First-generation reader and ex-music biz pro now finds Rolling Stone as irrelevant as RS now finds first-generation readers
UPDATED 8/4/15 with news about Jason Fine and Peter Travers
It was about 100 per cent relevant to this 16-year-old, musically, and essential reading for pop culture and counterculture fanatics including me. For the next few decades, it was the publication of record.
But the July 16-30, 2015 issue, No. 1239/1240, with celebrity Kim Kardashian on the cover, finally killed Rolling Stone for me.
Killer Kardashian Misses Class
I’m no prude, and over the years Rolling Stone has routinely pandered to its male-centric target audience with gratuitous babe shots on its cover. Was fine with me. I was target audience then. Bring it on.
Remember the Carly Simon babydoll cover? Early ’70s? “Anticipation”? Yow! And the Linda Ronstadt layout? Whoa!
But those were classy and artistic along with being sexy and provocative at the time. And both women were red-hot musically as well. Like the artists, the accompanying stories had substance.
More offensive to me are cover photos of mass murderers like the Boston bomber, which pander to a darker obsession than sex. That issue went straight to the recycle bin; I refused to read it. I thought about killing it then, but got distracted with something (anything) more important and didn’t.
It took the Kardashian cover to kill my subscription to Rolling Stone. It felt so liberating, I had to write this.
Trials and Tribulations of the Inexplicably Rich and Famous
For the sight-challenged among us, Rolling Stone’s Kardashian cover (sorry, I’m posting a pic to illustrate, not endorse) features a closeup of Kim’s smiling face and upper body.
Photographer Terry Richardson’s camera centers on her ample chest, her “girls” barely covered by a low-cut red bra peeking out from under her sporty striped tank top, which looks almost at half-mast.
Kim’s naturally beautiful, has gorgeous eyes and cheekbones, but my perception is there’s no pretense of taste, style or class beyond the captain’s cap.
Kardashian obviously has a fan base – my sense is it’s a combination of likewise shallow people who covet the material wealth, and others who find humor in the insipidness.
They love to see the train wrecks, the manufactured personal and family drama, the first-world trials and tribulations of the inexplicably rich and famous.
In my mind, life’s too short to waste on watching or reading about such trivial crap, and the dysfunctional lives of others. The tock is clicking.
While I will give props to anyone who can parlay something out of nothing, I don’t get, ah… behind Kardashian.
Her shrill voice, insipid topical material, and disproportionately huge top and bottom, to me, make Marilyn Monroe look like Twiggy. Kardashian’s cartoonish, a caricature like Betty Boop, only not as cool.
A lot of guys think Kim’s voluptuousness is attractive; not I. To me, the most physically beautiful women are proportioned, who are active and healthy and take steps to be in the best physical condition possible for them as individuals. Women who surf or swim or dance or run, for instance. I can’t see Kardashian doing any of that stuff.
Oh, wait – actually, the vision I’m imagining right now is pretty comical.
Some women see Kim as a role model. An inspiration? Really? How shallow. Shoot real high. I’m happy not to know any of them personally.
That’s harsh and judgmental, and I’m not usually that way, but that’s my view. You’re welcome to differ. I don’t presume to dictate anyone’s taste beyond my own.
When I was a kid with my mom at the grocery store and we got up to the checkout counter, the magazine racks were jammed with tabloids like National Enquirer, with huge lurid headlines and bloody photos gratuitously blown up on the front page that were so graphic no newspaper would publish them.
“I Cut Her Heart Out, and Stomped On it!” – with a full set of grisly B&W crime photos from the cops – was an early ’60s Enquirer cover I still can’t get out of my head. I guess it made an impression on me. I’ve done my best to ignore tabloids like that ever since.
When our kids were small, my wife and I would choose the checkout aisle with the least graphic stuff. We didn’t think it was being overprotective; kids just didn’t need to see that crap and have nightmares about it, without understanding what it’s all about. At a certain age, it becomes a teaching opportunity.
Now think about the July 2015 mom and her kids walking up to the grocery checkout, seeing Kim Kardashian’s “come sail away with me” Rolling Stone cover along with the gossip and diet rags on the POP racks:
Girl, age 8: Mommy, how come you don’t have boobs that big? Will mine be that big?
Boy, age 12: Mom, can I have this girl for my 13th birthday?
Mom: I don’t know, I don’t know, and talk to your father.
Rolling Stone Irrelevant
Finally, in the early ’70s, I stopped buying Rolling Stone by the single issue and subscribed, and have a nearly unbroken string of renewals through a 40-year media career at two magazines, three record companies, a radio network, a radio station, a TV station and a dozen websites from 1975-present.
I retired in July 2015. And I’ve decided Rolling Stone no longer relevant to me. It hasn’t been for years. But I had to keep up with it for work. Hitting 64 in October, I get that I’m now officially old and in the way. As Lennon sang in “Watching the Wheels,” I just have to let it go.
Boomers like yours truly who came of age before or around the same time Jann Wenner borrowed $7,500 and started publishing Rolling Stone are not the mag’s target audience anymore. We are no longer relevant to them.
Happily, I don’t have to keep up with what’s popular even if it’s not my taste.
There’s more real, lasting, historic music in my library than I could listen to in three lifetimes, in what remains of my vinyl collection (down to about 500 from 5,000), plus five full 1,000-capacity CD racks, a few dozen boxed sets (half of them unopened), and a nearly full 3TB hard drive.
And I know that’s lightweight compared to the stashes some of my harder-core collector friends in the radio and record industries, like Barret Hansen (aka Dr. Demento), Geoff Gans (http://www.rarecoolstuff.com) and Roger Steffens (world’s foremost reggae scholar), and Rip Rense (author and former L.A. Times music critic), just to name a few.
What I do hear on pop radio, in passing as I channel-surf the dial listening for NPR, jazz, classical, and alt-rock-modern rock stations (and Dodgers games), sounds to me like mostly rehash of stuff we’ve heard in less diluted, more original form before. To my ears, most of what I hear is disposable, strictly commercial, non-musical, lyrically brain-dead and/or mind-numbing…crap.
No wonder so many commercial radio listeners have fled to satellite or streaming subscription services.
To stay relevant and attract younger readers over the years, Rolling Stone has had to cover crap I’m sure the editors hated. Flashy focus on the “flavor of the moment” creates the illusion of pop relevance, and appeals to younger readers who dig the fluff and could care less about the meat. I prefer the meat from RS. Fluff is available elsewhere.
Over the years, in my view, Rolling Stone’s musical relevance has decreased, and the quality of its music coverage along with it, while its overall pop culture and political reportage gained credibility.
Initially, the magazine embraced the gonzo journalism spirit of first-generation RS political writer Hunter S. Thompson, whose immersive, drug-fueled and decidedly non-traditional style of information-gathering and writing appealed to fellow non-Establishmentarians.
In more recent years, I’ve most especially enjoyed Matt Taibbi’s investigative exposes, written with rapier wit. His pieces have kept me killing my subscription years ago.
And Michael Hastings, the RS writer who was embedded with the Army in Afghanistan, did the military and the nation a big favor when he wrote about General Stanley A. McChrystal, who was the American commander of Coalition forces and acted like Robert (“I just love the smell of napalm in the morning”) Duvall’s uber-macho cowboy chief in “Apocalypse Now.”
The Rolling Stone Credibility Gap
For a time, it seemed like vindication. This struggling newsprint counterculture B&W rag had grown on the dollars from hippie buyers and subscribers and the sponsors targeting them into a full-color slick mainstream product with top international sponsors targeting upscale readers, and bleeding-edge editorial that at times rivaled traditional media in its impact.
But then RS’s credibility was severely damaged by that unsubstantiated and ultimately discredited University of Virginia gang rape story last November.
The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism investigated. Its April report detailed screw-ups at every point along the way, revealing faulty journalistic thought processes and lax procedures in-house that allowed the piece to get through at least a handful of writers/editors, fact-checkers and proofreaders before it was eventually published.
After the GSJ’s report in April 2015, RS retracted the piece. The only good thing that came from the imbroglio was a glaring national spotlight on the subject of sexual assaults, on campus or anywhere else, leading to increased public awareness and demands for prevention and protection.
Fact-checking: As Rhino Media Relations co-director in the ’90s and Rolling Stone was about to run a feature or review about one of the label’s releases, I’d get a call from an RS fact-checker to make sure even the most minute fact was accurate. WTF happened to that level of scrutiny?
Will Dana, the managing editor on duty when the piece was published, resigned/got canned last week. He’s out of there as of Aug. 7.
Wenner and Dana kissed each others’ asses in statements released, but having been in media so long, to me, I sense it’s more a case of Wenner throwing Dana under the bus instead of assuming ultimate responsibility.
Kicking Fricke in the Euphrates
A few months ago, RS cut loose, kind of, David Fricke, a rock journalist for whom I have long had great respect. He was at RS early, and made it through countless regime changes. I considered him the mag’s last credible staff music writer, the last guy with the depth and breadth of musical and pop culture knowledge we longtime readers and industry-types always expected and got from him, and once got from RS.
Oh, Fricke remains a contributor, but how about those benefits? Just a couple years shy of retirement age? Check out those $5,000-deductible Obamacare insurance policies for $800 a month.
I haven’t talked with David about it; we’ve met once, at SXSW in the ’90s when I was at Rhino, but details of his “re-assignment,” if you will, were in the news. I hope he’s in a position to tell RS to p**s off. He could clean up on the public speaking circuit. He has to have a few dozen books in him.
David is bound to turn it to his advantage, but the move was a kick in the Euphrates (to quote Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” bit) on RS’s part.
A ‘Sneak Peak’
Another gripe about Stolling Rone: increasingly sloppy production. Early in my professional writer-editor career in the ’70s and early ’80s working at record company PR departments, I read scores of music magazines from all over the world (Mojo was my favorite from the UK). It was routine, part of my daily job.
Most of the rags were an editorial mess, and looked slapped together in a garage, sometimes by design, usually not. I admired RS for evolving into a credible rock magazine with a distinctively clean design and layout, and fewer typos and editorial boo-boos (and I read it cover to cover) than the rest of them.
Now, in mid-2015, when I sit down to read Rolling Stone, I think, “Okay, how many eff-ups will I find in THIS issue?”
Fanning through the Kardashian ish, my eye caught a blurb by an RS writer offering us readers the opportunity to enjoy “a sneak peak” at a new video of some kind.
Seriously? What is this? Backwash from social media?
Has RS pink-slipped every editor who learned the difference between “peek” and “peak” in elementary school? Did an unpaid intern edit that? And the writer? Must have been asleep in class that day.
A multi-million-dollar media empire can afford better.
I chucked the issue into the recycle bin without reading any further.
Nobody Give a F**k About Tpyos & Bad Grammer No More
Speaking generally, not specifically about Rolling Stone, I’m well aware many people today don’t give a flying f**k about typos and bad grammar anyway, especially online. Many functionally illiterate readers don’t even notice them.
Social media has a lot of advantages and uses, but boosting the population’s literacy hasn’t been one of them.
As interim chief copy editor at the local newspaper for several months, I was referred to (not always endearingly) as the “Grammar Nazi” by the guys on the copy desk, all half my age. I would catch mistakes they didn’t, call them on it, and make them fix everything.
Then I proofed their corrections, because sometimes they still didn’t get it right, or worse, screwed something else up while fixing the first mistake. Correcting the corrections really pissed them off because they wanted to just send the paper to print and go home.
The managing editor who asked me to take over did so with the understanding that there would be zero tolerance for eff-ups, and the desk guys would either get with the new workflow or get replaced. That was my job (on top of duties as the online editor, but with no extra $$).
I’ve been using AP Style since high school (my parents were newspaper people and turned me on to it) and at record companies, radio networks, online, in book editing, and any other situation where editorial consistency and quality mattered. That knowledge is why the ME at the paper assigned me the task.
The desk guys got with the program, grudgingly, at first. There were flashes of real teamwork and professional collaboration, and pride when the paper went days and weeks without screw-ups instead of something stupid getting past the desk. Daily. And Sunday. We proved a clean paper was indeed possible.
But who cared anymore – beyond the five readers who constantly sent Letters to the Editor bitching about some typo? I figured they were old as I, or older. Younger people didn’t bitch because they either didn’t notice it, saw it but didn’t care, or saw it and laughed, but didn’t waste their time trying to school the morons at the paper with an LTE.
A former colleague at Rhino was VP of creative for a Web content production company based near the beach in L.A. when I contacted him a few years ago. He told me his company’s bean-counters and lawyers had taken over (sounds like the record biz in the ’80s); there were layoffs imminent.
Consultants were at that moment holding focus groups to determine just how many typos and grammatical mistakes they could get away with without pissing off the reader, he added.
Excuse me? My friend said yeah, he was looking for another gig. We were both too old-school, taught and trained there is zero tolerance for any factual, grammatical or typographical error making it to publication, in print, Web, or wherever.
How much more can a wumbloozo (Swahili for “old white dude”) be expected to take before he just has to say, “ENOUGH”?
So Cancel My Subscription to the House of Dysfunction
Also in the same wad of snail mail arriving with my Kardashian issue, a separate missive from Rolling Stone reminded me my subscription was up for renewal.
Previously, I’ve just renewed automatically online every few years. It’s been a tax-deductible business expense (except the 15 or so years record labels paid for my subscription) as research, a necessary publication to keep abreast of developments in my chosen field.
This time, full stop. And for all the above reasons, I decided to eschew, not renew.
Then they sent me this notice in the mail. So, with a dying Sharpie, I scrawled “CANCEL” across the invoice and mailed it back, using the RS’s convenient post-paid envelope.
I’m thinking this must be a milestone or rite of passage of some kind, akin to David Crosby cutting his hair, or me growing up, or hell freezing over.
But all things must pass, as George Harrison sang almost half a century ago. And as Paul Shaffer put it more recently, disbanding the CBS Orchestra when his boss David Letterman retired, “It’s time to let the kids take over.”
That’s happening, of course; the kids are jumping right in and edging out the veterans, too often with little to no respect or appreciation for the doors the old guard opened for the new. Same as it ever was. I saw it happen at the record labels when I was coming up in the ’70s, and it sure wasn’t new then.
So from here, I’ll read Rolling Stone online, if at all. I have plenty of friends who’ll share Taibbi’s pieces with me.
Come to think of it, all those back issues do trace pop culture’s development, for better or worse, evolution/devolution, since the end of 1967.
Looking for a particular back issue? Contact me. I think I still have a few hundred in the garage and just might have what you’re looking for. Cheap. Like MAD.
Grammy-nominee and Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples was an entertainment reporter for Santa Clarita television station SCVTV and its website at SCVNews.com, and for Santa Clarita radio station KHTS AM 1220 and its website at HometownStation.com, from 2011-2015. He hosted and co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” music and interview program for five seasons, 2010-2015, creating 69 shows spotlighting local artists performing their original material. Peeples was also an award-winning international radio producer and newspaper online editor, and an in-demand website project manager and content editor. He blogs at his personal site, https://stephenkpeeples.com.