In “Rolling Stone remix,” appearing in the September 4th edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, media and advertising writer Lewis Lazare comments on the recent decision by the editors of Rolling Stone to re-tool the magazine’s look and editorial focus, in an effort to wrest readership back from the clutches of exclamation pointed “male interest” glossies like Maxim and FHM. Lazare rates the re-vamp a “C,” and suggests that the magazine will likely lose what made it great in its continuing competition with the towel-slapping antics of mags like Maxim. He’s right; but RS may have lost what made it great long before this latest tune-up. Its finger firmly on the fading pulse of AOR, the Stone bravely bestows 5 star “classic” status on work by artists whose heydays were roughly the same as those of RS itself. Dylan’s and Young’s recent work aside, does anyone believe that an aging rocker like Eric Clapton is still releasing “classic” material? By continuing to put the classic back in Classic Rock, and presenting “new faces” months or years after said faces emergence, Rolling Stone has maligned itself to the point that what was once a paragon of American music journalism now must bring up the rear, and lap at the heels of the lowest common denominator.
But is it Rolling Stone’s fault?
Maxim, Blender, FHM, Stuff, and the rest are rabidly popular because their vacuous cocktail of boobs, blurbs, and boorishness is exactly what America wants. Years ago, when USA Today debuted, it was criticized for featuring non-continuing stories, too much color, and not enough serious journalism. Today, the sound-bite is journalism. Even The New York Times has had to react, refining its classic look with the tasteful edition of muted color and expanded human interest sections. It’s unlikely that the Grey Lady will ever be forced to feature Page 3 Girls or a lead story chronicling the world’s scariest sports injuries. But the paper’s concession illustrates the contraction of the American attention span in 2002. Flip through any of the toilet-bowl magazines above, and you’ll find copy that appears in spurts, broken up with boxed graphics and thong’d starlets on every other page. Maxim does feature an extended piece each month looking at issues like terrorism or the drug war. But month after month, page after glossy page, copy space in Maxim and its jocular bedfellows is consumed by the same tired stories about what chicks think about dicks or how to meet girls in the supermarket. PJ O’Rourke and Greil Marcus just can’t compete with top-drawer journalism like that.
To be sure, Rolling Stone had its problems with relevance before the big industry takeover orchestrated by FHM, et al. But here is a magazine that’s been a voice in American culture since the counterculture was still cool, confronted with the challenge of sticking to its guns in a society of immediacy. When “American Idol” and Anna Nicole are cultural signifiers, how can anyone with any perspective on the past keep a grip on relevance? The really shitty thing is the realization that Anna Nicole’s psycho tailspin is a metaphor for just what’s fucked up about the USA. It’s one crazy person being kicked in the stomach by a circle of people who are equally crazy for doing the kicking. And above the crazy kicking feet are kleig lights and a series of web cameras, broadcasting the spectacle for a national audience of paying subscribers. This argument goes beyond what’s wrong with pop music, or what the victors at the Teen Choice Awards will be doing when their 3 to 15 minutes of fame expire. It’s an argument that asks to envision what’s around the bend for American pop culture, what are the things behind the sun that will burn us in the years to come. Cynical? Yes. But I can see the future, and it is nasty, brutish, and short career of American Icarus Justin Guarini.