Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rolling Stone: The 3rd 40th Anniversary Issue

Download: Bright Eyes - "Four Winds"
Download: Kanye West - "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
Download: The White Stripes - "Little Ghost"
Download: U2 - "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"
Download: REM - "Pilgrimage"
Download: Wilco - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"

The temptation to hate Rolling Stone Magazine is pretty strong. Between the policy of giving every new release 3 to 4 stars and the fact that they often seem really far behind the times with regard to music, it seems like the mag is constantly grappling for relevance in a scene that it doesn't quite understand.

But is the magazine all that bad? I happened to come into possession of two recent copies of RS recently, and wanted to evaluate their merit.

One hard thing about reading RS is the volume of ads. There are 2-3 ads for every page of content in the magazine. On top of it, a good portion of the ads are for goods and services way out of range of the younger RS reader.

The news briefs in the magazine are okay. It’s a good place to catch up on the news of the mainstream, but I'd say that between Perez and Billboard, you can find more in-depth and timely coverage pretty much everything in this section. I think the fundamental failing in this section is that the magazine publishes twice a month. In two weeks, an event can be news and then old news, and news on a record or DVD release has been covered, re-covered and opined upon by every blog in the biz.

And I'm not going to lie: I often like RS' features when I read them. In these sections, writers will often go immerse themselves in a situation and then come up with around 3k words on it. They tend to be good pieces that strike the right balance between creative writing and hard-hitting, heavily-researched journalism. Other times, they'll gather up a bunch of relevant celebs and ask them about relevant political topics.

Except for that a lot of them are the same. It seems like the headline always reads "Inside how BUSH LIED ABOUT IRAQ!" or "Inside how Bush and some other dude LIED ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE!" or "CONTRACTS AND LIES: BUSH?" Admittedly, these are stories that need to be told and often have very good content, after a while, the scope starts to feel a bit narrow.

The particular issues I managed to get a hold of have very good pieces. One is a retrospective on Hunter S. Thompson that gets people who knew him way back when to tell the story of his life. The piece is very, very cool, and I think it captures Thompson in a very human light. The article doesn't shy away from his faults and successfully manages to avoid the rambling fan worship of most other writings on Thompson's life. The other is the third part of their Fortieth Anniversary Issue, in which the likes of Al Gore, Meryl Streep and George Clooney were interviewed about the state of the world. Lily Allen, Jack White and Michael Stipe were also interviewed about the future of music. Again, it was a really good piece (and we got to find out Kanye really wants a flying car).

But then smack dab in the middle of the piece is a Camel-sponsored chart to the Indie Rock Galaxy, "Where everyone wears black Converse." Gross.

And then we get back into the aforementioned "give everything 3 or 4 stars" reviews. They've got some good writers, I'll give them that. But that doesn't mean they're great reviews. Half of them read really well, but say nothing. And in the other half, there seems to be a disparity between how good the reviewer thought the record was and how they rated it. It's not a very trustworthy face to put forth.

So, what's the bottom line? I think of RS like I think of Playboy. I don't buy Playboy for porn, I buy it for that Neil Gaiman interview in the back. I don't buy RS for music news, that's what blogs are for. Blogs and websites are much more up-to-date and we don't have corporate overlords telling us how to rate things*. But, when it comes to getting good interviews and doing hard-hitting literary journalism, I think RS is still a very good magazine. I'm not going to take out a subscription or anything and out of protest for the massive number of ads, I won't buy a copy, but it's a magazine I could see reading in a bookstore while killing some time on a rainy day.

Up top are some mp3s from interview subjects in the latest issue.

(April Wright)

*Or at least MFR doesn't. And, to get it out of the way, Ian doesn't pay us to say that we like the Afternoon Records crowd of bands. We do everything on this site out-of-pocket, and I bought the We All Have Hooks For Hands record because I think they're a great band and wanted to share them with all of you. That also means that I'm not going to be buying the new Battle Royale record because I'm not going to throw away 10 bucks that I know I won't enjoy. The only way something gets reviewed on the site is if it gets sent to us, or we think it’s an important record to share.

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