Like a Rolling Stone | Music Matters

The last few months haven’t turned out quite as Jann Wenner might have liked. The golden anniversary Rolling Stone, the magazine to which he is in­extricably linked as its founder/editor/publisher, has been marred by the publication of Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Knopf). Wenner initiated and endorsed the biography before he discovered the almost totally unflattering portrait therein. The HBO documentary Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge is far more in line with Wenner’s conception of the magazine (and himself), recounting journalistic triumphs over the last half century, which is unsurprising as the film was produced by the magazine. Throughout its history, Rolling Stone advocated for emerging artists that harken back to 1960s rock and roll while overlooking many albums that became classics; the following list includes some of the publication’s major hits (and a few misses).

Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers. (Rolling Stone, 1971).

For its entire history, Rolling Stone has held up the band that shares its name as the ne plus ultra of rock ’n’ roll music. Every album the band released in the late 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s was held up as a return to form, and the form in question is typified by Sticky Fingers. The rec­ord is the peak of the band’s influence—their music radiated sex, drugs, menace, and decadence, at once threatening polite society and topping the album and singles charts—no mean feat.

Bruce Springsteen. Born To Run. (Columbia, 1975).

Jon Landau was the Rolling Stone record review editor in the early 1970s, a staunch traditionalist hewing to templates forged by early rock ’n’ roll and soul artists. As such he memorably castigated artists he found wanting, such as Cream (Eric Clapton quit the band after he read a Landau jeremiad). While the 1974 sentence he is best remembered for—“I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Spring­steen”—saw print in The Real Paper and not Rolling Stone, Landau’s judgment served as a proxy for the next 40 years of Rolling Stone’s coverage of the Boss. Landau became his producer and manager starting with Born To Run (BTR), a classicist composite of Roy Orbison–style drama and Dylanesque myth-making. Critics and fans had sought a rock ’n’ roll savior reinforcing tried-and-true verities since the breakup of the Beatles, and with BTR, Springsteen delivered. The magazine has consistently held up Springsteen as part of its unimpeachable canon alongside the Stones, U2, and Bob Dylan.

The Sex Pistols. Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. (Rhino/Warner Bros., 1977).

For a solid decade after its 1967 debut, Rolling Stone’s ability to herald and then coronate artists at the very center of music culture was unrivaled and unquestioned. Yet through the 1970s, its political and cultural coverage outpaced its reckoning with popular music. By 1977, Wenner had to be convinced to send staffer Charles M. Young to London to cover the Sex Pistols, the scabrous punk rock marauders who supplanted the Stones as the scourges of Western civilization. The issue bearing Johnny Rotten’s image tanked at the newsstand, but the story is remembered as one of the last instances of the magazine correctly identifying an important emerging artist.

Guns N’ Roses. Appetite for Destruction. (Universal, 1987).

Public Enemy. It Takes a Nation To Hold Us Back. (Def Jam, 1988).

In the 1980s as well as succeeding decades, Rolling Stone so venerated established rock music tropes that the magazine did not see—or actively ignored—insurgent movements that in retrospect were running over with rebellious, decadent vigor. Los ­Angeles–bred hair metal and New York–born hip-hop seemed to be disposable by the lights of traditional classic rock standards, and so the magazine did not review the defining, landmark records from Public Enemy and Guns N’ Roses when they were released. By the next year, Guns N’ Roses received a Rolling Stone cover story and in the decades since has been a fixture of the magazine’s retrospectives; Public Enemy’s political focus has since been held up by the magazine as a standard to which succeeding hip-hop artists should aspire.

The Strokes. Is This It? (Sony Legacy, 2001).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s. Rolling Stone went all in on teen pop like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, occurring as the magazine business and the record business (which had been posting record-breaking profits) were about to implode. The magazine’s staff rebelled against the advocacy of such willful (if often artful) commercialism, for by 2001 Rolling Stone chose to stump for the “real rock” movement, typified by overtly tradition-minded rock bands the White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines, and, above all, the Strokes. The magazine claimed the New York–bred quintet’s debut was “the stuff of which legends are made.”

Kanye West. Graduation. (Roc-a-Fella, 2007).

Taylor Swift. 1989. (Big Machine, 2014).

By the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s, four decades of Rolling Stone’s advocacy for newly minted guitar bands came to an end; there were none exhibiting formal innovation or possessing the star power necessary to sell magazines (or generate clicks). For both of those qualities, the magazine turned to a teenybopper princess–turned–powerhouse and a volatile hip-hop polymath. Rolling Stone had to acknowledge that rock ’n’ roll in the early 21st century amounted to West and Swift.

Rob Kemp is a Brooklyn-based music writer

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