Friday, August 14, 2009

Rolling Stone magazine. Still relevant?

Is Rolling Stone relevant anymore? Once highly regarded as the go-to read for in-depth interviews with film and music personalities (with an emphasis on the latter), social and political commentary and the latest information happening in the world of music, it nowadays seemingly has a greatly diminished profile. It's kind of that old reliable that just is, always there on the newsstands but divorced from its once-proud status as the cultural voice of the zeitgeist. A quick poll of about a dozen people aged 20-50, about a third of who fall under the category of "big music fan", told me that zero percent read it, plan to read it or have read it in the last ten years (if ever).
Obviously the Internet is the biggest reason the magazine's circulation has declined sharply from a couple of decades ago. Rolling Stone publishes twice a month (with the occasional larger double issue) so day-to-day music news doesn't appear in the magazine for 3-4 weeks after it actually happens. By then most people have already read details about a particular story online and moved on, so immediacy is not something the print magazine has going for it. assists in filling that gap but I've never warmed up to the magazine's online presence. Their website layout has never knocked me over and a lot of the same content posted there ends up in the magazine shortly thereafter (as you'd expect), but as a subscriber that just leaves me feeling a little cheated that I'm reading the same content twice and paying for it the second time around. So, I tend to avoid It's actually somewhat refreshing in this age of immediate information to read something for the first time on an actual page that doesn't have the prefix "web" attached.
A look at an issue from last month (issue 1082/1083) gives a pretty bang-on representation of why the magazine is still an essential part of my reading diet. On the cover we have (*cough*) The Jonas Brothers. Now, I'm not a fan of these lads, but of course I'm not a 12-year-old girl either. Actually, the demographic issue perhaps isn't as relevant with me because I will admit to being a Hanson fan for years now. Yes, that fact has gotten me crucified by friends and it's pretty damn uncool to be admitting this on a forum open to the entire world, but our ears like what they like, no? The half dozen or so Jo Bros. songs I have heard didn't do anything for me, but I give them full marks for playing their own instruments (and a couple of the brothers can play more than one) and writing their own music, which is one of the things I always respected about Hanson. The interview with them provides some interesting insight into what it's like to be the biggest boy band in the world at the moment.
Also included is a completely fascinating interview with rock legend Gregg Allman. I've never been a fan of his music but he's definitely one of those interesting characters who's lead a colourful life full of excess and this is captured well by writer Mark Binelli. One of the funnier anecdotes involves the time, during his 9 day (that's day) marriage to Cher when Allman was so wasted on heroin that he passed out face first into a plate of spaghetti at a banquet. And here's a great quote regarding his numerous marriages:
He starts to talk about his most recent ex, then stops himself. "When you think about it, it takes a fool to tell half a story," he says. "So as long as she's not here telling you her half, me telling you my half doesn't hold much water. 'Cause, of course, it's going to be pro-me." He pauses, then adds, "To tell you the truth, it's my sixth marriage - I'm starting to think it's me."
As good as the Allman interview is the pièce de résistance of this issue is a lengthy 12 page article by writer Matt Taibbi about banking behemoth Goldman Sachs. I realize a fatigue factor has crept in with us all regarding reading or hearing about the economic meltdown, but Taibbi's piece provides fascinating insight into the influence, negligence and abuses exercised by the world's most powerful investment bank. Taibbi pulls no punches and that's his style. Although he's writing about a serious, complicated topic he'll still pepper it with insults towards the story's subject (perhaps referring to them as an "asshole") and include plenty of gutter talk. It makes for a bit of weird reading experience, but the man has quickly become one of my favourite writers. Consider these strong statements from the first paragraph of the piece:
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression - and they're about to do it again. Goldman Sachs is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.
Damn, Matt. How do you really feel? The article, unsurprisingly, has provoked strong reaction with pundits and bloggers questioning Taibbi's facts and statements. A quick perusal of some of these angry responses (mostly from right-wing politicos) provides a healthy amount of skepticism and questions regarding Taibbi's work. Irregardless, one walks away from the piece with their head spinning at the behind the scenes machinations (and often times in open, plain view) orchestrated by Goldman Sachs. Even if only 10% of the allegations Taibbi makes are true it makes you want to take a shower after reading it.
Rolling Stone has always had a strong foothold in the world of political and social writing and I greatly regret having ignored it for most of the time I've read the magazine (which is probably a good 25 years or so now). Occasionally I'd read a piece on, say, why a kid went and shot up a school or perhaps a human interest piece, but when I saw anything pertaining to political matters I'd skip right through the pages. It's just in the past year and a half or so that I began to start to read the politically-themed pieces and this has sparked a real interest in American politics for me. A great cover story titled "Make Believe Maverick" by Tim Dickson last fall during the American election campaign about what a douchebag John McCain apparently is was a real eye opener...there was content in there that you just weren't reading or hearing about anywhere else (except for maybe the brilliant Daily Show). Another riveting recent feature from February titled "Bitter Pill" looked at the irresponsibility of the pharmaceutical industry in marketing a dodgy drug called Zyprexa, that was originally developed to treat schizophrenia, for use in kids.
So therein lies the dichotomy of Rolling Stone. Intelligent, thoughtful writing on deep matters offset with cover stories on the latest lightweights and flashes in the pan (recent examples: Lady Gaga, the cast of The Hills, Taylor Swift) as well as music legends (Springsteen, Dylan, U2) or at least artists of substance (Green Day and Kings Of Leon). This is nothing new...the 70's had their share of David Cassidy, Leif Garret and Bay City Rollers cover stories, too. As the magazine grows older and the younger demographic shrinks, one sees a bumpy road ahead for the old stalwart but for now they appear to have carved out a respectable niche in the declining print magazine world. Circulation has held steady at about 1.45 million since 2006 and an overdue change last year(reducing the magazine from their decades-old oversize format to a more traditional size) should improve newsstand sales, which only account for 8% of total sales. This number is well below the industry average and has been attributed to the fact the previous awkward size didn't exactly lend a helping hand in getting the magazine prime spots on the magazine racks. Apparently those types of things matter in the print world.
Aside from an occasionally annoying "list" issue, which other magazines such as Entertainment Weekly also rely on too frequently, Rolling Stone still remains a vital read for me.