Can Cardi B and Eric Church make Rolling Stone cool again?
Or is there any way Rolling Stone can ever be cool again?
Those stars from opposite sides of the pop music spectrum adorn the first two covers of the newly revamped storied music and culture magazine founded by feisty impresario Jann Wenner.
Now in its 51st year, Rolling Stone has gone from its traditional biweekly publishing schedule to monthly, starting with the July issue featuring a nude, tattooed, and extremely pregnant Cardi and her Migos boyfriend Offset, taken before the birth of their daughter, Kulture, last month.
It's bigger than it used to be — returning to its 10×11¾-inch dimensions, up from the more conventional 8×11 of most (surviving) magazines. (In its early days, it was even bigger). And it's being printed on heavier paper stock, with much-improved art direction, and the cover subject no longer surrounded by cluttered text.
The new Rolling Stone aims to be edgier in hopes of regaining a measure of its cultural standing, which has been diminishing since its peak in the 1970s. Rolling Stone has since been more valuable to read for its political and other nonmusical long-form journalism then as a place to discover new music.
In a contemporary digital media landscape that has meant dark days for primarily dead-tree publications, Rolling Stone has succeeded in surviving. But its taste-making mantle has been eroded by competitors for decades, like Spin and Vibe. And in this century, it's been taken over by the internet in general and specifically by the uber-influential Pitchfork online music bible.
Wenner's 28-year-old son, Gus, is now editorial director, with his father still playing a powerful role, though Penske Media bought 51 percent of the magazine this year.
The plan is to grow the online presence and leverage the Rolling Stone brand — significantly weakened after a 2014 story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia was repudiated and led to multiple lawsuits. "We have an enormous amount of belief in our ability to create premium video content, TV shows, and documentaries to service a massive market," Gus Wenner told Vanity Fair last year.
Meanwhile, there's the magazine. And it's not just any old magazine: It's Rolling Stone. And for any music fan who grew up reading it, it retains a pull.
It's hard to overstate the impact of the original era of the magazine, when it was published on newsprint and headquartered in the 1960s counterculture capital, San Francisco. Before Rolling Stone, pop music was covered by teen publications like Tiger Beat and often clueless newspaper feature writers.
Wenner's innovation was to take the music seriously, giving artists and fans the respect they craved in a professional publication that also took itself (perhaps too) seriously. In so doing, Rolling Stone created a mythology around the decade when the baby boomers came of age that the rest of us are still forced to live with.
As Joe Hagan, author of last year's page-turning, slightly mean-spirited bio Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, wrote: "If Jann Wenner had only one great idea, it was an idea with staying power: That the 1960s — 'the Sixties' — was a mythic time that would be endlessly glorified and fetishized by his generation in records and books, TV shows and films, T-shirts and posters, for years to come, forever and ever, amen."
Reading Sticky Fingers — which comes out in paperback next month — introduces you to the illustrious cast of contributors to RS's pages in its heyday, from critics Ralph Gleason and Greil Marcus to journalism legends Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe to still-active photographer Annie Leibovitz.
It also made me pine for the days when quality music journalism could be found in glossy pages you can hold in your hands.
There are still some options out there. British monthlies like Mojo, Uncut, and Q remain robust, often attempting to lure readers with the outmoded method of including a free CD within their pages (although the once-mighty NME stopped its print publication this year). Music and lifestyle mag the Fader has a cutting-edge taste profile with rapper Rico Nasty on its Summer Music cover, and a story on jazzman Kamasi Washington inside.
But if you go to your local magazine rack — if you can find a magazine rack — you'll find it loaded with specialty mags like Modern Drummer or Bass Player or Guitar World.
Sometimes, it gets even nichier: At Barnes & Noble the other day, I discovered Tom Tom Mag, whose current cover features Syd Tha Kid. Its website boasts it's "the only magazine in the world dedicated to female drummers."
Those niche publications make Rolling Stone's challenge clear: It is trying to be a general-readership, mainstream publication in a niche world.
Of course, there's quality long-form music journalism online at sites like Uproxx, the Ringer, Stereogum, and the aforementioned Pitchfork, which began publishing a quarterly Pitchfork Review print product in 2013 that folded three years later. Last week, the website launched Levels, an in-depth section dedicated to hip-hop.
That's the world we live in, and I'm as happy to spend hours on end scrolling through worthy stories as the next digital media addict. How much was lost with the collapse of print music publication hit home for me, however, when I came upon a find at the Long in the Tooth music store on Sansom Street in Center City, where there are old copies of British music weeklies Melody Maker and Sounds on sale. The cornucopia of coverage in those weeklies was staggering, starting with interviews with Keith Richards, Bryan Ferry, Minnie Ripperton, Gordon Lightfoot, Dolly Parton, and Toots & the Maytals, among others, in a giant 18×13-inch format. I thought I'd died and gone to pop music nerd heaven.
Of course, the new Rolling Stone isn't about to recreate those glory days. Going large-format with Cardi B does project a certain swagger, though it's not all that bold. The rapper was on the cover in October.
But even if the move to monthly is largely a way to cut costs, the magazine does deserve points for trying.
It's hired new writers, like highly regarded TV critic Alan Sepinwall and political commentator Jamil Smith, giving the magazine a liberal African American voice to go with the political reporting of Matt Taibbi.
The celebrity profiles also have an edge. The Johnny Depp story in the Cardi B issue is not your typical sucking-up-to-a-celebrity puff piece: It depicts the actor as puffy-faced, super-indulgent, and a financial disaster.
And the Church profile in the August issue has made headlines because the self-styled renegade, who played last fall's Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas two days before the massacre that left 58 people dead, had the temerity to mildly criticize the National Rifle Association. That's just not done in cautious mainstream country circles.
"I don't get why we have to fear a group [like the NRA]," the songwriter said. "Why can't we come together and solve one part of this?"
Elsewhere, the magazine seems largely unchanged, still caught in the legacy publication bind of serving an older readership while seeking a younger audience.
On one hand, there's "10 Artists You Need to Know" and a lead review of worthy indie songwriter Mitski. On the other, there are in-depth guides to the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder, and a back-page chat with Roger Daltrey.
So can Cardi B and Eric Church make Rolling Stone cool again and central to the cultural conversation like it once was? Of course not. Fifty years on, it's a wonder the magazine has stuck around as long as it has.