Rock Crock

One man travels through the best of what American music magazines offer -- and needs a shower

Blenderclosely resembles the two British mags that most music snobs now turn to when they get sick of Rolling Stone: Q and Mojo. A mere 12 issues into the game, Blender also has had a similar influence on its American competition. Shorter articles? Smarmy captions? Flashy, almost childlike graphics? Gimmicky features? (Blender recently surveyed "The Most Disastrous Albums of All Time," declaring Mariah Carey's Glitter the winner.) Exhaustive review sections? If Blender stole its game from Q and Mojo, the regal RoSpin guard is now liberally stealing from it.

It's a bit disconcerting. The "disastrous albums" thing is pretty great, and these clowns are serious when they present "33 Things You Should Know About Tori Amos." Factor in the mother of all review sections (240 discs reviewed, including, for some reason, every solo CD John Lennon ever made), and Blender proves it can slap a topless LeAnn Rimes on the cover and still behave as intelligently as any of its "professional" competition.

The Nerds: There's a certain delight in writing shit that even you can't understand. Spin occasionally revels in it ("When the tapestry of alienation becomes the status quo, disaffection merely becomes fashion"). But if you've got the time and inclination to decipher those statements, they do cut deeper than Jennifer Love Hewitt whack-offs.

Spin panders aplenty, listing the 50 greatest metal albums of all time and so forth. And the mag illustrates the let's-all-pass-around-the-same-editorial-ideas concept: Everyone's tried the "advice column hosted by a smart-ass rock star" thing, and everyone's asked the Eddie Vedders of the world to list their favorite albums and prattle on about 'em. But at least Eddie doesn't prattle on about getting his schlong pierced.

Don't look for "schlong" to appear in Magnet anytime soon, either. Magnet makes you feel dumb. Inferior to your fellow Yo La Tengo-loving man. It specializes in exhaustive retrospectives on whole genres -- power pop, shoegaze -- that allow the editors to drop obscure band after obscure band on your feeble ass. The Summer Suns! (Bam!) DMZ! (Thwack!) But it's probably the most prominent American mag not obligated to report on Justin Timberlake. First question to Aimee Mann: "You used to record for Epic. As a black man, were you frustrated with how the devils there treated you?"

The Niche Artists: Lord only knows whether Revolver's original aspirations to greatness would've panned out, but its rebirth as a party-hearty metal mag suits it just fine. Lord knows the heshers deserve it, and non-headbangers can smirk at all the "No, really, I'm totally badass" poses and maybe even learn something -- you feel better when you know that "suicide metal" is an actual genre.

Hip-hop heads have a far more elaborate network: Vibe, The Source and XXLare rap journalism's Huey, Dewey and Louie -- cute, noisy and interchangeable. Everyone lands the big-deal features with the LL Cool Js and Toni Braxtons of the world, but no one gets much out of 'em. Plow through the interviews in all three mags in quick succession, and it leaves you a bit numb: Everyone's street, nobody's takin' bullshit from anybody, everyone's got something to prove.

All three rap mags dish up breezy, stylish reads, but just like their general-interest brethren, innovation is in short supply. Take the white-hot "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" controversy -- every mag on Earth runs a reaction to Chuck Philips' September Los Angeles Times stories linking the Notorious B.I.G. to Tupac's murder, but it's a cover-your-ass affair. The formula's depressingly clear: Rehash the Times articles. Deliver the denials from B.I.G.'s camp. Speculate as to the potential violence it could exact on the hip-hop community. And end with Philips' ubiquitous "I stand by my story."

Of every publication that trots this pony out, only Vibe throws a screwball -- an independently researched timeline that checks Philips' facts, asking whether Tupac's killers could've executed the murder according to the chronology the Times stories established. No, concludes Vibe. Now there's a strong, independent statement. Unfortunately, it's a rare one.

The Lemmings: The biggest problem is that everyone's copying and vying for the same advertisers and demographic hot buttons, but no one's trailblazing. CD reviews are virtually indistinguishable from one mag to another. Newspaper obituaries require more creative thought.

How can American music mags bitch-slap their readers back into line? Stop sounding like publicists. Ditch the "celebrity rockers and the cars" brand-name-a-thons. Call windbag interview subjects on their bullshit. Piss people off. Write coherently but critically. And have a fucking opinion, for shit's sake.

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