A cultural firestorm erupted this weekend over comments Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, made during an interview with New York Times columnist David Marchese.
The interview focused primarily on Weiner’s soon-to-be-published book, The Masters. A summary of interviews conducted by the author over the years with seven musicians, The Masters, captures Weiner’s personal vision of rock philosophy. The book is fundamentally problematic because it represents an effort to canonize a particular group of artistic voices, all white and male, as rock gods. Marchese fully recognized this in his interview and asked Weiner directly why he did not include the viewpoints of any black male or female musician in his book.
Weiner said the selection was based on his personal interest in the artists’ works, adding that “as far as women were concerned, none of them were sufficiently articulate on that intellectual level.”
The comments led to an immediate decline in Wenner’s reputation and precipitated his removal from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Weiner quickly apologized for his “inflammatory” remarks and the Rolling Stones issued a statement on X, formerly Twitter, distancing themselves from their founder’s views.
Their desperation to hide the depressing truth reminded me of the iconic scene from The Wizard of Oz, where the true identity of the titular wizard is revealed. Dorothy’s dog pulls back a curtain and reveals the simple man pulling the strings of the machine they believe to be the almighty ruler of the fictional land of Oz. The Wizard tries to order Dorothy and her friends “not to care about the man behind the curtain.” But they refuse to ignore what they saw and heard.
In many ways, we are also being asked not to care about the man behind the curtain – Jann Wenner. We are told to ignore comments that imply they amount to nothing but the confused and irrelevant musings of an aging baby boomer about the music that served as the soundtrack to his life.
But this isn’t just about Fener. His controversial comments to The New York Times also raise a number of questions regarding the objectivity and integrity of the entities that have defined his legacy and contribution to music culture – Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For a number of journalists, music insiders, and historians who had been closely following Wenner and the organizations he helped found, his justifications for excluding black and female voices from The Masters served as confirmation of what they had suspected for a very long time: Jan Wenner is a cultural gatekeeper, and he has been engaged over Decades of erasing culture through the powerful organizations he has influence over.
This is a reasonable conclusion, given the ease with which Weiner revealed his disdain and disrespect for black and female voices in rock music, and the way Rolling Stone magazine tried to downplay the impact of contributions to the genre, and sometimes ignored them altogether. Outside of Weiner’s preferred demographic.
In many ways, Rolling Stone has helped shape music journalism and the history of popular music for more than 60 years. Founded in 1967 by Weiner and jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, it was viewed from the beginning as revolutionary and radical, but also as a pioneering record holder in music culture. From its journalistic style and scope to its iconography, the magazine has, for a long time, been the gold standard that others in the industry look up to.
However, in the last decades of the twentieth century, as punk, black rock, grunge, and hip-hop emerged and became more popular, the magazine almost ignored them. The journalistic gap caused by this apathy was quickly filled by publications such as Spin, Vibe, and The Source. However, Rolling Stone’s aversion to these genres was duly noted.
The magazine’s broad social currency and Weiner’s well-established position in the industry allowed it to avoid any criticism and continue to cast a shadow over music journalism for many years. Rolling Stone magazine has never had a real reckoning with its founder’s views on music culture, and faithfully continued to let Wenner promote his white-and-male-centric narrative about rock music in its pages until very recently.
I haven’t watched or read “The Gentlemen” yet, but from what I’ve heard about it so far, it’s clear to me that this collection of interviews is just an extension of this same short-sighted and harmful narrative.
The way in which Weiner attempted to defend the content and structure of his latest book was indicative of the shaky foundations of his musical philosophy. By rejecting all black and female voices in rock music as inadequate and inarticulate, he demonstrates that his philosophical vision of rock music is not built on a recognition of the deep connections between cultural practice, musical community, repertoire, and sonic genealogy that underscores so much. From the history of this genre.
Weiner’s exclusion of black and female musical voices from his supposedly definitive list of “masters” constitutes direct cultural erasure, and is really no different from the biases that dominate corporate boardrooms, academic spaces, country clubs, and social clubs.
Its purpose is to maintain the homogeneity and power dynamic defined in the world of rock music.
What the New York Times interview confirmed is that over the course of more than 50 years, Weiner deliberately scripted, self-promoted, and embedded himself in a fictional world where rock music was defined and dominated by white masculinity, and used Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of fame for promoting and strengthening this alternative reality.
He has co-opted certain aspects of our musical and cultural past to fit his legendary rock show. His exclusion of black and female musicians by describing them as lacking intelligence and the ability to articulate musical practice is a familiar expression of racism and sexism whose roots go back to the nineteenth century.
The irony in all of this is the fact that the success of the artists Weiner inspired in The Gentlemen was largely built on a long and infuriating history of black culture being objectified, appropriated, and reshaped as a revolutionary form of white expression.
Once the storm caused by his latest interview calms down, Weiner will likely continue to try to invalidate the contributions of black musicians and women to the evolution of rock music, and the rock world — led by the likes of the Rolling Stones — will likely continue. Turn a blind eye to his efforts. Fortunately, there is excellent journalism from the likes of Danielle Smith, Torre, or Joe Hagan, and books like Gillian Jarre, She’s a Rebel: A History of Women in Rock ‘n’ Roll, Maureen Mahon, The Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, and “Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll will continue to serve those who truly want to understand the true richness of rock history.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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