Thursday, May 04, 2006

Can This Stone Continue to Roll?

By Daniel Gale-Grogen

This week, the New York University College of Journalism's "We Want Media" blog posited a question that seems as frequent as the bell tolling for "Saturday Night Live": Can Rolling Stone, once the flagship for rock 'n' roll and counterculture, ever regain its footing?

Blogger Rebecca Ruiz commented on the magazine's upcoming three-dimensional cover celebrating its 40th anniversary. This promotional act of desperation prompted Ruiz to write, "By the looks of things, the magazine's website may be all that's left a few years from now."

The problems with Rolling Stone can be boiled down to one overarching illness: the magazine does not know what it is supposed to stand for anymore, and neither does its readership. It seems to be whatever publisher Jann Wenner wants it to be on any given week, whether its a lad mag, a music source, a left-leaning political magazine or a generic culture watch pub. But it has not been an access point for bleeding-edge culture for many years, as one of Ruiz' readers, Adam Raymond, posted in her comments section:

Rolling Stone should be holding on for dear life [emphasis added]. I can't remember when that magazine was ever relevant. Perhaps that's because they haven't been in my lifetime. It can bust out all the 3-D covers and other strange marketing campaigns it wants, but until it gets its finger back on the pulse, it will continue to stink to high heaven.

Rolling Stone had its finger on the pulse through much of the '80s, when writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus and the pre-MTV Kurt Loder still populated the masthead. But as pop culture became more diffuse, Rolling Stone had difficulty keeping up.

When the magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1987, it was coasting on the '60s revival of the time. Granted, it was looking back on its legacy, but many of its cover stories were dedicated to aging boomer heroes such as The Grateful Dead, George Harrison, Paul Simon, and Pink Floyd, along with retrospective covers featuring Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie. This wasn't a bad time to be stuck in the past, since the zeitgeist of 1987 was lacking in heroes beyond U2. But the magazine was losing steam, and it did not really revive until rock 'n' roll itself revived in 1991 with the grunge movement.

But when Kurt Cobain died and much of the style he popularized died with him, Rolling Stone did not know what to do with itself. It tried to make time with teens when the neo-pop movement took over, devoting two covers a year to Britney Spears and 'N Sync, but teens did not want to read a magazine written and published by people their parents' age, mainly because Rolling Stone felt like a 40-year-old at a Backstreet Boys show: uncomfortable and not fitting in, even though it had gelled its hair, sculpted its beard, Nair'd its chest and worn a white suit with no shirt just for the occasion.

But the 2000s have been downright pathetic. Faced with dwinding circulation and ad revenue thanks to the proliferation of "lad mags" such as Maxim, FHM and Stuff, as well as Maxim's music magazine, Blender, Rolling Stone hired FHM's editor, Ed Needham, to run the place in 2003. That was the year RS ran the cover stories, "Mary-Kate and Ashley: America's Favorite Fantasy," and "Housewife of the Year: Jessica Simpson." Many longtime subscribers chose that year to hang up for good.

Needham is long gone, having been richly rewarded for his RS debacle by becoming editor-in-chief of Maxim. Rolling Stone righted itself somewhat and has stopped running peg-free "trend" stories on teenage sex addicts and out-of-place features on the latest in hot weaponry, but it still seems adrift, unable to tap into a culture that prefers Defamer over "Random Notes" and gets its record reviews daily from and Pitchfork instead of waiting two weeks for that tired old thing to plop down on the newsstand.


At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Lucy Fuhr said...

There are several issues at hand here:
1) What is the future of old-school journalism? You know, the kind that professional, educated journalists write. Are magazines going to be capable of staying relevant and edgy when competing with bloggers, network crap and Internet news?
2) Can we expect mags to have a defined identity and purpose when our society at large doesn't have a strong idea of what it wants or why it wants it? Is hating George Bush and all of his right-wing cronies enough to forge an identity and produce quality discussion?
3) Is there anything good for Rolling Stone and others to even write about? The personal is political, and it seems the personal lives of celebrity trash is more celebrated than pressing political issues. Economically, RS is caught between trying to maintain street cred and vying for consumer dollars. Let's not forget that money rules all.

To hell with all of it. We'll soon be taken over by the robots anyway.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger cakreiz said...

I've renewed my RS subscription the last couple years- due to an occasionally interesting political piece. RS is still playing to Boomers like me, pathetically. The Stones newly CD released was hyped, for example. Gimme a break (not Gimme Shelter). No one cares. RS's theme song needs to be Tull's "Living in the Past". RS once served a noble role. That reality has long since passed. Its writers are out of touch with current music (rap/dance) although RS featured Nick Lachey this month. It's been a long strange journey that will soon end in a whimper- sort of counterculture's Life magazine.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger cakreiz said...

As you note, RS's problem is magnified immeasurably by the fact that modern culture is very diffuse. It's difficult to lead a cultural charge when the culture's going in a thousands of different, unique and often contradictory directions.

Is this about the time I get to refer to 'the good old days'?


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