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

Brian Raftery | May 10, 2007 2:40 am

A 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, 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.