Why Rolling Stone Still Matters

By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
May 8, 2006

As Rolling Stone celebrates its 1,000th issue, it’s tempting to write off the magazine as an irrelevant relic. Multiple Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera covers, not to mention cover teases like “Papa Roach: Metal’s Newest Heroes,” can really make you question your faith in Jann Wenner.

But far from dismissing Rolling Stone, we should be thankful it’s still around. The magazine remains one of the few prominent mainstream publications to mix serious political coverage and long-form journalism with straight-up pop culture –- a combination that becomes only more valuable with each passing day.

When it comes to music, there’s no question Rolling Stone is stale. Blender is more fun, the All Music Guide more comprehensive, and Pitchforkmedia.com more current (if often insufferable). The big problem music-wise is that aside from reviews, Rolling Stone has no critical voice. You rarely finish a Rolling Stone profile understanding why you should care about the musician. Essays about bands or the industry are rare to nonexistent. The days of constant teen-pop covers and feigned rap-metal enthusiasm are mercifully over, but the magazine should be aiming higher.

When it comes to non-music coverage over the past 10 years, though, Rolling Stone has been as strong as ever. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation first appeared as a two-part Rolling Stone article in 1998. David Foster Wallace’s 2000 article on John McCain is one of the best pieces about campaign journalism in years. Randall Sullivan’s 2001 and 2005 articles on the unsolved Notorious B.I.G. murder remain the definitive accounts of the subject (the 2001 article became a book, LAbyrinth).

The magazine has run strong coverage of the Iraq war (which won a National Magazine award) and the Jack Abramoff scandal; a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. story on the connection between mercury in vaccines and autism; a critical look at Scientology; a story on whether weapons containing depleted uranium harm U.S. soldiers; and, in the last issue, an essay by historian Sean Wilentz about where George W. Bush stands among the worst presidents ever.

These articles help make Rolling Stone serve a unique function in American media. No other magazine combines such in-depth, intelligent pieces with unabashed pop culture worship. US Weekly readers get nothing more than their celebrity fix; readers of the major newsweeklies -– Time, Newsweek and US News -– get solid news but bare-bones pop culture and no longer investigative pieces. Rolling Stone readers get it all.

That was Jann Wenner’s genius. He realized that music is as important as politics to many people, and that you didn’t need a highbrow attitude to make pop culture respectable. But he also understood that appreciating pop culture doesn’t make other news less important. To Wenner, a sophisticated reader should be well-versed in Republican lobbying scandals and the resurrection of Mariah Carey.

That’s an attitude worth celebrating. And if indulging Wenner’s five-star reviews for Mick Jagger solo albums is the price we have to pay for another 1,000 issues, it’s well worth it.

[Ed. note: That Robert Kennedy article has not aged well, to say the least.]

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