UAHS Rock

There is a theory that every person, of every generation, ends up thinking the music they listened to in high school and college is the best music ever recorded.  And if, 40 years later, they hear the strains of a song that became a hit during the summer after their junior year it still brings a smile to their lips, injects little youthful exuberance into their soul, and makes them want to move their feet, just as it did during their acne-addled years.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, really.  For most of us, we’ve never listened to music as fully and intensely as we did during high school and college.  Records and bands were important in those days.  It was not uncommon to listen to records, or the radio, for hours, with or without friends, and then talk about new groups and music, or some great older pieces that you’d just discovered, when you encountered your friends at school.  (“Hey, have you listened to this new group called The Eagles?”)  I even subscribed to Rolling Stone, read its reviews of new albums, and sometimes made purchases on the basis of its recommendation alone if the review was a rave.

And, of course, when you listen to music so carefully you tend to associate it with specific memories from your callow youth — like the album that was playing when you and your buddies were playing pool in the basement (Deep Purple’s Machine Head, maybe?) or the song that your high school girlfriend said was her favorite one time when you were out on a date.  How many people who graduated from high school in my year of 1975 can still sing every song on Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run album because repeated listenings ingrained it forever onto their memory banks?

So, I’m guessing that everyone out there thinks that the music that they listened to during their high school and college years — whether those years occurred in the ’50s, ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, or in this new millennium — is unquestionably the greatest music ever.  Fortunately, in my case, involving the music that I listened to during the ’70s, that just happens to be accurate. I’ve made several playlists that capture those songs, and one of them, UAHS Rock, focuses on the harder stuff that I listened to back when I was walking the halls of Upper Arlington High School during the early ’70s, with an embarrassing haircut and ludicrous ’70s clothing.  The first 20 songs of the playlist still stand up pretty well:

I’m Eighteen  — Alice Cooper
Layla — Derek & The Dominos
Smoke On The Water — Deep Purple
Stairway To Heaven — Led Zeppelin
Walk This Way — Aerosmith
Sweet Home Alabama — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Hocus Pocus — Focus
Band On The Run — Paul McCartney & Wings
Superstition — Stevie Wonder
Come And Get Your Love — Redbone
All Right Now — Free
Rocky Mountain Way — Joe Walsh
Twist And Shout — The Beatles
Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress — The Hollies
Badge — Cream
Roll With The Changes — REO Speedwagon
Radar Love — Golden Earring
I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home — Grand Funk Railroad
Hold Your Head Up — Argent
Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux — Led Zeppelin

The Rolling Stone Retraction

Yesterday Rolling Stone formally retracted its now-notorious story about a gang rape that supposedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The retraction followed the release of a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that concluded that the publication of the story in the first place was the product of a devastating series of failures by Rolling Stone, its reporter, and its editorial staff.

It’s to Rolling Stone‘s credit that it commissioned the CSJ report in the first place, but the report itself, and Rolling Stone‘s response to it, make me wonder whether I will ever fully credit one of its stories again.  The report documents a breakdown in basic journalism — relying primarily on one source, accepting stories at face value without sufficient fact-checking, failing to confirm quotes and facts with multiple sources, and allowing sensitivity for the alleged victim to trump the skepticism that should be an essential part of every reporter’s tool kit. It is a damning indictment of Rolling Stone‘s entire editorial process.

In response to the report, Rolling Stone‘s long-time publisher, Jann Wenner, said that the reporter who wrote the piece would continue to write for the magazine and that the managing editor of the magazine and the editor of the story itself would keep their jobs.  It’s a show of loyalty on Rolling Stone‘s part, I suppose, but it’s astonishing that people who utterly failed in the basics of reporting are not being fired for their role in a piece that ruined the magazine’s reputation for credible journalism — and, of course, maligned the University of Virginia, its fraternity system, and its students as well.

One other thing about Rolling Stone‘s response, as reported by the New York Times, seems a bit too pat:  the explanations for their failures, from the reporter to the editors, all come back to the notion that they wanted to be sensitive to the claimed rape victim.  I suspect that back story is a bit of a dodge.  I expect that someone along the line concluded that Rolling Stone had a sensational and sordid story in hand, and the basics of reporting were sacrificed in the rush to make a big splash.  It would have been nice if someone at Rolling Stone had admitted that sensationalism, too, played a role.

Black Eye For Reporting

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism back in the ’70s, I bought a book called The Rolling Stone Guide To Journalism — or something similar.  It was a great collection of pieces authored by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and other terrific reporters in the ’60s and ’70s, when Rolling Stone was forging new frontiers in journalism.  I loved it, and I still have it.

How the mighty have fallen!  The apparent failure of the Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat party.is a devastating blow for journalism that hurts just about everyone involved — the University, the fraternity, other victims of sexual assault who want to tell their stories, and the credibility of the reporter and Rolling Stone itself.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of publishing a significant story — and a claim that frat pledges committed a heinous criminal act certainly qualifies — expects that such stories have been carefully vetted, scrutinized by lawyers, fact-checked to the smallest detail, and read, re-read, and considered top to bottom before going to press.  When the publisher itself says it has doubts about a story, as Rolling Stone did today, it gives journalism a black eye and hurts the cause of everyone who hopes to us the press to focus attention on injustice or wrongdoing.

I think Rolling Stone owes it to reporters and readers alike to explain how this article saw print, what fact-checking processes were followed, and where the systems failed. How in the world did this happen?  There’s a real story there.

Dzhokhar, On The Cover Of The Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine is featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, on the cover of its next issue.  The decision to make Dzhokhar the Cover Boy has some people in the social media very riled.

They think the cover photo makes Tsarnaev into a rock star and glams up an accused terrorist.  Rolling Stone defends the cover, saying the story is legitimate journalism that explores how a young man, in the same age range as many Rolling Stone readers, became involved in a “tragedy.”  (I’m not sure that “tragedy” is quite the right word to describe an intentional bombing specifically designed to kill innocents, but let’s pass on that issue.)  The headline on the cover says:  “THE BOMBER:  How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.”

I’m not quite grasping what the big deal is.  I’m not falling for the Rolling Stone statement about “serious journalism” as a justification for the decision.  You could do a serious piece about Tsarnaev without putting his tousled mug on the cover.  I’m sure Rolling Stone, like every other magazine, hopes that the cover will attract the eye of casual newsstand browsers and lead to increased sales.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Rolling Stone just doesn’t want to admit it.  The fact that the cover already has become controversial and provoked lots of chatter probably was something the magazine was hoping for, too.

But really — who cares if Tsarnaev is on the cover of Rolling Stone?  Do people really believe that anyone will become a terrorist in hopes that he, too, will make a magazine cover?  And what’s with the “glorification” argument?  Tsarnaev’s cover photo has already been on the front page of just about every news website; I don’t remember any outcry about glamming then.  Are people really arguing that, any time a terrorist act is committed, newspapers and websites can’t publish a photo that makes the suspect look like anything other than a deranged killer?  That seems silly.

So let Rolling Stone publish its piece, and let it try to sell a few extra magazines in doing so.  I’d like to see some real digging into what happened to the Tsarnaev brothers, to see whether there is something we can do to prevent the next terrorist attack.  Maybe if Rolling Stone sells out this issue, more journalists will cover that very important story.

The President’s Speech

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said that kids have “good instincts” and added:  “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’”  Does it matter that the President used “bullshitter” in an apparent reference to Mitt Romney?  It’s just one word, after all.

I think it does matter, for two reasons.  First, the presidency remains an aspirational position — although I recognize that may be an old-fashioned view.  The President is the Leader of the Free World and the head of the world’s greatest democracy.  We want the President, through his words and deeds, to represent the best about America.  It’s what people mean when they talk about a candidate for the job appearing to be “presidential.”

Prior Presidents understood this, and paid careful attention to their public conduct and public speech.  They were careful to keep their vulgarities hidden behind the walls of the Oval Office.  When President Obama forsakes the high tones that traditionally accompany that office and uses crass language like “bullshitter” instead, it reflects a depressing coarsening of our culture.  If even the President uses gutter language to refer to his opponent, in an on-the-record comment, what does that say about our society and American culture?

Second, the President’s comment, as well as much of his recent behavior, is fundamentally contrary to the approach and persona that attracted and inspired so many people in 2008.  In that election, reporters covering an Obama speech often referred to his “soaring rhetoric” — and it was soaring.  During his “hope and change” campaign, the President consciously sounded high-minded themes that were fully consistent with the aspirational aspect of the presidency, and refrained from name-calling, cheap stunts, and other tawdry political tactics.

That is what makes the “bullshitter” reference so jarring.  It suggests that the Obama that so many found so appealing in 2012 is gone, if he ever existed.  It’s hard to envision the 2008 Obama calling someone a “bullshitter,” or making the harsh and patronizing comments about aircraft carriers and submarines in the most recent debate, among other less than idealistic behavior the President has exhibited during this campaign.  That conduct directly undercuts some of the most appealing aspects of candidate Obama in 2008, and makes people feel like they were hoodwinked when they pulled the lever for that candidate four years ago.  Americans don’t like to feel like they’ve been played for fools.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake