By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
There's a certain primal delight in writing shit that even you can't understand. Spin occasionally revels in it, with CD reviews that read like philosophy 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 cut deeper than Jennifer Love Hewitt whack-off interviews.
Spin does plenty of pandering: listing the 50 greatest metal albums of all time and so forth. (Rolling Stone has recently discovered this "piss off your readers on purpose" trick.) And the mag illustrates 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 them. But at least Eddie doesn't prattle on about getting his schlong pierced.
Don't look for the word schlong to appear in Magnet any time 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.
Magnet is designed to make you feel dumb. Clueless. Inferior to your fellow Yo La Tengo-loving man. It specializes these days in exhaustive retrospectives on whole genres--power pop, shoegaze--that allow the editors to drop obscure band after obscure band on your feeble ass. The Summer Suns! (Bam!) DMZ! (Thwack!) But it's probably the most prominent American mag not obligated to report on Justin Timberlake, and it's funnier than nerd-bashers give it credit for.
The Niche Artists: Lord only knows if Revolver's original aspirations to greatness would ever have panned out, but its rebirth as a party-hardy metal mag suits it just fine. The heshers deserve it, and nonheadbangers can flip open an issue, smirk at all the "No, Really, I'm Totally Badass" poses and maybe even learn something--you feel better as a person when you know that "suicide metal" is an actual genre. Alternative Press (to which the author contributes freelance CD reviews) also emulates Revolver's hard-rock fetish and adds Magnet's exhaustive lust for punk-and-indie-rock-trivia superiority.
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 essentially interchangeable. Everyone lands the big-deal features with the LL Cool Js and Toni Braxtons and Jay-Zs of the world, but no one really gets much out of 'em. Plowing through the interviews in all three mags in quick succession leaves you a bit numb: Everyone's street, nobody's takin' bullshit from anybody, everyone's got something to prove, nobody gives a fuck. Hence, the fun you have is directly proportional to how much rope the interview subject gets. Fat Joe: "My whole life I've called women bitches and hoes. This album, I'll probably still call them bitches and hoes, but I've got some songs defending women who aren't bitches and hoes. That's a first for me."
All three rap mags dish up breezy, stylish reads, but just like their general-interest brethren, pure innovation is in short supply. Take the white-hot "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" controversy--every mag on earth runs a reaction to Chuck Philips' 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 is 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' ubiquitous "I stand by my story."
Of every publication that trots this pony out, only Vibe throws in a true screwball--an independently researched timeline that checks Philips' facts, essentially asking if Tupac's killers could've mobilized and executed the murder using the chronology the Times stories established, including 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, 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 but not strong opinions. The mag's "Recommended If You Like" review format is oft-copied, but even the negative reviews simply teach rather than preach.
The Lemmings: That's the biggest problem here: Everyone's following and copying and emulating 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, wrap it up, collect $25. Read (or write) enough, and you'll read through 'em until they're practically invisible.