Thursday, July 18, 2013

This Is All I Will Say About Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine put the face of the Boston Marathon bomber on its cover this month. The tension is high, the heated discourse is still underway, and of course fire burns hottest at the center so here in Boston it's a divisive issue, complex and fraught with emotion, with outrage on one side and the usual "don't be a crybaby" naysayers dismissing everyone else's opinion. Yes, everyone understands that magazines need to sell in order to stay afloat. We all get that. 

But being on the cover of Rolling Stone once meant you were a cultural icon on the level of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles. Even Al Gore, for his environmental work. It's kind of a big deal to get the cover, to lots of artists and other dreamers. 

"What does a person have to do to make the cover of Rolling Stone?" 

The loudest of the naysayer arguments is "But they put Charles Manson on the cover, it's the same thing." No, the Charles Manson cover was not the same at all. First of all, that was 43 years ago. Can we stipulate to some social progress over the past fifty years?  You want to be back in 1970? I don't. In 1970 my boss would be able to call me honey, slap my ass and tell me to fetch him a sandwich. Your central argument is either total ignorance, or else you're deliberately acting obtuse.

But even without the huge shift towards today's less shitty social contract than the one that existed in the 1970s, the Manson cover was still completely different. For one thing, Manson was a would-be musician, and some pyschologists have suggested that his being passed over by the music industry pissed him off so much that it set him on a collision course with "the establishment." Add to that the Beatles' "Helter Skelter," a song that Charles Manson wove into his twisted world view as a message that set him on these bloody crusades. 

The motive in the Manson murders was to start a race war, he had the girls and Tex write in blood on the walls in such a way that the investigators would think black people did it. "Helter Skelter" was extremely central to the Manson case, becoming the title of the most famous book about the case, written by lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, and later made into a movie, one of many works about the case. When you factor in the actress Sharon Tate who was murdered along with her unborn baby, the child of her famous filmmaker husband Roman Polanski, yes, of course those murders devastated the worldwide entertainment community. It would have been weird if Rolling Stone had not covered the story from an entertainment magazine's point of view.

And finally, and perhaps most noteworthy, unlike the bomber, that Manson cover photo was not deliberately sexualized. Rolling Stone didn't use a mug shot. They used a very attractive, doe-eyed photo, this confused kid looking like he's just beat out Bruno Mars for the top single this week. Like he has fans. World history is cut with a large, crazy stripe of idolizing madness. Manson had fans, and does still, and so does many a crazed killer from Jesse James to Machiavelli. Volumes have been written by people a thousand times smarter than you and me about the dangers of elevating madmen to iconic fame. Now maybe Rolling Stone was deliberately trying to make a point about radical nationalism and how just about any young person can be radicalized like this boy was, or maybe he does have fans, too, like Manson. Either way, this is another chapter in that discourse, that's all. Let people talk about it, let people feel their feelings about it. No amount of your uber-cool eyerolling about the relative relevance of Rolling Stone is going to contribute to the situation, so save the superiority for your blog.

At the end of the day, try to realize that being on the cover of Rolling Stone signifies that you're a rock star. And now, say the most outraged, we bow our heads and wait for the next bored, young rebel who does not even understand the cause, to plan and execute his attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. The question is still "What does a person have to do to make the cover of Rolling Stone," but the new answer is terrifying.