Listicles, By The Numbers

Michaelangelo Matos | October 1, 2008 5:30 am

Yesterday, I came across a recent interview with Amanda Petrusich, the author of the new It Still Moves, in which she basically nails the conundrum facing music writing today. Take it away, Amanda and questioner:

RD: Being largely a writer for print, what is your stance on blogs?

AP: I read a ton of blogs, every day. I think the onus is really on print magazines to step up the game. They’ve got to do stuff blogs can’t or won’t or don’t want to do – long, thoughtfully researched articles with lots of access that take months to write – in order to stay alive. But they just keep printing … lists.

I only wish I’d been able to put it that succinctly, and not just because I’ve wasted entirely too many hours of my life working on magazine listicles. And I haven’t even contributed to that many! A couple were actually quite enjoyable; more often, they’ve mostly left me puzzled as to why I, or anyone else, was even bothering.

How did this come to happen? As far as I can tell, the progression goes something like this. In 1987, celebrating its 20th anniversary, Rolling Stone published a list of the Top 100 albums released during its lifetime. The issue wasn’t the first time such a list was presented to the public–ten years earlier, Paul Gambaccini published Rock Critics’ Choice, a listing of the 200 best LPs as judged by a consortium of writers and DJs, and followed it with a 100-strong sequel in 1987. Both Gambaccini lists and the RS one were led by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The RS list obviously did well enough to spawn a follow-up one year later, of the Top 100 singles from 1963-88. (No. 1: the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”) A year after that, to celebrate the decade just about to end, RS polished up another Top 100 issue, this time of the best albums of the ’80s. (No. 1: the Clash’s London Calling, issued in the U.K. late in 1979 but not out in America until January 1980.) The 1988 singles list prompted ripostes from Spin (which defiantly named the barely-year-old “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock the greatest single of all time) and the Village Voice (whose Barry Walters picked as his all-time chart topper “Heartbeat,” by Taana Gardner); and in 1989, Dave Marsh published The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, which put Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in pole position.

At this point, lists of these sort still had some kind of canon-building cachet. As both Marsh and Walters made explicit in their write-ups (and Spin, which presented its singles list without comment, implied), the late ’80s were a period when both the idea of the Great Single and the actual single itself were more or less up for grabs. The 7-inch was dying out from the major labels’ end; the cassingle and CD5 were still in embryonic stages; and the MP3 wasn’t even an idea, much less a game-changing reality. Likewise, a decade of 12-inch vinyl, remixed or not, had rewired the idea that three minutes and out was the model and definition of great singledom–the primary tension between the RS and Spin/Voice lists is between ’60s 7-inch and ’80s 12-inch aesthetics. (There’s some of both types on all three lists, as well as Marsh’s, but the guiding sensibilities are what I’m referring to here.)

But as the ’90s marched on, listicles began to take on their own life, particularly in England, where glossy monthlies began to rely on Top 100 albums lists to prop up sales when Britpop fizzled–especially since their basic appeal was to either casual fans (as with Q) or, more plainly, to nostalgic fans of scenes and times gone by (Mojo and Uncut). In these hands, a canon that had once been held up to scrutiny and argument became locked in place. And when the American version of Q, Blender, began in 2001, its mandate of a listicle a month rammed home the notion that (a) lists sell and (b) the more obviously predictable they are, the more obviously predictable the squabbling about them will be.

As we’ve seen entirely too often both in print and online, patting the reader on the head can be good for business. Just look at Digg’s music page, cluttered with listicles (“Top 10 Most Artistic Album Covers”; “5 Things You Need To Know About The Accordion”; “5 Most Pointless Solo Albums of All Time”). And it’s not hard to see the listicle’s brand of “instant content” as a building block for the least sensible aspects of Web development, in particular the current state of Atlanta-based city-weekly mini-conglomerate Creative Loafing, which on Monday declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As Atlanta Magazine‘s Steve Fennessy reports, CL publisher Ben Eason, who last year bought the Washington, D.C. City Paper and the Chicago Reader, has a solution: not just more Web-based stuff, but something a lot more along the lines of the Chicago office of the Huffington Post, which is owned by a rich person who doesn’t pay the site’s writers, and which in Chicago employs one person who does no actual writing or editing. I’ll let Maura have this one: “If everyone’s aggregating content, who is going to PRODUCE IT?” The idea seems to be that once the particulars are fixed, it’ll produce itself, over and over again, in an endless loop. Creative Loafing, indeed.

Writer’s Workshop [Hidden Track]