Rolling Stone – Honest mistake or cynical media manipulation?

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Rolling Stone July 2013

Rolling Stone July 2013

I can remember a time when Rolling Stone magazine was the standard against which all other music magazines were measured.  Things have changed since then and apparently not for the better as far as Rolling Stone’s concerned.  It’s been a long journey, but the July cover is a lowpoint for the magazine; it doesn’t matter how well-written or well-researched the piece is, what percentage of people who have seen the cover will actually read it?  I’m willing to bet that it’s in single figures and probably in one hand territory.  The magazine is going to be judged by the iconography of the cover and the Rolling Stone team should know that as well as, or better than, the rest of us.

Once upon a time, the Rolling Stone cover used to mean something.  Bands and fans saw it as a mark of credibility; there was an intense rivalry between performers over the amount of Rolling Stone covers you had featured on.  There was even a song about it, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by Dr Hook; you can see it on YouTube and it’s very funny.  Even in the 1970s being featured on the front of Rolling Stone was a big deal and that’s why this is such a disappointment.

The piece itself is nothing special; it’s very basic journalism.  You round up a few family members and friends and get them to give you some background and then pad it out with some simplistic pseudo-sociological theorising; it’s not going to win any prizes and it’s doubtful whether it has any place in a music/culture magazine.  I know the magazine claims it covers social issues as well as music, but that’s no excuse for this piece.  Janet Reitman stacks up the factors that could have led to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committing an outrage; his parents left him in America, he smoked weed constantly, he was jealous of his brother, his brother led him into Islam, his mother pushed him into Islam and so on.  In the end, the piece tells us nothing.

I can’t believe that no-one on the editorial staff at Rolling Stone asked whether this piece was a good idea.  Even the explanatory paragraph signed “The Editors” below Reitman’s byline makes dubious claims.  “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers”; I think you might want to have a fact-checker take a look at that one.  I did and, using Rolling Stone’s media kit figures, discovered that he’s at the bottom end of a bracket that contains 25.3% of their readers; it’s stretching a point really, particularly when you break down the other statistics on income, home ownership and ethnicity.  So was it a series of naive mistakes made by a group of well-meaning but misguided journalists, or was it a cynical attempt to shock the entire world in to talking about Rolling Stone again?

Well, let’s get back to the iconography.  The cover isn’t just a dreamy-looking young troubadour; it’s a specific visual reference to a Jim Morrison 1981 cover which, again, wasn’t one of their finest moments.  Ten years after his death, the tagline was “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead”.  Bad taste certainly but, ironically, at the time of his death he couldn’t be described as hot or sexy.  That particular image has become cultural shorthand for the soulful, tortured rock poet and that’s exactly what the magazine is trying to do here and it seems that they’re deservedly reaping the whirlwind.  Flirting with controversial topics to boost sales is always a dangerous game, even more so when the subject has a tenuous link with your core values.

And, just to give it a bit of local UK context, can you imagine a Q front cover and thinkpiece featuring  Michael Adebolajo?  Thought not.