Reviewing The “Rolling Stone” Reviews Section

Sep 13th, 2007 // 8 Comments

kanye50.jpgOnce again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a 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, a look at the new issue of Rolling Stone:

So here’s 50 Cent and Kanye West, right on time for Tuesday’s much-anticipated releases of Curtis and Graduation, on the cover of the Sept. 20 Rolling Stone. Brings back fond memories of Britain’s Battle Of Fall 1995, in which the unapologetically mercenary, loudly populist Oasis and the posh, self-consciously artiste-y Blur gleefully went along with a media-invented showdown, don’t it?

Your Correspondent is sure that the average Idolator visitor feels choked by commentary on Jackson vs. West. So indulge him, and he’ll also acknowledge that the following drifts from his bailiwick of limiting his comments on what music magazines are doing at a particular time.

The contretemps/marketing coup is clearly motivated not only by the differing philosophies and backgrounds of each rapper, but also that fact that the hip-hop community is very upset that the record industry’s meltdown has now reached its door. Most mainstream hip-hop artists pride themselves on being canny businessmen, so album sales’ recent tanking is of much concern.

You see hip-hop pundits complaining about songs being crafted for ringtone potential (presenting the bizarre argument that emphasizing shiny, instantly memorable hooks in popular music is bad); 50 Cent vowing to take his ball and go home if his album doesn’t outsell West’s (early reports suggest that Graduation is prevailing); and West, after promising to behave more like an adult when something doesn’t go his way, behaving childishly at the Video Music Awards.

YC writes these words from inside a cage, remunerated only by peanuts thrown his way by his Gawker Media keepers. Thus he’s not a very good businessman and cannot speak with a great deal of insight as to what very successful people–whether hip-hop artists or hedge fund managers–might think. He can only find himself in the curious position of suggesting that backpack rappers may be correct when they aver that making good art is the point. The music marketplace is now upended, and whether a piece of music sells in massive quantities is not the final indicator of its worth–nor has it ever been. Artists should be the best artists they can, continue to find effective ways to monetize what they do when existing methods fail, and let the major labels drown (50 Cent clearly doesn’t look at it that way, and if he does pack it in and turn to more prosperous activities, he’ll still have been a better artist than West in YC’s view).

Thank you! YC promises not to do that very much in the near future!

Anyway, a cover image of the two reflects the dominant popular music story of the third quarter, which is exactly what the dominant music magazine should be emphasizing–despite the likelihood that RS will probably take a hit on the newsstand, due to the longstanding and little-discussed tendency of white readers to avoid magazines featuring black cover subjects. Therein is a profile of 50 and a Q&A with West: writer Lola Ogunnaike ( a former reporter for the NYT whose extracurricular activities did not please her employers) doesn’t get the former to say anything much different than anything he’s said to any other outlet recently.

But Associate Editor Austin Scaggs sits down with West for a far more interesting interview: West mentions his fondness for porno twice, about which Scaggs doesn’t follow up; says that the Backstreet Boys must have got “a lot of good pussy, but good pussy is fleeting. What’s another word for ‘good pussy?’ “; talks about Coldplay, Modest Mouse and Portishead (which probably pleased Scaggs’ editors); and then suggests, somewhat oddly, that rock stars are less spoiled than rappers. Scaggs also asks RS‘ compulsory “What do you think of Bob Dylan” question, and what West, an inveterate jet-setter like himself, thinks of “pot, coke and ecstasy.” West doesn’t bite on either.

Now, YC would like to take a long-delayed look at the Rolling Stone reviews section. For the past two years or so, the pool of reviewers has shrunken so that it’s almost entirely composed of staffers and contract writers (favored freelancers appear very occasionally). Each issue includes cautious, fence-sitty reviews from younger staffers. Contributing editor Christian Hoard’s three star review of the Donnas’ Bitchin’ concludes that the band does what it has done for its entire history and that’s fine, which is essentially the judgment that RS is most comfortable with for non-superstar acts.

And as always, there’s David Fricke, a senior editor who YC believes is the longest-serving RS editorial staffer. This issue finds Fricke affixing his patented phraseology to a three-and-a-half star review of Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy (“amp death”; “drone tenor”) and a three-star appraisal of Peter Himmelman’s The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep (“stiletto-wit”). Fricke has trudged along so long in his dyed-in-the-wool rockist manner that YC can’t remember if he’s ever read him speaking ill of a record. He’s dependably respectful of artists that represent rockist verities, which is the RS way.

There are, however, two reviewers who are allowed off the leash, and both have come to dominate the section. First we have Rob Sheffield, a former colleague of executive editor Joe Levy from their days at Details, who for most of the past decade has served as Rolling Stone‘s resident snark merchant. Here, Sheffield waxes nostalgic for mid-’90s songstresses like Paula Cole and Meredith Brooks in the lead review, a three-and-a-half star assessment of Starbucks fave KT Tunstall’s Drastic Fantastic. He makes a good point that the Lilith Fair era was lousy with Tunstall’s ilk but that she seems unique now, and he depends little on his vomitous signature tic of quoting lyrics instead of offering insight. He’s also the author of the three-and-a-half star review of Curtis, which, like Deputy Managing Editor Nathan Brackett’s four-and-a-half star assessment of Graduation, is so timid that it suggests he wasn’t too keen on the record but was obliged to be positive about it, seeing as it would be bad form to not laud a cover subject’s new album.

Finally we come to one Robert Christgau. From the early 1970s to last year, Christgau sat impervious in his perch at the Village Voice, cultivating a dense, often bizarrely constructed style and a coterie of disciples whose slavish obeisance would have prompted one of Pauline Kael’s “Paulettes” to remark, “that is some blue-ribbon ass kissing.” The Village Voice‘s music editors in the late ’80s and ’90s tended to be his protégés; one of them was Levy, so Christgau’s main outlet since his firing from the Voice has been RS (he’s also a contributor to NPR).

YC is certainly not the first to ever attempt to explain Christgau, so he’ll just note that like many of his acolytes, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” seems to have spent more time–and may prefer–listening to records than he has interacting with other human beings. His three-star review of Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam is so oddly phrased that it suggests basic unfamiliarity with modes of communication other than his own, which often reads as if it was translated from 15th-century Slovenian.

To wit: the album “flash(es) more shards of tune to lure the coeds with Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart Lanterns over to their adamantly unkempt campfire.” Want more? “The welcoming ‘Peacebone,’ the energetic ‘Chores’ and the elated “Cuckoo Cuckoo’ might get a young leisure enthusiast to risk conversion at one of the grotty neo-primitivist orgies their shows are bruited to be.” Okay, now, hold on to your hats! “Then again, the ninety seconds of weirded-out solos organ ostinato that that then underlies or swallows three minutes of incomprehensible singing on ‘Winter Wonderland’ might inspire the same normal to stay home and and watch Seinfeld re-runs.”

Apart from the fact that the guy really has no business describing anything as “incomprehensible” after passages such as those, note how he terms the typical listener. That’s right: a “normal.” This could, at best, be someone who is only casually interested in music, at worst someone who isn’t moved to spend 40 years monomaniacally refining and re-refining his aesthetic via an ever more obscure, airless and baroque prose style. Sometimes it seems like music only exists for him so that he can grant his imprimatur upon it: he’s the great and powerful Xgau, and his opinion is final.

In a way, it’s pretty ballsy for Rolling Stone‘s editors to let Christgau ignore the strict stylistic template every other writer must follow: the average reader–a normal!–would get significant mental exercise from untangling his intent (and it should be noted that his three-and-a-half star review of The Vee Jay Collection is straightforward; maybe he doesn’t feel that he needs to show off when talking about old R&B). But Christgau is the elder statesman of rock criticism, and he is thus deferred to. Even in an issue where Rolling Stone leads with a story that emblemizes where music is right now, the baby boomers–even ones who have lived in a quasi-academic bubble for four decades–know best.

idolator

  1. Chris N.

    “… the ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’ seems to have spent more time–and may prefer–listening to records than he has interacting with other human beings.”

    And that’s why he rules.

  2. Cam/ron

    Christgau’s one-line record reviews for the Voice always amused me since they were so alien. I’d hate to say it, but the other Great Rock Critic, Lester Bangs’s reviews now come across as unprintable, self-indulgent gobbleygook.

  3. J DTZR

    Rob Sheffield always seems more concerned with getting in a bunch of one-liners and heinous puns into his reviews than with actually, you know, reviewing the CD at hand. We get it, honey, you’re a snarky bitch.

    And if you think David Fricke’s reviews are unintentionally humorous, you should see what the guy looks like in person. He wears glasses like Roger McGuinn and sports a ludicrous Prince Valiant hairdo that’s nearly identical to the one favored by Brian Jones, so I guess he’s really sticking it to all the guys who beat him up in high school back in 1966.

  4. Chris Molanphy

    Is it possible to respect Xgau and be thankful he’s around without actually enjoying his writing two-thirds of the time? That’s more or less how I’ve felt for a while now. I kind of wish RS did reign him in a shade more, just because when he’s forced to go short or go mainstream (i.e., imagining that more than 50 people in lower Manhattan are reading him), he’s superb.

    50 Cent clearly doesn’t look at it that way, and if he does pack it in and turn to more prosperous activities, he’ll still have been a better artist than West in YC’s view

    I had to re-read this three times to make sure I didn’t miss your seemingly indefensible point. I mean, I’ve stopped defending Kanye to most haters – yes, yes, he’s childish, overrated, self-aggrandizing, all that, yes, yes – but I must say I find it mind-boggling that someone of your obvious savvy would take the guy responsible for one very-good-but-not-genius album and a whole lot of single-entendre filler, over the work of Mr. Hubris. I mean, seriously – “Candy Shop” on the desert island instead of “Jesus Walks”? Seriously?! Wow. Just…wow. A major respect-killer in the middle of an otherwise excellent piece.

  5. natepatrin

    So has anyone determined if Austin Scaggs is any relation to Wenner pal Boz?

  6. DavidWatts

    @dennisobell: Yeah, I don’t want to assist in this becoming a 50 vs Kayne flame war, but on his work as a producer alone you have to put Kanye on top. If this were an abs and beverage-investing competition, however, the results might be different.

  7. Whigged

    @natepatrin:
    are you serious?

  8. SmedIndy

    Giving those 3 and 3 1/2 star reviews to records by the Donnas is the wimps way out. It never says if it’s any GOOD or not. I love the Donnas, but that review didn’t help me at all. But RS hasn’t had any balls in its review section since Creem ceased to be a true competitor.

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