The Sound of Silence: On Rolling Stone’s ‘Bomber’ Cover

[8 August 2013]

By Joseph Fisher

I stood in the aisle at One Stop News for quite some time before I decided to purchase the 1 August 2013 edition of Rolling Stone, the issue with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (“Jahar”) on the cover.  Though I spent most of my teenage years in a small, weathered mill town outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, I readily identify as a Bostonian. My father grew up in South Boston; my mother grew up in Jamaica Plain. I was born in Quincy (“Qwinzee”) Hospital and spent the first few years of my life traveling back and forth to various family houses all over the South Shore.

Back in the early 2000s, I bandited the Boston Marathon, running a respectable, if totally unofficial, time for my first marathon. On that day, my future wife waited for me mere feet away from the finish line. 

Over the past decade, my wife has become quite the runner herself. She has been lucky enough to complete several marathons (I always seem to get injured beforehand). As a result, I have spent many, many mornings waiting at finish lines for her. My wife consistently runs her marathons broadly between 4:20:00 and 4:50:00. Had she been running the 2013 Boston Marathon, I would have been waiting for her, most likely at the finish line, most likely when the bombs went off. That was, and remains, a chilling thought.

So, petulant as it might sound, this Rolling Stone cover felt personal to me. And I took it personally.

When news of the cover photo hit the Internet, I followed discussions about the image from a casual distance. I cancelled my subscription to Rolling Stone well over ten years ago, and except for when I am waiting to have a cavity drilled, I have found few reasons to read the magazine over the course of the last decade. However, when I read Camille Dodero’s bizarre report on the cover for Gawker, I just knew that, damn it, I was going to have to buy this thing—and that I would probably end up writing an article just like this one.

Dodero’s article, among several others that she wrote for Gawker about the cover, focuses primarily on Jahar’s former college’s (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) refusal to sell this particular issue of Rolling Stone. As Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone piece makes clear, Tsarnaev did not enjoy his time at UMASS Dartmouth, apparently because he found the “beige” campus “depressing”—two descriptions that Dodero’s write-up emphasizes. When I read that particular Gawker post, which insinuates that the campus’ ban was a cynical defensive PR move, I, once again, could not help but take things personally. I know several people who attended UMASS Dartmouth. One of them is my father. And guess what, Gawker: NONE OF THEM WERE EVER SO DEPRESSED THAT THEY BOMBED THE CITY OF BOSTON!

Reading that response right now, it does not seem like the most sophisticated thing that I could say. However, it is an honest response, and honesty is apparently a virtue that the Gawksters pride themselves on. Also, it is a response that is in all caps, so it should translate well over there.

After my blood pressure dropped from boil to seethe, I realized that the chatter about this cover was happening in the aftermath of another upsetting event: the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial. In the days and weeks after the trial, everyone I knew—and, I suppose, did not know—was heated about the verdict. As a result, conversations about the Rolling Stone cover, even in the comments sections on Gawker, became dismissive rather quickly. Countless people on my Facebook feed would shut down discussions about the cover with responses about how “there are more important things happening in the world” and “people just need to get over this because it is not that big of a deal.” 

I still find these dismissals puzzling. For starters, there is always something more important happening in the world. Really. When your son gets dressed for his first day of first grade, and you post a picture of him on Facebook in his first grade clothes, there are more important things going on in the world. The same is the case for when you just baked a fresh batch of cookies, and you post that picture on Facebook. Your cookies might be great and all, and I am sure your kitchen smells wonderful, but your cookies are not that big of a deal.

How would we react if our friends actually responded to us in this way? Why, then, dismiss anger about Jahar’s cover photo so quickly?

Whether or not the George Zimmerman trial eclipsed the significance of Rolling Stone’s‘s decision to put a murderer on their cover—they have also featured Jar Jar Binks, Dodero helpfully reminds us—is not really the point. What is the point—and what is irritating about the way people who are not bothered by this cover have sneered at those of us who are—is the magazine’s entirely disingenuous justification for their decision:

The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
—THE EDITORS

Again, context: the George Zimmerman trial. What would the response have been if Rolling Stone had decided to examine the “complexities” of that issue by framing an examination of the trial with a sepia-toned cover image of Zimmerman, a sly smile creeping across his lips as he stared into the camera?  Zimmerman is 29, which similarly puts him “in the same age group as many of [Rolling Stone‘s] readers.”  Zimmerman also lives in Florida. I think they get copies of Rolling Stone in that state.

No, the decision to put Jahar on the cover was strictly a shrewd marketing strategy on the magazine’s part. And, I have to say that their strategy rather handsomely paid off. Good for them, I guess.

As far as the actual story goes, it is perfectly competent in its attempt to narrate a life of personal and political strife that is entirely foreign to the average American reader. If you want to remain firm in your boycott of the magazine, then go for it. Gawker will imply that your efforts are worthless, but you can always boycott that site, too. Reitman’s article is hardly sensational, so you should not feel like you are compromising any personal or political ideals (whatever those might be) if you do read it.

Petty as it might be, I could not help but delight in the following juxtaposition:

[UMASS Dartmouth] has a diverse student population, but their level of curiosity seemed to fall far below his friends’ from [high school]. “Using my high-school essays for my English class #itsthateasy,” Jahar tweeted in November 2011.

Jahar had begun his studies to be an engineer, but by last fall had found the courses too difficult.

Ah, college students. Ah, humanity. “High school” isn’t hyphenated, #bytheway.

Beyond this rather superficial moment, what I found most noteworthy about Reitman’s story is its repeated references to the time Jahar spent on the Internet. As the profile progresses out of narrations of Jahar’s upbringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts and toward the very murky months that preceded the marathon bombings, Jahar’s life on the Internet, specifically on Twitter, takes a more prominent role in the article. At the time of the attacks, the young man had become increasingly withdrawn, immersing himself more fully in his religious beliefs. As a result, Jahar’s Twitter feed has become the only window that offers even a modest view into his consciousness. This rather mundane biographical fact actually carries enormous sociopolitical significance: Jahar came of age online—just like so many other American teenagers.

Let me be clear. In establishing this parallel, I have absolutely no intentions of implying that “Jahar was just like you” or that “America” or “the Internet” made him murder innocent people. Those discussions are beyond the scope of this article. Have them if you want. But do not think I am going to have them with you.

No, what intrigues me the most about Jahar’s online life is that it is entirely typical of the kinds of lives that countless American college students lead—those students who, as Rolling Stone‘s editors make clear, are in the demographic that actively consumes popular culture, and journalism about popular culture. And yet, unlike Rolling Stone, many of the most prominent American-based music/lifestyle blogs have written virtually nothing about the Rolling Stone cover, and nothing about Jahar. Pitchfork, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan—all of them are popular, powerful forces in the world of music journalism. More significantly, all of them are competitors with Rolling Stone. Yet, searches on the words “jahar”, “boston bomber”, and “dzhokhar tsarnaev” net zero relevant results on those websites. (The outlier is Stereogum, which links to Amanda Palmer’s “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, which no one should ever read.)

This omission is quite telling, because it reveals a certain amount of conservatism in the indie music press—a kind of conservatism that, at the very least, Rolling Stone does not (always) share. For the most part, these indie blogs seem content to remain safe in their assessments of culture—and in the choices they make about what kinds of culture to assess. Seriously, it has been way too long since Pitchfork has torn into some record, emblazoning a scarlet 1.2 at the top of the review. Likewise, virtually every band featured on Stereogum is, apparently, great, the site’s legion of compassionate commenters ever-so-nicely approving of much of what the blog’s editors choose to feature, downvoting naysayers to the point of invisibility in the process. Very rarely do these webzines feature material that is at all controversial—unless, for example, you are the kind of person who holds deep convictions about Deafheaven’s crossover success—and very rarely do they stretch themselves to the point where they discuss topics that skirt the boundaries of youth-oriented popular culture.

For better or worse, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—as rock magazine cover boy, as young terrorist—is one of those topics. He should be discussed seriously in venues beyond the pages of a lumbering countercultural relic.

Loathe as I am to admit it, what convinces me of this fact is Rolling Stone‘s editorial justification for the cover photo. Jahar was a college student, one whose flirtations with education, politics, and culture triangulated a domestic existence with a social life and an online life. Truly, the very same Internet that brought the world Grimes brought the world Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Sure, Jahar’s connections to music culture are, as far as Reitman can reveal, rather faint (he apparently stopped listening to music as he embraced a violent form of fundamentalist Islam). Nevertheless, Jahar, the young student, was simultaneously consuming and building the popular culture that so obviously sustains pop journalism. Heck, his maligned cover photo is something that many grown adults could correctly identify, without a hint of embarrassment, as a “selfie”.

The problem is that large swaths of the popular indie music press just cannot seem to understand adolescence in ways that are not explicitly upper-middle class and Western, if not American. The examples of this kind of thing are countless. Still, between Corban Goble’s wistful remembrances of singing Interpol in his high school hallways, Chris DeVille admitting that he cannot imagine any Stereogum reader not watching, and apparently memorizing, The O.C., Peter Hepburn soundtracking his walk from Georgetown University to Adams Morgan with Panda Bear’s Person Pitch (of course on an iPod), and Lindsay Zoladz musing about how Vampire Weekend can help millennials resolve their identity crises, we can at least get a sense of a consistent trend.

For whatever it might be worth, I can imagine Jahar visiting Stereogum and any of those other sites. I can also imagine, given what Reitman reveals about his upbringing, that his family might not have outfitted their home with multiple television sets, one for each family member to customize their viewing experiences. Jahar might never have watched The O.C., and I can also imagine that he might not have given much thought to being a “millennial”. I also know that there are many students like Jahar who could never attend Georgetown University (or afford to live in Adams Morgan). Those students, if they even go to college, attend underfunded (state) schools with underfunded facilities, and many of those students probably have never heard Turn on the Bright Lights.

Is it really so difficult for others to imagine these things? Is it impossible to imagine a world where young people do not wait breathlessly for tickets to the Postal Service reunion show? Do we have so much leisure time that we cannot imagine others not having as much leisure time as us?

If we can imagine these things—if we know them to be true—then why aren’t more of us writing about them?  Why do we continue to produce cocoon-like dorm room narratives about how transformative Radiohead was for all of us?  When will we recognize that it is not melodramatic to call these narratives privileged—and marginalizing?

More to the point, when will we ask ourselves what it means for our memories of adolescence to ignore adolescents like Jahar altogether?

In all sincerity, I mean no disrespect to any of the writers I have cited in this article. I do not know any of these people personally, and I have no intentions of starting some kind of Internet flame war from the safe sanctuary of my home.

I also want it to be clear that these sites, and the legions of more independent (and therefore more anonymous) ones out there, have offered pop criticism quite a lot of valuable writing. Listening to music in the early decades of this new millennium has irrevocably become an entirely social experience, one that immediately situates listeners in political and ideological communities both on and offline. That positive contextual shift is a direct result of the tireless, often unpaid work that so many music writers have freely given to the websites that “employ” them and that bring their writing back to us.

But it is that same reach—that same ability to link together a diverse string of networks and chat rooms with the click of the mouse—that has started to make an awful lot of online music writing feel shallow. I mean, really, the does-vinyl-sound-better-? question again? Does the world really need another article on that subject?  And do we really think that the US Postal Service has plotted to murder indie music? Is this the best we can do with the entire Internet at our fingertips?

The indie press’s ceaseless attempt to dig deep—to unearth every fathomable facet of a rather rigidly defined music culture—has sapped that same press with the perspective it needs to remain vibrant and, I would strenuously argue, relevant. Jahar has close to 84,000 Twitter followers. James Brooks, the musician who (allegedly) upset the Internet with the release of the Stop Pretending EP has 10,000 followers. Yes, 10,000 followers is a great number (about 100 people follow me, and some of them are running sock companies), but it is hardly a number that can sustain a music career to the point where the initial handwringing would truly seem warranted. Also, Kanye West just released an unabashedly homophobic, misogynistic record to near universal critical acclaim. Again, perspective.

As I thought through possible musical contexts in which to read Jahar, I continually returned to the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. There has been no shortage of indie-e-zine coverage of the horrible incarceration of the Russian punk group—nor should there be. However, what that coverage has revealed is that the significance of the group extends beyond their status as musicians. Their imprisonment has birthed a worldwide protest movement, much of which coalesced online and that has led, literally, to global discussions about feminism and freedom that are as much about music as they are about civil rights.

The aftermath of the Boston Bombings has revealed similar, if somewhat inverted, plotlines concerning Jahar. His familial background is one that was also subject to inhumane and unfathomable (for most of us) brutalization at the hands of the Russian government. Also—bizarrely—his arrest has similarly birthed a protest movement. Largely youth-based, largely feminine, largely online, the #FreeJahar movement forces us to ask questions about sexuality, nationality, identity, cultural literacy, and—most importantly—Internet literacy. In addition, the movement’s official Tumblr page is soundtracked and is awash in the kind of pop cultural meme recycling that has become online journalism’s stock-in-trade. The politics of this movement—both good and bad—and the signifiers it employs in its rhetoric are already woven into the fabric of contemporary music criticism; point of fact, they are woven into the coverage of Pussy Riot. To paraphrase Rolling Stone, we just need to do a better job of examining the contours and complexities of those politics.

Several someones out there are capable of doing that. It is time for those people to do it, and to do it on the Internet. After all, on the Internet, there are no cover photos.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/174270-the-sound-of-silence-coverage-of-rolling-stones-bomber-cover/