It used to be my favorite magazine. It was the one I first subscribed to when I landed a real job after college.* It had rock-and roll stars on its covers, all the stuff that mattered to outlaw me—or the me who fell squarely into the demographic Rolling Stone targeted in the ’70s and ’80s: outlaws in their own imaginations who thought rock music mattered.
The thing is, rock-and-roll doesn’t matter—does it? Or at least not in the way RS editors and blurbmeisters would still have us believe it does. Take this capsule in the Table of Contents for September 29, 2011:
“Of the 54 records covered in this issue’s fall music preview, Feist’s breakup opus Metals—the first from Toronto singer Leslie Feist in four years—is the most emotionally raw.”
Maybe it really is raw. But it’s the way this claim is made that gets to me, the indication that RS editors have superior expertise. It’s that know-it-all, music-critic voice—the one I’m really sick of.
When I bought that recent issue at the checkout line (in Whole Foods, natch), I thought I’d dive into it right away. It had Jon Stewart on the cover. It blurbed the “Ten Things Obama Must Do.” It billed itself as the “special television issue,” with a cover headline about “How David Letterman Reinvented TV,” a sure sign I’m part of the generation RS targets.
But it also had The Voice. Oh, God, not that! Sometimes pandering, it’s cooler than thou, in charge. Here’s what it says about reviews of Fall TV shows: “Rolling Stone‘s TV critic watched every new series—so you don’t have to.”
Blurbs like that, the province of slick magazines, always sound hollow when you question the premise. Ironically, the Rolling Stone of old used to be all about questioning the premise. RS has made a recent return to its political-writing roots, with some great long features, but when it comes to music or pop culture, there’s The Voice again—so knowing, so emotionally distanced. God forbid that anyone at RS sounds like an awestruck fan or blogger.
So, instead of me diving into a print issue that I actually shelled out money for, it sat untouched on my night stand for a week. When I finally cracked it open, I enjoyed the Stewart interview—he’s funny and smart—but the “Fall Music Preview” mostly seemed to be clever PR briefs for the albums chosen.
Of Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, one writer tries to snark, “The album has a loose concept about art in troubled times, but who the hell is Mylo Xyloto?” Then the preview concludes with a puff quote from the drummer: “[I]t’s deliberately ambiguous. It forces you to use your imagination.”
To be fair, RS is nothing if not an opinion rag, and its starred reviews (as opposed to “previews”) sometimes uphold the tradition. In describing Nirvana’s Nevermind, in honor of the 20th anniversary “Deluxe Edition,” reviewer Jody Rosen gets off a few gems:
“Today, the album has become so encrusted with myth, that it’s hard to wrap your ears around it, to really hear it…. How you choose to mark the occasion will depend on the state of your stock portfolio, and the degree of your wonkiness.”
But Rolling Stone has also become a PR organ for at least one stratum of music and Hollywood celebritydom, chock-a-block with slick ads for the TV shows it’s also reviewing (just for example).
It’s here that The Voice—one that Jann Wenner and underground DJ-critic Ralph Gleason and writers like Hunter Thompson first crafted in the ’60s and ’70s, when it did sound subversive—seems really disingenuous and just plain bombastic.
In many ways, Rolling Stone pioneered the kind of interviews and profiles of rock stars that pay them serious attention. Thus was born music journalism, an odd mix of obsessive fan writing—which can be delightful when sprung from the peculiar mind of Lester Bangs or even Cameron Crowe. It’s not the “gonzo,” first-person, over-the-top prose I object to; that’s the stuff I always loved. It’s the more generic music-critic voice claiming musical “objectivity” that I’ve lost all patience with.
RS has long been criticized for its boomer music sensibility and cluelessness about race and gender. I was a feminist in the ’70s, and while that’s not why I read Rolling Stone, it’s ultimately why I got tired of it. That essentially male voice is so relentlessly sure it’s right, that it knows the best albums and the best songs of a decade—or a generation—but The Voice will never cop to being influenced by personal preference or (worse) industry hype.
From the vantage point of three decades gone by, I know that tastes in pop music change, listeners get older, we enter different life phases—and start receiving solicitations from AARP. But even in 1984, when I had that subscription to Rolling Stone and was reading the first installments of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, I felt my interest draining away.
It didn’t take long before I dropped that subscription. I was already sick of guys telling me what to do—or trying to change my internal soundtrack.
* I’m not counting the subscription to Time my dad bought me at eighteen, because he thought I was woefully uninformed about the world and would fall under the enchantment of fluffy pop hucksters—which of course I did.