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Why Boston reacted right to Rolling Stone

Posted by Joanna Weiss  July 18, 2013 06:41 AM

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Not long ago, the nation declared Boston “strong” for its brassy, we’ll-take-all-you-bastards reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings. Now, a portion of this same nation has decided that Boston is wimpy for its outrage over the dreamboat pic of Dzhokhar Tsarnev on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Cool off. These two reactions say the same thing about Boston’s identity. No, Boston wasn’t cowed by the bombings, and Boston also isn’t cowed by a glossy magazine. The state of the city right now is supreme irritation, and people are reacting precisely as they should.

Of course, Rolling Stone is acting in character, too. I’m guessing that, for months now, the editors have been giving daily tributes to the gods of found photography for providing an image that’s so perfectly Rolling Stone: a selfie that makes Tsarnaev look as if he’d been handled by Kanye West’s stylists and photographed by Mario Testino. The designer t-shirt! The tousled hair! The model’s look of studied blankness! The image says “All-American disaffected youth” and “material kid” and “inscrutable figure.”

And when it is on the cover of Rolling Stone, somewhere between the “i” and the second “n,” it crosses the line from query to glorification.

Rolling Stone Tsarnaev cover.jpg

It’s disingenuous, to say the least, to pretend that a Rolling Stone cover doesn’t stand for something particular – that blowing up that picture really big, beside a tease about the relative flyness of Robin Thicke, is the same as publishing it on the front page of the New York Times. Yes, the article itself is a well-researched piece of work, along a reasonable line of inquiry, in the Rolling Stone tradition of hard-hitting journalism (though it doesn’t reveal much about Tsarnaev’s life that well-read Bostonians don’t already know). But regardless of what serious reporting often appears on the inside pages, Rolling Stone covers remain Rolling Stone covers, based on the notion that rock stars sell magazines. Remember that 2010 article that brought down General McChrystal? On the cover that month was a photo of Lady Gaga, shooting two machine guns from her breasts.

Rolling Stone Gaga cover.jpg

Which is to say that Rolling Stone has never worried much about people’s sensitivities. I’m guessing that the reaction to the Tsarnaev cover – the anger, the praise, the instant, viral pickup -- was pretty much exactly what the editors expected (though the hastily-posted explanation suggests that someone over there was having second thoughts). Did they figure they’d offend Bostonians? How could they not? Maybe the timing was a bit of a surprise – the sting was sharper days after Tsarnaev appeared in court, trailed by a horde of young groupies who clearly do think he’s a dreamboat. But the folks at Rolling Stone clearly knew that, if Beyonce were on the cover this month, no one would be talking about Rolling Stone.

So Bostonians dutifully accepted the invitation to get mad, expressing outrage through sarcasm, social media rants, and boycott declarations. No one was talking about censorship. People here understand that a magazine has every right to put what it wants on its cover, and that CVS has an equal right to decide it’s not worth the trouble to stock Rolling Stone on its shelves this month. Boston’s reaction wasn’t “You have hurt us irreparably as a city.” It was “We’d really rather you hadn’t just stuck your thumb in our collective eye.”

This isn’t about “Boston Strong,” which has lost all meaning by now, anyway – it started getting out of hand once it morphed into a sports chant, and exited the world of reason the moment the first “Boston Strong Mom” shirt was sold on Zazzle. No, this situation has reminded us of who we really are: Not a group of people prone to blind sloganeering, but a unified bunch, proud of our identity, standing firm against major harm and minor offense. Thanks, Rolling Stone editors. You’ve reminded us what we’re doing here. And also, get out of town.

Joanna Weiss is a Globe columnist.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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