and ‘90s -- but those days are as over as Jordan Catalano’s Ramones covers band.

In the internet age, it is virtually impossible to view any musician trying to keep control of their image as anything other than petty and self-involved. Three years ago, when Beyonce’s publicist reached out to Buzzfeed about some “unflattering” Superbowl photos, “respectfully” asking for the images to be taken down, Buzzfeed not only didn’t comply, it posted an excerpt from the publicist’s email and re-posted the photos, this time with the headline: “The ‘Unflattering’ Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See.” And, in a real reflection of how little anyone appreciates image management these days, not even the always-protective Beyhive got upset.

The truth is, with 24 hour news cycles, endless gossip websites to choose from and a plethora of paparazzi photos entering our eyeline on a daily basis, access to the lives of musicians on an entirely new level has become standard practice within the realms of media consumption. Thanks to Google, everyone can see their musical heroes, from any angle, whenever the hell they want and feel almost zero guilt about how any online criticisms and mockery might make that famous person feel.

Whether it’s morally right or wrong, when celebrities (musical or otherwise) go to great legal lengths to try and prevent this (relatively new) online process, it outright fails to make the meme-makers feel bad and only serves to make the star look ridiculous.

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Axl Rose should be more concerned about how this legal action makes him look in the eyes of his fans than about whether one photo could possibly sully his (already not immaculate) image. In this new age of mass, mass media, one picture can’t and won’t destroy the public's view of you -- but looking like you care too much about it might.

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