Jann Wenner’s Blinkered Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution

Jann Wenner’s Blinkered Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution

Jann Wenner’s Blinkered Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution

He built an empire on the foundations laid by Black musicians—but fails entirely to recognize that.

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The news that Rolling Stone cofounder and author Jann Wenner might be sexist and a wee bit racist hit me like the 2017 revelations about sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein: Tell me something I didn’t know. I don’t mean to compare Weinstein’s crimes and predations with Wenner’s contemptuous approach to female or Black artists—Weinstein is a monster; Wenner is not, at least according to my knowledge and (minimal) personal experience. But their individual forms of bad behavior have been well-known in the media literally for decades.

It took multiple talented reporters at The New York Times and The New Yorker to finally bring Weinstein down. For Wenner, it took only one, the extraordinary New York Times interviewer—a Salon music writer back in my day, as it happens—David Marchese. In case you’ve missed the story, Marchese interviewed Wenner about his forthcoming book, The Masters, a collection of his “conversations” with rock legends “Bono, Dylan, Garcia, Jagger, Lennon, Springsteen, Townshend.” That’s right; they’re “masters,” so they don’t need any more ID than that.

Wenner’s blinkered reasons for why he didn’t include women or Black artists in his book are what made news. “Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” he told Marchese. Stellar Black artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? “I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.” Those comments (there’s more) got Wenner kicked off the board of his beloved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he cofounded, and kicked in the ass by writers all over the world.

Marchese exposed many of Wenner’s personal and professional faults. The Rolling Stone founder proudly admits that he let his interview subjects, all his close friends, review and edit their transcripts. He once intervened to make Rolling Stone give Mick Jagger’s schlock solo album five stars. (His response to Marchese: “So what? I’m entitled.”) He defends the magazine’s outrageously false 2014 story about a rape at the University of Virginia that didn’t happen by saying, “Other than this one key fact that the rape described actually was a fabrication of this woman, the rest of the story was bulletproof.”

What does that even mean?

But Wenner didn’t get into trouble for that. His problems began when Marchese asked him about an obvious issue with The Masters—his subjects are all white men. That’s when the arrogant Wenner gave the answers that damned him: Even super-talented women and Black musicians weren’t “articulate” enough, or part of his “zeitgeist.” Marchese spoke for all of us when he said: “Oh, stop it. You’re telling me Joni Mitchell is not articulate enough on an intellectual level?”

Wenner can’t help digging his hole deeper.

Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock.

He went on:

You know, just for public relations’ sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.

That’s it. That’s his defense. That’s the Jann Wenner I knew (and didn’t love). I should note that Wenner later apologized. But it was too late, in so many ways.

Wenner could have stopped at saying The Masters was a collection of conversations with his close personal friends. He might have gotten away with that. We can all have opinions about what it means that only super-talented wealthy white men are his close friends, and his roster of close friends apparently leaves out talented women and Black artists—but who among us has sufficient diversity in our friendships? (I, for one, don’t have enough super-talented wealthy white men in mine.) But no, he had to figuratively shit on geniuses like Mitchell (along with Grace Slick and Janis Joplin) as well as Wonder, Gaye, and Mayfield.

Marchese also dings him for his boomer bias. Of course, Wenner defends that too. “What didn’t the rock ’n’ roll generation do? I mean, it didn’t get everything done. But I have no fundamental, deep criticisms.”

The “rock ’n’ roll generation.” Sure, Jann (indulge me a boomer joke!). You built an empire on the foundations laid by Black musicians, dude. There’s your zeitgeist. What the hell is wrong with you?

As a boomer, though, I have to say, the best take on Wenner’s racism and sexism wasn’t Marchese’s but that of the late, great boomer music critic and feminist Ellen Willis. In 1970, she wrote to Rolling Stone cofounder Ralph Gleason that she found the magazine to be “viciously anti-woman.… RS habitually refers to women as chicks and treats us as chicks, i.e. interchangeable cute fucking machines.” She also criticized its politics: “When a bunch of snotty upper-middle class white males start telling me that politics isn’t where it’s at, that is simply an attempt to defend their privileges.” There’s more from her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz (who also used to work at Salon) here.

Speaking (again) of Salon: Wenner was an investor, and when I became editor in chief, he was on my board. I was grateful for his investment, and he was kind enough to speak at Salon’s 10th anniversary party, which was kind of a big deal. Even the late, wonderful media critic David Carr was impressed. We had a brief editorial partnership with Rolling Stone, and whenever I visited his offices, I met with Wenner and a rotating team of talented young white men. We clashed. I won’t belabor it. I wrote about it here. We were not simpatico, for various reasons. He had invested in Salon’s founder, David Talbot, a kindred spirit. He left the board after about a year.

But I really don’t draw my conclusions about Wenner from that fairly brief experience. It comes from the testimony of Willis, of his ultimately unauthorized biographer Joe Hagan, of Black artists and writers like Vernon Reid and Nelson George. It comes from reading Rolling Stone on and off for the last 40 years and recognizing that it, however occasionally brilliant, was essentially a men’s magazine. (Wenner’s son and successor, Gus, and editor in chief Noah Schactman have changed that recently.) And it comes from Marchese’s amazing interview.

Hagan, on the site formally known as Twitter, lamented that Bruce Springsteen hasn’t said anything about the Wenner debacle. I had that impulse too, but it’s too much to expect. For one thing, Springsteen is ill. He canceled a month of his tour because of peptic ulcers. Also, he and Wenner are genuinely close personal friends. As Wenner admitted to Marchese: “My friendship with Bruce is very deep at this point. It makes it difficult to ask questions that you know the answers to. You’re trimming your sails to the friendship.” Also, next to manager Jon Landau, you could argue that Wenner made Bruce (along with his own talent, of course). It’s no accident that Landau was reportedly the lone vote against his removal from the Hall of Fame board.

Still, there is something so irritatingly male about the bond between Wenner and Springsteen. Like Wenner, Springsteen clearly favors men for interviews—or maybe I just say that as a female journalist who’s been denied umpteen interview requests over the years. He has that in common with another of his close personal friends, former president Barack Obama (whom I, sadly, never got to interview). In fact, the three are close friends: Wenner has interviewed Obama; Obama has interviewed Springsteen; Springsteen even interviewed Wenner when his autobiography came out in 2022. These men are all genuinely politically liberal. But if you ever wonder why liberal women of a certain age ever seem a little… bitter? Well, think about that.

Relatedly: I did once harangue Springsteen in public, here in The Nation. It was eight days before the 2016 election, when he still hadn’t campaigned for Hillary Clinton, after being so present on the trail with John Kerry and then Obama. What was different about this Democratic nominee? Well, I don’t want to go there. He committed to joining Clinton in Philadelphia shortly thereafter. My friends on the Clinton campaign told me they thought my piece helped. But we’ll never know.

Finally, let’s linger for a moment on the book’s title, The Masters. I get that it’s Wenner’s attempt to enshrine these boomer men not merely in the R&R Hall of Fame, but alongside the great (male) artists of yore. (Also golfers.) But there’s a reason we don’t use the word “master” too much any more. You get it, right? It’s inescapably male, and it screams of the worst crime in American history: slavery. One minor example: If you’ve been home-shopping in the last decade, you’ll know the old “master” bedroom has been renamed the “main” bedroom. Trivial? Maybe. But when the real estate industry is ahead of the main chronicler of “the rock and roll revolution,” that revolution might be in some trouble.

And so is Wenner.

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