Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rolling Stone Tells Hipsters What's Hot, From A Very Narrow, Mainstream Point Of View.

The Good: Good photography, Generally well-written articles
The Bad: Surprisingly mainstream and, alternately, utterly obscure, Addy.
The Basics: What once might have been an audacious magazine, Rolling Stone is now so remarkably mainstream and advertisement-filled as to be worthless to music and entertainment enthusiasts.

Recently, I had a chance to reacquaint myself with an old friend. That friend was Rolling Stone, a magazine I read all throughout high school when I worked at a library and through college when I lived in one in my free time. Over the summer, as I took a break from my Census enumerating job, I spent some time at my current favorite library reading several new issues of Rolling Stone. The result was generally good, but surprisingly erratic for me. Rolling Stone has long been a weird mix of mainstream and completely alterative. Now, it seems like Rolling Stone is a mix of blandly conventional and "mainstream alternative." Allow me to explain.

First, Rolling Stone is a music and entertainment magazine which is published every two weeks and, since Postal regulation changes, comes in a conventional magazine size. The magazine used to be over-large, but now follows conventional magazine dimensions. Now, however, it is a glossy, full-color (save dramatic black and white shots presented as such for stylistic reasons) magazine which keeps music enthusiasts up-to-date on their favorite musical artists in a way that is so incredibly outdated that one wonders why they bother. With the World Wide Web and artists' websites, Rolling Stone might be tragically outdated and it exists now as a sales tool and a cultural icon more than a legitimate publication.

Rolling Stone is very addy. The current issue (when I originally wrote the review), which declares the Black Eyed Peas the number one reason to be excited about rock music again, has over a quarter of the magazine filled with advertisements, many of which are synergized with the articles. So, for example, on a page opposite an article talking about the Black Eyes Peas and their impending concerts is an advertisement from Bacardi for the concert tour for the Black Eyed Peas. The whole magazine reeks of faux-journalism which makes the magazine seem more like a sales tool than anything else.

This is especially disappointing in the musical selections Rolling Stone chooses to plug. Most of the musical artists promoted by the magazine are either current Top 10 artists on Billboard's charts or they are the most mainstream examples of "alternative" one can imagine. So, for example, after reading the current issue of Rolling Stone, I went looking for an album by the MGMT, which was heavily promoted in the magazine. I had never heard of them and their current album "Congratulations" was advertised at least twice in the current issue. I found the album at EVERY big box (Target, Wal-Mart), music and general entertainment (i.e. Best Buy) store in my area. It's not an obscure group; they are the latest project by Columbia Records that the record company is investing heavily in and is determined to make into a charttopping group. After discovering that and reading all of the praise heaped upon it by Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone just seems like a tool. Sure, their album might be great or good, but with the marketing blitz going on for it, the band doesn't need the exposure or to be classified as one of the top forty reasons to love rock again when there might be other groups or individuals who could use the exposure but don't have the media blitz behind them. In other words, the true alternatives are neglected by this magazine.

Each issue of Rolling Stone contains a cover story which focuses on a musical artist or important current event which the magazine is promoting. As well, there are regular columns on touring bands, past concerts, reviews of music and movies and political and music commentary. Rolling Stone also makes a passing attempt at keeping their readers informed about current events with articles on world news that the mainstream press might not thoroughly explore. No doubt, if their Hurricane Katrina coverage is any example, in the upcoming issues there will be articles on how the Country music stars are dealing with the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee. The magazine does election coverage for Presidential elections, but is generally mainstream and noncommittal in its politics as well.

The past concert reviews tend to be universally flattering and they never quite capture the realism of a concert experience, so the reader has to wonder why they bother. If you have tour dates and a c.d. from the musical artist featured in Rolling Stone's tour updates one pretty much has the concert review status (though, to be fair, the reviewers usually comment on weather for outdoor concerts.

As for the music reviews, it takes a lot for Rolling Stone to bother with publishing a negative review. In fact, the magazine reads like a promotional tool because their reviewers all seem to have a sunny-side disposition to each and every review they write. They seldom outright pan anything and give it real ink. Virtually every classic artist who releases a new work has their new album praised as the artist's second coming as opposed to realistically placing it within the pantheon of their larger works. I love Bob Dylan's music and while some of his latest albums have had some memorable tunes, none of them have a single like "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Similarly, none of the reviewers seem to care about replayability, so many droll dance-pop albums are praised for their production and engineering feats when after two listens virtually every listener comes to loathe the hooks and jingles.

This leaves Rolling Stone as a cultural institution. Rolling Stone once represented the voice of a disenfranchised generation and now it is simply a magazine for people who want to be told what is cool or different without having to think about it for themselves. Rolling Stone generally praises the latest blockbuster films and their reviews are often interspersed with interviews from participants which are mildly interesting. In that regard, Rolling Stone succeeds, largely because it has access that many individual reviewers do not have. But beyond that, the magazine could pretty much release a cover every two weeks and readers would get as much out of it.

That is because Rolling Stone still has good photography. The magazine gets audacious covers by creatively pairing artists with settings that are interesting or conceptually intriguing. Back in my day when Ice-T was being blacklisted for his "Cop Killer" song, Rolling Stone photographers put him on the cover in a police officer outfit. It was subversive and clever. Last year, they put Lady Gaga on the cover wearing only bubbles. It might not have the commentary, but it was a good photograph.

Sadly, that is where Rolling Stone leaves me. And as an educated person who can make up my own mind about things, I can do without the magazine.

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Readers Digest
Playboy Women Of Starbucks
Cuisine At Home


For other magazine reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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