I'm so bored with the USA

Why do American music magazines have to suck?

Topics: Music, Rock and Roll,

Full disclosure and a confession: I’ve written for Rolling Stone in the past, and I write the occasional book or record review for Spin — but they’re magazines I never read. I’ve been a fan of pop music for about as long as I can remember, but I no longer have even a passing interest in either of the two major music and pop-culture magazines published in this country.

To get what I want as a music fan, I have to look to the United Kingdom.

I don’t know exactly how it was that I started to pick up Q and Mojo religiously (especially considering that they cost some $8 apiece at the local Barnes & Noble or Borders). But even before I discovered them, I realized I’d come to feel almost completely detached from both Rolling Stone and Spin, two publications that used to meet most of my requirements in terms of healthy irreverence and comprehensiveness when it came to music.

It’s not that, as a woman in my 30s, I feel that I’m no longer their target audience. (I don’t like to think of myself as anyone’s target audience: I read what attracts me, period.) It’s just that when I pick up Rolling Stone or Spin, I don’t feel the least bit tempted by the bulk of their content: all that minute-by-minute pulse-checking and temperature-taking of pop culture is admirable in a desperate sort of way, but ultimately it’s just facile. Their tireless efforts to get to the bottom of Limp Bizkit (How deep is a thimble? the wise man asks), their all-too-”Random Notes,” leave me cold and, worse, bored out of my skull.

In trying to be all things to all people (its target audience seems to be every wanna-be hipster between the ages of 17 and 55), the once-great Rolling Stone has turned into the People magazine of what’s left of the counterculture — a homogenized cultural smudge. And if Rolling Stone has become People, then Spin (whose coverage of music, not to mention cultural and political issues, seemed like a gift from heaven when the magazine first appeared in the early ’80s) has become Urban Outfitters, a place where the progress of every “youth” trend seems charted like a stock price. Spin is loaded with attitude, as a youth rag should be. But you have to shake it down, hard, to sift out the real intelligence there. Mostly, Spin seems to have crowned itself the king of forced bons mots and stagy wisecracks. One wag recently wrote of the Chicago punk-pop outfit Showoff: “Because every couple of years the world needs another bunch of kids who sing like they need to blow their nose.” If only magazines had noses to blow.



But Q and Mojo have a way of luring me in, sometimes against my better judgment. I can sit down for hours with either one and get completely lost in their strange little features (Mojo’s interview with Love’s long lost Arthur Lee, which he conducted from his jail cell) or opinionated extravaganzas (Q is big on opinionated extravaganzas, the most recent being “The 100 greatest Stars of the 20th Century”: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke rated higher than Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker? Bollocks!). Recently, I read an entire feature in Mojo about the Grateful Dead before I realized that never in my life have I had the faintest interest in them or their music. I felt cheap, used — almost like a target audience. But I’d also had fun. How had this happened?

The answer seems to be that as a pop-music fan — and I continue to be one, even after so many of my contemporaries have dropped by the wayside, buying the occasional Elvis Costello record but not much else — I’m not interested in connecting with a particular generational audience. I want music: “old” people’s music, “young” people’s music. I could buy Rolling Stone simply out of habit, since it’s what I grew up with and I know that it will never fail to pay attention to the new Tom Petty record. Or I could buy Spin because I want to keep up with new bands, and I know that Spin will get to them first, whether I like the magazine’s approach or not. But mostly, it’s the music that I’m interested in — and that’s the front on which the major American music magazines fail to deliver.

The problem may be that although both Spin and Rolling Stone
have always covered the culture at large, they used to care
most about music — the subtext being that in order to get a
good grasp on the culture, including politics, you have to
have an understanding of the music that drives it as well.
When I read Rolling Stone and Spin today, I see a handful of
dedicated writers (among the names too numerous to mention,
David Fricke, Anthony DeCurtis and Touri
at Rolling Stone and Ann Powers and Robert Christgau at
Spin) who cover rock ‘n’ roll as if their lives depended on
it (and who have, in turn, been cultivated by a small cadre
of dedicated editors). Writers like these are the heart of
these magazines at their best, but they’re not the driving
forces: Writers don’t determine the editorial direction of a
magazine.

That’s frustrating, because historically, both magazines
have known how to cover music well — which makes it all the
more frustrating that they don’t do it now. The current
“Special Collector’s Issue” of Spin proves the point: The
centerpiece feature, “The 90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s,”
is intelligently executed, including a smart (and, of
course, argument-inducing) selection of albums and almost
uniformly solid writing. It’s far superior to a similar
package featured in Rolling Stone a few months back, which
broke albums down into ridiculous and almost overtly racist
categories: rap and hip-hop were separated from rock ‘n’ roll;
even alternative rock had its own category. (What
ever happened to the immensely useful umbrella we used to
call “pop music”?)

But unless “The 90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s” marks the
true renewal of Spin’s commitment to pop music (and I
sincerely hope that it does), in the context of Spin’s
recent track record, it’s nothing more than an anomaly. More
and more in the pages of Spin and Rolling Stone, the writers
who care the most seem to be working in a vacuum, their work
wedged into the margins left after every possible hot
starlet has been profiled, after the parade of tossed-off
movie reviews that seem like afterthoughts, after the
millionth forgettable tattooed band has been analyzed far
beyond its overarching cultural importance simply because
it’s hit the top 10. The two magazines that have been most
crucial in covering the landscape of American rock ‘n’ roll
over the past few decades have all but left the music
behind.

Of course, the English magazines do their share of pandering
as well, and like their American counterparts, they all have
to cover the hot bands: In magazines like Select (more
Spin-like than Q in its fidgety grabs for hipness), in
particular, you’re bound to see at least four mentions per
issue of the reigning acts du jour in the UK — say, Blur,
Manic Street Preachers and Gay Dad (who?). And of course,
not all the English magazines are created equal anyway,
serving myriad subsets of the pop audience, just as various
American specialty music magazines do. (Melody Maker and
NME, for example, are more like insider’s rags for hardcore
pop-music fans, dishing out more news and gossip than real
insight.)

But if you take the two finest British music magazines
readily available in the United States today — Q and the
even more spectacular Mojo — and hold them up against
Rolling Stone and Spin, there’s no contest. You could argue
that Mojo and Q are more limited in scope — they don’t try
to cover as many aspects of the culture at large as the
American magazines do — and you’d be right. But for anyone
who cares about music — and who’s willing to put up with
more mentions of Blur cutie Damon Albarn, or the antics of
the Gallagher Brothers, both of which seem to hold endless
fascination for English readers — they’re far more
informative, entertaining and just plain dedicated to the
glory of pop music than anything you can get state-side.

Separate but affiliated magazines (they’re both published by
the same company), Q and Mojo have entirely different
personalities even as they share a similar aim to cover as
much goddamn stuff as they can. Sometime in the early ’80s,
editors everywhere decided that readers wanted shorter
articles and more “popcorn” — more snazzy little tidbits
for readers to graze on — which mostly meant more gossipy,
insubstantial, goofy news items. I’ve never seen the
approach applied as intelligently as it is at Q or Mojo,
both of which are packed with tiny articles that one might
actually want to read. Those include a massive number
of succinct, well-written album reviews (a recent issue of Q
featured more than 130, including new releases and
rereleases) and small, quirky reader-participation features
like Q’s “Spot the Lyric” (in which readers are invited to
write in describing a snippet of a song they’d heard
somewhere; readers are invited, similarly, to write in if
they can identify the song and the artist).

Many of Q’s record reviews include oddball little asides you
won’t find anywhere else: a review of an Edith Piaf reissue
tells us that she was influenced by Betty Hutton — and was an
influence on Celine Dion. And every review comes equipped
with its own pithy little headline, some of them like
miniature reviews in themselves: the one for the Piaf reads
“Lauded, oft-lamented Parisienne belter. Took stage surname
from slang for ‘little sparrow.’ Aaah.”

Where Q is splashy and fun, Mojo is pure class. Like Q, it features heaps of album reviews. But what’s most wonderful about it is the way it so gracefully allows old and new pop music to share space, a casual acknowledgment that in the grand scheme, everything exists along a continuum. Instead of devoting just a few pages to reissues, Mojo puts pop-music history at the forefront, often for no good reason at all other than that it’s damn interesting, mixing it up with new stuff in a way that’s never wilfully, stodgily nostalgic. An extensive feature on Pavement might run back-to-back with a 17-page profile of Brian Jones. Elsewhere, a reporter goes slumming in New York with the members of Luscious Jackson, where Kate Schellenbach buys a tin of Royal Crown Pomade — “the same stuff Elvis used to use.” Each month the regular back-page feature, “Hello, Goodbye,” details the formation and breakup of a band you might have once known and loved, like Big Star or the Pogues.

And I will never be able to figure out the mysterious formula by which Mojo allocates space — a source of puzzlement to me that’s also a constant delight. British music journalist Jon Savage (author of the marvelous “England’s Dreaming”) gets more than two full pages to write about the Captain Beefheart box. The box has been reviewed in magazines state-side, of course. But who would devote that much space to it? And more important, who would make the space for a fine writer to stretch out like that, on a subject that’s admittedly of limited interest to most of those deep-pocketed college boys out there?

Q’s features may not be as weighty or informative (or as closely researched) as Mojo’s, but they’re often so cleverly conceived and packaged that you can’t help reading them. (I’m still not sure what to make of “When Rock Stars Attack!” in the August issue, a two-page tabloid-TV takeoff detailing Courtney Love’s clocking of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, as well as Sid Vicious’s thwacking of journalist Nick Kent with a bicycle chain. But I know this much: I didn’t intend to read all of it, and yet I did. Snagged again!) And although over the years I’ve found too many of the record reviews unreliable (for all the talk about excessive attitude among the British rock press, Q’s and Mojo’s reviewers aren’t always as tough as they might be), the writing is almost uniformly enjoyable and engaging — it’s never a slog to get through them.

It’s hard to tell if a magazine like Mojo, with its strong historical bent, could be a success in the United States. Mojo’s editor, Mat Snow, says the magazine fills a niche in the UK that simply may not exist in the United States. “I think it’s to do with money rather than taste. A great number of books about music heritage are published in the States — more in the States than there are in Britain. The market is much larger — that is to say, there are more people who are ready to spend more money than in Britain — of course, because the population is much larger. It’s not as if there’s just no appetite in America for what we do. But it’s much more visibly expressed [there] in the book form.” The longer biographical and historical articles in Mojo, he says, are well suited for people who don’t have the time to delve into the books.

While it’s true that here in the States we do have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to books about rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not as if so many people actually read them. Magazines are still necessary to fill some very specific needs. There are plenty of smaller, or just newer, music magazines available to pop music fans in the United States, many of them trying hard to fill in the gaps left by the biggies like Rolling Stone and Spin, and some of them succeeding pretty valiantly. The Source, which calls itself “The Magazine of Hip-Hop Music, Culture & Politics,” goes to great lengths to deliver on that promise, and of all the contemporary mainstream magazines, it seems to do the most admirable job of blending cultural coverage and music. (By contrast, Vibe, which focuses mostly on R&B and hip-hop, is owned by the Miller Publishing Group, which also publishes Spin, and it suffers from some of the same identity problems as its pimply step-brother. And I’m still not sure if it’s a joke that there’s a “Sneaker Editor” listed on its masthead.) There are any number of smaller print magazines that do their damnedest to provide serious and extensive coverage of current pop music, like the Minneapolis-based monthly Request, and specialty ‘zines like No Depression (devoted to alternative country) earn loyal audiences. Online, the number of choices is even more vast, although the quality is highly variable: SonicNet and its sister publication Addicted to Noise are two of the most comprehensive.

It could be that with so many smaller magazines targeted to niche audiences — the hip-hop fans, the alternative-country fans, the electronica fans and so forth — the big two don’t even need to try to be comprehensive when it comes to covering music. If Rolling Stone and Spin can do well enough as lifestyle magazines, why should they bother focusing on actual music? It would be a drag if they never returned to their former glory, but it wouldn’t be the end of life as we know it. In the universe of pop-music magazines, at least, there’s a better world on the other side of the ocean. Sixteen dollars a month is a small price to pay.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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