One of my older brothers subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine in its early years, and while I saw women and musicians of color gracing its cover from time to time, they certainly seemed like a rarity.
“Clapton, the Stones, Clapton, the Stones,” was the way a friend of mine recently characterized the magazine covers, for decades, after its start in 1967, when co-founder Jann Wenner was calling the editorial shots at what quickly became rock’n’roll’s bible. I would only add: The Beatles, the Who, and, inevitably, a bare-chested Jim Morrison.
Wenner stayed true to his biases through his decades-long career as a powerful magazine and music-industry mogul. And though it’s hard to quantify, it’s also undeniable that his prejudices elevated musicians who looked a lot like him and cheated those who didn’t.
Apparently, Wenner never found much reason to question his world view. And finally, just days ago, that unbridled egotism sullied his reputation – and got him booted from the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation board.
His own words – ugly, clueless ones – brought him down.
“They just didn’t articulate at that level,” Wenner told New York Times writer David Marchese about why no women or musicians of color were featured in his new book, The Masters which collects his years of interviews with seven white men: Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Bono, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia.
Why no Joni Mitchell, for example, since she surely is one of the great singer-songwriters, most original thinkers and most brilliant lyricists of the rock era? Wenner dismissed the suggestion.
She “was not a philosopher of rock’n’roll … She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test.”
Other women, say, Madonna, Erykah Badu, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner?
“Just none of them were articulate enough on this intellectual level,” Wenner explained. As far as Black artists went, he allowed that Steve Wonder was a genius, and he wished he had interviewed Marvin Gaye, but for the most part, “they just didn’t articulate at that level”.
Well, then, let me articulate.
That’s bigoted, arrogant and grossly wrong. Furthermore, it’s racist and it’s sexist.
But if you’re familiar with Joe Hagan’s tough-minded 2017 biography of Wenner, Sticky Fingers, there’s not much here that will truly surprise you. Wenner does not come off in that deeply researched book as an enlightened, thoughtful guy – or, by his own test, a philosopher of rock’n’roll.
And if you’ve followed the inductees into the Rock hall (which Wenner had a hand in founding), it will sound all too consistent. By 2019, fewer than 8% of inductees were women, according to research cited in the Times. (After heavy criticism, recent years have shown progress, with plenty more needed.)
The Times interview was damning in other ways, too, at least to this longtime journalist, and seemingly to Marchese, who – along with the New Yorker’s grim reaper, Isaac Chotiner – is not an interviewer whose queries you want to run toward with open arms. That way lies reputational suicide.
For instance, Wenner blithely describes to Marchese how he allowed his subjects to review and edit their transcripts. This is not an acceptable editorial practice because it cedes control of the interview to the subject, making the published product more like fanzine fare than actual journalism.
When Marchese challenged him, Wenner posited that his pieces really weren’t that kind of interview, to which the Times writer aptly responded, “but there aren’t two kinds of interviews”. Wenner disagreed; in his world, there are confrontational ones and friendly ones.
As for Rolling Stone magazine’s worst journalistic debacle, the retracted investigation of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia (the rape at the center of the story never happened), Wenner’s comments here are almost the most ludicrous of all.
“You get beyond the factual errors that sank that story, and it was really about the issue of rape and how it affects women on campus,” Wenner said of the 2014 article. “The rest of the story was bulletproof.” (At this, thousands of Times readers surely looked up from their screens to repeat aloud: “But other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?”)
Wenner has apologized. saying he really didn’t mean his comments the way they came off. That rings hollow.
I’m more inclined to believe Ellen Willis, the first rock’n’roll critic at the New Yorker, whom Hagan recently called “decades ahead of her time” for describing Rolling Stone magazine as “viciously anti-woman” in her 1970 letter to the magazine’s co-founder Ralph Gleason; her letter criticized Wenner’s bias against revolutionary politics.
“To me, when a bunch of snotty, upper-middle-class white males start telling me that politics isn’t where it’s at, that is simply an attempt to defend their privileges.”
Well said, Ellen Willis. In fact, it’s downright articulate.
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