The moment was freighted with poetic symmetry: I was on my sofa reading Joe Hagan’s newly published Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine when I noticed our postal carrier dropping off the latest issue of Rolling Stone. The cover of Hagan’s book features Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner standing in front of a gallery of rock legends such as Mick Jagger. The latest issue of Rolling Stone features Elon Musk on the cover.
Welcome to the new generation of rock stars. The giants of Wenner’s generation wanted to change the world with music. Today’s rock stars want to use technology to re-imagine how we live.
The contrast between the old and new felt stark as I read the first third of Sticky Fingers, when Wenner launches a magazine in 1967 as rock gods walk the earth. The first issue of Rolling Stone featured John Lennon. Think about that for a moment. You launch a new magazine with zero promise of ever succeeding and no credibility. And coming right out of the gate you land one of rock’s most influential artists ever. John freaking Lennon.
Jann Wenner came along at a time when covering rock music meant reporting on the music of artists such as the Beatles, Doors, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Who — all of them in their prime, and all of them making music that shaped the lives of a generation. He knew he was witnessing greatness and was smart enough to publish a magazine that capitalized on the explosion of rock and youth culture.
Wenner quickly became a myth maker. Being on the cover of Rolling Stone meant you had ascended to a new level of fame that we now know as celebrity. But 50 years later, Rolling Stone has lost its influence. The magazine’s readership and ad revenue are no longer what they were. Recently Rolling Stone marked the occasion of its 50th anniversary by putting itself up for sale.
Meanwhile, the gods are dead and dying, one by one, and the survivors are dwindling. Bob Dylan is 76. Paul McCartney is 75. Mick Jagger is 74. No one has emerged to inherit the titles of resident rock icon once they finally stop playing. Rolling Stone has no more rock stars to put on its covers.
His tenure with the magazine coming to a close, Jann Wenner is making one more bid at myth making. With a few exceptions, rock offers very few options. Since Rolling Stone has always been about rock culture as well as rock, Wenner can cast his net wider into adjacent industries. Fortunately for Wenner, Elon Musk is a willing participant.
In the cover story, Musk even sounds like a visionary rock star, making statements such as, “I think we should try to make the future better” (evoking John Lennon’s “Imagine”) and “[I]f you’re going to make a product, make it beautiful. Even if it doesn’t affect sales, I want it to be beautiful” (sounding like Keith Richards when he talks about creating songs as “a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts”).
Musk isn’t the only visionary on Rolling Stone’s radar screen. Issue 1301 also offers mini profiles of people such as K.J. Erickson, whose online marketplace, Simbi, is designed to allow people to exchange services (a “supplemental economy”), and Chase Adam, co-founder of Watsi, which seeks to turn your smartphone into a device for managing healthcare.
Rock and roll isn’t dead. But the traditional rock star is gone forever. We’ll never again see the likes of a John Lennon – people who could rely on the power of radio and mass media to inspire others with their music.
Occasionally a Kendrick Lamar in hip-hop will catch fire, gain a following, and challenge people with their art as the rock gods used to do. But the Kendrick Lamars are the exceptions who prove the rule: the music industry rewards pop stars right now. Rock gods inspired people. Pop stars simply entertain them. And the media is too fragmented for the occasional true inspirational artists such as John Darnielle and Father John Misty to achieve the monumental fame that the music stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s enjoyed.
New stars have taken their place. They aspire to change lives through technology – such as Mark Zuckerberg with virtual reality and Elon Musk with the electric car and commercial space travel. They hold the real power now, and they’re not going to let go of the reins anytime soon.