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Mag Hags

What's wrong with the state of music journalism -- and how to fix it


"American music magazines suck."

Rolls off the tongue, don't it? These days it's rolling off everyone's. 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 outrageously vapid rock-star puff pieces, the gutless corporate-blowjob CD reviews. No innovation. No passion. No balls. No brains. No heart.

No shit. Is this obvious? Is this fair? Is this mindless whining? Has it really gotten this bad?

If you honestly think so, you've only yourself to blame.

Revolver magazine launched in May 2000, declaring nothing short of a music-mag revolution. It promised intelligence, humor, depth, insight 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 out with epic biographical overtures on Big Star and the Pixies. It promised to innovate and succeed where old, rusting warhorses (Rolling Stone, Spin) were failing. It guaranteed no dunderheaded starlets on the cover, no fear or mercy in its criticism. Enough depth and archival intelligence to snag diehard rock obsessives, enough pop savvy to finger the pulse of mainstream sheep, enough flash to reel in the casually interested. The best writers. The freshest angles. The wittiest puns. Something for everybody, and everything for anybody. As the cover proclaimed, it was the "The World's Most Wanted Magazine."

This concept lasted five issues.

Two-and-a-half years later, Revolver has evolved into "The World's Loudest Rock Magazine," focusing exclusively on hard rock and nü-metal. For the January/February issue, the worthless, gone-in-60-seconds Slipknot-biting clowns in Mudvayne graced the cover. Porn-star bimbo models writhed on motorcycles or covered an exposed breast with one hand and fingered a Fender jazz bass with the other as part of the "XXX-Mas!" holiday gift guide. And the editor's note featured a photo of the editor-in-chief posing with two additional porn-star bimbo models (one naked, dignified only by a strategically placed Christmas wreath) 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. You get the government you deserve. Music journalism follows the same logic.

Do American music magazines suck? Not exactly: That's generalized, sensationalized, oversimplified, cynical, bitchy and mean-spirited. But so's 90 percent of music journalism. And now that there are more music-mag options out there than ever, and now that the mother of them all, Rolling Stone, has a new editor in chief, a new design, a new attitude and a new unofficial slogan ("Run for your lives!"), the time has come to take stock of the rock rag. What's good? What's bad? What's ugly? And 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, the first "I" of her first name very nearly penetrating her, a guitar she has no idea how to play draped across her bare torso and barely covering her left nipple, an amateurish come-hither glance flashing across her face --represents everything wrong with modern American society not related to terrorism.

Music snobs have beaten Rolling Stone like a gong for years. The mag's 35 years old now and brutally denounced as a culturally irrelevant, out-of-touch dinosaur act reminiscent of the band that shares its name -- except that the Stones still sell out arenas and the Stone still represents the industry gold standard, which explains the resonant terror generated by the Aguilera cover story, in which a coquettish 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 Hendrix and Hunter S. Thompson and fearless cultural leadership should shut up, go home and pop in Almost Famous, if it's bright-eyed revisionist nostalgia they're after. It's naïve to hold the mag to a standard that doesn't attract readers or make money anymore. Change was overdue. But when Ed Needham -- a former helmsman for the laddish, loutish men's mag FHM -- signed on as Rolling Stone's new managing editor and de facto creative overlord, the old-timers groaned. Needham talked about shortening the articles. Punching up the 'tude. Jazzing up the graphics. Dialing up a ton of quick-hit sidebars and blurbs and other "points of entry." And ensuring that no one utters the accursed phrase "your father's music magazine."

Ed has succeeded. Rolling Stone is now your eight-year-old brother's music magazine.

Needham's reign kicked into high gear with the September 19 issue, and in some ways it promised business as usual. Lo, it's super-cute more-Cutting-Crew-than-cutting-edge rockers the Vines on the cover, blessed with the headline "ROCK IS BACK!" Good gravy. Within, we got a taste of what the phrase "points of entry" actually means: Every page veritably bursts with headlines and paparazzi photos and graphics and charts and yelping pull quotes and doofy little cartoons and the disembodied floating heads of your favorite rock stars.

Delightful, maybe, but not revolutionary. Nonexistent reader attention spans have forced every major magazine outside of The Economist to embrace this Las Vegas-style visual excess, and the Tiger Beat treatment can only aid the Stone in shaking its rockin'-grandma image. Nonhysterical readers also welcomed Needham's enlargement of the reviews section --101 discs went under the knife (albeit a dull butter knife) within the Vines issue. A no-brainer: Any mag pursuing "official arbiter of taste" status should arbit its taste on everything.

Of course, that didn't fix one of Rolling Stone's most 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 and kind words designed to soothe publicists just in case LeAnn Rimes' new record turns out to be a hit and a salivating/dunderheaded fashion spread is called for.

Equally disturbing is the "Ooh, Mick, please let us do your laundry" factor -- certain "heritage" artists are more likely to spontaneously combust than endure a discouraging word from Rolling Stone. Thus Bruce Springsteen gets a fawning cover and a once-rare 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.

We hope Mick liked your review, Jann. Until you stop caring about his opinion, it's hard to care about yours.

Therefore you can count on Keith Richards' prune-face countenance gracing Rolling Stone's cover from time to time, just as you can count on the utter catastrophe that will befall our nation's collective libido as a result. The flip side to that equation is even more inevitable. The magazine delights in hunting down our society's most attractive and winsome young starlets (Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Love Hewitt) and slapping them on the cover in garish makeup seemingly applied by a drive-thru car wash.

Sex sells, and Rolling Stone will always sell it. But the mag has never looked sexy doing it. And loading another goddamn "Women in Rock" issue with rockin' tight-pants cheesecake shots of Britney Spears and Shakira will only result in high-pitched hoots of derision and Joan Jett's foot up your ass.

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 instantly 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 physical/mental/sexual anguish, the details of which you specify ahead of time. Published responses ranged from amused ("... likely marks the first time the phrase 'big black dildo' has appeared on that page twice") to enraged ("one of the stupidest, most worthless pieces of journalism you'll ever read in a national magazine").

Rolling Stone will always roll starlets through the hoochie-makeup car wash and mindlessly chase musical trends (the Vines indeed) and slap George W. around mercilessly with its consistently biased political coverage. But it's this sort of big-black-dildo-waving prurience that critics fear will characterize the Needham era. But what's truly telling about the infamous kidnapping story is the magazine it really should've appeared in.

The Sneering Contender: "Bound, Gagged and Loving It" undeniably felt like a Maxim piece. Financially, that's a compliment. Maxim is without question the industry success story of the past ten years, a men's-magazine empire that shoots from the hip and aims at the boobs. 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, wise-ass jokes, what-the-hell-is-that-about features and more celebrity babes in bikinis) on the pages within. Testosterone personified. Crass and base as it is, a true master stroke that's cleared the way for a virtually identical spin-off title (Stuff) and -- yes, indeed -- a music mag. Blender's the name, and it's the hottest competition in town.

Two things become immediately apparent when one cracks open Blender. First, it closely resembles, both in design and attitude, the two British mags that most true music snobs now turn to when they get sick of Rolling Stone: Q and Mojo. Second, a mere twelve issues into the game, Blender has had a similar influence on its own 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? The general feeling that this whole magazine was written and produced during an all-night frat party? If Blender stole its game from Q and Mojo, the regal RoSpin guard is now liberally stealing from it.

It's a wee bit disconcerting. Sure, November's Blender cover story really consists of a salivating/dunderheaded LeAnn Rimes fashion spread. But the "disastrous albums" thing is pretty great, and these clowns are actually 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 no apparent 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, creatively and respectably as any of its "professional" competition.

The Maxim/Blender empire allegedly consists of drooling, boob-obsessed, knuckle-dragging jock idiots. Now they've got the big boys running scared. What the hell is going on here?

The Nerds: Perhaps the old guard has gotten too intellectual for its own good. Here's what Spin has to say about the new DMX tune "Fuck Y'All Niggaz": "The fact that we're not playing this every hour on the hour is disturbing. Should be a total no-brainer, except that it's a total no-brainer (not in a good way)."

There's a certain primal delight in writing shit that even you can't understand. Spin occasionally revels in it, with CD reviews that read like philosophical dissertations and features that strive for deep cultural significance ("When the tapestry of alienation becomes the status quo, disaffection merely becomes fashion"). But if you've got the time and inclination to decipher statements such as those, they do cut deeper than Jennifer Love Hewitt whack-off interviews.

Spin does plenty of pandering, listing the 50 greatest metal albums of all time and so forth. (Rolling Stone has recently discovered this "piss off your readers on purpose" trick.) 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 the word "schlong" to appear in Magnet anytime soon, either. For the elitist indie-rock record-store clerk in all of us, nothing beats the thrill of reading, "It sounds like Elkas grew up listening to April Wine and graduated to Sloan, while Gunning was force-fed a steady diet of the mysterious studio group Klaatu (purported to be the Beatles undercover) before finding his way to the likes of Zumpano and the New Pornos," and understanding, oh, 40 percent of it.

Magnet is designed to make you feel dumb. Clueless. Inferior to your fellow Yo La Tengo-loving man. It specializes these days 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, and it's funnier than nerd-bashers give it credit for. 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 ever panned out, but its rebirth as a party-hearty metal mag suits it just fine. Lord knows the heshers deserve it, and nonheadbangers can flip open an issue, smirk at all the "No, really, I'm totally badass" poses and maybe even learn something -- you feel better as a person when you know that "suicide metal" is an actual genre. Alternative Press (to which the author contributes freelance CD reviews) also emulates Revolver's hard-rock fetish and adds Magnet's exhaustive lust for punk and indie-rock trivia superiority.

Hip-hop heads have a far more elaborate network: Vibe, The Source and XXL serve as rap journalism's Huey, Dewey and Louie -- cute, noisy and essentially interchangeable. Everyone lands the big-deal features with the LL Cool Js and Toni Braxtons and Jay-Zs of the world, but no one really 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, nobody gives a fuck. (Furthermore, everyone's still riding the Neptunes' nuts like they're the teacups at Disney World.)

Hence, the fun you have is directly proportional to how much rope the interview subject gets. Fat Joe: "My whole life I've called women bitches and hoes. This album, I'll probably still call them bitches and hoes, but I've got some songs defending women who aren't bitches and hoes. That's a first for me."

All three rap mags dish up breezy, stylish reads, but just like their general-interest brethren, pure 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 nearly devoid of fresh angles. The formula's depressingly clear: Rehash the Times articles. Deliver the rebuttals and denials from B.I.G.'s camp. Speculate as to the potential strife and 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 in a true screwball -- an independently researched timeline that checks Philips' facts, essentially asking whether Tupac's killers could've mobilized and executed the murder according to the chronology the Times stories established, what with traffic and other contingencies. No, concludes Vibe. Now there's a strong, definitive, independent statement. Unfortunately, it's a rare one.

Further down the niche chain, Urb is 100 issues old now, a hip-hop/dance-music scion pumping through the same nothing-embarrassing-nothing-special vein, though constant anti-rave legislation gives it an easy way to mobilize politically. And CMJ New Music Monthly wisely includes a CD to combat the "what the hell are you talking about?" factor, but otherwise it covers indie rock with an attitude more reactionary than critical -- it's a tip sheet for college-radio programmers who want hot names but not strong opinions. The mag's "Recommended If You Like" review format is oft copied, but even the negative reviews simply teach rather than preach.

The Lemmings: The biggest problem is that everyone's following and copying and emulating 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 -- everyone writes them adequately, but no one writes them well. Newspaper obituaries require more creative thought. Primarily reviews are 100-word blurb jobs: Name the band, toss in a few influences, spotlight a few tracks, launch a few pun-loaded torpedoes if it sucks, wrap it up, collect $25. Read (or write) enough and you'll read right through 'em, until they're practically invisible or might as well be.

Everyone pisses; everyone moans; everyone complains. 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. Innovate. Dig. Write coherently but critically. And have a fucking opinion. Fed-up readers sure do, and for now, the reviews truly read like obituaries.

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