RollingStone - Politically Cool Again?

The mighty world of music journalism has fallen to its broken knees in recent years, at least in the realm of mainstream print publications. Rolling Stone leaves much to be desired, of course, while Spin sputters hopefully along and Blender hides its sometimes-sharp music coverage between copious pages of bikinis, engorged bosoms, and bad lad-mag humor. The only thing really going for these pubs at all is their name-brands and corporate backing -- they can be found on any newsstand, they're supported by scads of advertising dollars, and full subscriptions can be picked up for under six bucks a year. Still, they suck.

The best options available are the excellent British imports Q , NME (New Musical Express), Uncut, and Mojo, all of which are horribly overpriced once they reach the States. To satisfy their music jones, American readers are left with only a handful of expensive, hard to find, and sometimes-amateurish zines and specialty mags (indie, rap, alternative, hip-hop, country...). So the most powerful melody criticism today, perhaps, is free: Namely, Pitchfork Media and a smattering of indie websites have become reliable and innovative in a way the print mags have not.

And yet something is missing. The overarching vision of Rolling Stone provided not just rock coverage, or even mere music coverage -- RS, in its prime, plugged into the energy of rawk and the youth culture while also keeping a smart, watchful eye on fashion, politics, films, and international affairs. Groundbreaking writers of fact and fiction crawled from the pits of RS and ran amok in the mainstream media. The world of music flavored every story, every theme, every liberal bias and investigative article, but there was still more to this mag than just one topic, genre, or specialty. Pitchfork, Magnet, Under the Radar, the Brit mags -- they can't touch this. The legend of the Stone is too great.

On the one hand, even the best of the new breed of music publications wrongly ignore lifestyle trends, general-interest topics, and politics while locking themselves into genre boxes and writing with erudite fervor that's magnanimous to none but the chosen few. On the other hand, mags like RS, Spin, and Billboard are under the complete command of the corporate music empire. And while the music and movie reviews found in weeklies The Village Voice and Time Out New York are usually superior than those found in the latter, as local NY event-listing pubs they're severely limited in their national influence.

Former RS writer Lester Bangs once said, "I think a lot of the music that's out right now and a lot of the writers who are out right now, they both deserve one another. Because they both have no personality and no real style of their own and no soul.... They're just... a lot of them are academics. I mean, do you like to read them?"

Well, Lester, what other choice do we have?

When you're in the market for a monthly music lifestyle magazine, it all comes back to the Stone. Thankfully, they're slightly more palatable these days.

Besides bringing the groovy slash-and-burn comic "Get Your War On" to the public's attention, Rolling Stone has gotten a wee bit more of a rock edge ever since their kinda slow and low-key relaunch a couple years ago, but they're still hopelessly not as relevant or edgy as they think they are (or once were). However, as with much of the music industry, the election season has really poured some hot sauce on their testicles, and the simmering dislike they've had for Bush and the war has finally hit a fever pitch of Montezuma’s revenge-like explosions.

An October 2004 RS story by Matt Taibbi, "Bush Like Me: Ten weeks undercover in the grass roots of the Republican Party," isn't as long, sordid, or engaging as one might hope (kinda like that date I had last night), but it's full of biting humor and piquant insights.... its only failing, really, is that it leaves the reader wanting more, because what's provided is so well done... to go undercover with Republican Campaigners in Orlando, FL ... well, I've spent a lot of time in Orlando, and let me assure you, other than the nearby Fat Lands (the myriad Theme Parks), it is indeed a wasteland of the half-dead and the half-insane. Florida never gets the full Redneck credit it deserves, in my opinion (unless you count the dead-on portrayal found in the James Spader camp classic, "The New Kids".)

Still, Rolling Stone has dominated the market for too long. This is our grandparents' magazine, and just as it's sad watching our grandparents go to seed, it's unnerving to watch a legend like RS ungracefully approach death, nearing the Reaper with each passing decade. But that doesn't mean we can't live our own lives. When will the new breed at last grow into the guitar straps of its ancestors; or will the current generation be remembered only for coy, smug non-nudity, non-informative girlie books like FHM, Maxim, Stuff, and Blender?


[Speaking of Florida, the DailyKosmonaut's Tom Schaller recently asked, "The President is swinging through Florida. Wonder if he's gonna chastise his brother for mishandling of the felon voter list -- again. Democracy on the march, or in retreat?" The answers on this open thread are intriguing.]


Post election update:

We'll have to wait and see how Rolling Stone reacts to another four years with Bush in office -- will the rebellious age of rock reign again, or will tepid pop keep puttering along? Currently, things are not looking so good.

And how ironic is it that the only consistently good thing about a youth-oriented music magazine is the movie criticism written by an older fella (I don't know his exact age, but Peter Travers was a film critic for People magazine 20 years ago, so he's been around.)

Traver's movie reviews are easily the best part of Rolling Stone these days.... With every issue I find myself skipping to the back of the mag to read his coverage -- I never agree with him 100%, but he's a sharp writer with grand taste. On the other hand, the music reviews are spotty and RS is lacking critics with strong, individual voices (well, the editorial vision of the paper keeps them neutered, anyway), the music news and gossip is usually tepid, and the top-drawer investigative and cultural pieces are infrequent.

Every time Rolling Stone wants to seem legitimate again, they do a well-researched retrospective of rock or pop from 20, 30, 50 years ago. Then, a month or two later, they’re back to sticking an overly airbrushed Britney Spears or a flash-in-the-pan American Idol winner on their cover. It’s as if they’re saying we have to look into the past, or we have to gaze into the soul of the corporation. There is nothing in between.


Related article:

In "The Bad Boy On the Bus," Mother Jones interviews Matt Taibbi regarding his new book, writing for Rolling Stone, being the new Hunter S. Thompson, and the not-so-funny New York Press Pope story that got him and his boss unfairly canned.

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