By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Delightful, maybe, but not revolutionary. Nonexistent reader attention spans have forced every major magazine outside of The Economist to embrace this Las Vegas-style visual excess, and the Tiger Beat treatment can only aid the Stone in shaking its rockin'-grandma image. Nonhysterical readers also welcomed Needham's enlargement of the reviews section --101 discs went under the knife (albeit a dull butter knife) within the Vines issue. A no-brainer: Any mag pursuing "official arbiter of taste" status should arbit its taste on everything.
Of course, that didn't fix one of Rolling Stone's most glaring weaknesses: biteless reviews. Critically, the mag's exhaustive but no more opinionated; even a negative two-star write-up spills beer all over itself issuing qualifiers and caveats and kind words designed to soothe publicists just in case LeAnn Rimes' new record turns out to be a hit and a salivating/dunderheaded fashion spread is called for.
Equally disturbing is the "Ooh, Mick, please let us do your laundry" factor -- certain "heritage" artists are more likely to spontaneously combust than endure a discouraging word from Rolling Stone. Thus Bruce Springsteen gets a fawning cover and a once-rare five-star "classic" rating for The Rising, a feat of glad-handing that unfortunately pales in comparison to the five-star slobber treatment RS publisher Jann Wenner himself foisted on Mick Jagger's truly awful solo bomb Goddess in the Doorway last year.
We hope Mick liked your review, Jann. Until you stop caring about his opinion, it's hard to care about yours.
Therefore you can count on Keith Richards' prune-face countenance gracing Rolling Stone's cover from time to time, just as you can count on the utter catastrophe that will befall our nation's collective libido as a result. The flip side to that equation is even more inevitable. The magazine delights in hunting down our society's most attractive and winsome young starlets (Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Love Hewitt) and slapping them on the cover in garish makeup seemingly applied by a drive-thru car wash.
Sex sells, and Rolling Stone will always sell it. But the mag has never looked sexy doing it. And loading another goddamn "Women in Rock" issue with rockin' tight-pants cheesecake shots of Britney Spears and Shakira will only result in high-pitched hoots of derision and Joan Jett's foot up your ass.
But we're used to all that. Instead, media critics intent on savaging Needham's maiden RS voyage savaged the "good ol' boy with a giant boner" strain that instantly infected the mag's writing. Public enemy number one was a story from the Vines issue described on the cover as "Bound, Gagged and Loving It," in which a writer engaged the services of a yuppie business that literally "kidnaps" you and subjects you to all sorts of physical/mental/sexual anguish, the details of which you specify ahead of time. Published responses ranged from amused ("... likely marks the first time the phrase 'big black dildo' has appeared on that page twice") to enraged ("one of the stupidest, most worthless pieces of journalism you'll ever read in a national magazine").
Rolling Stone will always roll starlets through the hoochie-makeup car wash and mindlessly chase musical trends (the Vines indeed) and slap George W. around mercilessly with its consistently biased political coverage. But it's this sort of big-black-dildo-waving prurience that critics fear will characterize the Needham era. But what's truly telling about the infamous kidnapping story is the magazine it really should've appeared in.
The Sneering Contender: "Bound, Gagged and Loving It" undeniably felt like a Maxim piece. Financially, that's a compliment. Maxim is without question the industry success story of the past ten years, a men's-magazine empire that shoots from the hip and aims at the boobs. It's the official magazine for dudes, which means celebrity babes in bikinis on the cover and all manner of guy stuff (sports, beer, gadgets, wise-ass jokes, what-the-hell-is-that-about features and more celebrity babes in bikinis) on the pages within. Testosterone personified. Crass and base as it is, a true master stroke that's cleared the way for a virtually identical spin-off title (Stuff) and -- yes, indeed -- a music mag. Blender's the name, and it's the hottest competition in town.
Two things become immediately apparent when one cracks open Blender. First, it closely resembles, both in design and attitude, the two British mags that most true music snobs now turn to when they get sick of Rolling Stone: Q and Mojo. Second, a mere twelve issues into the game, Blender has had a similar influence on its own American competition. Shorter articles? Smarmy captions? Flashy, almost childlike graphics? Gimmicky features? (Blender recently surveyed "The Most Disastrous Albums of All Time," declaring Mariah Carey's Glitter the winner). Exhaustive review sections? The general feeling that this whole magazine was written and produced during an all-night frat party? If Blender stole its game from Q and Mojo, the regal RoSpin guard is now liberally stealing from it.
It's a wee bit disconcerting. Sure, November's Blender cover story really consists of a salivating/dunderheaded LeAnn Rimes fashion spread. But the "disastrous albums" thing is pretty great, and these clowns are actually serious when they present "33 Things You Should Know About Tori Amos." Factor in the mother of all review sections (240 discs reviewed, including, for no apparent reason, every solo CD John Lennon ever made), and Blender proves it can slap a topless LeAnn Rimes on the cover and still behave as intelligently, creatively and respectably as any of its "professional" competition.