Puff Pieces 

What's wrong with American music magazines -- and how to fix them.

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-blow-job 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-sixty-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 is 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 is 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 naive 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."


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