American music magazines suck.
Rolls off the tongue, don't it? Saunter down the length of a magazine rack and scowl at the teen-pop hoochie starlets, the drooling trend-pigism ("The Strokes! The Hives! The White Stripes!"), the vapid rock-star puff pieces, the gutless corporate-hummer reviews. No balls. No brains. No heart.
No shit. Has it really gotten this bad?
Revolver magazine launched in May 2000. It promised intelligence, depth and a sense of history, typified by its first cover subject: Jim Morrison. It kowtowed to the sounds of now (second cover: Fred Durst) but balanced that with biographical overtures on Big Star and other relics. It guaranteed no dunderheaded starlets on the cover, no mercy in its criticism. Enough intelligence to snag rock obsessives. Something for everybody. It was "The World's Most Wanted Magazine."
The concept lasted five issues.
Two and a half years later, Revolver has evolved into "The World's Loudest Rock Magazine." For the January/February issue, the gone-in-60-seconds Slipknot-biting clowns in Mudvayne graced the cover. Porn-star bimbo models writhed on motorcycles. And the editor's note featured a photo of the editor-in-chief posing with two additional porn-star bimbo models grabbing for his crotch.
The original Revolver concept didn't sell well enough. This one does. And you know what? It stacks up just fine against the competition.
And now that there are more music-mag options than ever, the time has come to take stock of the rock rag. What the fuck happened?
The Godfather: The November 14 issue of Rolling Stone -- featuring a mostly naked Christina Aguilera, clad only in knee socks and supine across a red silk sheet, a come-hither glance flashing across her face -- represents everything wrong with American society not related to terrorism.
Music snobs have torched Rolling Stone for years. The mag is 35 years old now and denounced as an irrelevant dinosaur act, like the band that shares its name -- except that the Stones still sell out arenas. That may explain the horror generated by the Aguilera cover story, in which a teen idol raves about the piercing between her legs and says a bunch of really dumb shit ("I don't like pretty. Fuck the pretty").
Old-timers still whining that RS has passed its glory days of Woodstock and Hunter S. Thompson should shut up. It's naive to hold the mag to a standard that doesn't make money anymore. But when Ed Needham -- a former helmsman for the laddish men's mag FHM -- became Rolling Stone's new managing editor, the old-timers groaned. Needham talked about shortening the articles, punching up the 'tude, jazzing up the graphics and ensuring no one utters the phrase "your father's music magazine."
Ed has succeeded. RS is now your 8-year-old brother's music magazine. Needham's reign launched with the September 19 issue. Lo, it has more-Cutting Crew-than-cutting-edge rockers the Vines on the cover, blessed with the headline "ROCK IS BACK!" Within, we got a taste of what the phrase "points of entry" actually means: Every page bursts with headlines and paparazzi photos and graphics and yelping pullquotes and the disembodied floating heads of rock stars. Delightful, but not revolutionary.
Nonhysterical readers also welcomed Needham's enlargement of the reviews section -- 101 discs went under the knife. Of course, that didn't fix one of Rolling Stone's glaring weaknesses: biteless reviews. Critically, the mag's exhaustive but no more opinionated; even a negative two-star write-up spills beer all over itself issuing qualifiers and caveats. Even worse, certain "heritage" artists are more likely to spontaneously combust than endure a discouraging word from Rolling Stone. Bruce Springsteen gets a fawning cover and a five-star "classic" rating for The Rising, a feat of glad-handing that unfortunately pales in comparison to the five-star slobber treatment RS publisher Jann Wenner himself foisted on Mick Jagger's truly awful solo bomb Goddess in the Doorway last year. The flip side to that equation is even more inevitable. The magazine delights in hunting down our society's most attractive young starlets (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Love Hewitt) and slapping them on the cover in garish makeup applied by a drive-through car wash.
But we're used to all that. Instead, media critics intent on savaging Needham's maiden RS voyage savaged the "good ol' boy with a giant boner" strain that infected the mag's writing. Public enemy number one was a story from the Vines issue described on the cover as "Bound, Gagged and Loving It," in which a writer engaged the services of a yuppie business that literally "kidnaps" you and subjects you to all sorts of anguish, the details of which you specify ahead of time. Published responses ranged from amused to enraged.
The Sneering Contender: "Bound, Gagged and Loving It" felt like a Maxim piece. Financially, that's a compliment. Maxim is the industry success story of the past decade. It's the official magazine for dudes, which means celebrity babes in bikinis on the cover and all manner of guy stuff (sports, beer, gadgets, wiseass jokes, more babes in bikinis) on the pages within. Crass as it is, it's a true master stroke that's cleared the way for a virtually identical spin-off (Stuff) and -- yes -- a music mag. Blender's the name, and it's the hottest competition in town.
Blender closely 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 XXL are 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.
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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.