Loving (and Hating) Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone is awesome and awful.

In the 1980s, growing up anywhere outside a major city meant limited -- or virtually zero -- access to things deemed cool. Rolling Stone provided a much-needed spiritual link to the world outside suburban or rural America, then dominated by cookie-cutter record stores and mainstream culture crafted in corporate boardrooms. Many small towns would not even allow MTV onto the ultra-conservative cable systems run by characters quite similar to John Lithgow in Footloose.

In a world of stifling conformity, Rolling Stone brought culture to the hinterlands in a big, oversized package. It served as a lifeline. The magazine not only covered popular culture, but actually defined culture in those pre-web days. Rolling Stone felt like contraband, passed around and through various high school cliques. That glimpse into the larger world seemed priceless.

Looking back, Rolling Stone provided culture-starved readers two things they could not get anywhere else: a portrait of artists as human beings, and because the covers and photographs were so good, the power of visual culture. We learned about R.E.M. and U2 via Rolling Stone and waited for the “Yearbook” and “Hot” issues to relish in the joys of the best photography we had ever seen.

In college, all these kids passing around Rolling Stone were tacking covers up on walls. Many images grew into iconic photos representing the age -- nearly naked Janet Jackson in black and white or the Nirvana album cover announcing a new sheriff in town about to wipe out hair metal and its inauthentic excesses.

Hating Rolling Stone is tough.

As an adult, reading Matt Taibbi on the Iraq War, its insider coverage of Great Recession wrongdoings, or historian Sean Wilentz’s celebrated takedown of President George H.W. Bush as the worst to ever hold the office provided new insight into the most important topics the nation faced. At the same time, though, these pieces and many more like them seemed to have little or no dent on the national conversation.

Back in all those small towns, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative talk radio won the hearts and minds by railing against the kinds of things Rolling Stone seemed to embody. The magazine continued to preach to people already onboard with its agenda, its readers willingly surrendered the media battlefield to conservative forces. Rolling Stone did not rally people to stand up to the other side, which aggressively fought for the middle of the nation.

Losing relevance is one thing, but the many high-profile scandals takes Rolling Stone loathing to a different level. “A Rape on Campus,” published in November 2014 set off a nationwide uproar regarding sex crimes on college campuses, and sparked a much-needed dialogue. As a result, countless institutions set up new systems for reporting and dealing with these challenges. Yet, over the next several months, the story unraveled as The Washington Post and Charlottesville police determined that the gang rape never occurred. The hoax, which seems to have been an elaborate catfishing plot by the accuser, forced Rolling Stone to retract the story and apologize. The fabrication also set off a series of lawsuits that will keep the magazine in the news for all the wrong reasons for years to come.

Although lurching from 18 months of bad publicity, Rolling Stone again hit a nerve when it allowed actor/activist Sean Penn to secretly meet with and interview notorious fugitive/drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán. After a fierce gunfight, drug officials caught El Chapo prior to the long article running in Rolling Stone, but its seemingly empathetic tone thrust the magazine back into the negative spotlight.

The interview lit up social media, with heavy doses of mockery for Penn and the magazine, while journalists and journalism scholars debated the magazine’s willingness to run the piece and the ethical implications. The latter centered on Rolling Stone editors allowing El Chapo to approve the piece before publication, a violation of one of journalism’s most sacred tenets. Editor/publisher Jann Wenner seems to dismiss such criticism, despite the bad consequences he and the magazine he co-founded in 1967 faces.

Though not as nefarious as the big scandals, there is another reason to frown on the magazine’s influence on modern American journalism – the Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting. My reaction to the model is that it can be either a.) somewhat humorous, or b.) provoke an I-just-threw-up-a-little-in-my-mouth moment. 

"The Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting."

Rolling Stone’s coverage of David Bowie following his recent death provides good examples of the RS formula. For example, Brian Hiatt’s “The Final Years,” begins with an on-the-scene portrait of Bowie seemingly experiencing his first major health crisis, the 2004 heart attack while on stage in Prague. This kind of breathless insider info, even covering the profile’s internal thinking (“he found himself struggling for breath”), is now routine in entertainment pieces. We see this in the almost mandatory description of where the reporter and interviewee met for lunch and what he or she ate and wore.

Mikal Gilmore’s profile of Bowie’s life and influence is even more formulaic, bouncing between solid criticism and too-smart-by-half interjections purposely designed to establish the writer’s superiority over the uncultured, unknowing reader. In discussing the singer’s The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Gilmore astutely explains it “was a strange, paranoid and philosophical album. Bowie was now working largely in electric rock & roll -- hard and dissonant, and not quite like anybody else’s.”

However, the RS formula necessitates that commercial success be downplayed at the expense of “artistic” work. Gilmore calls Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance (1983) global superstardom “a confusing creative trail” that resulted in “indifferent-sounding albums…that met with little esteem.” For Gilmore, the singer redeems himself after Black Tie White Noise (1993), which led to “a series of ambitious, occasionally brilliant, albums.”

The conundrum seemingly always on hand for Rolling Stone writers is how to tone down the thing that makes an entertainer popular, which is the reason they are being profiled, while also balancing the insider snapshots and snarky criticisms. Because the magazine gained wide popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when many journalism professors studied or were working professionals, they have passed this formula down to two generations of writers. The result is a wildfire of mechanical pieces all within the Rolling Stone guise. Very little is gained or learned, because the formula demands little of the writer or subject. It’s not writing; it’s patchwork. Unfortunately, the formula is now at the center of all entertainment -- we see it in reality television and many mainstream films and novels. There is little to challenge the audience, because the formula is ubiquitous.

Rolling Stone stands at a crossroad for many readers. Is it possible to stay in love with a magazine that meant so much, but now seems to be slipping out of touch? For countless readers, Rolling Stone helped create and construct a worldview and provided something that at one time seemed exotic and exciting. Perhaps it is time to throw it out with the nostalgic bathwater.