The Good, Bad and Ugly of Rolling Stone’s Big “New Era”
Now, I have been subscribing for years through one of those ultra-cheap package deals and while I often have complaints about their music coverage, Matt Taibbi’s epic political rants and Tim Dickinson’s dogged reporting on environmental issues have compensated somewhat. Once in a while there is even a Mikal Gilmore article, often an in-depth interview or an obituary, that would be a captivating return to glory days.
So, it came as a complete surprise when I slid the weighty July issue out of my mailbox, immediately enjoying its perfect-bound heft and the almost suede-like feel of the cover. Those are both emphatic “pros” to what the Jann S. Wenner calls “A New Era for Rolling Stone” in his Editor’s Letter. Here’s a quick rundown on the rest of it – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The new format, at 9.75” x 11.75” nearly a return to the 10”x12” size of the 70’s – 90’s, really allows the design team to shine. Led by Design Director Joseph Hutchison and Creative Director Jodi Peckman, the layouts are crisp and contemporary, with excellent typography and sidebars or other matter to break up the page. Illustrations by stalwarts like Victor Juhasz and Matt Mahurin look fantastic at this scale and a photo essay by the great Sebastião Salgado brings the heyday of Life Magazine to mind.
Editorially speaking, there are also some positive developments. The first section, somewhat unimaginatively called The Mix, is a lively combination of music and movie industry news and short pieces about actors, musicians and bands old and new. There’s a new spread called The Breakdown, which features an excellent infographic by Valerio Pellegrini about music biz revenue trends – thankfully legible at this size. National Affairs now gets more coverage, with a feature-length article, two op-eds and some graphics. At the back of the book, The Reviews section has also been expanded, covering over 20 new albums at varying levels of detail, along with a two-page catalog overview, in this case focusing on Stevie Wonder. Film and television receive more coverage as well, with a similar combination of short takes and essays. With more content than ever flooding pop culture, these are steps RS needed to take to be of better service to their readers. On the same tip, it was great to see Kali Uchis and Snail Mail, who have made a couple of the best debut albums of 2018, get some ink, even if it was mostly used for attractive pictures.
Page count overall has been increased by more than 50 percent, making room for three long feature articles, the cover story about Cardi B and Offset, an even longer piece about Johnny Depp, and a rundown of the Songs Of The Century. The Depp piece, by Stephen Rodrick, is just the kind of article that can generate buzz these days and also uses some of the New Journalism techniques RS popularized in the 70s. While it generated plenty of online chatter, it was ideally read in print, where you can luxuriate in the prose and pictures without the distraction that can come with the endless scroll. This is the kind of article that justifies hard-copy long form journalism, at least in the realm of pop culture.
As happy as I was to pull this beefed up issue out of my mailbox, my heart sank a little when I saw the cover. Not because it courted controversy with a half-naked pregnant woman (it’s been done before) and not because I don’t think RS should cover hip hop (it should), but simply because it seemed redundant. After all, both Migos and Cardi B had covers of their own in recent months and are still in the same album cycles as when those were printed. Putting this “Hip-Hop Love Story” on the cover brings all of Rolling Stone’s editorial issues about pandering and audience front and center.
Reading this Us Magazine-level article, along with reviews of pop crap like 5 Seconds Of Summer and Rob Sheffield’s embarrassing Taylor Swift brown-nosing in such a big, beautiful publication is just plain confusing. Who is this for?, I kept wondering. Do Taylor Swift fans care what Sheffield thinks? Are serious music fans going to be convinced to listen to Swift or Shawn Mendes because RS endorsed them? Isn’t everyone sick of interviews with that genial purveyor of tired arena-rock, Dave Grohl, whose membership in one of the greatest bands of all time is starting to seem like a cruel joke? And finally, does Rolling Stone want to help define the culture or just continue chasing it? These are all questions I would hope editor Jason Fine is contemplating. It just seems faintly ridiculous to be reading about AM radio throwaways in a periodical that’s suitable for shelving.
Ads for vape pens and chewing tobacco look even more low-rent at increased size.
Except for the amateurish (and uncredited) author thumbnails of Sheffield, Taibbi and Peter Travers, the new-look RS is a visual triumph. Editorially speaking, they still have some work to do. Now that it’s a monthly, and they don’t have to churn out an issue every two weeks, they have the luxury of time to find their footing in that area. Then, maybe conversations will center around when people started reading Rolling Stone again.