Once 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 a writer who’s contributed to many of those magazines, as well as a few others! In this installment, he looks at the new issue of Vibe:
And so, after a yearlong run-up that included many lists of “25 Best Things” and haphazardly conceived, poorly designed “then and now” photo features in most issues, we have the 15th-anniversary “juice” issue of Vibe.
Man-o-manishevitz, do magazines love them some anniversaries. Let us count the ways:
- Longtime advertisers can be convinced to spend a premium, while new advertisers can be told that the anniversary issue is a great “jumping-on” point.
- When an issue is designated as such, the edit staff doesn’t have to worry about picayune matters regarding timeliness and can focus exclusively on the mag’s history.
- Edit staffers have an opportunity to impress upon readers the notion that the magazine and its legacy are eminently important.
In Vibe‘s case, they must, since there has been no gallop in the MSM to trumpet the fact that the mag has been around for 15 years. But whatever! Let ‘em pretend that it matters.
Appropriately enough, the issue is fronted by Jay-Z, a figure who has for two thirds of Vibe‘s lifetime embodied every artistic and aspirational ideal the mag holds dear. But Jay doesn’t look thrilled cutting the birthday cake on the front cover image, shot by Miko Lim: looking cheerful is not his thing, after all. The image on the flip (or back) cover, photographed by Leann Muller, is shot in black and white and is more, ahem, iconic.
Former XXL editor and ego trip founder Elliott Wilson, who is also editor-in-chief Danyel Smith’s husband, tails Jay to London and his headlining gig at the Glastonbury Festival. Wilson makes much of Jay’s longevity and centrality to hip-hop. He also notes Noel Gallagher’s stupid, nativist comment to the effect that Glastonbury should always and forever be about “guitar music” and witnesses Jay’s awesome onstage response. Vis-a-vis Gallagher’s comment, Wilson perpetrates a cheap, defensive taunt: “Hip-hop ain’t dead. Rock is dead.” Keyboard Krybaby doesn’t particularly get why hip-hop partisans at this late date insist that the genre is walled off from other idioms, in that he believes that hip-hop is a subset of rock and roll; here, Wilson seems at least as narrowminded as Gallagher. Otherwise, Wilson gets Jay to engage in the interview to a greater extent than in others KK read recently.
The other story of note is a follow-up of sorts to the magazine’s Obama cover last year. William Jelani Cobb, a Spelman college academic and author of the forthcoming book In Our Lifetime: Barack Obama and the New Black America, scribes “Who Ya With,” an examination of the black political establishment’s initial standoffishness w/r/t the candidate. It’s unfortunate that the piece is identically oriented to a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Democratic Party beat reporter Matt Bai. But Cobb, unlike Bai and the perpetually timid Times, at least alludes to why Jesse Jackson resents Obama enough to have remarked under his breath on Fox News that he wanted to “cut his nuts out” for “talking down to black people.”
Just by mentioning Jackson’s “extramarital drama,” Cobb gently suggests that Obama’s points w/r/t absentee fathers in the black community chafed Jackson, who sired a child with a former staffer, then had to be shamed into acknowledged doing so, thus becoming the John Edwards of 2001. Obama might as well have been talking down specifically to Jackson. Just as President Clinton must be angered that he is no longer the anointed star of the Dems, Jackson is now denied the top spot in black leadership to which he was accustomed, and he doesn’t like it. While Cobb made the point about Jackson’s absentee parenthood only in passing and should have emphasized it much more, that still beats the nervous nellies at the Times.
But apart from “It Was All A Dream,” a fashion spread comprising actors from the upcoming Biggie biopic Notorious, the rest of the issue is an assortment of best lists (15 “game-changing tracks since 1993″; “15 most definitive sportswear brands”; “the unfadeable 51,” a list of key albums from 1978 through 1993) and meditations on the wonder of Vibe itself. “Deep Cover” finds Ciara, T.I., Naughty by Nature’s Treach, and others reminiscing over their first time on the mag’s cover, whereas “The Originals” involves Diddy, Shaquille O’Neal, Beyoncé, Ice Cube, and KK’s beloved T-Pain (whom Vibe has evidently decided is a worthwhile artist) each discussing why they’re great.
Much more telling than any of those breezy strolls through Vibe-World is an unsigned piece titled “Cover Me Badd,” which analyzes 17 cover images that, in the staff’s judgment, have not aged well and are otherwise shitty. A March 2005 issue fronted by Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams is dismissed thusly: “We momentarily forgot what magazine we were making and decided to make this one. Twenty-five people in downtown NYC were psyched.” So… KK guesses that emphasizing the hook girl of Eve’s “Let Me Blow Your Mind” and a producer who dominated hip-hop for a while means that Vibe had lost its soul that month? Was Williams “over” by 2005? Or is it that many dopey white folks like Stefani?
More troublingly, an image of a wet, shirtless Usher in 1998 is described as “how you make sure no straight man (or grown and sexy woman) buys your magazine.” Vibe hardly is the only publication that fears the taint of homeroticism (KK knows of one gay editor who, upon taking the helm of a totemic mag, was instructed by his bosses that under no circumstances should it be perceived as a gay magazine), and many rappers may not approve of and then not cooperate with a magazine that’s sympathetic to the gay lifestyle. But it seems that such a jibe not only insults and invalidates every gay man that works or used to work for the mag, it suggests that Vibe doesn’t want gay readers, which is fairly insane at a time when mass-market publications need all the customers they can get.
In her editor’s letter, Smith thanks many of her staffers for designing “pages with elegance and grace.” KK doesn’t agree with Smith here, given his long-standing contention that the mag is packaged poorly and looks terrible: counterintuitive page design and worryingly mismatched colors abound in this issue as well. But she promises a redesign in the next issue, which KK hopes will address the headache he often gets when looking at Vibe.