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 Blender:
Anono-Prick has banged on and on over the past year that he would prefer that music magazines emphasize the vastness and variety of music, instead of refining and re-refining a pop music canon.
And so the December ‘08/January ‘09 Blender is centered around “1001 Greatest Songs to Download Now,” a package consisting of various playlists; some are compiled by the mag’s staff, others from the likes of Taylor Swift, Fall Out Boy, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, Jenny Lewis, Big Boi, Ryan Adams, Hayley Williams, Chris Brown, and Dan Deacon.
While none of the playlists interested AP particularly (RAtM’s Tom Morello likes music to have either bitchin’ shredding or sentiments worthy of the Pacifica Radio Network; get this man some Donna Summer quick!), the idea suits him fine. One of the very few duties with which he was entrusted when working for the mag was interviewing artists about music that they liked.
But the cover image the mag uses to illustrate the package is telling. It’s a collage that includes 16 mass-market recording artists, six of whom neither released any music this year nor were otherwise front-and-center in 2008. Typically, Blender will go with this kind of cover for its year-end wrap-up issue: the package is appended by “The 33 Best Albums of 2008,” which most likely was assembled by the middle of last month and thus ignores Chinese Democracy, I Am… Sasha Fierce, 808s & Heartbreak, and other albums that might make some sort of impact in the next month and a half. (Unsurprisingly, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III tops the list.)
Which is to say that Blender’s choices for a suitable, big-deal artist to put on its cover this month were pretty lousy. In the unlikely event that Axl Rose should consent to an interview anytime soon, Rolling Stone will have dibs. Same goes for Nickelback, the Canadian butt-rock standard bearers that a large portion of Blender’s target readership likes, but a band that the East Coast Rock Critic Establishment, despite its sporadic approval of lowbrow culture, continues to sneer at. The mag dealt with Kanye West last year, and AP assumes that Blender’s staff has surveyed the singing stripper landscape and found it wanting. So, given that this issue appears to its last until late 2008/early 2009, Blender seems to be saying “Fuck it, maybe things will look up by January.”
Like hell. Things will not be looking up in 2009. Blender was conceived and introduced in 2001, when there was still a vague consensus in popular music. Many backwards-baseball cap wearing young men may not have liked the music produced and marketed in the name of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, and Jessica Simpson, but more than a few would at least pay each the kind of attention involving a helping of Jergens and a tissue or two. More substantively, Eminem’s moment was Blender’s moment.
But the last four years have seen popular music atomize further. And while Rolling Stone claims the “heritage artists” and the tweeny-boppers, Spin gets the bloggerati’s faves, and Vibe has r&b and hip-hop artists on lockdown, Blender now ends up with the shortest straw.
Rob Sheffield’s “Station to Station” column addresses all this. AP winced when he saw “Hail Britney, Full of Grace”: he was sure Sheffield was going to natter away condescendingly for several hundred words as to Spears’ android vocalizations via “Womanizer” and her vagina. And so he does, until he connects her dogged, Elvis-esque survival to the demise of TRL and makes a lucid, if not at all revelatory, point.
TRL staggered on to into an era when the whole fantasy of ‘total’ pop has broken down, along with the idea of pop music that reaches more than one niche… Britney presided over the breakdown of radio and MTV as delivery systems for music, a breakdown that had a much bigger effect on the music world than downloading ever did… even an “Umbrella” is pretty escapable.
Although AP suspects that a musical consensus exists for teenagers and tweens, what Sheffield says here is true for listeners in their 20s-40s. AP shares his dismay and is glad that Sheffield is willing to make a meaningful point once in a while. (AP should also add that a consensus occurring amongst the general public is not the same as the canon-building referenced above.)
But his words do not augur well for Blender. This turns out to have been a hell of a time for his pal, Blender EIC Joe Levy, to leave his gig at Rolling Stone; out of all the publications discussed in this space, RS is best equipped to weather the seismic changes wrought by The Device You Are Gazing At, among other things.
Don’t worry about Levy and Sheffield just yet. Were Blender to undergo layoffs, Levy would pick who stays and who goes. And AP wouldn’t be surprised if Levy believed it cost-efficient to have Sheffield write the whole goddamn mag: he scribes marquee reviews for Fall Out Boy’s Folie A Deux, Nickelback’s Dark Horse, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless, and probably wrote most of the quippy capsules for many of the songs in the staff-created playlists mentioned above. As a contributing editor, Sheffield more than likely has a contract to write X amount of words per year, and contract writers are generally less vulnerable than staffers during the types of layoffs now roiling the magazine industry.
(AP should add that when he worked for Blender, Dennis Publishing considered practices common to American magazines bloated, and prided itself on keeping staff at each of its mags small, in line with British publishing conventions. AP hopes for the current Blender staff’s sake that this ethic may still be in effect under the stewardship of current owners Alpha Media Group, and that layoffs may not be necessary right now.)
And so Levy closes out his first year at the helm of Blender. He might be hoping that 2009 will give him a mulligan, but it doesn’t seem likely, does it?
A couple notes:
1. Senior editor Jonah Weiner pens an “Every Original Album Reviewed and Rated” survey of the Pixies in the issue. To his dying day, AP will never fathom why anyone thinks this band is special in any way.
2. The “Greatest Songs Ever” slot in the mag’s front-of-Bbook section describes Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” as the “funkiest song ever written about trolling for hookers.” If it were true that the song concerns whoring, this would be incorrect. The tune is about picking wimmen up at the singles bar during the apex of the sexual revolution in the 1970s, and as such prostitution is not implied.