Monday, July 02, 2007

Whatever Happened To Spin Magazine?

Like all rock and roll stories this starts with a band. Even in the balls and bluster world of Metal lines are drawn very deep, separating one from the other. And like every genre these days metal has its mainstream bands none of which I know or listen to and its alternative bands such as Isis, Jesu, Pelican, Converge, The Fucking Champs and Mastodon. Last year Spin magazine stunned readers when they gave Blood Mountain, the band’s new album two out of five stars and dismissed it as bad prog. The review was as brief as it was surprising given that both the mainstream and alternative press went rapturous over the record, culture tastemakers Pitchfork Media in particular giving it 8.5 out of ten. Not many issues down faux punkers Fall out Boy and Brand New both got a four star reviews and in June 2006 BeyoncĂ© made the cover of “The Sexiest Under 25” issue. Something was changing and it wasn’t just the focus on cleavage. Was Spin turning into Blender?

Blender is the successful Maxim spin-off that caters to all the pre-hormonal boys who wished Maxim had more music. It’s very good for what it is and saying that it is cheapening the culture is not only pointless but also wrong. Trash and cash has always been newsworthy and when music gets worse Blender only gets better. The problem is that Spin magazine had made a mistake in thinking that rule also applies to them. Whatever happened to Spin Magazine? That weird post punk, post reggae, pre hip-hop, pre grunge magazine that put people like Nick Cave on their cover and called him the last rock star? That was from a time when Spin, like underground rock and roll was still a scary and sexy force, governed by no rules except its own and taking the hits (putting a free condom in an issue nearly drove them out of Business) that such fearlessness was bound to receive.

In the mid to late 80’s the sheer fearlessness of Spin was almost impossible to categorize or appreciate, and not just the pioneering AIDS Column. Spin was also the first magazine to truly dig black culture as it was happening, not after the fact—which has always been the story with the white media and rock and roll. That meant not only articles about hip-hop but stuff written in hip-hop language, with Bonz Malone’s pioneering articles, as crucial in establishing the music as Yo! MTV Raps. Like The Face in the UK, Spin covered House before Technotronic took it to the charts, Trip-hop before hairdressers bought Sneaker Pimps and even this little thing called grunge before Nirvana had a hit. In fact back when Rolling Stone dismissed Nevermind with a patronizing 3 star review Spin downright ordered its audience to buy the damn record and helped start a movement.

Around the same time Rolling Stone gave Nevermind three stars it gave new albums from U2 and Michael Jackson four and a half. By dismissing the former and lionizing the latter Rolling Stone declared allegiance to the establishment. Or had been so fat on corporate rock that it could no longer see where the music was going. Earlier in the year, their New Music issue produced such vanguard acts as Chris Isaak and Extreme. Alternative was about to explode and Rolling Stone would have none of it. The magazine even trashed crucial precursors like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual. Maybe they didn’t see it coming, but Spin did. And maybe Jane’s was right and we do become the thing we hate because Spin is now doing the same thing, praising industry-approved bands like Fall Out Boy and routinely dismissing indie obsessions like Mastodon and Isis. When a rave review of a genuine talent happened as it did with their appraisal of Joanna Newsom’s YS, it felt left field, like and exercise in coolness, like a Rolling Stone review. There was a sense that the magazine was out of its depth, reporting about a topic on which it no longer had authority.

I remember in 1987 when Spin said Guns and Roses ‘looks like all that rock has left,’ and being thrilled and appalled by the sentence. I remember being perplexed and annoyed by their first Greatest Albums of All Time list because a James Brown live album was number one, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones was either 2 or 3, Echo and the Bunnymen was in there somewhere as were Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and George Michael’s Faith. It wasn’t only the choices that made my head spin but the writing, the reasoning why they demanded that these records be listened to. On Faith they said that Michael swung from faux prince to faux pop balladry and was so obsessed with giving pop pleasures that on ‘Hard Day,’ he warps his voice to play his own lover. Note that I can quote the article almost verbatim. I stole this issue from my friend and poured over it for months trying to figure out what kind of psychos would make a list like this and what did it mean. Then I listened to the records and the person in my mirror changed. Spin did not get me to listen to different rock and roll—it got me to listen to rock and roll differently. Rock and roll became a dark and sexy mystery where yes, George Michael’s desperate and sexually confused attempt to fake Prince was more rock and roll and real than Prince himself. Where James Brown screaming ‘take it to the bridge’ had more menace and noise than the breakdown in Whole Lotta Love played twice. Where Black Celebration and Ocean Rain played back to back summed up my eighties better than any book I could possibly write. And more than anything else where music could be mine and mine alone even as I shared it with millions and there was not a damn thing wrong with that.

Alternative music, that is. Before it became a nation and a punch line, alternative was an aberration. A subculture that was thought to exist only on college radio, but not quite a movement or a commercial force. Spin was not the first to respond to college rock but it may have been the first to find the common streak in wildly divergent styles from then obscure acts such as REM to a ubiquitous artist like Prince to something totally unpalatable like Ministry. It was the first to treat all music as baroque instead of focusing on only adolescent male virgins with big glasses and jangly guitars. By giving as much ink to Salt and Pepa as they did Slayer they dared to declare that they were one and the same thing, unified not only in their statement of purpose and their DIY creativity but also in mainstream ignorance or confusion. More than that Spin had a particular genius for pin-pointing what made these artists alternative—The propulsively gay and disco subtext of Madonna for example, or the rise of irony as the dominant aesthetic device as deployed in the film Heathers—in ways that other mags like Alternative Press simply could not understand.

Spin was also a common ground under which all the disparate strains of alternative could congregate. In that it echoed the progress of seminal bands in the late 80’s that did the same thing: Public Enemy, Pixies, Sonic Youth, NWA, Ice-T/Body Count, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Soul II Soul and Nirvana.

Gradually to some, suddenly to most, Spin and the artists they covered became things that everybody had in common, an alternative nation before MTV co-opted and killed the term. As alternative grew, Spin grew into the tastemaker and 1990 to 1994 were the best years to be alive. But it would not last, and you didn’t need to see what was left of Kurt Cobain’s splattered head to know. The genre that never was spawned too many heads, too many compromises, too many marketing efforts disguised as bands that found the look, feel and sound too easy to co-opt. By 1996 alternative was also used to describe Matchbox Twenty and Better Than Ezra. The center could no longer hold and many of alternative’s unifying elements, Jane’s Addiction, Public Enemy, Raygun magazine, Nirvana and Lollapalooza fell apart.

Today’s Spin is not Spin magazine, but Pitchfork media, the website and alternative kingmaker responsible for making it’s own stars like LCD Soundsystem, Tapes n’ Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Thanks to Pitchfork the young listener can see brilliance in both Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Clarkson and their reviews stand in striking, wonderful defiance of the conventional wisdom that internet age kids will never read anything long. But something is missing: the grand statement, an attempt to make rock a national, cultural discourse the way Spin did in the late 80’s and Rolling Stone did in the 70’s. An attempt to unify disparate elements without every saying that’s exactly what they are trying to do.

Counter culture and Music culture has never been more fractious, never been more in need of something with the ballsiness and insanity to bear witness and give testimony to it all. The last time this happened was the late eighties when songs like Just Got Paid went to number one and nobody knew what the hell was up with Prince who no longer seemed interested in saving us. In that universe Spin as if nobody told them not to, packed Morrissey, Metallica, Run DMC, AIDS, Rai and free condoms in one package and had the gall to stamp the whole thing, “ THIS IS ROCK AND ROLL.” Rock and roll heard differently and correctly. Without ever claiming so, Spin became the voice of the generation that would not be spoken for and it said strange things, like claiming rap was art (in hip-hop voice) that disco was as crucial as punk and that if you put Morrissey and Sinead together you might get Madonna. And yet they were never so up their alternative ass that they wouldn’t put Jon Bon Jovi on the cover.

Maybe every magazine is granted only one decade of brilliance. Esquire for the 60’s Rolling Stone for the 70’s, Sassy for the 80’s. And much of this is not Spin’s fault but rock and roll itself, which has become a passive experience, not different from watching the credits roll on a videogame. Maybe Spin should pull an Apple move and ask Bob Guccione Jr to come back. Musical chairs for the editor slot is never a good sign and there is still the magazine's continued attempts to become Blender. In trying times one can either take stock or take risks and Spin seems content on doing the former even though it remains leagues below its early 90’s heyday. Maybe Spin will realize that the mid 2G’s are not that far removed from the mid 80’s and needs somebody to make sense of it. Maybe they will see that they need Joanna Newsom and Justin Timberlake on the cover, not the Killers and that they need to stop trying to figure out what people want and have the guts to give people what they need. To stop following culture and create one. Maybe they will realize that we need 80’s Spin now more than ever.