The latest Rolling Stone was released released, featuring a cover sub-line of “40 Reasons to Be Excited about Music,” under a headline called “The State of Rock.” Their top reason, and the subject of this issue’s cover, is the Black Eyed Peas. While the implication is that they’re calling Black Eyed Peas rock, and that they are clearly wrong for doing such a thing, what’s more troubling is that the list itself has very little to do with actual music.
The argument has been around for quite some time now, that not only has Rolling Stone become the epitome of dinosaur, irrelevant rock journalism (and even worse magazine journalism), but their desperate attempts to remain within the flow of mainstream pop music are embarrassing for a magazine with such a storied reputation of being representative of everything alternative. As somebody who adores the music they championed back in day (and David Fricke’s regular ‘Fricke’s Picks’ record reviews of usually psych stuff), I’ve frequently denied that Rolling Stone is the magazine equivalent of an old man at a little league game: nobody’s sure how he got there, or if he even has any related grandchildren playing, but it’s creepy that he’s here and nobody wants him around looking at everyone else’s children. Between their efforts to remain relevant and Spin’s own snarky holier-than-thou fickleness, I chose Rolling Stone for their reputation built on progression with respect for tradition. Lately, their reporting and reviews have been pretty spot on. In particular, only two issues ago were they discussing the final days of Jimi Hendrix and reviewing “Valleys of Neptune,” and included a special report that was fairly even-handed look at the legalization of marijuana. However, this issue confirmed to me what I knew for the past few years: rock journalism is as dead as rock and roll.
David Fricke opens the issue with an introduction citing that rock and roll is at a crossroads (pun possibly intended?), and that the true spirit of rock is change, even further away from what it once was. Alright, fine, there’s nothing to argue with there, until you read the actual list. If you keep in mind that they are calling this list the “40 Reasons to Be Excited About Music,” you quickly realize that many of these reasons have nothing to do with music itself, but with innovations of the music business — how music is made, packaged, and sold. All together, the list reads as a compilation of little strands of possibly potential pieces that could, maybe work, but wound up not working for a full piece. It’s a lazy list, alright, and many of their reasons are absolute crap.
Most offensively of all, is the Black Eyed Peas. Not because of they’re considered rock by implication. Not because they a single band, capable of being subject to opinions. It’s offensive because rather than explain why the Black Eyed Peas are the best reason to be excited for music, the piece is instead a profile of Will.I.Am (who will, from here on will only be referred to as ‘William’), and his ability to market himself and his group. Not about how he makes music (there is a mention about how the music is “actually complex” and “deceptively simple” [yes. . . ‘Let’s Get Retarded’ is indeed a musical onion, isn’t it]), but how he makes it available to the masses by making it commercial-ready.
There’s no point in having the sell-out argument. If Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is available to peddle vodka, Led Zeppelin can hock Caddies, and Pete Townshend has retroactively become the next Mike Post, then there’s no point in complaining about music being available for jingles. It’s sad for both parties concerned (putting actual commercial music writers out of business, and the artists to have to resort to a quick sell for cash), but in the end, its their music. Pete Townshend has repeated thousands of times that he doesn’t give a fuck for the emotional investment you have in his work, because he’s the one who created it. He can do what he wants. And I for one never minded hearing “Rock and Roll” as Escalades whizzed by on a black-and-white video of a closed course. To me, selling music for commercials do not take away the spirit of why the song was written. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Jack White hasn’t sold a song he’s already recorded yet, but he did write a jingle for Coca-Cola (I think it only aired in Australia — and it’s actually really good). So it doesn’t bother me that everything that William does sounds like it’s only missing the voice over saying “Smirnoff” at the end.If that’s his style, fine, and I’m not going to object to whatever he does with his work.
But the key difference is that this is all he does, and this is why Rolling Stone praises him. Rolling Stone’s best reason to be excited for music is that we finally have a songwriter who skips the process of writing for the sake of making creatively fulfilling music. If he spent half the time at the boards that he spends in the board room, I perhaps wouldn’t be so offended that this group of prefabricated posers and pretenders is chosen as the most exciting thing in music if it weren’t for the fact that they are the lowest common denominator of music. No, I’m not shocked at a group having a prepared image — the Beatles were molded in Brian Epstein’s vision, I know this. The Monkees were less secretive about it, and right up to the Spice Girls is pop music history littered with tailor-made groups.
I’m shocked that the process of being artificial is embraced. To people like Williams, it’s a wonderful thing to come prepackaged and marketed, forget the music. The concept of “music” does not exist so much as the magazine portrait of the rock star does, and as long as you see him, an album may exist on speculation, and that’s fine. Nevermind that it’s mindless rubbish — he makes it available to the masses, on the cheap.
And on top of this, Rolling Stone lauds him for being a fucking clown who knows how to wear a suit and work a room full of executives. What makes this so dangerous to Rolling Stone is that they’re following this bullshit assumption that if one artist is given credibility by appearing alongside other established musicians, they must be talented in their own right. So to help give Chris Norris credit to William as the freshest hot pile, he alludes to his connections to Prince, Bono, and (prior to his death) Michael Jackson — all of whom, in their current state, exist as holdovers of 80’s nostalgia. You cannot tell me for a fucking minute that anything U2 does currently is relevant music, or even interesting by the standard of curiosity. BUT: If William is hanging out with all of these guys, and they all seem to like him, he must have talent, right?
What we have is a collapse of two passions of mine, and one passion I thought I shared with the other. It is unique, but embarrassingly so, to praise a musical artist for their business acumen. And in doing so, Rolling Stone, as the most senior (and perhaps, authoritative, if seniority is synonymous with true mastery, even if the craft on which they report is ever-changing), has effectively slayed the hope that rock music, in its truest form, could ever hold reign again. While the list as a whole does include specks of that hope floating around, by praising the business for being the business, rock is officially, without a doubt, 100%, certifiably, dead. And if rock is dead, so is credible rock criticism. And the list goes down from there.
About a year ago, I had the incredible fortune to interview Nicole Laurenne and Johnny Walker of the Love Me Nots. In the interview, they told me that, they hate to say it, but rock and roll is more appreciated in Europe (specifically, France) than it is here in the States, and it may as well be that way forever. I can dig that, considering the French and their history of revolutions and such. And as much as I hate to say it alongside them, I agree with Nicole and Johnny. The French love America’s art forms more than the Americans do.
What I can take away from this whole article, are two things: 1) Perhaps I should not take things so seriously, lest I want to write pages of interminable critical essay (and I do anyway) and 2) the only hope I have to preserve rock and roll as a medium of expression (and by extension, rock criticism) is to lead by example, and warn to take everything with a grain of salt, calm down, and proceed to pick up my guitar and play. Or in this case, take out my pen and write.
Rock is dead they say. Long live rock.