For the first time in about twenty-five years I purchased a copy of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, attracted by the cover photo promoting an interview with Bob Dylan, one of my favorite artists.
After reading the Dylan piece, and perusing some of the other articles, I was reminded of why I stopped buying the publication in my twenties and how utterly irrelevant Jann Wenner's dream-child has become.
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I looked forward to every new issue of Rolling Stone -- I loved the glossy cover photos of rock stars (both contemporary and faces from the past) and devoured the album reviews, interviews and other features. I also took a vicarious thrill in reading about the decadent, luxurious, self-destructive lifestyles of rock-and-roll musicians.
But what I did not realize back then was that Rolling Stone was already beginning its long, slow death-crawl -- the 'rock-and-roll-paper of record' had almost become obsolete.
Some background: Rolling Stone commenced operations in 1967 during the "Summer of Love," a few months after the release of the Beatles' groundbreaking "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" record.
For the next 10 to fifteen years, Rolling Stone remained the gold standard for American rock journalism and attracted a large audience.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rolling Stone's targeted audience was clearly delineated – white, middle-class college-educated (or college-attending) men and women who loved rock-and-roll, hated Richard Nixon, opposed the Vietnam War, smoked marijuana, endorsed sexual liberation, supported civil and gay rights legislation, defended abortion, embraced environmentalism and espoused various other left-wing, "liberal" viewpoints. (The poor and working classes had little time or desire to follow the lives of self-indulgent, millionaire rock stars).
Thus, Rolling Stone had a huge, ready-made market for its product, and its circulation climbed.
By the time my generation came of age in the early 1980s, rock music, sex and drugs were more popular than ever, but the political landscape had drastically changed.
A man named Ronald Regan -- a conservative, 69-year-old former actor and governor of California -- became president of the United States. Reagan was massively popular, even among the youth (particularly among the young). Reagan's election seemed to mark a turning point in U.S. history -- as well as a rejection of the liberality that had dominated American public life since the mid-1960s.
Rolling Stone (and other media on both sides of the Atlantic) sought to demonize Reagan, but it didn't work.
Unlike Nixon, Reagan possessed enormous charm and charisma, appealing to a broad constituency. Indeed, many Democrats (including millions of rock fans) voted for him. So, any attacks on Reagan seemed to many mean-spirited, cruel, needless and perhaps counter-productive. Their broadsides against Reagan seemed to backfire, and he easily won re-election in 1984. (Even Neil Young endorsed Regan and conservative values for a brief time).
In Britain, Reagan's ideological peer, Margaret Thatcher, who gained power in 1979, was another matter entirely. She WAS easy to demonize -- however, she was rather a non-entity in the U.S.
In any case, by this point, the Vietnam War was long over, civil rights became the law of the land, abortion had been legalized and the country endured a wave of energy crises, rising unemployment, high inflation, and the indignity of witnessing the hostage-taking of Americans in a Middle Eastern country most had never even heard of before.
The days of peace, love and brotherhood vanished and cold, heard reality set in.
Consequently, Rolling Stone had lost its bearings -- it's very "raison d’être" -- and never really found its footing again.
Two other “events” in the 1980s also permanently damaged Rolling Stone.
One has to do with the massive, unprecedented success of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller” album (and the accompanying videos) of 1983-84. That record sold more units than any other album previously -- by a wide margin.
The "Gloved One" -- in tandem with MTV -- turned the entire pop music industry upside-down, refocusing the record companies' energy on generating huge sales at the expense of innovation and creativity. Thus, the exciting new developments of the late 1970s-early 1980s (punk, New Wave, etc.) either vanished or were assimilated into the commercial mainstream.
Other artists like Madonna and Prince also enjoyed stratospheric success – so much so, that Rolling Stone could not ignore them.
Jackson's overwhelming global triumph highlighted yet another of Rolling Stone's fatal flaws -- the magazine largely venerated white musicians, while either ignoring or minimizing the contributions of black artists.
Indeed, it was quite rare to see a black face on the cover of Rolling Stone in those days. Yes, some articles heaped praise upon black pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and others -- but usually in the context of how they influenced and inspired white artists, not so much on their own stand-alone merits.
The one exception to this rule, of course, was Jimi Hendrix, whom Rolling Stone (like virtually every other rock media outlet) glorified and virtually treated as some kind of martyr. But that was at a safe stance, since Jimi was universally embraced by the white audience of his day and was not defined by racial terms. That is, Hendrix's music was not characterized as “black,” per se. (Indeed, the most bigoted white rock-and-roll fan still worships Hendrix and will brook no criticism of him at all).
Also, by the mid- to late-1980s when a revolutionary new music swept America’s urban youth -- hip-hop, or rap – Rolling Stone completely missed the boat and never caught up. (To be fair, Rolling Stone had also ignored or downplayed the disco, heavy metal and country-western genres as well).
Like the rock industry itself, Rolling Stone fell into a state of self-satisfied lethargy and irrelevance.
Aside from Reagan's conservative movement and the emergence of black superstars, another phenomenon from the 1980s conspired to erode Rolling Stone' viability as well.
In that decade, the big (white) stars from the 1960s and 1970s had entered middle age -- and their music reflected it. Dylan, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Elton John, Rod Stewart and a host of others had seemingly lost their muse -- and they cranked out one lousy, uninspiring record after another. Rolling Stone nonetheless continued to promote and hail these fading musicians -- and looked ridiculous doing so.
The rock industry itself was on the brink of a slow death -- instead of writing its epitaph; Rolling Stone pretended nothing was wrong.
Of course, there existed a number of white rock stars in the 1980s landscape whom Rolling Stone stopped at nothing to promote and glorify by linking them to luminaries from the past. Under this pretext, Bruce Springsteen became the “new Dylan,” The Police and U2 (and fill in the blank) became the “new Beatles” or “new Stones” -- no matter how ludicrous such comparisons were.
Even Duran Duran (whom nobody took remotely seriously) received plenty of ink from Rolling Stone.
By the mid-1980s, I completely abandoned Rolling Stone (as, I suspect, millions of my peers did).
Over the past quarter-century, I did not even think about Rolling Stone at all -- part of this apathy was driven by my own aging and growing alienation with prevailing pop culture.
Somehow, through a lengthy period of declining circulation, Rolling Stone soldiered on, despite its embarrassing irrelevancy.
In recent years, as digital media supplanted the old print products, Rolling Stone appears to have made a kind of "comeback" -- like a media Lazarus -- principally by increasing its coverage of politics and, since the 2008 global financial collapse, the banking industry.
This was obviously good move, but as far as music coverage goes, Rolling Stone remains trapped in the past. I have noticed that virtually every issue features stories on artists and bands who are now grandparents (including Dylan, the current "cover boy.")
In addition, if one peruses the Rolling Stone website, one will find a plethora of lists, such as “100 greatest albums,” or “500 greatest rock songs,” or “100 greatest guitarists”, etc. Each of these lists pretends that nothing much happened in pop music after 1977 or so, there's such a heavy emphasis on 1960s and early 1970s artists. Conversely, Rolling Stone acts like nothing important happened in music before, say, 1962.
It still has an extremely narrow view of what qualifies as "good music."
Moreover, based on its political coverage, Rolling Stone appears to serve as a propaganda arm for the Democratic party, while repeatedly castigating the Republicans. This is hardly surprising, but it underlines what is perhaps the most maddening and pathetic characteristic of Rolling Stone -- it pretends to represent the underclass, the oppressed and the voiceless as an “outsider.”
In reality, rock-and-roll music is as mainstream as one can get -- virtually everyone in the Western world (and many parts elsewhere) loves rock music and owns dozens of albums. The genre's immense and enduring popularity has enriched thousands of musicians, singers, producers, arrangers, company executives, as well as publishers like Wenner and his ilk.
It's a multi-billion dollar industry that has no remote connection to the “counter-culture” whatsoever. Indeed, it is impossible for middle-age (and now elderly) gazillionaires to remain "hip," "cool" and "cutting-edge."
Also, I must wonder what the near future holds for Rolling Stone. What will they do after the last 1960s rocker dies? Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Dylan, Bowie, etc., have less than ten years left on this earth.
What then? Will Rolling Stone exhume their corpses and place them on the cover?