To start, a few words on Vanity Fair: I’m not a regular reader (if I want pop culture glossified and presented to the trendy-if-safe, above-average-incomes crowd, I’ll stick with The New Yorker, thank you very much). So my experience with the book is slim, but I will say this: if the recession has really affected magazine ad buys, you wouldn’t know it from checking out VF. One flips through approximately (and pay attention, because while this sounds like a gross generalization, it’s actually fairly accurate) one-hundred-and-fifty pages before getting to the actual meat of the issue. And the meat, sad to say, is chicken-fried steak. (Which, for readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept, sucks.)
Before I get to the actual articles, a quick note on Graydon Carter’s Editor’s Letter. I assume that anyone who reads Blogcritics is fairly media savvy to begin with, so you certainly don’t need me to tell you that the man is a self-obsessed, insufferable prick. Still, all you need to do is read the actual letter and it’s impossible to come away with any other impression of the man but that, goddamn, he’s really a self-obsessed, insufferable prick. Leading off with the profound assertion that music “re-ignites whatever sentiments I had attached to it, and I’m back to where I was when I heard it the first time, or perhaps the last time,” Carter, in the space of six short paragraphs, establishes his 24-karat idiocy with a series of supposedly revealing anecdotes about his father and his record collection that, surely, an editor with colleagues unafraid to point out his ridiculousness would never allow to see the light of day.
Anyway, the articles. Or, to start at the beginning, the cover. VF‘s cover is a three-panel fold-out with “The Women of Rock” flanking an unforgivably pimpified Barry White. Before I get into the semiotics of the cover girls, a quick word on fold-outs: I understand that there’s only so much image space on a magazine cover. But when you feature a lineup of stars, surely you realize that they can’t all be included in the front panel that sells your book on the newsstand. So the decision to put Gwen Stefani, J. Lo, Sheryl Crow, and Alicia Keys facing front, while Barry White, Debbie Harry, and Shirley Manson (arguably the least buzzworthy subjects of the shot) bring up the rear, wouldn’t be based on anything as crass as commercialism, would it?
But back to the gals. It’s a trite point, made ever more trite by the fact that everyone says it, but the VF cover proves that musical talent is no longer enough to guarantee success: you have to be pretty. Barry White is by far the ugliest mug on this spread: everyone else is gorgeous, and musical talent is a distant second in justification for inclusion (much like it is, to be sure, when the record companies hand out contracts). Although, to be fair, I should point out that Sheryl Crow (or, as the great Austin Chronicle columnist Ken Lieck once put it, “MTV-augmented dwarf Sheryl Crow”) is not at all attractive, but she does represent the kind of “give me something new that sounds exactly like everything else I’ve listened to over the last twenty years” artist that I suspect is highly popular with the VF demographic.
So, the articles. But actually, I’d be doing you a disservice if I failed to mention page 160, where VF highlights upcoming releases to watch for. All you need to read is the claim that Ryan-not-Bryan Adams’ demos (helpfully described by VF as “outtakes from recording sessions”) are “superior to most people’s much-hyped, overworked ‘real’ albums,” to understand where VF is coming from. This statement offers up delicious irony only two sentences later, when new releases by both The Wallflowers and Matchbox Twenty are duly plugged.
Okay, the articles. For real. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to have lefty snitch Christopher Hitchens tool along Route 66 in a rented Corvette, but I think I remember something about him being a regular VF contributor, so as long as Si’s paying the bill, why not? Hitchens is at his best when purveying invective, which, sadly, is not the case here, although he is able to cast some not-so-subtle aspersions on the hard-working blue collar citizens of this great country of ours (apparently, if you wear pink socks, they think you’re a queer). If Hitchens seriously believes that Bobby Troup is responsible for the long-vowelled pronunciation of St. Louis, he needs to be swiftly introduced to the works of one William Christopher Handy. Eminently skippable.
Wolcott does drug memoirs. Not bad, if obvious. Especially good for the pre-Leatherface photo of Marianne Faithfull. Takes five minutes to read.
Elvis Costello’s “what to listen to.” Another sad documentation of Costello’s decline into intolerable pretension. My only hope is that some long-suffering assistant wrote this for him. Skip, skip, skip.
Nick Tosches, “Who Killed the Hit Machine?” You either like Tosches’ (ahem) “muscular” prose style or you hate it (I fall into the “hate it” camp), and that will probably color your reception of this article. Mock profundities like, “Skip to 1958. Yes, skip. That is what records do. Even CDs. They skip,” certainly don’t help. For all that, this is a great story, and Tosches is surprisingly on top of it. The piece is, of course, a failure, but even I can’t blame Nick for that: there’s simply not enough space to cover the Warner Brothers story here. On balance, he does as well as one could with great material and a limited word count. Even though you’ll have to slog through some tough prose, this is, unfortunately, required reading.
“Beyond the Sea” vs. “La Mer.” It may just be because I love the song, or it may be that Friedwald has a way with words, but I recommend that you read this piece.
The British Invasion. Best thing in the book, and the one piece that made me feel marginally less sad for blowing four bucks. What strikes me (my parents experienced the British Invasion firsthand, if that gives you some sort of generational hook to hang my hat on) is how genuinely exciting and vital the whole thing actually was. A fairly obvious point, one would think, but, as is so often the case, one would be wrong. The mists of time and the inability of the Sixties generation to recount any event in their lives without also asserting its truly cosmic significance have served to dull the astounding social import of the event. (The shorthand: nothing, Elvis, Beatles, Ed Sullivan, Stones, Woodstock is pretty much what the typical member of my social set maintains in terms of cultural knowledge for the era.)
I’m certainly no nostalgist, but it is, on occasion, important to lay aside the cynicism and really try to understand how we got from there to here. Pieces like this are a good way to do that. Plus, it’s in oral history format, which makes for really easy reading. Highlights: Freddie Garrity: “[A]ll of a sudden you’ve got girls coming out of your ears! And, you know, I didn’t want to go deaf,” Marianne Faithfull: “I think [Bob Dylan] was really irritated that I wouldn’t run away with him to America, or whatever it is that he wanted. And then I went off with bloody Mick Jagger! I can see what he means, quite frankly,” and a tragically self-deluded Dave Davies postulation that maybe, “… all us crazy guys from the 60s are alive and well for a reason, and there’s still something I’ve yet to say.” Far be it from me to endorse the purchase of Vanity Fair, but if you do feel compelled, this article is the rationalization.
The Rock Snob’s Dictionary. Fish-in-a-barrel hipster takedown that serves the dual purpose of educating VF‘s apparent demographic of mouthbreathing ignoramuses as to who Solomon Burke is. I’d make more fun of this, but it’s actually pretty enjoyable. I’ll cop to having a few chuckles at this one.
The Music Portfolio. Fun for illiterates, although I would like to compliment whoever’s doing Enrique Iglesias’ wig these days. Nice nipples, Cassandra! (And a quick word about the Stax reunion shot: it’s great to see all these faces assembled together, but am I wrong in thinking that this would have made a great fucking story? It’s Stax records, man! This is a real missed opportunity; even a half-decent article on the subject would have elevated this issue into the “keep on the pile for a couple of months” category.) I’d tell you to skip this, but we both know you’re going to savor it. After all, no one really buys Vanity Fair for the articles.
The rest is your standard back-of-the-book filler: an unfunny Sinatra parody, a piece on the New York scene in the 70s that drains any excitement that topic has to offer, and a single-page interview with James Brown that could have been written at any point in the last twenty years. And there you have it. I spent four bucks so you don’t have to. And if you still want to read it? I suggest the library or the barbershop. Or I could send you my copy. Because I am well and truly done with it.
This article appears in slightly modified format at The Minor Fall, The Major Lift.