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The True Meaning of the Lyrics and the Video to “Estranged” by Guns N’ Roses

The True Meaning of the Lyrics and the Video to “Estranged” by Guns N’ Roses

“Estranged” was one of three power-ballad epics that Guns N’ Roses prepared for the “Use Your Illusion” albums. And, while it didn’t instantly achieve the success that “November Rain” or “Don’t Cry” did, this was certainly the most ambitious and, some might claim, the most over-the-top.

The song was meant to offer a glimpse into singer Axl Rose’s psyche, to have Slash and the band stretch their musical muscle, and to present a video in which the lead singer gets to swim with dolphins.

It’s still hard to wrap your head around “Estranged.” That’s why I am taking a closer look at the song and at the monumental video and trying to uncover their real meaning.

Guns N’ Roses’ Long Journey to Power Ballads like “Estranged”

Take a listen to interviews of veteran Sunset Strip rockers, and you’ll notice with which they speak of Guns N’ Roses. Nearly all of them agree that the quintet provided a shot in the arm. Some, in fact, compare the band’s influence to the emergence of Nirvana and grunge. Unlike the latter, however, Gn’R didn’t irrevocably ruin the L.A. pop-metal bands’ careers.

Still, make no mistake about it, Guns N’ Roses were a streetwise, hard-rock band. “Appetite for Destruction” was greeted by newfound fans and critics as testimony of life lived out on the edge. The music reflected that attitude. The band had the best aspects of classic Aerosmith, AC/DC, or The Rolling Stones. They didn’t do power ballads!

Well… they rarely did power ballads. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was an exception. But its release as a single and the accompanying video turned “Appetite for Destruction” into a platinum seller and propelled the group to international fame.

By the time Guns n’ Roses was ready to release the band’s true follow-up, the double album “Use Your Illusion,” power ballads were no longer a taboo. Neither was using musicians outside of the group’s core quintet.

As for Axl Rose, the band’s charismatic, troubled singer, he was done hiding his true feelings or his ambition. “Estranged” is one of the songs in which he bares his soul without fear of judgment. Musically, he was now looking at bands like Queen and looking to marry art rock to heavy metal.

It wasn’t going to be easy, and not even his own bandmates were fully on board. By the end of the process, however, Guns n’ Roses’ legacy would be firmly established.

Axl Rose’s Song and Video Trilogy

Guns n’ Roses released “Use Your Illusion” as two separate albums in September 1991. “II” features “Estranged” and made it to the top of the charts globally. “I” sold slightly less. Together, they each were certified two times platinum. It was quite a way to go for musicians who, only a few years before, were shaking girlfriends for pizza money.

Axl Rose and his crew could do whatever they wanted with this kind of success. The single “You Could Be Mine” was featured in The Terminator, and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in the music video. By 1992, Axl spearheaded a music video trilogy and spent a record-breaking $1.5 million on a mini-movie for the song “November Rain.” “Don’t Cry” followed soon afterwards and was another colossal hit. “Estranged” was supposed to round up the trilogy and give an ending to the story. In some ways, it did. But in true Axl Rose style, it wasn’t a straightforward answer.

Videos Inspired by Del James

The trilogy was inspired by short stories written by Del James, journalist and personal friend of Axl Rose. The novella “Without You,” part of a book of stories titled “The Language of Fear,” in particular, helped inspire the music video for “November Rain.” It tells the story of a rock musician who becomes manically depressed following the suicide of his girlfriend.

The follow-up music video, “Don’t Cry”, seemed to present earlier scenes from the relationship between the rock musician and his girlfriend. However, it’s important to note that both music videos featured the model Stephanie Seymour. She was Axl Rose’s real-life love interest, and by the time of 1993’s video for “Estranged”, the two had set up.

This means that plans to give the story a classic ending had to be abandoned. Instead, Rose and director Andy Morohan chose stunning visuals that hinted at the story as told to that point.

Did Axl Rose sweat the costs? Not all! While “November Rain” had set the band and record label Geffen back a record $1.5 million, the “Estranged” music video ended up costing nearly $4 million. Swimming with dolphins ain’t cheap.

The Meaning of the Lyrics to “Estranged”

There wasn’t much room for subtlety in the days of “Appetite for Destruction.” The lyrics talked about living out on the streets of L.A. There were stories of violence, drugs and sex.

Still, Axl Rose was a highly intelligent man and a complex character. “Use Your Illusion,” more than anything, was a vehicle for his growing creative ambitions. No song represented that shift more than “Estranged.” The song is over 9 minutes long and features several tempo changes. It’s not unlike the progressive rock of the 1970s.

Like the other power ballads, Rose wrote the song on piano. Still, he admitted the importance of the band’s lead guitarist in getting the right sound. In the album’s booklet, Rose wrote the dedication: “Slash, thanks for the killer guitar melodies.”

Piecing together various interviews with Rose and reading through the lyrics, it’s clear that the singer wanted to explore some of the more desperate moments of his life. This includes a difficult childhood spent with an adoptive father back in Indiana and the recent breakup of his marriage to Erin Everly, daughter of the legendary Don Everly.

The Era of MTV videos

All of the video epics were chronicled in the band’s “Making F@*!ing Videos” series. In the behind-the-scenes documentary about “Estranged,” Axl Rose gave further insight into the song’s meaning:

“November Rain” is a song about not wanting to be in a state of having to deal with unrequited love. “Estranged” is acknowledging it and being there and having to figure out what the fuck to do… I wrote the song basically about who I am and how I feel, the break up of my marriage with Erin and how I didn’t want it to die. But also apply it to a lot of other situations or friendships where you knew it had to end.

The lyrics to “Estranged’ talk of the disintegration of relationships. Rose may have been talking primarily about romantic liaisons. But the words sound prescient for way that the relationships between Guns n’ Roses members would soon evolve.

By the end of the “Use Your Illusion” tour, the original band was, for all intents and purposes, no more. Drummer Steven Adler had been fired, and Izzy Stradling had quit. Unable to come to an agreement about the musical direction for their follow-up album, lead guitarist Slash would also quit, with Duff McKagan joining him in the late 1990s.

The Meaning of the Music Video to “Estranged” and Its Role in the Trilogy

The music video format was king by the early 1990s. Almost without exception, songs became hits due to the strength of the videos played on MTV. The station had embraced Guns n’ Roses early on, with “Welcome to the Jungle” becoming a late-night hit.

Like “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry,” the video for “Estranged” was supposed to be based on Del James’ short story “Without You.” The story itself may have been inspired by Axl Rose’s relationship with his former wife, Erin Everly.

The two music videos, however, prominently featured model Stephanie Seymour. As we mentioned earlier, she broke up with Rose shortly before the video was filmed. While she and her son Dylan are presented in a few shots, Rose and director Andy Morohan opted to depict sadness instead.

Rock Mini-Movies

Axl Rose, in 1994, claimed that the video is meant to depict transcendence over life’s troubles: “Actually, ‘Estranged’ isn’t, in some ways, a part of the trilogy. It’s more like part four. Part three was a mutual self-destruction of the couple that was in ‘November Rain.’ And, well, someone had other plans, and we were in a position where something we had worked on for five years had to be rewritten to kinda transcend it. So it’s a video about transcendence of a real-life situation that didn’t have a whole lot to do with the story that was intended. And actually I’m kinda glad we made this video instead of the one we were going to make.”

The video begins with police storming the singer’s home, where Axl Rose is shown sedate and despondent. It includes scenes of the singer attending some therapy. In real life, Rose was undergoing regressive therapy at the time.

The tone shifts, however, to include scenes of Guns n’ Roses performing to stadium audiences. And, famously, it ends with Rose jumping off a cargo ship, falling into dangerous waters, and eventually swimming peacefully with dolphins. In 1994, not even Michael Jackson or Madonna made videos that were this ambitious.

The Expensive Video Treatment

The “Estranged” music video was a hit on MTV but not quite on par with the band’s previous ones. While some praised the band for their ambitiousness, some saw the efforts as overindulgent.

Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell had toured with Guns n’ Roses and had befriended Axl Rose. Still, Cornell felt that the $4 million music video was over-the-top for a band previously known for their wild lifestyle. Cornell said: “Who the f–k does he think he is going to honestly connect with besides Donald Trump? Who else is going to give a s–t about the fact that he can afford that kind of attention? It goes beyond decadence, it’s spitting in the face of the people that have put you there. I was offended by it, and I don’t get offended by much.”

The Legacy of “Estranged”

“Estranged” achieved much of what Axl Rose hoped it would. It just didn’t do it at the time of its release. A modest hit in its time and an incredibly expensive, “Estranged” is now viewed as one of Guns n’ Roses’ very best songs.

“Estranged” marked a shift from the riff-based sound of the band’s debut. It signified that the group had a greater range. Plus, these dramatic rock numbers could be easily translated to stadium-sized audiences of the type that Guns n’ Roses were playing to on the “Use Your Illusion” tour.

The song continued to be played on subsequent tours. During the “Chinese Democracy Tour,” guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal used it as part of a solo spot.

Axl Rose reunited with Slash and Duff McKgann in 2016. Since 2022, it’s been, once more, part of live sets by Guns n’ Roses.

More than anything, “Estranged” showcased Axl Rose’s sheer ambition and desire for artistic recognition. Quite a gamble, but one that eventually paid off.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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