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Music and the Media, Part 2: A Rolling Stone gathers no mass

On Monday, Rolling Stone debuted it’s online subscription model, as well as a much-needed website facelift.

Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late. In the years Rolling Stone wasted their web-space, with nothing to show but a handful of articles hosted on a domain, music blogs and sites have sped past the magazine (and many others) at the speed of… well, the Internet. In effect, the magazine’s staff was merely relying on it’s brand and content to get through the past decade.

Fine enough. Except, in terms of “content,” all things are relative.

So, in observing how modern music is spread to the masses, I’ll take a look at magazines. Specifically music magazines. More specifically, Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone is the grandaddy of (pop-rock) music magazines in the U.S., and has sought to cover all popular music since coming to fruition in the ’60s.

Yet, as the boomer generation has grown older, the content of Rolling Stone has changed dramatically. Funny thing is, the magazine’s original intent has not changed:

Rolling Stone magazine is a cultural icon. It’s the original–and it’s still the number one pop culture reference point for young adults.

Odd when you think about it, considering what RS is best known for now is not it’s music content, but it’s political coverage. And that audience focus point: Young adults. What exactly qualifies for a young adult these days? Is it the Rolling Stone median average age of 31.5-years-old?

I would consider myself a “young adult.” The last time I read Rolling Stone was the fall of 2008: I had a free year-long subscription to the magazine, and would casually flip through it, because, well, if I kept receiving it, I might as well get something out of it. Then something caught my eye: A review of the new Parts & Labor album, Receivers. It wasn’t that the review existed within the confines of RS, although that was remarkable: When everyone from NPR to just about every notable music blog and site wrote about the band, one would expect to find them mentioned somewhere, anywhere in the magazine.

No, what caught my eye was an egregious error: They attributed the vocals of a song (the only song they fit into the tiny review) to a band member who didn’t sing that particular song. I realize that little factoid may appear to be peanuts in the music-verse of the Kei$has and Black Eyed Peas that dominates the conversation at Rolling Stone, but for a music magazine of such prestige and pedigree to get something so wrong when there are plenty of ways to check for errors (press releases, band websites, blog coverage, YouTube videos, etc) just seems shameful.

So I put that copy of Rolling Stone down and have barely flipped through one since. It’s something I imagine many music listeners my age are doing and have been doing: With the omnipresence of the Internet and the development of so many expert-driven music blogs within scenes, why go for some shallow coverage of a band from a magazine I hardly respect.

Yet, Rolling Stone still has somewhat of a draw. Though their demographics information pinpoints a mass of readers in the ambiguous 18-49 age range, what’s interesting is that those older than 54, the Boomers, are left out of the key demographics information. Yet, with Jann Wenner still kicking it as editor and publisher of the magazine in his 60s, there is still some draw for the Boomer generation.

The Boomer draw comes in one of two forms.

The first is in the increased focus on politics that has appeared in Rolling Stone‘s pages during the past decade. Which isn’t to say that politics isn’t relevant to everyone, but with the Boomer generation sitting in some of the most important offices around the world, it hits a little closer to home than, say, what some kids are doing in a Baltimore loft.

The resurgence in RS political coverage has given the magazine something of an edge over its competitors. Whereas other music magazines simply cover music, RS covers the gamut of “culture.” And the political approach paid off, as The Guardian‘s Gaby Wood discovered in 2006:

No matter how liberal the magazine has been traditionally, it’s probable that the Bush administration has allowed Rolling Stone to take up a cultural position far more similar to that of its origins than it has had in decades. A few years ago, in an article for salon.com entitled ‘Rolling Stone Gathers No Marx’, former Rolling Stone editor David Weir bemoaned its failure to live up to its radical promise. Weir pointed out that politics began to fall by the wayside at the magazine early, as the Vietnam War came to a close. If that’s the case, then the war in Iraq may well have galvanised its comeback. Rolling Stone’s circulation is up to 1.5 million now; before the war, it was 250,000 less than that.

In an interview with the New York Times last December, Wenner, who was then about to turn 60, explained that covering culture was what kept the magazine young. ‘We have evolved and transitioned well with a lot of cultural changes ,’ he said.

The draw of politics – which leaned heavily on the memory of Vietnam – reinvigorated the magazine, which had been struggling through the ’90s. Following the grunge boom, the ’90s was a heady time for music, with one one-hit-wonder after the other being rolled out and a consistent number of Nirvana-knockoffs clouding the mainstream.

Which leads to the second Boomer draw: A continual focus on “the good ‘ole days” of sexdrugsandrockandroll. Or something.

Take a look at some of the Rolling Stone covers that packed newsstands the past few years. This isn’t quite “judging a book by it’s cover,” but by what it’s cover advertises: The magazine’s content. They’re trying to grab an audience, one that reflects the tastes of a young crowd hip to pop music references.

And I just can’t see that on many of the RS covers that were created the past few years.

Rolling Stone produces 24 issues a year.

In 2007, one-fourth of all RS covers featured artists and bands that released new music that year. There were more “Stone Specials,” cover stories concocted by the magazine’s editing staff to either celebrate the magazine’s history – such as the three cover stories commemorating the magazine’s 40th anniversary – or furthering some rock’n'roll trope (“The New Guitar Gods”) The rest of the breakdown is featured on the chart below:

The litany of complaints continues for that year, with four bands that were dead in the water getting a nice spot on the cover of Rolling Stone. Some of it is understandable: The Police reunion was newsworthy. Other covers featuring bands with zero new material, not so much: Pink Floyd? Guns N’ Roses?

The cover catastrophe continued through the end of the decade. While Obama was prominently featured on three covers in 2008, not one current African-American musician or band had the cover to themselves. There was a Stone Special “Best of Rock 2008″ cover that featured a collage of artists, including Chris Brown and Lil Wayne, and Aretha Franklin was one of three special covers for the “100 Greatest Singers” issue. Yet, that same year TV On The Radio and Lil Wayne went on to claim the top spots on many a music critics’ best-of-the-year lists.

Last year, U2 landed on the RS cover twice. The Beatles – a band broken up for several times longer than they stuck together – claimed another cover. Meanwhile, other music magazines, newspapers, TV stations and the Internet were all abuzz with indie fever. Everyone loved Animal Collective! Jay-Z repped Grizzly Bear! The New York Times and David Byrne loved Dirty Projectors! Even electronic weirdo Dan Deacon got some time with ABC News. As for Rolling Stone? A nice Taylor Lautner cover to cheer up your December.

Things don’t look much better this year. Take a look at the newest cover:

It’s about a year too late to make a Black Eyed Peas cover story seem relevant, so it always helps to spin it into a “here’s a peek at the best things in new music!” Although I’m not entirely sure Rolling Stone has the ear or eye for new music. Even so, what can one hope to find in the RS Black Eyed Peas article that’s any different from previous coverage. [As a brief aside, The Wall Street Journal really scooped RS on the BEP = future of music front, and did it with a style and perspective one would never find in RS.]

While there’s been a history of trying to find the names bubbling up in the underground, whatever coverage is included in the magazine just feels tacked on. Meanwhile, the magazine appears to be having an image war with itself: Is it better to cover Boomer-favored acts, or go for the glitzy pop to try and attract new customers.

This tussle-for-the-cover does nothing but foster a false image of today’s music scene. Although it’s impossible for a biweekly magazine to really grasp a sense of everything happening in the music scene today, it’s admirable that Rolling Stone continues to try. Unfortunately, with an unfocused editorial goal, a drive to keep old readers on board while attracting new ones in order to sustain some pretty high ad rates, and a lack of anything resembling the type of extensive coverage that drives the most popular music blogs, Rolling Stone is failing. Not only are they failing in their aims to publicize music as it exists today, but they’re failing to create a picture that’s actually reflective of the diverse, exciting and simply massive music scene as it exists today.

A list of Rolling Stone covers from 2007-2009 is available after the jump. A full gallery of RS covers is available at their website, that is, whenever their server decides to cooperate.

The following lists begin with the first issue published for that year and continue chronologically:

2009:

-George W. Bush

-Bruce Springsteen

-Sean Penn

-Taylor Swift

-U2

-”Gossip Girl”

-Lil Wayne

-Kings of Leon

-Bob Dylan

-Green Day

-Lady Gaga

-Adam Lambert

-Jonas Brothers

-Michael Jackson

-Obama

-The Beatles

-Stephen Colbert

-Megan Fox

-U2

-Madonna

-Shakira

-Bono/Mick Jagger/Bruce Springsteen: Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert

-Taylor Lautner

-“The Decade’s Best Songs & Albums”

2008:

-Johnny Depp

-Thom Yorke/Radiohead

-Britney Spears

-Jack Johnson

-Obama

-Chris Rock

-Mick Jagger + Keith Richards + Jack White

-The Best of Rock 2008

-The Hills

-The Eagles

-”100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”

-Chris Martin/Coldplay

-Obama

-The Jonas Brothers

-Robert Downey Jr.

-George W. Bush cartoon “How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party”

-”What’s So Funny: The New Golden Age of Comedy”

-Metallica

-McCain cartoon: “Make Believe Maverick”

-Obama

-AC/DC

-“100 Greatest Singers”: Aretha Franklin/Bob Dylan/John Lennon/Elvis

-Britney Spears

-Brad Pitt

2007:

-“Yearbook ‘06”

-James Brown

-Panic! at the Disco

-“The New Guitar Gods”: John Mayer, John Frusciante, Derek Trucks

-Fall Out Boy

-”South Park”

-Pink Floyd

-”Grindhouse”

-“Fortieth Anniversary”

-Keith Richards + Johnny Depp

-Amy Winehouse

-The Police

-“Fortieth Anniversary: Summer of Love”

-Guns N’ Roses

-Zac Efron

-Maroon 5

-50 Cent v. Kanye West

-Hunter S. Thompson

-Kid Rock

-Bruce Springsteen

-“Fortieth Anniversary”

-Jay-Z

-Led Zeppelin

-“Yearbook ‘07”

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17 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. gutterdandy #
    1

    I don’t quite get some of your logic: the Police reunion was newsworthy, but Pink Floyd’s wasn’t? You really rate the Police higher than Pink Floyd in terms of artistic importance? Huh? I have enjoyed their focus on some elder statesmen of rock recently: their Merle Haggard and Lemmy pieces were very well done, and the kind of thing no one else is doing right now. On the other hand, they embarrass themselves by doing things like giving a coveted FIVE-STAR rating to U2′s last album, which was mediocre at best. So it’s a mixed bag. Really, it’s Matt Taibbi’s political writings that keep me reading the magazine: they had better pay him whatever he wants, because he’s keeping them relevant.

  2. Leor Galil #
    2

    I can understand your confusion: The way I wrote that section would make one assume Pink Floyd had reunited. They didn’t, and I’ve fixed that sentence to reflect my confusion as to why they were on the cover. The Police reuniting is newsworthy: Pink Floyd simply existing and their history – while interesting to some – is not. Same with the Guns N’ Roses “let’s remember that great album they did decades ago” just doesn’t cut it for me.

    Their coverage of the elder statesman of rock – good or not – is just what’s bringing them down. They’re supposed to cover what’s happening in pop culture today, not constantly herald the elder statesmen of rock. There are plenty of magazines that do that very thing, but it’s in their nature. The consistent recycling of cover images with, say, the members of the Rolling Stones on the cover makes anything seem stale.

    And ditto on the U2 five-star rating. That’s pandering to a nutshell: Is that album destined to be on of U2′s best or the “best of all time?” Doubtful. Even many fans weren’t head-over-heels in love with that record.

    I remember the last “best of” list of theirs I actually read: In 2006, they listed Bob Dylan No. 1 (which, granted got massive critical acclaim), Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 2 (really?), and at No. 4, they spent the entire space dedicated to TV On The Radio talking about David Bowie’s miniscule appearance on “Return to Cookie Mountain.” Talk about pandering!

  3. larryb33c #
    3

    My husband got a free subscription to RS with a Salon membership. He decided to continue to subscribe due to the political coverage and general interest type articles. We certainly don’t get it for the music articles. Frankly, I don’t like to read about actors or musicians anyway. It is really boring to hear them talk about their work, er, “craft”. In the rare case when I do, it has to be someone I really care about–and then I find myself somewhat disillusioned (I’m thinking of the Merle Haggard interview).
    Oh– that WSJ article last week about “the new face of corporate rock” (or however they described it). The take away point– Will.I.Am is incredibly vacuous and lacking in self awareness. Otherwise, he would be feeling deep shame reading his quotes. Right?

  4. gutterdandy #
    4

    OK, I thought you were talking about the brief Floyd Live 8 reunion there. No doubt RS is trying to be a bit MOJO, a bit Pitchfork, etc. etc. They want to be all things to all people, and that will never work entirely. I agree that I don’t need to read another cover story about the Stones, Springsteen, U2, etc. The Merle Haggard and Lemmy pieces worked for me because they are not really mainstream figures anymore, they are getting old and it’s interesting (for me, anyway) to see that they still live their lives less conservatively than a lot of younger bands seem to do. I’d rather read an in-depth profile of David Allan Coe than yet another one on Eric Clapton, let’s put it that way. As I said, I totally agree on the 5-star U2 rating: it looked to me like someone greased Jann Wenner’s palm for that one. I think RS are banking on Taibbi as being their new Hunter Thompson, and he’s certainly got the background: ran a crazy newspaper in Moscow while hooked on smack, returns to America to become Goldman-Sachs’ biggest nightmare. If they lost Taibbi, I would cancel my subscription pronto.

  5. larryb33c #
    5

    Oh yeah– Lemmy. That one was actually interesting. Well, it IS Lemmy.
    But you’re right– waaaay too much about the Stones, Eric Clapton, U2 (big yawn), Springsteen, etc. Really, don’t they get it? They never have to write about these artists again. Never.

  6. savio #
    6

    “Rolling Stone is the grandaddy of music magazines in the U.S….”

    That’s news to Etude, Billboard, Metronome, The Diapason, The Musician, etc.

    Rolling Stone’s main contribution to pop culture is the white savior myth that Elvis, against all available musicological evidence, invented rock and roll. They made this absurd stance official in 2004, you might recall, when they celebrated rock and roll’s 50th anniversary, giving Elvis at Sun as the starting point. Now, one expects a certain gap between actual musicology and journalism, but RS takes things a bit too far, imo.

    Don’t be surprised that RS has strayed from covering music, since they barely did that in the first place. I’ve yet to read a vintage RS music review and come away convinced that I’ve read anything related to music criticism. Covering music as a sociological phenomenon is not covering it as music, and never will be.

  7. Leor Galil #
    7

    I see where you’re coming from about actor and musician interviews. But, it doesn’t have to be all ego-feeding. Which is what I love about that WSJ article and many a music-related article one can find in newspapers and non-entertainment related magazines: It takes a different angle, it addresses the artists in a new light, it shows depth. While many music magazines strive to achieve such depth, it’s unfortunate to think that RS has sunk to a level where a subscribing reader such as yourself passes on the very focus of the magazine.

  8. Leor Galil #
    8

    By “grandaddy,” not only did I mean a magazine that’s been around a while, but one that’s still on the block, unlike a majority of the magazines you’ve listed. And I’ve edited it to serve your complaint to point out that it’s pop-related, again still the old one around. (And Billboard has always been a trade-focused music magazine to begin with.) The main point of that statement was to say they are seen as the “big guy” on the block in terms of pop music magazines. And yes, I’m aware NME has also been around for a long time, and I had originally written that into the piece, but really, it took away from the main focus of the piece.

    And if you think covering music from a sociological phenomenon is not covering music, I hate to be the one to have to tell you you’re the odd one out. As with our last back-and-forth, any informed-critique of music – not simply through its compositions – is a valid way to write about music. For many music magazines, those different angles and critiques of music define their voice. And it is still considered covering music. Perhaps not by your standards – and yes, everyone’s entitled to their opinion – but it seems that not much measures up to your standards.

  9. larryb33c #
    9

    Well, that’s the thing. It is not because it is ego feeding, it is just that, well, listening to people talking about creating music is not very interesting to me. So, it is not so strange that I pass on the music articles. It speaks more of me than Rolling Stone that I do so. I guess if they had an Exene Cervenka interview…
    Still, for the most part the articles about musicians that I like to read are ones that appeal to more prurient interests– think stuff about the excesses of Led Zeppelin (and no, not talking about the excesses of their lyrics).

  10. savio #
    10

    “Odd one out” doesn’t mean wrong if the status quo is corrupt. I realize that reducing music to a cultural phenomenon, and to heck with art and chords and notes, is the norm. But norms are often wrong. Popular music seems singled out in this respect, as I can’t think of another popular art form which isn’t considered, at least in part, as art. Re “pop-related,” so was Etude, to a significant extent (middle-brow, more so) and Variety and Metronome and Downbeat were hugely so. So were Song Hits, Hit Parader, all the other pop song mags of the pre-Boomer past.

    “Not simply through its compositions” is a little misleading since modern pop music journalism never considers aspects of composition as such–I doubt Greil Marcus knows a IV chord from a tonic triad. Or even what AABA form actually comes down to in terms of measures, cadences, and so on. So you’re referring to a nonexistent practice. If considering the structural aspects of music were a simple task, more people would be able to do it, I’d think.

    Re your definition of “granddaddy,” try using that label to describe a motion picture from the Sixties. Or a mystery novel from the 1930s. I guarantee you it wouldn’t go unchallenged.

  11. Leor Galil #
    11

    You’re right that status quos should be challenged. But you pretty much answered your own complaints with this:

    “If considering the structural aspects of music were a simple task, more people would be able to do it, I’d think.”

    But, as you surmise, they don’t.

    The purpose of journalism – music or otherwise – is to explain what is happening in our world to a mass/broad audience. So how would writing about a tonic triad help explain that to someone who doesn’t understand sheet music?

    I hate to flog a dead horse, but the kind of music journalism you seek would never work. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have it’s place, and with the blogosphere, that element is certainly attainable. But in terms of music journalism, it would do more harm than good. As I said before, you don’t have to go through years of schooling to pick up an instrument and give it a whirl, so why bar people with an insatiable taste for music and writing from music journalism? All the “reasons” I see are purely elitist.

    And yes, I’m aware that those magazines covered pop. I’m also aware they’re no longer around. I’m sorry if my definition of “grandaddy” isn’t up to par with your standards, but it doesn’t seem like anything is anyway.

  12. Leor Galil #
    12

    Speaking of five-star U2 rating and pandering, here’s a story of one critic who tried to challenge Rolling Stone’s loyalties, only to eventually be fired:

    http://www.furious.com/perfect/hootie.html

  13. savio #
    13

    Sorry to come across as that fussy!

  14. Leor Galil #
    14

    No worries as coming across as being “fussy.” Like I’ve reiterated time and time again, I appreciate reader feedback: It allows me to re-asses my points, re-bolster my arguments and really see whether I’m “right” or “wrong” about something. So thank you for reading and commenting!

  15. petergower #
    15

    Taibbi is the only reason I even touch an RS website, let alone a magazine. He is a far more intelligent, angrier and self-aware writer than Wolfe or Hunter. Sure the latter two had their moments but not as powerfully challenging as the swarthiest man on TV – Matt ‘get a haircut’ Taibbi.

    Further, music as a culture barometer is dead.

  16. Leor Galil #
    16

    Riiiiigghttt… Except that music is a form of culture in and of itself. It may no longer be a breeding ground for icons of mass culture, but not much is these days.

  17. petergower #
    17

    Yes, that’s what I meant, thank you for correcting me.


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