Someone Take the Wheel
The Death of SPIN Magazine
On the 30th anniversary of SPIN magazine, Byron Coley — the “underground” editor almost solely responsible for establishing the magazine’s credibility in the early days — is absent. Where is Legs McNeil? Charles Aaron, SPIN’s longest-suffering spouse, who tried to carry its limp body to a proper resting place as the Internet rained plagues of locusts upon his withering frame, is buried in an unmarked grave, covered over by parquet tile.
Elizabeth Mitchell, the features editor during the magazine’s uncontested cultural apex, is nowhere to be found. Mark Woodruff? Well, we know why he’s missing… Jim Greer? Celia Farber, who wrote arguably the only and by far the most significant and controversial piece of straight journalism published by SPIN in thirty years, goes unmentioned.
I don’t see a lot of “former writers” — let alone editors — sipping Manhattans and reminiscing about the old days. I see Lori Majewksi, an unpaid intern who spent the better part of two years partying on the magazine’s cachet, and Jonathan Bernstein, who was hired to be SPIN’s movie critic, but made more sense on the music side of the house, because had a British accent. These two contributed jack shit to this brand, and are not coincidentally flogging an oral history of new wave built on throwing Moby and John Taylor’s names around. Keep your wacky tales of spraying whipped cream on each other backstage on the Strange Behavior tour: I’ll be fish-bowling my friend’s Cutlass Ciera* blaring “The Hanging Garden” so loud the speakers rip, turning one of goth’s great melodramas into an orchestra of farting wrestlers.
What editor snapped at the rotting carcass of this non-entity when the ad-sales director masquerading as a “publisher” dangled it their way? In 2015, the SPIN brand reeks of dried blood and intenstines on hot tarmac, a wadded mass of carrion that would turn the most craven vulture’s stomach. Yet one has landed, and taken a small flock under its wing, urging them to gnaw on the noxious pile of vim in front of them, telling them it’s always been this way, that it tastes like chicken.
Most punk, post-punk and hardcore bands never recorded a great “album,” because all their best shit was released on 7”s, and compiled after the fact (Youth of Today’s Break Down the Walls is an exception, but I won’t go there). SPIN ignored the long-standing no-compilations rule common to all lists of this kind to chart Bikini Kill’s Singles (for “riot grrrl” points), Orbital’s disconnected In Sides (versus the flawless Orbital 2 or their seminal debut — yes, seminal, the word actually applies here), and the generationally overrated C86, a collection of slight UK jangle bands I really wish you’d all stop shoving in kids’ faces. It’s fucking terrible.
Why not include Ol Dirty Bastard’s Dirty Story, the Pretenders’ Singles, or Everclear’s Ten Years Gone? More to the point, why exclude the positively iconic CD Version of the First Two Records, which was released while Bikini Kill was still huge, and might as well have been included in freshman orientation packets from 1994–1998. How does Bikini Kill’s singles compilation merit exception, yet Fugazi’s 13 Songs, the Make-Up’s overstuffed I Want Some and Superchunk’s Tossing Seeds (another campus mainstay) do not? This list does not indicate anyone at SPIN asked these questions.
Let me make clear that I’m not here to “out-indie” anyone (I will point out that Ride’s Nowhere is functionally a compilation, but then so was Never Mind the Bollocks). I offer no deliberately obscure or subjective rejoinders (fact: Sonora Pine’s II is Top 10 of the 1990s). I’m not out to cred-shame you with Iceburn or Seefeel, or shove Discordance Axis’ Jouhou in your face for the fiftieth time. Nor am I going to argue that the Pogues’ Hell’s Ditch is better than Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, even if it is. The Pogues were largely a singles band and there’s little room to make a big stink on that score.
However, there is a gulf of YOU ARE SO FUCKING WRONG in including the National’s dolorous Boxer instead of their only great record, Alligator. This is a choice infected by referendum, by the entire music hype scene coming to Alligator too late to recognize what a number of us were already enjoying, qualities that were irretrievably spoiled in short order by the band’s arrogance. Likewise, the Magnetic Fields’ deplorably hubristic 69 Love Songs, which has been cast as some kind of automatically canonical indie rock opera, but is in fact a paper-thin sprawl of half-ideas, pathetic next to 2008's Distortion, let alone 1994's Holiday, one of the strongest typic “indie rock” records you will ever hear. Its successor, The Charm of the Highway Strip, is nearly as good.
Further to this line of thinking is the inclusion of records like the Breeders’ crossover Last Splash without the incomparable Pod; of the lazy presence of Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space over and instead of Lazer Guided Melodies (or even Pure Phase, both are better albums); of Burial but not Squarepusher; of Pulp’s Different Class but not This is Hardcore, the only outstanding record released as Britpop died. “Seductive Barry,” folks: This is England.
If we’re including George Michael’s Faith, I guess we’re looking to evaluate the historical impact and object endurance of Long Players, versus singles, EPs, or groundbreaking artists who never managed to fill both sides of a record. By and large the vague focus on Big Albums is fine on technical and even pragmatic grounds, as a referendum on the form. Yet even by that measure, SPIN’s results are disastrously off-target. The site’s current stable is batting well under .500, which is what I’d expect from an Amazon Listmania! submission.
I spent about two hours thinking of records they overlooked. Some of their oversights are matters of opinion; most are not. It looks ridiculous in Medium’s formatting so I stuck them on pastebin.
Year-end lists, as I said long ago, once served an organizational purpose, and could justify the bloated, disheveled human tragedy called a Music Critic on the masthead. Somehow this person, this hanger-on who spent Thursday to Saturday puking in every alley next to every club, pretending some local Battle of the Bands joke like Tribe or Angry Salad was going to make it, had a desk at your regional big name rag. Yet this person loved music, and thought only about music, and the people trying to make it, even if they were terrible people making terrible music.
That is a far better scenario than what we’re left with in the wake of the Internet hurricane. SPIN’s list was not made by people who love music; it was made by people who love lists, all weaned on the monotonous four-sentence sweep of the Blurb. Their success is measured in attention, by the number of second-stage indicators (tweets, likes), and this is the only world they’ve known. The world they’re attempting to comment on was not built this way: the iconic moments and celebrities they cherish and reify in these pieces were all constructed with different tools.
Internet lists serve only as ballast, helping increase a site’s weight with search engine aggregators, busily prejudicing the world to the loudest consensus, which is never right, nor a consensus at all, rather a social contract that mandates you pay attention to The Weeknd if you want to work here, or be seen there, or hope to have access to anyone who might help you arrive at either destination. The success and failure of everyone who offers their work to this world, be they writer or musician, is predetermined by the interests of promoters and advertisers who fund digital music gateways. And without them, the music stops.
What is so galling about this theoretically meaningful anniversary is that everything these writers needed to invent a substantial, convincing bit of content and sell the lie of SPIN magazine actually existing in 2015 can be found in Google’s digital archive, which SPIN sold for nothing when they failed to make payroll for the eighth time back in 2010 or whatever it was. They’ve run a reader’s poll for their 30th, which they left open for one week. By the time I found out, the poll was closed. I have a high degree of confidence they will not reveal the wan total of ballots submitted.
If you want to construct a connection between the brand as it doesn’t exist now and undeniably once did, do a little research. Do as little as type words into a search box and press enter. It’s a free pass to not being wrong in everything you are doing, but you’re like, “nah, we’re good, email your clips to me by Friday. Sick call on Tunnel of Love, Andrew!” Andrew, of course, got this gig through an exhaustive national job search.
Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever — an improbable smash featuring three #1 singles released in the second half of 1989 — is arguably the best, and at something like seven million copies sold, certainly one of the biggest middle-of-the-road rock albums in SPIN’s wheelhouse. It does not appear on this list. Nor does Peter Gabriel’s So, which featured a #1 hit in “Sledgehammer,” and more importantly, a music video that is largely responsible for establishing the artistic credibility of the medium, just as SPIN granted the medium’s instamatic stars credibility, as musicians. That is the brand’s legacy; this is Guccione’s dream debased.