Prepping for the Worst in the Penny Press!

I thought I went into the new issue of Rolling Stone fully prepared for the worst it could throw at me. How could anybody not shift into aggressive-defensive mode when spotting that cover, when seeing a magazine that used to define ‘cool’ in mainstream music appreciation giving its storied cover-slot to a musical nonentity like Justin Bieber? True, the piece is written by Josh Eells, who’s about as reliable a producer of smooth, good copy as you’re likely to find east of the Pecos (despite being, I sense, younger than the socks I’m wearing), but I worried regardless, because the long ‘profile’-type pieces being scared up out of the shrubbery like jackrabbits by the success of Bieber’s latest album (and the star’s much-ballyhooed quest to be considered a full-grown man instead of an eight-year-old YouTube hit) have all tended to read like studio-generated publicity jobs rather than articles written by real people for real people. Rolling Stone recently anointed Bieber’s album with critical praise, after all, and the magazine’s producers have got to know what having ‘the Bieb’ on the cover in a white tank top will do for their sales  – surely, I thought, those things are reason enough to wonder if even a first-rate writer like Eells might not have felt some editorial pressure to go easy on the kid.

Eells goes easy on the kid. Infuriatingly easy. At one point he echoes the same impression every other profile-piece writer has had when actually following Bieber into the recording studio:

Every once in a while, in keeping with his duties as a professional music star, Justin Bieber participates in the making of music. It doesn’t appear to take long – he works in chunks of 45 minutes or so – but it’s the part of the process he loves the most.

They all write this, these super-smart profile-writers, and they all write it in just this way, so perfectly arch and positioning – and then they one after the next refuse to land the punch. One writer (was it GQ? Esquire?) actually includes the detail that Bieber was eating while he was doing one of these recordings; it’s a Krusty the Clown/SNL happening right in front of their eyes, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why not one of them has decided to write it. Surely not every commissioning editor in the country is craven? Surely not every such profile is so stringently vetted as to leave only this pureed puffery behind? Eells is no fool: he knows as well as I do that people tend to do the ‘part of the process they love the most’ – not rather conspicuously do anything but – and yet the word ‘fraud’ never occurs in his article, nor the word ‘stupid’ even though all the direct quotes Eells uses support no other conclusion, nor the word ‘alcohol’ or ‘tobacco’ even when Eells himself steers the talk in that direction:

He’s been through all the manly rites of passage: He graduated from high school and got his first credit card, and also had his first paternity case (it was later withdrawn; there’s a song about it, a la “Billy Jean,” on Believe).

Even that last little parting gesture is something a flak rather than a journalist would make; ten minutes of digging around would have given Eells a pretty clear picture of why that case was withdrawn (hint: there’s just the slightest chance that money changed hands – i.e. that it wasn’t withdrawn because it was false), but there he is piping up with the standard-issue ‘part of the process he loves the most’ defense of a kid who’s as close to being surgically brainless as anything this side of The Walking Dead.

Likewise, I thought I went into Jonatham Lethem’s little one-page squib on Batman, “the only human superhero,” fully prepared for how ridiculous it could be. Lethem, the author of a watery novel called The Fortress of Solitude, is, to paraphrase Paul Krugman (who was paraphrasing Gawd knows who), a dumb person’s idea of what a ‘comic book expert’ is like, so I suppose it was only natural for Rolling Stone to get him on the phone rather than, say, the razor-sharp and delightful Gregg Hurwitz. But even so, I ended up being no more fully prepared for Lethem’s inanity than I was for Eells’ servility. Right off the (you’ll pardon the expression) bat, we get this:

Perhaps Batman endures because he has a good name and a good mask, a nonclown costume, and no superpowers. The least infected by the absurdity of his category, he gives that hopeless category some small possibilities. Superman wears choo-choo-train pajamas; Batman wears an athletic version of a suit and overcoat. He’s our first and most essential superhero.

This sort of tripe is a part of life for Superman fans such as myself. I’m accustomed to the usual jabs about Superman being unrealistic, being aloof, being a big Boy Scout, and I expect such jabs to continue for years, especially since director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic take on Batman has garnered such critical applause (and it doesn’t help that the new teaser trailer for next year’s Superman movie is rather dull). Nevermind that Lethem and his fellow hipsters (needless to say, he starts the piece in mandatory hipster fashion, by telling us an anecdote about his young son in tones that are meant to be both ‘I’m an adoring father’ and ‘my kid is so much better than yours’) have things precisely reversed: Superman is an adopted son of a hard-working, decent Kansas farming couple, and he’s raised in the ethos of unassuming duty to others – which is a hell of a lot more ‘human’ than an eccentric, narcissistic billionaire running around at night scaring the crap out of people in dark alleys. Superman’s Kryptonian parents fought for his survival with their last breaths; his human parents raised him to be humble, dutiful, and kind – we don’t know anything at all about Bruce Wayne’s parents, aside from the fact that they were wealthy; for all we know, they’d have raised their son to be a Wall Street junk bond corporate raider – as it is, he was raised by his butler. As all the character’s best writers have shown, Batman is in many ways the least human superhero.

And then there’s that business about their costumes. Who knows what Lethem’s getting at here, with that choo-choo train/suit-and-overcoat nonsense. Disallowing any recent ret-cons (which would be sauce for the goose in any case, since they’d apply equally to both), this is Batman’s costume:

And this is Superman’s:

As anybody except, apparently, Jonathan Lethem can see, these are pretty much exactly the same costume. Et choo-choo, Brute?

Like I say, I was prepared for all this going into Lethem’s article. Then I got to this bit:

If Batman is a barometer of collective feelings about authority and state power, then Adam West was a yippie’s image of Batman, the equivalent of nominating a piglet for president. In any era, we get the Batman we deserve. The Chris Nolan version takes Frank Miller’s brilliantly reactionary nihilist Batman of the Eighties and leaches out all the tragedy – leaving a state-sponsored psychopath Batman for our era of triumphalist remote-control revenge. He’s the manned drone of 21st-century urban warfare.

… as soon as I read that incomprehensible part about nominating a piglet for president, I realized that whatever else Lethem might be doing in this piece, he’s also engaging in that most popular indoor sport among the Brooklyn hipster set: he’s writing out his ass. So I turned the page.

But no amount of preparation would have been enough for the brutal, unrelenting first paragraph of the great Bill McKibben’s essay “The Reckoning,” in which he takes his career-long alarm about the speed and consequence of global climate change and sharpens it to lethal acuity:

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10 to the negative 99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe. Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

The whole piece is like that – a duty of every intelligent person to read, yes, but a mighty damn tough duty. The sheer power of it makes up for everything else in the issue, ready or not.

1 Comment to Prepping for the Worst in the Penny Press!

  1. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    July 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Is it just me or do both of those finely-drawn fellas look a lot like Taylor Lautner? It’s something about the relative absence of necks in proportion to shoulders and pecs…

    I’m sure what you hate most about the Biebs is that he’s Canadian, eh? Don’t you just hate the way we threaten to overtake your puny little pop culture pond? Or … er … never mind!

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