Thursday, August 24, 2023

Being the Best: Pop Journalism Comes of Age

Hachette Books, 2022; Hachette Books, 2022.

“How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home . . .” – Bob Dylan

I suppose I’ve always been mystified, in an entertaining way, with our culture’s virtual obsession with the best this and the best that, as if selecting from the taste menu in arts, letters or music actually meant “I’ll have what everyone else is having.”  Maybe it does. Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Nobel Prizes, Grammy Awards, best car, best restaurant, best fashion, best wine, best hotel, and so on forever. Generally, of course, such a designation usually refers to most popular, and nowhere does popularity often equal quality as it does in the rarefied world of pop music. How it could it be otherwise, since the very name says it all? But I’ve never believed that pop meant disposable or frivolous; far from it, since pop, and especially great pop music, is quite often the most accurate gauge of what the French call mentalit√©, the state of mind of a culture. And pop, at the virtuosic and technically complex level of The Beatles, The Stones, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, or The Mamas and the Papas, is obviously an art form demonstrating admirable aesthetics. High-quality pop is invariably a mirror of our reality, regardless of how distorted or clouded by various biases that mirror may be. 

Never one to monitor the charts or hit parades in order to decide what music was most appealing (not surprising, perhaps, when one’s favourite music might be Sun Ra with a chaser of Captain Beefheart), I always took pop music journalism with a grain of salt, despite the fact that occasionally some fabulously great writers popped up in its ranks, scribes such as Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus, for instance. In addition, I was most often more enthralled by British pop music journalism, such as Melody Maker, New Music Express, Uncut or Mojo, over the American varieties such as Billboard and Rolling Stone Magazine, although once again some often great writing appears in both those taste journals. And for many years, pop journalism was not exactly a place to look for serious reflection on the art of making serious pop music, since it was too frequently downgraded, even from the days of the earliest truly global pop stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and rarely had the same cachet as the astute literary criticism found in jazz or classical music circles. That would change, however, when Billboard and Rolling Stone began to actually reflect the true tenor of the times, mostly by delivery cogent observations about music made from within the same social mileu as the music itself.

Both of these new tomes from Hachette Books, each from its own vantage point, explore what Joni Mitchell once cannily referred to as “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song,” and they do it in revealing and riveting ways. Tom Breihan’s The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music and Jann Wenner’s Like A Rolling Stone each chronicle how the star-stokers’ job description really works. And the writing in both is captivating, sometimes even enthralling, as the saga of contemporary pop unfolds before our eyes and ears. Breihan reminds us that the parade of hits is actually much older than many might imagine. Yes, the daily dance-party television show American Bandstand, featuring a former advertising announcer, Dick Clark, kicked off the modern era of hit charting, and with that new wave of living-room recipients, rock and roll morphed into pop music writ large. But, as he skillfully shares through a wide-ranging delving into his chosen twenty massive hits swinging from Chucker Checker’s “The Twist” in 1960 through Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” in 1998, he also digs deeper into the origin myth, for archival register of hits starting much further back.

Photo: Santi Visalli

Billboard goes back more than a century, and when it first began publishing in 1894 (when Impressionist painting was still considered experimental) it began by covering the advertising industry. “At that time,” Beihan explains, “advertising meant posters pasted up on walls, so that’s why it was called Billboard. When phonographs came into being, and then jukeboxes, Billboard was there, covering its first sales chart of 78 rpm singles in 1940. By 1958, Billboard had a few different music charts going, one tracked radio play, the other record sales. In the years ahead, the Hot 100 would chronicle each new trend that would capture the collective imagination: the Beatles, Motown, psychedelia, disco, new wave, metal, rap, hip hop. Billboard uses a constantly changing formula to measure all the different factors that decide a song’s popularity, and the magazine scramble to keep up with the way people actually listen to music.”

Breihan’s highly readable saga looks at a carefully curated selection of number one pop music hits (i.e., impossible to please everyone and with many mythic blockbusters missing in action). “These aren’t the best Hot 100 hits in history, though many of them, I’d argue, are great. Instead, these are the songs that marked new moments in pop music evolution, the ones that immediately made the previous week’s hits sound like relics. Some of these hits tell us a whole lot about where the world was and where popular tastes had shifted.” The Beatles, The Supremes, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, Prince, and many others – all the necessary pathfinders – are examined through each of their groundbreaking and style-shifting number one hits. The gestation of his survey is an intriguing one. Breihan is a senior editor at the music website Stereogum, where he writes a column called “The Number Ones,” a review of every hit in the history of the Billboard Hot 100: “Every hit song has a story. All those hits, taken together, tell a strange, twisty, self-contradictory epic tale about what Americans want in a pop song. This book collects twenty important chapters in the story, but the story hasn’t ended yet. Hopefully, it never will.”

In a curious way, his book also reflects how ‘what Americans want’ is as convoluted as the rest of its fascinating culture, and the musical artists who entertain those appetites, as Fleetwood Mac’s blockbuster Rumours hit “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” suggests, are always attempting to both top themselves and beat their competitors at reaching for tomorrow’s next golden moment.

Photo: Sam Emerson

Most importantly, one of the wildest things that Breihan’s books illustrates for us is just how unpredictable both popularity and success can really be. So many fabulous songs, tunes that should have reached number one, clearly never did (such as several composed by the writer of an iconic song borrowed as the masthead name for the second magazine under consideration here, Mr. Dylan) and usually for nebulous reasons: “I think the hit charts mostly measure timing, to be honest. It’s a matter of catching enough ears and enough attention at the exact right time. There are lots of factors that kept songs out of the No. 1 spot. A lot of genres have had long stretches where they were basically underground phenomena, and they only broke through later. In the case of Bob Dylan, there was something about the guy as a performer that was very close to being pop but without being quite pop enough to get to No. 1, and he never did. He needed The Byrds to take ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ there.” Of course, his brilliant “Like a Rolling Stone,” way longer and more abstract than most radio play songs by far, could never scale those same pop heights, despite its now being recognized as one of the most important songs in rock history.

Breihan concedes that his whole endeavour with this book has shown him just how chaotic popular taste can be, and how random: “It’s fascinating to me that Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ only got to number six, and it’s also fascinating to me that it got as high as number six. Both seem unlikely.” But if those creative talents in the overheated music world, and their voracious record label management, as stalked by Billboard on a weekly basis, were busy trying to sell the hip temporal idea of tomorrow and tomorrow’s hits, a young frenetic upstart like the 21-year-old wunderkind (there’s no other word for him) Jann Wenner was more interested in actually contributing to creating tomorrow, to making it happen today. By daring to dream a little dream of talking about music in the same cool way that musicians actually made it, he somehow succeeded in reinventing pop journalism as rock journalism, and often just plain serious social criticism, and he achieved a personal renegade outsider American Dream all his own. He called his little dream Rolling Stone Magazine.

Photo: Baron Wolman

The ambitious and stylistically radical young Wenner did not, of course, invent this pop powerhouse all by himself. He had the help of one of America’s most established and prescient jazz music critics, Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded the humble paper, as it was at the time, and served as its founding Chief Editor. Together they also attracted the kind of stellar writing talent that most editors can only dream about. Along the way, Wenner proved that even wunderkinds can use the help of gifted parallel thinkers. Among that lofty cast of brilliant supporters: Baron Wolman, his first chief photographer; talented contributors such as Charles Reich; Earl McGrath, who “taught the Wenners how to be rich”; firebrand genius Hunter S. Thompson; gifted photographer Annie Leibovitz, who started at Rolling Stone while she was still an art student and ended up doing over 500 iconic assignments; Jon Landau and Jonathan Cott; Joe Esterhaus and David Felton: the brilliant rock observer Ben Fong-Torres; and a veritable literary zoo of other young lions (and lionesses). But of course, this is Jan Wenner’s memoir, so it’s all him, all the time, and to say that the rising visionary editor knew everybody who was anybody would be an understatement: if they mattered at all to the present and future of rock and pop journalism (not to mention fashion, design, art, film, theatre, literature, architecture and politics) they were on his speed dial.

As Alexandra Jacobs pointed out in The New York Times, there was an earlier extensive biography of Wenner by Joe Hagan, regrettably entitled Sticky Fingers, with which Wenner was an active cooperator, early on anyway. It appears that Hagan may have alienated Wenner, possibly by engaging with too many people that the five-decade-long R.S. Editor has pissed off over the years (a lengthy list, by all accounts). So in a very real sense, Wenner own memoir, which Jacobs cheekily, but accurately characterized as a “diss track,” proceeded as if the Hagan expos√©, released six years ago, was never even written at all. After selling his own majority stake in Rolling Stone shortly after the Hagan revelation-laden tome came out, Wenner slowed down and took some time off from the fast lane he had so craved and enjoyed, especially after his triple-bypass surgery, valve replacement surgery and hip replacement surgery. But really, what else was left for him to achieve anyway, having accomplished a dream like his, apart from compiling a who’s who of lovers and enemies who rode his barreling train of undiminished hedonism right alongside him?

Andy Greene did a serviceable, if somewhat reverential, job of assessing his boss’s self-disrobing adventures for the 50th-anniversary issue in 2017, again coinciding with Hagan’s less flattering portrait, in which he observed, almost quaintly, “In 1967, Jan Wenner and a small group of rock and roll believers came together in a San Francisco loft with big ideas and little funding to create Rolling Stone. In early ’67,  young law firm employee Angie Kucherenko came home to her apartment in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood and found her roommate’s boyfriend, a 21 year old Berkeley dropout named Jann Wenner, sprawled on the couch and strumming an acoustic guitar. He had a big idea he couldn’t wait to share. He sat up, put the guitar aside and said, I want to start a rock and roll magazine.”

Lennon's image from the '67 Richard Lester film How I Won the War, which graced the first-edition cover of Rolling Stone in 1967. (Photo: John Springer) ; Annie Leibovitz captured Lennon four years later, after the dream was over, and she would do so again nine years after that, just before his life was over. (Rolling Stone)

Wenner’s saga is a staggering tale of desire and fulfillment. Born in New York City and raised in Marin County, in addition to founding Rolling Stone, he is also less well known for the nearly equally popular  magazines Outside, US Weekly, Family Life and Men’s Journal. He himself is an actual member of the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, next to the music legends he helped make famous, as well as being the youngest inductee in the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. But it is the people he chose to feature in Rolling Stone, and the skilled writers he chose to feature them, including the versatile Tom Wolfe, who made it obvious that he really tried to change American culture, values and morality. Make that tried to and did. If Bob Dylan was and is considered the voice of his generation, or the spokesman and conscience of it (none of which he ever endorsed or accepted as accolades), then it is abundantly clear from Wenner’s achievements that he was the editorial guide of his generation. He not only made a faithful and passionate archival record of our time for distant future historians of the counterculture to study; he also shaped some the actual events and attitudes that they will be studying. There are only a handful of culture mavens about whom it can accurately be said that he truly was in a league of his own. One is Robert Zimmerman, and another is Jann Wenner.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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