Commentary: Jann Wenner's fall from grace doesn't absolve music journalism

Fidel Martinez, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

I wasn’t a Rolling Stone subscriber growing up.

My magazine of choice was the more alternative Spin. It was easier convincing my mom to shell out for an annual subscription to the magazine than it was to get her to pay for cable, for MTV.

I learned about Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Portishead and Weezer from Spin. It was through its pages that I learned about the undying love many Latinxs feel toward ex-Smiths singer Morrissey.

The magazine was foundational in the development of a large swath of my personal music tastes. It wasn’t my holy bible — during my teens I would also steal copies of Vibe and the Source from my older cousin to satisfy my hip hop needs — but it certainly influenced me enough to pursue a career in culture journalism years later.

But even though I preferred Spin, it was never lost on me that the magazine was trying to replicate the past success of Rolling Stone. It wasn’t derivative per se — Spin did a much better job at covering Black and female artists — but it was certainly following the mold that made Rolling Stone a cultural symbol for the boomer generation.

Simply put, there would be no Spin without Rolling Stone.

I’ve thought a lot about the lasting influence that the latter publication has had on modern music journalism in the wake of a recent interview its co-founder Jann Wenner gave to New York Times music reporter David Marchese about his upcoming book “Masters,” a collection of interviews with prominent rock musicians.

When Marchese asked about the lack of Black and female musicians in his book, Wenner defended himself by saying that these artists weren’t “articulate” enough to make his cut.

Never mind that many of the so-called “masters” in Wenner’s book owe much of their success to Black musicians — just ask Mick Jagger how important blues legend Howlin’ Wolf was to him.

The backlash was immediate. By Saturday, Wenner had been expelled from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, an organization he co-founded.

“Your words run the risk of undermining the very institution you helped build by propagating a narrative that isn’t just narrow but also exclusionary,” Troy Carter, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board member, wrote in an email to his colleagues obtained by the New York Times.

That same day, Rolling Stone issued its own statement on social media, distancing itself from Wenner and making it clear he has had no involvement with the magazine since 2019.

“Our purpose, especially since his departure, has been to tell stories that reflect the diversity of voices and experiences that shape our world,” the statement read.


Wenner eventually issued an apology, but it was too little, too late. He had said the quiet part out loud and there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

Collectively forcing Wenner to cede his gatekeeping power is a good first step, but it doesn’t undo the decades of influence he and Rolling Stone had on the industry. Who’s to say that the views expressed by Wenner aren’t shared by others in positions of power in mainstream music journalism?

This isn’t some hypothetical, either. On Wednesday, Spin published a defense of Wenner by its own co-founder, Bob Guccione Jr., in which he claimed the only crime his longtime rival committed was “expressing a sentiment that is not politically correct. One that’s not part of the prescribed, sanctioned set of things you can say and think in America today.”

Making Wenner the sacrificial lamb makes it too easy to absolve others from reflecting on their own attitudes towards artists of color and how that influences coverage.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in this whole fiasco (and a connection to Latinidad), I am happy to say that there is one. Music journalism has been moving in the right direction in recent years.

In Rolling Stone’s case, the magazine updated its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list in 2020 and now includes a handful of Latin musicians like Celia Cruz and Shakira. The publication put Bad Bunny on its cover that same year (the wonderful profile was written by my now-colleague Suzy Exposito) — though I should make it clear that Rolling Stone interviewed Benito because he was already a massive star, and not the other way around. In recent years, the outlet has also done a better job at chronicling Latin music as a whole, including the recent explosion of Mexican regional.

Other outlets have somewhat followed suit. Earlier this year, Pitchfork, a music site that has justifiably earned a hipster reputation, ran a retroactive review of Selena’s 1994 “Amor Prohibido.”

But this is just a drop in the bucket. If outlets want to have their fingers on the musical pulse, they have to understand that music culture is youth culture. Rolling Stone understood this when it launched in 1967. But times have changed in the last 56 years. America has become increasingly diverse in that period of time. If the people in power in music journalism refuse to look outside their own comfort zones and experiences, you can bet they will be left behind.



Fidel Martinez writes the Los Angeles Times' Latinx Files, a weekly newsletter that focuses on the American Latinx experience.

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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