In response to Thoughts on the New Rolling Stone List of the Top 500 Albums
My colleague Jack Butler, born in the Clinton Administration but steeped in the cultural tastes of Gen X or even Baby Boomers, looks at the new RS list and gently questions its taste. Rolling Stone meant a lot to me back in the 1980s but Jack’s post reminded me I hadn’t even bothered to check out the new list, which at one time would have been something I eagerly consumed. Why don’t I care? Because I knew what I’d find.
Jack writes, “Notably, Rolling Stone does not seem to have sold its new list as an attempt at improving ‘representation’ or some such,” but representation was clearly the most important factor on its mind, as it is with just about every entity that makes lists or hands out awards these days. Leaving aside that most of these albums are not rock (okay, it’s a list of the top 500 “popular music” albums of all time, whatever), you will not be able to convince me that merit was the sole criterion for these selections. (Rolling Stone was immediately denounced for not being “inclusive” enough anyway, which illustrates why you should never play these games in the first place. Throw out your integrity and all that remains to be decided is how much groveling you will do, not whether to grovel.) If there are considerations other than merit, who really cares? Any list that has Liz Phair’s (forgotten) Exile in Guyville (1993) at number 56 but dumps Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town all the way back at number 91 is more interested in showcasing its feminist credentials than in accurately summarizing what matters in the history of rock. There are guys who have the entire lyric sheet of Darkness tattooed on their backs. If Springsteen announced he was going to play only Darkness on his next tour, he’d immediately sell out stadia around the country. If Liz Phair announced an Exile in Guyville tour in 2020, people would respond as Jack did when I mentioned the name: “I’ve never even heard of her.” Phair’s brand of rage-inflected sexy feminism was novel for 1993, and critics got very very excited about it because there are so few women rockers of note, but two years later Alanis Morissette came along and did the same thing, with the crucial difference that Morissette did it well, with polished melodies and killer hooks. Instantly Phair became as obsolete as the Edsel. I doubt anyone at RS or anywhere else listens to Phair anymore.