Mag Light

American music magazines suck.

Rolls off the tongue, don't it? These days it's rolling off everyone's. Saunter down the length of a magazine rack and scowl at the teen-pop hoochie starlets, the drooling trendpigism ("The Strokes! The Hives! The White Stripes!"), the vapid rock-star puff pieces, the gutless CD reviews. No innovation. No passion. No balls. No brains. No heart.

No shit. Is this obvious? Is this fair? Is this mindless whining? Has it really gotten this bad?

If you honestly think so, you have only yourself to blame.

Revolver magazine launched in May 2000, declaring nothing short of a music-mag revolution. It promised intelligence, humor, depth, insight and a profound sense of history, typified by its first cover subject: Jim Morrison. It kowtowed to the sounds of now (second cover: Fred Durst) but balanced that with epic biographical overtures on Big Star and the Pixies. It promised to innovate and succeed where rusting warhorses (Rolling Stone, Spin) were failing. It guaranteed no dunderheaded starlets on the cover, no fear or mercy in its criticism. Enough depth and archival intelligence to snag die-hard rock obsessives, enough pop savvy to finger the pulse of mainstream sheep, enough flash to reel in the casually interested. The best writers. The freshest angles. The wittiest puns. Something for everybody, and everything for anybody. As the cover proclaimed, "The World's Most Wanted Magazine."

This concept lasted five issues.

Two and a half years later, Revolver has evolved into "The World's Loudest Rock Magazine." Its focus has shifted entirely to hard rock and nü-metal. For the January/February issue, the worthless, Slipknot-biting clowns in Mudvayne graced the cover. Porn-star bimbo models writhed on motorcycles or covered an exposed breast with one hand and fingered a Fender Jazz bass with the other as part of the "XXX-Mas!" holiday gift guide. And the editor's note featured a photo of the editor in chief posing with two additional porn-star bimbo models (one naked, dignified only by a strategically placed Christmas wreath) grabbing for his crotch.

The original Revolver concept didn't sell well enough. This one does. And you know what? It stacks up just fine against the competition. You get the government you deserve. Music journalism follows the same logic.

Do American music magazines suck? To say so would be generalized, sensationalized, oversimplified, cynical, bitchy and mean-spirited. But so is 90 percent of music journalism. And now that there are more music-mag options than ever, and now that the Mother of Them All, Rolling Stone, has a new editor in chief, a new design, a new attitude and a new unofficial slogan (Run for Your Lives!!!), the time has come to take stock of the rock rag. What's good? What's bad? What's ugly? And what the fuck happened?

The Godfather: The November 14 issue of Rolling Stone--featuring a naked Christina Aguilera, her clad-only-in-knee-socks body spread across a red silk sheet, the first I of her first name nearly penetrating her, a guitar she has no idea how to play draped across her bare torso and barely covering her left nipple, an amateurish come-hither glance on her face--represents everything wrong with modern American society not related to terrorism.

Music snobs have beaten Rolling Stone like a gong for years. The mag's 35 years old now and brutally denounced as a culturally irrelevant, out-of-touch dinosaur act reminiscent of the band that shares its name. Except the Stones still sell out arenas, and the Stone still represents the industry gold standard. Which explains the resonant terror generated by the Christina Aguilera cover story, in which a coquettish teen idol raves about the piercing between her legs and says a bunch of really dumb shit. ("I don't like pretty. Fuck the pretty.")

Old-timers still whining that RS has passed its halcyon glory days of Woodstock and Hendrix and Hunter S. Thompson and fearless cultural leadership should shaddap, go home and pop in Almost Famous if it's bright-eyed revisionist nostalgia they're after. Change was overdue. But when Ed Needham--former helmsman for the laddish, loutish men's mag FHM--signed on as Rolling Stone's new managing editor and de facto creative overlord, the old-timers groaned. Needham talked about shortening the articles. Punching up the 'tude. Jazzing up the graphics. Dialing up a ton of quick-hit sidebars and blurbs and other "points of entry." Ensuring that no one utters the accursed phrase "your father's music magazine." Ed has succeeded. Rolling Stone is now your 8-year-old brother's music magazine.

Needham's reign kicked into high gear with the August 26 issue, but in some ways it promised business as usual, putting supercute, more-Cutting-Crew-than-cutting-edge rockers the Vines on the cover with the headline "ROCK IS BACK!" Good gravy. Within, we got a taste of what "points of entry" really meant: Every page veritably burst with headlines and paparazzi photos and graphics and charts and yelping pull quotes and doofy little cartoons and the disembodied floating heads of your favorite rock stars.

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Rob Harvilla
Contact: Rob Harvilla