Rock-Critically Correct: Examining The Latest “Spin” Cycle

May 10th, 2007 // 20 Comments

spinfestcover.jpgA few weeks ago, we introduced Rock-Critically Correct, a new feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe and Spin are given a once-over by an anonymous writer who’s contributed to several of those titles–or maybe even all of them! After the click-through, he/she examines the most recent issue of Spin:

Ahh…Spin. Whither Spin?

To one degree or another, all rock magazines traffic in entitlement, with the reader depending on the magazine’s august, privileged imprimatur as to what is worth their attention. But, boy-o-boy, did Spin‘s gate-keeping ever engender some hatred throughout the ’90s, based on the mag’s oft-elitist, “you are but a lowly Warrant enthusiast, and we will try to explain to you why the Swell Maps are so much better, but we don’t have high hopes” tone.

If Rolling Stone put Nirvana on the cover, then Spin championed Pavement. If the plebes went for ska and swing, then Spin would herald “electronica.” If matchbox twenty and Creed were the Clear Channel chosen by the masses, then Spin would opt for “real rock” bands that dovetailed with Blue State values and favored the definite article (the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines).

If the “rabble” chose anything, Spin turned up its nose in contempt–indeed, when covers featuring Mark McGrath, matchbox twenty and the infamous “Creed slathered in Crisco” appeared in the late ’90s/early ’00s, it seemed like a naked commercial ploy. One can imagine the editorial staff gritting their teeth over the sheer indignity of appealing to folks that had never cared to listen to college radio. All this became very wearying for anyone–from readers to musicians–who didn’t particularly like being talked down to.

To its credit, Spin‘s voice became less auntish at the end of the ’90s/early aughts. It probably had to, given that options presented by the device that you are currently gazing at compromised any claim to gate-keeping. Chiefly, Pitchforkmedia.com has usurped the magazine’s role as the jargon-spewing, indie-rock supremacist cabal of record, bent on preying on a music fan’s desire to be told whether it’s okay to like, say, Of Montreal this week. It seems like no magazine could possibly be as vulnerable to a web equivalent as Spin is to Pitchfork: other than financial information and porn, music is the perfect commodity to run rampant over the web, and Spin simply cannot be as nimble and responsive as Pitchfork, much less these social network things your correspondent’s niece is on all the damn time.

A year ago, Spin was sold by the Miller Publishing to San Francisco’s McEvoy Group/Hartle Media. In what seemed very much like a hostile takeover, MG/HM fired editor Sia Michel and brought in Andy Pemberton, who promptly fired much of Spin‘s staff and tried to install a more populist tone–or, alternately, tried to turn it into Blender, the magazine he had started in 2001 only to be fired in 2004.

Less than four months after taking the helm, Pemberton left Spin. The Beyoncé Knowles cover he had shepherded was held up by many indignant bloggers (including those at Gawker) as a betrayal of everything Spin stood for. In your correspondent’s estimation, this is more than a little unfair, inasmuch as featuring a woman who sang on the some of the most advanced pop music in the past decade as a cover subject shouldn’t really be looked upon as a betrayal of anything. But of course, she’s a pop star, and thus not a serious artist like those noted boundary-pushers the Shins. (That said, it’s well known, if rarely discussed openly, that magazines marketed towards white folks have a hard time on the newsstand when they dare to publish covers featuring, ahem, “urban” artists.)

So Spin has since returned to its prior focus: gee-tah bands! The May issue celebrates the summer festival season with a cover featuring six big alt dudes waiting on line for the porta-potty: AFI’s Davey Havok and RATM’s Tom Morello adopt coy, Tiger Beat-ish miens, while Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy looks at the two with bemused disgust, and Perry Farrell looks upwards in frustration. Meanwhile, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and the RZA are shunted off into the fold-out. Last week, your correspondent mentioned that group shots don’t do so hot on the newsstand: Daniel and Tweedy may be the darlings of Pitchfork-niks, but said Pitchfork-niks can’t be counted on to plunk down $3.99. Poor old Spin can’t win!

In the Ultimate Festival Guide package inside, each cover subject is pitched softballs about summer festivals, and each responds in kind (rock festivals are crowded, and you should be careful about which drugs you take, apparently). Then we move on to the same kind of Festival Dos and Don’ts that many other rock rags will include, and then it’s on to an oral history of the US Festival, a cocaine-orgy-with-rock-bands held in the summers of 1982 and 1983 and produced by Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Your correspondent is old enough to remember that MTV treated the US Festival as the BIGGEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN IN THE HISTORY OF ANYTHING at the time, but it’s been largely overlooked since. So this feature, which recounts David Lee Roth making fun of the Clash and Joe Strummer’s revolutionary rhetoric (“the Clash saved the world for about half an hour last night, ladies and gentlemen”) is fun.

The reviews section hits all the expected marks: highlighted new albums by Arctic Monkeys and Feist are endorsed with all the energy of a napping tree slug, and reviews for Dinosaur Jr., Mika, the Noisettes, and Bill Callahan trudge along dutifully.

There are two curious pieces in the issue. In a front-of-book interview that carries a whiff of “We don’t really like Linkin Park, but Warner Bros. is up our ass about their new album, and we may need a favor when we cover My Chemical Romance later”-style horse-trading, Chester Bennington is queried as to whether his band is trying to transition from rap-rock towards a certain genre populated by eyeliner-wearing crybabies. Leaving aside the self-evident truth that Linkin Park has always had as much to with emo as with rap-metal, Bennington answers “If people think we’re trying to change scenes, that’s good, because we are. But I wouldn’t say we’re trying to go for that specific scene.” If the interviewer, Trevor Kelley, asked Bennington which “scene” Linkin Park does want to be part of, the reader never finds out.

Then there’s a live review of Snow Patrol, an anthemic Scottish band so thunderously dull that they render Coldplay akin to Cannibal Corpse. The reviewer, Mikael Wood, never gets around to explaining what could be interesting about the Scottish band, other than the fact that SP had some proximity to Belle & Sebastian a decade ago. Your correspondent can’t figure out anything else.

Your correspondent would like to say that the non-smug, non-ideologically-indignant Spin is energizing, since your correspondent thinks that the time for ideologically driven rock mags is over. But your correspondent can’t at this time.

idolator

  1. Chris Molanphy

    I have small quibbles here and there, but overall this is a sound assessment of where SPIN went wrong. Nice job.

    I’d say that – weirdly – what started to kill SPIN in the ’90s was exactly what should’ve made them huge: the pop success of alt-culture. From the late ’80s through about 1992 or so, SPIN was almost untouchable – really smart and kind of naturally cool. Plus, they’d even put big pop people on the cover from time to time (Madonna, Lisa Stansfield, John Mellencamp) if they were worth Gen-Xers’ time to pay attention to. So it’s not like the 2006 Beyoncé image was the first time they’d had an interesting pop tart adorn their frontage.

    Then all of a sudden, after 1992, punk “broke,” and SPIN couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to be. They decided Perry Farrell was their ambassador of cool and put him on the cover twice a year (or so it seemed); and they started competing directly with Rolling Stone for subjects (the two mags raced to get an Alanis Morrisette cover out when she exploded in ’95). Their identity got so watered-down, it was hard to give a rat’s ass about them anymore.

    With rare exception – I actually thought most of the Sia Michel years were quite good – they never really recovered. Who knew? Bob Guccione Jr. was more important for their mojo than anyone realized.

  2. Dan Gibson

    By no stretch of the imagination am I hoping to defend Snow Patrol as an exciting and innovative act, but the “Dude, why are they popular?” meme is a bit tired. Someone had to close the Coldplay gap, and Lightbody, et al were smart enough to fill in.

  3. What it is

    There was definitely a time when Spin was a far better read than Pitchfork’s long-winded ego-stroking rants penned by creepy college radio GMs. And despite the excess of Yeah Yeah Yeahs-fawning perpetrated by the Sia Mitchell-era Spin around 02-04, the magazine was worlds better than the crap they publish now. I would take the old slightly holier-than-thou Spin of years past than post-Pemberton gobbledygook. uh oh, I said gobbledygook…now I need to go write for Pitchfork.

  4. Chris N.

    I think sometimes you have to hear a band a lot before you realize just how dull they are. What seems evocative at first can be wearying upon repeated exposure.

  5. Chris N.

    Also, that cleavage-y shot of Alanis in her first Spin cover story got me through some tough times.

  6. Campbell

    Somehow, I think this was very therapeutic for the correspondent. They showed an impressive history of the magazine, therefore I surmise they’ve probably taken a few pay checks from Spin. However, the apparent vitriol from the outset left no doubt that when they eventually, finally, get to reviewing the issue that the product wasn’t going to get a fair shake. Nothing Spin could have written would have satisfied this reviewer, but I guess that’s what you get with anonymous resources.

  7. Juancho

    Spin could’ve taken another turn into obscurity and become Alternative Press, so there you go.

    I’ll confess, the first thing I read is the travelogues in the back, it’s given me some good places to visit in other cities.

  8. Lucas Jensen

    I honestly wonder if anybody actually reads Pitchfork these days because it really isn’t that rant-y, poorly written, or whiny. At least in my estimation. I think most of their reviews are (gulp) fair. I really don’t buy the commonly held assumptions made by them. I know most of those people and nary a one is a creepy college radio GM, to my knowledge.

    Also, the Beyonce cover had nothing to do with race, man. It had to do with the fact that the graphic design was awful. The Chili Peppers cover was even more offensive.

    I, too, thought the Sia Michel years were good. SPIN still reviews more kinda-obscure indie bands than Rolling Stone or Blender.

  9. AquaLung

    Was a big fan of ’02-’04 Spin.

    Pemberton was scary, but it seems like they’ve rebounded a little since, although still searching for an identity again.

    I’ve never seen someone ruin a perfectly decent product so quickly like Pemberton. He had to have been high.

    He literally destroyed all the qualities I liked about Sia’s Spin within two issues and I cancelled my subscription shortly after. It was ungodly.

    I couldn’t take looking at Pemberton’s smug mug in the letter from the editor with a note like, “Hey, it’s Pembo. We’ve changed some things. I’ve been skiing in Aspen and partying with Ben Folds. ‘Til next month!”

    Guy has to be one of the biggest d-bags in the media right now.

  10. What it is

    @AquaLung: indeed.
    And RE: “I honestly wonder if anybody actually reads Pitchfork these days because it really isn’t that rant-y, poorly written, or whiny. At least in my estimation. I think most of their reviews are (gulp) fair. I really don’t buy the commonly held assumptions made by them. I know most of those people and nary a one is a creepy college radio GM, to my knowledge.”
    Many of my fellow college radio staffers were Pitchfork writers…their reviews were about dropping the most obscure reference they could to show their super-indie-chops…very tiring. But I never said that the overall reviews lacked fairness, just pretty annoying execution.

  11. What it is

    @Lucas Jensen: Okay listen: I stand by my statement that the issue is not in the fairness of the Pitchfork reviews, it’s just that if you read Pitchfork be prepared for a little “sorry you’re not cool enough to get it” condescension–it simply comes with the territory. And by the way, anyone who did college radio (myself included!) knows “that guy” who’s the music-head odd ball that’s a little bit creepy and a little bit preachy. A great deal of Pitchfork content could be “that guy’s” rotation reviews plucked straight from the offices.

    But I still think that we need Pitchfork–they fill many gaps in the world of music criticism, I mean hell, we all read it don’t we? Pitchfork is just the site we all love to hate. This is not news.

  12. Bob Loblaw

    That’s a strong rant, Lucas. Nice.

  13. What it is

    Bob Loblaw, you have the absolute best comment name.

  14. Bob Loblaw

    So. Many. Compliments being thrown around. Disorienting. Must. Find. My anger…

    (But thanks.)

  15. Hertz32

    Alternative Press went from covering real music to mall punk.

  16. What it is

    yes, but let’s call it by that oh-so-fun term: mallcore

  17. nonce

    @Lucas Jensen:

    I’ve read Pitchfork for years near the time when it was clear AP and Spin weren’t worth the time/cost but it’s clear, from reading closely, that as the other aspects of the site have grown, the reviews have gotten consistently weaker and weaker.

    The issue is not the blustery prose, which: whatever. The issue is that the reviews have gone from honest to strategic: they’re like gossip columns written by overeducated Lester Bangs fans. I used to head to the ‘fork for reviews, and now I completely avoid them.

  18. Lucas Jensen

    I’m gonna say it re: Pitchfork: I think you guys are full of shit.

    Sorry, but people like you conflate a bunch of similarly-minded writers and editors into the huge indie cred-scarfing beast that is PITCHFORK and that is just patently NOT the case. Dude, just because some college radio people ended up at Pitchfork doesn’t mean that they were all involved or whatever. You use college radio involvement as an ad hominem when it suits you, but the fact of the matter there is that even within college radio there is more diversity than one can imagine. And to assume that Pitchfork has some overarching “strategy” is just wrong, too. What? That strategy to give music like Feist an 8.8? Ballsy (and wrong) in my opinion. But where’s the strategy in that?

    IN FACT, I want to hear it. I want to hear the Pitchfork Strategy. Give it to me.

    I am so sick of hearing about how “they” do this and “they” choose that. Sure, editorial decisions in terms of coverage absolutely give the site a “feel” or thematic consistency or whatever. But, man, you can diss the writing and you can not like their coverage of things, but to presume that a group of 50 people getting paid not very much somehow comes together and develops some “strategic” gossip-raggish reviews section is ludicrous. God, those gossips like Mark Richardson and Jess Harvell and Stephen Deusner! Oh, man, those guys are out of control. Stylus trashes twice as much stuff and no one ever gives them shit.

    I honestly believe that Pitchfork, whether you like it or not, delivers more content in a day than just about any site out there. And the whole “they used to be good but now they suck” argument is so hard to call that I’m gonna need some empirical evidence to even entertain it. Like, are they less sucky now than when they gave Boy With An Arab Strap a 2.0 or Save Ferris above a 9?

  19. DJorn

    Jensen-

    Stylus gets trashed regularly for exactly the opposite: giving positive reviews to teen-pop fluff. Read the comments sometime.

  20. Lucas Jensen

    Read the comments sometime? Where are these “regular” Stylus trashings? I’ve been coming to Idolator since Day One, but I do miss things. I would agree with you about their teen pop stuff. BUT I would also say that they never catch crap for their VERY harsh indie rock reviews. Which is fine. I’m saying that P4k gives something a 5.9 or something and people freak out and start yelling Bitchfork, even though that’s above average. No one does the same with any other site, probably because they ain’t #1.

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