Rolling Stone's "Choose the Cover" contest has been too random and too inconsistent with everything the magazine has been promoting for the last 20 years or so to really take seriously.
I’ve been a really nice music journalist the last few months. I haven’t really been mean to anybody I’ve covered. I got assigned to review the new Smashing Pumpkins album, and I pretty much applauded it as their best effort. Before that I heartily defended Marilyn Manson (albeit, MM circa 1998). I bowed at Public Enemy’s feet. Basically, I’ve been all about the love. I always maintained it’s a much more worthy and noble allocation of one’s time to devote 2,000 words to the pursuit of explaining to someone why they should listen to something, as opposed to why they shouldn’t.
The problem is, I’m not a naturally kind person, I don’t think. It’s been a nice working aesthetic I’ve been sustaining, but I willingly acknowledge it’s more than a little counter-intuitive.
Which is why today, I’m going to trust my instincts, basic urges, carnal urges, all that... and not be outwardly nasty, but raise some questions that a lot of people around my parts are afraid to bring up. I’m from Saskatoon, Canada, the city the Sheepdogs hail from. The Sheepdogs won that whole Rolling Stone "Choose the Cover" competition.
I’m sure nearly all of you reading are aware of how this contest was set up, but for those of you who are unfamiliar with this noble promotion, it basically consisted of 16 unsigned bands across North America in a tournament bracket format. They would go head-to-head, and the act with the most votes would move on, not unlike the American Idol format. Evidently, the people spoke, and the Sheepdogs came out the victor. Rah-rah.
Now, Saskatoon is not a big city by any conventional definition. We have about 275,000 people -- not small, but certainly no sprawling metropolis. Having said that, we are a very communal city, steadfastly standing behind any public sensation. Anyone who lives here will attest to the fact that for the duration of the Sheepdogs run, it was one of the most talked about topics in the city. I remember when I first heard the news they were chosen for the contest.
My first reaction was definitely along the lines of “What, really? You’re shitting me." I have lived here all my life, I’ve seen them play several times, and while they were one of the better Saskatoon acts, they were, for the most part, incredibly unmemorable. To actually be chosen as a candidate for the cover of Rolling Fucking Stone fell on the side of mind-blowing if I’m being honest. But winning it?
Unfathomable. Surely this band can’t grace the same magazine that has cover profiles of acts such as Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and Nirvana. It didn’t make any sense. Existing as an actual contender was total insanity, but killing the other contestants without mercy just didn’t seem plausible.
To be clear, I’m not just being a hater. I don’t hate their music, but I have no problem going on the record and saying they were far from a local treasure. They were background music, successfully killing time while we waited in line for our next pint. They excelled at this, but make no mistake about it: nobody was walking around wondering how the Sheepdogs haven’t stormed the gates of the mainstream music industry.
So, how could this happen? How did a band like this actually grace the cover of the biggest music magazine of the last 50 years? Well, from my vantage point, it tells us much more about the actual publication than the Sheepdogs. See, as the contest went on, and every DJ in Saskatoon was losing their marbles over the whole farce, it all started to make sense to me. Not only did I have a strong suspicion the Sheepdogs were going to romp everyone in their path, I told this to anyone who would listen.
Most dismissed it as misguided patriotic loyalty, when in actuality, it had way more to do with me being alert to the simple fact that Rolling Stone doesn’t give a flying fuck about some unsigned band hailing from the prairies in Western Saskatchewan. Their aspirations are about as noble as Nixon’s, and operate solely on a bottom-line basis. A colleague of mine used to work in the Rolling Stone review department, and revealed that a sign hangs there that reads “3 stars means never having to say you’re sorry”.
We don’t actually still take this magazine seriously on any critical or journalistic level, do we? It’s just a multimedia corporation, trying as hard as it can to stay atop an imaginary throne, and not caring at all how it accomplishes this. Their agenda is of no real interest to me; I’m a realist, but I’m just saying it’s an obvious one, as evidenced by their championing of any trending celebrity/aging boomer icons that hold very little current relevance on a contemporary scale.
I’m not here to bash the actual dynamics of Rolling Stone, though. As fun a punching bag as they may be, I could spend my time in a whole plethora of different and more valid ways. As you may or may not have figured out by now, what I am here to do, is openly question the validity of such a contest. It all adds up to a bunch of bullshit that just doesn’t compute. To be clear, I am stating I believe the magazine rigged the contest.
First of all, let’s examine the cover acts they had before the Sheepdogs piece. Here is who graced their holy cover in the months prior: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Steven Tyler, and Adele. Does this list read like a magazine genuinely interested in nurturing some remote local talent? Of course not, these are some of the biggest names in music today -- in fact they are now so big, they have transcended music. Not blaming RS I guess, but that’s their thing. Rock 'n’ roll gearheads have caught onto this a long time ago, and of course Rolling Stone knows their indie/street cred has completely bottomed out, so they create an unsigned band contest, and not only that, but the people decide! That’s how committed they are to this cause!
It was too random, too inconsistent with everything they’ve been promoting for the last 20 years or so, to really take seriously. Then the Sheepdogs took home the crown, and any doubt I had about the soundness of this contest was put to rest in the ensuing profile on the band. I tried to find an exact quote from the article, but curiously couldn’t find a transcript of it anywhere online.
No matter. The point is, the vast majority of the piece was spent trying to make Saskatoon come off as an inbred incarnation of all things slovenly/disgusting in this world. Rolling Stone wants us to believe they have such an ear to the street, they put a band on the cover hailing from a place so vile and contemptible, that most people are evidently wandering around in a punch-drunk haze bumping into each other, sans teeth. They have taken an act that thrives in an environment so beyond the pale, that only a patron saint publication like RS would ever have the valour to give them such grand publicity.
Don’t interpret this as being defensive. I know we’re not nearly as hip as any of Rolling Stone headquarters' surrounding cities, and I’m more than ok with this. But I also know this description was a brutal exaggeration of the truth, and it only goes to illustrate my point that this was just one big goddamn farce, a pathetic plea for some proletarian adoration they no longer have any hope of achieving. I can’t even bother to correspond with anybody who can’t acknowledge this as a legitimate possibility. I have no proof of this; I claim none of this as factual. But as a theory it makes a lot of sense.
I’m not afraid to throw it out there; Rolling Stone’s publication history leaves me absolutely no choice. Why take what they tell us at face value? There is no reason to immediately buy into some attention-grabbing promo they claim is being decided by the fans. I’m not saying it definitely is not on the up-and-up; I’m saying we shouldn’t auto-assume it is, especially when it runs counter to everything they’ve lamely stood behind the last several years.
You have every right to believe this is all a bunch of sour grapes from someone who is letting his personal biases against the Sheepdogs get in the way of what you deem to be a perfectly genuine contest. But I would hope you wouldn’t jump to these sorts of rash conclusions. I honestly don’t mind their music, and I hope before I die something big emerges out of Saskatoon that exists on their own terms, and not via some putrid music publication that has now turned into a complete laughing stock in nearly every tangible way. There’s gotta be a better way.
With that said, we are talking about a fairly mediocre band with so-so tunes and hardly anything to say. And we’re also talking about a corporation that once fired a reviewer for daring to submit a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View album because it was a big seller at the time (former RS reviewer Jim DeRogatis detailed his unceremonious exit in his Milk It! collection of his alternative-music coverage).
Don’t just take it from me. Just add that shit up. Follow the breadcrumbs. Smart money is on you coming to the same conclusion as me, but if the Sheepdogs have taught us anything, it’s never count out the underdog. Who knows, though, maybe I’m just being mean.