My Rolling Stone, my self

I never thought I would like the Rolling Stones, but I do. I listen to “Gimme Shelter” when I pick up around the house, “Emotional Rescue” when driving my car, and “Moonlight Mile” as I fall asleep. Snatches of albums here and there because I can only tolerate them in doses, mixed in with artists less Crypt Keeper-esque. My journey down the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (begun in June ’09) has been less an indication of my capabilities to tolerate anything and more a reflection of where I happen to be in life; sometimes I think I subconsciously seek out songs that say something to me, that I can relate to, but then I like “Sister Morphine” a lot and I can’t relate at all. I started to skip around a bit, but I got through #500-450 and I only rated one album 5/5 (Def Leppard’s Hysteria – it’s personal). Elton John’s Elton John (1970), Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (1972), and The Drifters’ Golden Hits (1996) came very close, though. But my real point is: this list needs to be updated. Any list is expired by the time it’s published, but if the magazine had waited even two years to put it together, we’d be looking at a completely different list. Or maybe not. Rolling Stone is stubborn like that.

But right now, none of those songs are my favorite. My favorite is a dumb song about lost ambitions by some Norwegian band that I will overplay and in two weeks will be lucky to moderately tolerate. But my rate of musical consumption makes it easy to know that in a few days, I will have found my new favorite song and probably the three or four after it, too. So I know I’ve hit something when I listen to an album for three weeks straight, four weeks straight, five weeks straight… Lester Bangs once wrote that our relationship with recorded music is the search for that “priceless moment” when you truly believe that a song can (or has) fundamentally change(d) you (I realize this is like the third time I’ve quoted this, but as interesting a read as Bangs is, he is tragically unquotable). But then Bangs was also kind of dense, never accounting for his own inability to not just experience those moments, but hold on to them; constantly doubling back on himself, ripping apart albums based on the cover art instead of the music, making inappropriate, sexist remarks about women…he was kind of a jackass, really. But he was a good writer, when he was good (I disagree, of course, about his stance on the mythic superstar. I live for that stuff. Or at least, I used to) and I do still agree about the whole “restless pursuit” business.  And like him, I think it’s only natural and probably best to write things in the heat of the moment, instead of waiting months or years to write about it, which is why I think music criticism, unlike other media criticism (except maybe video games), has a very rapid shelf-life. Movie blogs are chock-full of writers who view and then ponder classic cinema, but that approach doesn’t work very well for aspiring music writers. Pity.

One of my favorite things to do recently has been to read old reviews from music magazines as I travel down the Greatest Albums list. I think a lot about the differences in criticisms between mediums as I scour archives for analytical pieces, which is increasingly scarce when there’s just so much music it’s necessary to weed through all the crap and by the time people get around to finishing that, there’s not much time to discuss what any of it means. I guess movies aren’t like that. One dude with one keyboard can write an entire album and post it on MySpace before breakfast but even the crappiest, low-budget movies takes a team of people and a studio to distribute it, and so people will always take movies more seriously than they will music. Pitchfork posts twenty-five album reviews a week and that’s just indie stuff (except, of course, for the pop albums they deem special enough to award a review – which, by the way, this week was Duran Duran’s remastered Rio. Duran Duran! Now irritating in quality stereo).

But even so, today Lester Bangs would probably not get hired by Rolling Stone and would just be another blogger, maybe with a few thousand extra hits than other popular blogs, and would spend his life in that self-imposed aloneness he enjoyed so much without having to worry about leaving his house just to buy records – Amazon! Because his style was only special in that it was new, and albums like Elton John and All the Young Dudes no longer sound “new.” Even that Leighton Meester song that came out three days ago isn’t “new” anymore.

But the magazine format isn’t just no longer new, it’s inconvenient. Most of them are monthly (Rolling Stone is bi-monthly), yet still insist on printing news sections that are already old and review blurbs as if anyone reads those things to actually get advice on which albums are worth listening to. A subscription for Rolling Stone now only costs $25.94 for two years; that makes each issue worth $0.49. But not only is Rolling Stone almost cheaper than a roll of toilet paper, it’s also outdated and extraneous; it’s cliche to point out that MTV has stopped playing music, but it’s just sad to point out that Rolling Stone doesn’t write about music.

It would be redundant to dwell very long on the issue of females vs. males on the covers (suffice to say, Sean Penn wasn’t licking an ice cream cone with his Milk co-star) as the charge is as old as Rolling Stones‘ freshly printed news bits; Internet publications like Idolator have pretty much eliminated the relevance of that section. The cover stories are well-written, but the topics are questionable and the magazine often delves into subjects it has little business exploring, i.e. I1075’s “100 Agents of Change” article, some sort of self-congratulations to its inflated arrogance and skewed priorities. The top ten features Steve Jobs, Kanye West, Bono, and Tina Fey. In addition, readers are supposed to believe Sri-Lankan rapper M.I.A., Sacha Baron Cohen, and freaking Radiohead have changed the world more than figures who search for cancer cures and are attempting to resuscitate the electric car. Why is Andy Samberg or Judd Apatow (#14!) on this list at all? One has been responsible for an SNL-skit that deserved nothing more than a polite chuckle, and the other has managed to reinforce and laud the lazy, stagnant  man-child as charming, noble, and inspirational.

The Internet is changing the way music criticism and journalism is being done and Rolling Stone clearly refuses to get on the bandwagon. Music magazines have always been the primary source for musical criticism and journalism as a whole, and their reputations aren’t without credit: the authors are usually extremely dedicated music fans who not only love what they’re doing, but write about it in genuinely interesting, innovative ways (again, the cover stories, when they’re not spending six pages summarizing the central conceit in Gossip Girl). But nobody is buying these magazines anymore, and with the availability of music on the Internet, not a lot of people are reading about music in general. In terms of criticism, its job has always been to steer people to places that are worth their time and money, but it takes ten seconds to download an entire album now; it’s faster for kids to download an album and skim the tracks than read about it. Music criticism should focus on the new reader, the dedicated, sometimes obsessive, music fan who enjoys reading about music, but probably does so after listening to a piece of work to find a starting ground for discussion or to enjoy new insights he or she didn’t notice before (hence the shift from deciding whether something is simply good or bad, and focusing on what it’s trying to accomplish). There’s no use appealing to the casual reader, as he or she has probably stopped reading a long time ago. In addition, music blogs and places like Pitchfork are setting the standards on free and giving readers access to enthusiastic niche communities that Rolling Stone puts a halt on by appealing to the largest demographic possible (keeping sales up: a tough job).

On the flip side, there will always be a need for big names like Rolling Stone because the quality of the writing is infinitely better than the average music blogger and provides intimate access to artists and events that people who blog from home will never have, no matter how enthusiastic they are.  Of course, there’s a distinction here between criticism and journalism; Rolling Stone will always be around in some form because of the quality of their work in journalism. The key is expanding the analytical writing and dropping the US Weekly-esque photo caption sections (guess what other magazine Jann Wenner owns) and micro CD reviews, born out of fear that the Internet is killing our attention spans (remember that failed new design of Spin that looked like a tabloid?)  – shouldn’t the media set the standard and not kowtow to it?

The Internet is music criticism’s new playground and Rolling Stone would be smart to take better advantage of it. Opening borders to other cultural mediums (television, cinema, etc.) is all well and good until you forget what the point of your publication was in the first place. I don’t mean to sound as nostalgic as this entire Baby Boomer magazine is apt to be, mostly because I don’t think it ever had a Golden Age or flourished in a past decade; this magazine has cruised through fairly straight waters until recently. As for me, I will keep forging ahead. I will read the reviews. I will skim the blogs. I will scan the music glossies, no matter how much they annoy me, not because of what’s in it, but because of all that’s left out. I will think about it. I will write about it. I will keep searching. I’m like a musical sea diver, looking for that priceless moment in a list of music that’s supposed to be the greatest of all time, though the list is pretty much entirely  American/English artists and all I’ve really learned so far is that I still hate grunge, Public Image Ltd. is not a rap group, and the Rolling Stones are on this list a lot. Can’t wait until I have an excuse to keep listening to them.

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