I noticed a few commenters had mentioned Rolling Stone magazine’s recent “500 Best Songs” list, and since I had a few thoughts about it myself, I wanted to set them down in the quickest and dirtiest fashion. Don’t take any of this too seriously, please. I have a headache and am avoiding work.
What is Rolling Stone, anymore? I’d argue that this latest iteration is no more classic Rolling Stone than if I scratched out “Hey Dullblog” and wrote “Rolling Stone” on my screen in grease pencil. It’s a different publication in a different format, with different readers and a different relationship to its readers, created by different people, for different owners, in a different era. And this list is an attempt to assert authority in a maddening age where even the idea of authority is suspect. The problems we’ve had with commenters here on Dullblog stem from this very issue. Who am I, the proprietor of the blog, to say that commenter x is wrong about Lennon’s mental state in 1968? The answer is: nobody. Who is Rolling Stone, or the owners of that name, to say that “Respect” is fifteen slots better than “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”? Once again, nobody. It’s not journalism, but a subtle kind of trolling, and I’ve fallen for it. Save yourselves! Stop reading now!
What is being judged here? Sales? Influence on musicians? Critical opinion? Industry fashion? Some impossible-to-define artistic relationship pop music wishes to have with the ongoing turmoils of America or the world? I love Sam Cooke and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but who in the world has ever claimed that’s the third best song ever? What relationship does this ranking have to do with One Night In Miami (2020) or The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (2019), two suspiciously recent releases in a medium which shapes our culture powerfully, effortlessly, like music used to? Should currency have anything to do with a Best Songs list?
If you asked me, Respected Comedy Professional, to list the funniest movie of all time, my short list would reflect my own era and idiosyncracies and what I’d seen recently. And out of that group I would pick Life of Brian over several other really funny movies, because I believe it talks about an important issue (religion, and Christianity in particular). But I’d be lying if I said it was objective, or even very revealing.
I was twenty when “Fight The Power” came out and still remember the first electrifying time I heard it—but it’s not anything better than “Satisfaction,” and you all know how much I dislike the Stones. Once again, one wonders how much of that song’s position comes from it being affiliated with Do the Right Thing and Spike Lee’s next picture, Malcolm X? (Which also featured “A Change Is Gonna Come.”) What if it had been on Girl 6? In the entry for “Fight the Power,” its importance is summed up thusly by a member of The Bomb Squad: “I think it was Public Enemy’s and Spike Lee’s defining moment because it had awoken the Black community to a revolution that was akin to the Sixties revolution”—but is that really so, historically? “Akin” is doing a lot of work. Was there, objectively, a Black revolution in 1989 of the scope, impact or permanency of the Civil Rights Movement? Or is that Hank Shocklee’s personal feeling—no better or worse than my own personal feeling about Life of Brian? To me, part of the what gives BLM its terrible urgency is that songs like “Change Is Gonna Come” and “Fight the Power” light up the charts…and Black citizens keep getting shot, year after year. What does it mean about the power of popular music, and culture in general, that this rolling tragedy continues unabated? Does it not suggest that culture is not functioning as we hope it might? That great songs perhaps mean so much less than people like Rolling Stone wish they did? Or comedy matters less than I wish it did? This is not a quibble; if the practitioners of an art don’t ever develop that kind of seriousness and nuance, what hope is there for the audience?
This whole list is an assertion, a statement of what pop music should be and do, decades after Rolling Stone had any reasonable claim to that kind of authority; and it stinks of a magazine haunted by criticism leveled at a bunch of people no longer in the building.
What is Rolling Stone, anymore?
We know what Rolling Stone was from 1967 to roughly 2000. It was the primary expression of Boomer culture in print, a magazine founded by Jann Wenner, who embodied his brand only slightly less totemically than Hugh Hefner epitomized Playboy. First focused on rock and roll, RS almost immediately expanded into politics (somewhat successfully) and then general entertainment (very successfully). But classic RS was always a music magazine, not least because for the Boomers, music is very, very important. To a lot of Boomers of my acquaintance, what you listen to matters in a way that people my age (52) find rather weird. The idea that liking say, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks reveals anything important about you as a person…huh? I can’t speak to younger generations, but I suspect that for most people under 60, popular music only matters that much to musicians and critics.
Yet this musical taste-as-virtue is at the heart of Rolling Stone, and its habit of list-making, which first took root in the 1980s, as America began to turn away from the Sixties for good. Rolling Stone‘s historification of rock really began with the death of John Lennon. As the old warhorses stopped dominating the charts, Rolling Stone bequeathed them a reservoir of importance it could control: historical relevance. In this way, Pink Floyd and Led Zep became Important because they had dominated rock in the early 70s. They were part of Rock’s story, thus they could stay in the cultural spotlight long after their sales justified it. In this way, Paul Simon became Important, because Graceland, because Apartheid, which made him Historical like Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko were.
Is this total bullshit? Maybe. But also maybe not; I’m not a Boomer, and I’ve been obsessed with the Beatles since before I could speak. There is something about certain artistic forms in certain eras. Only time will tell if the Beatles and the Stones will last, but my guess is they very well might. Conversely, it seems unlikely that Outkast’s “Hey Ya” (#10) will have ongoing historical impact, and that’s okay, but wishing won’t make it so. It only reveals popular music to be splintered, strangled by digital culture, something close to fashion with its priesthood and its trends, an interest that wanes for most. That wasn’t what the old Rolling Stone aimed for; they wanted rock to be Great Art, not trendy fashion. And at its best, it was.
My problems with Wenner’s Rolling Stone are many and well-aired on this site. Via Wenner’s domination of his editorial staff, it firmly represented both the opinions of, and the cultural hegemony of, the Baby Boomers to the exclusion of everybody else. But that was kinda the point. Prior to the Boomers, the musical tastes of young people were often disregarded; now, they are the only ones who matter, which is why Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is listed at #20. Who is Robyn? What is this song? Why is it one spot higher than “Strange Fruit”? Why is “Strange Fruit” the only jazz song in the top 50, when jazz is arguably the single most important American contribution to world musical culture? People lost their freakin’ minds over Charlie Parker. He was, like, the Olivia Rodrigo of his day. 🙂
Don’t get me wrong; I like that Rolling Stone is attempting to be diverse, even if it is decades late. Even at its height, RS didn’t even represent big swaths of Boomers, much less the rest of us. But demographics, capitalism, racial history, and regional biases meant the portion of the Boomers represented by RS held outsized sway within our media in 1967, and 1997, and today. That gap has been filled by…the flavor of the minute, and that’s what this list shows so clearly and painfully. We’re on our own, free to make our own choices out of limitless options, and if there’s one thing our current politics shows, it’s that most of us are totally at sea. We desperately need curation, and not the kind that’s based on whatever movie you saw recently.
Wenner’s dream of capitalist counterculture—love it or hate it, you knew what it was, and so did Rolling Stone. The current thing bearing its name is both much more, and much less. It’s a music website aimed at young people, owned by Penske Media Corporation. There is no reason to assume that today’s iteration of Rolling Stone has anything important to say, or indeed any reason to exist other than commerce; there’s a bit of politics there which I happen to agree with, but I know too much about magazines and media corporations to think it’s more than skin-deep. Yes, we all love “What’s Going On.” The chairman of Exxon probably loves “What’s Going On.”
Today’s Rolling Stone wouldn’t be a magazine, wouldn’t be ad-supported, and wouldn’t be about music. Today’s Rolling Stone is a million online communities, spewing out memes on message boards. The form of this list dooms it to uncoolness regardless of content; it’s fair to ask who is this even for? My answer would be: Rolling Stone. This list is an editorial exercise in tandem with the marketing department; it is staking out territory, a niche to serve and defend. The moment the internet splintered us into infinite pieces, the job of every cultural institution changed from gatekeeping to something much grubbier: pandering. Cultural institutions now have to market themselves endlessly, in the hopes of gathering a big enough crowd to sell a couple of ads. Identity is endlessly tweaked based on surveys, market research, the wishes of advertisers, and pageview metrics…which is to say there’s no identity at all.
To some degree, this was always the case. Because of who owned the magazine, and who bought the ads, and who bought the products showed in the ads, Rolling Stone consistently gave Boomer warhorses like Dylan and our beloved Fabs more cultural space than they deserved. Or did it? I’m going to stop soon, but I wonder: Is the Baby Boom generation special?
I think it might be. The experience of the Baby Boom generation is really quite unique in world history. Given the turn away from education and social services since 1980, the Boomers are probably going to be the best-educated, best-fed generation ever, and probably the last one before Global Warming changes life on Earth irrevocably. The Baby Boom generation combines sheer demographic weight with a one-way monocultural mass media that gave them a strong feeling of shared identity based on shared experience. Ask a Boomer if they watched Oswald get shot on TV, or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or the Moon landing. Chances are, they’ll tell you they did, and have strong, similar feelings. That’s not what it’s like to be alive today, or how we consume media.
Other generations had had shared experiences of a sort—”the Lost Generation,” for example—but once the central event was done (in that case, WWI) life’s diversity reasserted itself. The Boomer dream has never ended, and will likely never end. The media has reflected the Boomers back to themselves incessantly—I might throw a little shade at “Hey Ya” but truthfully I’m glad it’s on there. One generation will control the narrative until they die, and that’s completely unique in human history, as far as I know. They’re going to carry Lorne out of Studio 8H in a pine box. Clint Eastwood is still making goddamn movies.
So, in that world, isn’t Rolling Stone‘s new list a good thing? Sure! I can’t see who it hurts. It’s a little overinvested in the idea that Music Creates Change, which I don’t see a lot of evidence for, but whatever—comedy doesn’t create change, either. Whatever the lists say, The Beatles will still be the Beatles, even if they’re not cool to music critics. They’ve never been cool to music critics—with the possible exception of about four months in 1967. But that’s another post altogether.
I’m opening comments to this one. Be nice, please. And don’t take this too seriously.