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:
-George W. Bush
-Kings of Leon
-Bono/Mick Jagger/Bruce Springsteen: Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert
-“The Decade’s Best Songs & Albums”
-Mick Jagger + Keith Richards + Jack White
-The Best of Rock 2008
-”100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”
-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”
-McCain cartoon: “Make Believe Maverick”
-“100 Greatest Singers”: Aretha Franklin/Bob Dylan/John Lennon/Elvis
-Panic! at the Disco
-“The New Guitar Gods”: John Mayer, John Frusciante, Derek Trucks
-Fall Out Boy
-Keith Richards + Johnny Depp
-“Fortieth Anniversary: Summer of Love”
-Guns N’ Roses
-50 Cent v. Kanye West
-Hunter S. Thompson