Taking Out the Trash

Why most music rags aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Rolling Stone is a specialist in peddling sex that isn't - sexy.
Rolling Stone is a specialist in peddling sex that isn't sexy.

"American music magazines suck."

Rolls off the tongue, doesn'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 worship ("The Strokes! The Hives! The White Stripes!"), the outrageously vapid rock star puff pieces, the gutless CD reviews. No innovation. No passion. No balls.

No shit. Is this obvious? Is this fair? Has it really gotten this bad? Read on to find out what the hell is happening to our rock rags.

The Godfather

The November 14 issue of Rolling Stone -- featuring a naked Christina Aguilera, her clad-only-in-boots body spread across a red silk sheet, a guitar she has no idea how to play draped across her bare torso and barely covering her left nipple -- offers proof a-plenty as to why music snobs have beaten Rolling Stone like a gong for the last two decades. 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 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 halcyon glory days of Woodstock and Hendrix and Hunter S. Thompson and fearless cultural leadership should shut up, go home, and pop in Almost Famous for their dose of bright-eyed revisionist nostalgia. 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 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 cute 'n' cuddly rockers the Vines on the cover, blessed with the headline "ROCK IS BACK!" Good gravy. Within, we got a taste of what "points of entry" really mean: Every page veritably bursts with headlines and paparazzi photos and graphics and charts and yelping pullquotes and those doofy little cartoons and the disembodied floating heads of your favorite rock stars.

Delightful, but not revolutionary. Nonexistent reader attention spans have forced every major magazine outside of The Economist to embrace this garish Las Vegas-style visual excess. Sure, RS readers welcomed the enlargement job Needham pulled on the reviews section -- 101 discs went under the knife (albeit a butter knife) in the Vines issue.

But that didn't fix one of Rolling Stone's most glaring weaknesses: biteless reviews. Critically, the mag is exhaustive but hardly opinionated; even a negative write-up spills beer all over itself issuing qualifiers and caveats and kind words designed to soothe publicists, just in case Toni Braxton's new disc turns out to be a hit and a salivating/dunderheaded fashion spread is called for.

Equally disturbing is the "Oooh, 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.

The Sneering Contender

Maxim is the industry success story of the past 10 years, spawning a men's-magazine empire that shoots from the hip and aims for the boobs. Crass and base as it is, Maxim is a true masterstroke that's cleared the way for a near-identical spin-off (Stuff) and -- yes, indeed -- a music mag. Blender's the name, and it's the hottest competition in town.

Two things become immediately apparent upon cracking open Blender. First of all, it very 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 12 issues into the game, Blender has exacted a similar influence on its own American competition. Shorter articles? Smarmy picture 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 Rolling Stone/Spin guard is now liberally stealing from it.

Which is a wee bit disconcerting. Sure, November's Blender cover story is a salivating/dunderheaded LeAnn Rimes fashion spread.

But the "disastrous albums" thing is pretty great, and when they present "33 Things You Should Know About Tori Amos," it's both silly and serious. Factor in The Mother of All Review Sections (240 discs reviewed), 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 competition.

The Nerds

Perhaps the old guard has gotten too smart 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 incomprehensible shit. Spin occasionally revels in its so-called intellect, 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 like that, they do stand a chance of cutting deeper than Jennifer Love Hewitt whack-off interviews.

Sure, Spin does fall prey to 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.

The Niche Artists

Hip-hop heads have a far more elaborate network -- Vibe, The Source, and XXL essentially serve as rap journalism's Huey, Dewey, and Louie -- cute, noisy, and interchangeable. Everyone lands the big-deal features with the LL Cool J's and Jay-Z's 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, and nobody gives a fuck.

All three rap mags dish up breezy, stylish reads, but just like their general-interest brethren, pure innovation is in short supply. Take the "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" controversy: Every mag on earth runs a reaction to Chuck Philips's 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's ubiquitous "I stand by my story."

Of every publication that trotted this pony out, only Vibe threw in a true screwball -- an independently researched timeline that checks Philips's facts, essentially asking if Tupac's killers could've mobilized and executed the murder using the chronology the Times stories established, what with traffic and other contingencies. No, concludes Vibe. 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. Alternative Press (to which the author contributes freelance CD reviews) indulges in a hard rock fetish, adding Magnet's exhaustive lust for punk and indie rock trivia. 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, not strong opinions.

The Lemmings

That's the biggest problem here: Everyone's following and copying and vying for the same advertisers and demographic hot buttons, but no one's trailblazing. CD reviews have ceased to matter 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, collect $25. Read (or write) enough of them, 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 smack their readers back into line? Stop sounding like publicists. Ditch the "celebrity rockers and their 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. We fed-up readers sure do.