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March 27, 2009

Poptastic Bye-Bye

So finally a magazine folded out from under me. Blender, where I was a contributing editor, an elastic term I'll get to shortly, was where I went after Rolling Stone fired me in 2007. It was a good magazine--intelligent and irreverent and lots of laughs. It was renowned for the quality of its editing. And yesterday it went out of business. Oh wait--it will still have a "digital presence," which means that the last reviews I wrote for it will be available online. Sorry, today I'm an old fart. I am not mollified.

The chronology of how I signed on at Blender has confused folks who blogged about it without actually calling anybody up, so let me clarify. I got my staff writer's job at Stone shortly after I was fired at the Village Voice on August 31, 2006. Jann Wenner hired me and Jann Wenner fired me because he's the guy who runs the joint, but I haven't spoken to him since his sister's wedding in 1979 or 1981 or something so it would be foolish to speculate on his reasons. The crucial fact is that after I was fired my rabbi there, Joe Levy, a dear friend and former Voice music editor who I've known since he roomed with my nephew in college in the '80s, joined with his boss Will Dana to secure me another three months as a kind of severance. A few weeks into that extension, I called the editor of Blender, Craig Marks, and in three minutes cut a verbal agreement that in return for some limited exclusivity and my name on the masthead I'd get a very good word rate at Blender after my term at Stone was up. Two weeks into that deal in January, before I'd published a thing in Blender, Levy replaced Marks there, which had been in the works since November or something unbeknownst to me. Everyone assumed my buddy Levy had brought me with him, as he did Stone's Rob Sheffield. In fact it was a complete coincidence.

Except, of course, that we both really liked Blender. I know to the outside world Stone is a Cadillac and Blender,  insofar as anyone has ever read it, was a Hyundai trying to be a sports car--a cross between Maxim, which owned it (and where Levy will now be editor-in-chief), and one of those celebrity papers they sell on checkout lines. But in fact the mag Marks created was bright and original. I was treated well at Stone, though I hated the mag's intrusive, tin-eared, prissy copy department. The money was good, I was allowed to say what I wanted, the mag's stature magnified my critical authority, and every once in a while I got to write something longer than 150 words--700 on the Shins, whoa! Also, after years at a supposedly radical weekly where only a few dogged and heroic local reporters (plus its lead critics--me and James Hoberman especially) got to pursue an explicitly radical agenda, I admired Wenner's temerity in running a large-circulation national magazine that opposed Bush and the war in Iraq, with fervor and from the git. But once I was part of it I was tremendously uneasy with the music coverage. It didn't help that the year was 2007, inspiring Wenner to devote not one but three issues--out of 24!--to the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Jesus. I did some rather good work for one of those issues. Fun, too. But I was so embarrassed.

So even though my income was plummeting, I felt enormous relief to be out of there. Blender was trivial and deeply into lists and really liked artists who had pretty breasts. Its politics were deeply buried or altogether nonexistent, although both Marks and Levy are savvy and deep-feeling progressives in their personal beliefs--and although no one ever tried to censor my barbs, which given the formal limitations of the 135-word record review weren't as numerous as I would have preferred. But it was also, as review editor Rob Tannenbaum put it in his mass email, "the most entertaining, informative, reliable and comprehensive music magazine in the world," and under Tannenbaum its review section was vastly more sharp and varied than the ones at Stone, Spin, Vibe, or the Voice; where most mags have a beat and depend on staff, Tannenbaum reviewed everything and used good writers from everywhere. But ad revenues slipped even as circulation increased, and so naturally the review section shrunk, increasing the proportion of what Tannenbaum liked to call the "poptastic" records at the core of the Blender sensibility and also staff contributions and making it far less "comprehensive," especially generationally. The shrinkage cut seriously into my assignments there, which means I'm not taking as big a hit as some of my friends and colleagues, notably staffers Tannenbaum, Jonah Weiner, Josh Eeels, and--especially missed by me--Jon Dolan, who regularly managed to say more in 135 words about records I couldn't get a handle on than an entire phalanx of the netzine blowhards aggregated by Metacritic. But Marks and Tannebaum always liked to say that their favorite rockmag was the legendary Creem, and for sure Blender--with all commercial compromises and vulgarisms acknowledged (for its time, Creem had plenty of those as well)--came much closer to that ideal than any other current mag. It was intelligent yet written for ordinary fans, very funny, and the Sheffield column that Levy instituted was some of the best work he'd ever done. I was happy there, and I'll miss it as a writer, a reader, and a rock critic elder. After a long downturn, Spin (which Marks also once edited) has gotten better over the past few years, but I wouldn't bet it'll have the humility to morph over toward the Blender model as it continues to do battle with the also-shrinking Stone. In this economy not to mention tomorrow's, who's hiring?

I wrote a draft of this Thursday night then started shaving and sharpening it today (what, you can't tell?). Midway through I was interrupted by a phone call that seemed pretty eerie in context: an editor from Rolling Stone asking me if I wanted to do reviews there. Took me aback, I gotta say, but I was flattered and told him so. Decided the only appropriate thing to do was post what I'd written (well, I changed a verb and added a detail, but would have done that anyway, I swear) and see if the offer stayed open. If it did, well, in this economy, why not?

Then I got another call, from Jon Dolan. He's a friend and a kind of protegee, a year into fatherhood. We talked for an hour. Terrific writer--just Google him. Try to find that blog he did on New York State politics for New York before the 2006 election--brilliant stuff. He needs work. Maybe Blender was the wrong "model," but I'm not sitting still for that bullshit today. I like journalism as a fulltime career. Preferably on paper. Grrr.
March 27, 2009 4:29 PM | | Comments (8)

8 Comments

Thanks for the kind words, Bob. It was fun while it lasted. One correction, though: In all my life, I've never read a single issue of Creem, and neither has Blender music editor Rob Tannenbaum (I checked). In junior high, I read Circus; when I discovered punk and new wave in high school, I went straight to the NY Rocker and Village Voice. There were others who certainly compared Blender to Creem, probably because of the captions and the general focus on yucks, but Blender was never as wooly, from what I can gather. But one thing they do have in common: Both are RIP. Maybe funny and music aren't natural bedfellows?

That's what I call a major factual error, and I'm abashed. I was blogging, and I didn't call anybody up. But I didn't just make it up either--I got the firm impression from somewhere. My dim memory is that it was from one of Blender's letters pages, where someone using the editorial "we" either welcomed or initiated the notion that Blender was Creem for our time. But there's no one to check the archives now, is there? On a related front, I should mention that personal communication from Joe Levy asserts that he never roomed with my nephew at Yale. They did, however (I believe--Levy's not answering his phone), co-found Yale's Nadine, which if it wasn't the first campus-based rock magazine (my unresearched belief) was certainly the most influential, producing Levy, Rob Sheffield, Gavin Edwards, and a bunch of others, said nephew Julian Dibbell included.

I agree that Creem is a great model for music journalism...and it's gone. Spin and Rolling Stone are still kicking around, but for how much longer?

It's a bit disheartening when great, established writers are having a difficult time of it. I'm just a good, unestablished (nationally, anyway) writer and blogger trying to figure out his next move. It seems writing for cheap and for the love (haha ha ha hahaha ha!)is the future? Sigh.

Yeah this is a bummer. My wife and I have had a subscription to Blender for a while now and have much enjoyed it, even though I've frequently had to defend it to my hip fellow-musician friends. Blender had a way of taking even the most poptastic corporate music act that I normally wouldn't give a crap about and make them fun and fascinating. It was about the only way I managed to keep up with major-label chart music at all, and I've always thought it was cool how it managed to cover both that stuff and more "indie" acts in the same magazine and make it all mesh together, as if to say "it's all just music." We'll miss it.

At some point somebody will figure out a new publishing model which makes sense, and dollars, but it's probably not going to be me. Far too many of my friends and colleagues (and former editors) are now out of work...we could surely staff one hell of a magazine, but apparently nobody wants to pay for such a thing.

Surely public discourse about music (the canary in my particular coal mine) isn't all going to be reduced to flippant, anonymous, error-typed commentary online, is it?

>>> Surely public discourse about music (the canary in my particular coal mine) isn't all going to be reduced to flippant, anonymous, error-typed commentary online, is it?

Well, it hasn't been reduced to all that by any means, though lots of people (people, I suspect, with a vague idea of what's actually out there) seem to believe this. There's a lot of pop music writing online that isn't any of the things you mention and functions as good, sometimes even great, criticism. And there's stuff online that does have some of the things you mention and still functions as good-sometimes-great criticism; flippancy is hardly the enemy of good rock writing, though errors are something else I suppose, and it's true that you never see either of those in print magazines.

Gee, I was glad to find this post before you limped off to the elephant's burial ground. Since I have been following your writing since Esquire back in the stone age, I hope you carry on, although it gets more and more difficult to dig up your latest home. For what it's worth, your public is eagerly awaiting your next gig even if I have to wade through all that crap in Rolling Stone again.
Maybe it's time to get together with your buddies and publish an online mag. Hang in there, it gets very lonely out here without voices to trust. Just think: a couple of years ago you wrote off Leonard Cohen as sounding dead. Of all people, you must know there are second acts, and third ones and... you get the picture.
Still love to read your stuff and still buy lots of the records you recommend You haven't lost your stuff.

What I don't comprehend is how you are not much more popular than you are at the moment. You are just so intelligent. You know so much about this topic, made me think about it from so many totally different angles. It's like blogger aren't interested unless it has something to do with Lady Gaga!

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