Jann Wenner: Pay attention to the man behind the curtain

The Rolling Stone Magazine co-founder has confirmed our long held suspicions that he is a cultural gatekeeper.

Jann Wenner speaks at the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Wenner’s exclusion of Black and female musical voices from his supposedly definitive list of “Masters” is straightforward cultural erasure, writes Kernodle [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters] (Reuters)

This weekend a cultural firestorm erupted around remarks Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, made during an interview with New York Times writer David Marchese.

The interview was focused primarily on Wenner’s soon-to-be-published book titled, The Masters. A compendium of interviews the author conducted over the years with seven musicians, The Masters, embodies Wenner’s personal vision of a philosophy of rock music. The book is problematic at its core as it represents an effort to canonise a specific set of artistic voices, all white and male, as the pantheon of rock. Marchese recognised this fully in his interview and directly asked Wenner why he did not include the perspectives of any Black or female musicians in his book.

Wenner said the selection was based on his personal interest in the artists’ work and added that “insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”

The comments triggered an immediate undoing of Wenner’s reputation and precipitated his dismissal from the board of directors of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Wenner soon apologised for his “inflammatory” remarks and Rolling Stone issued a statement on X, formerly Twitter, distancing itself from the views of its founder.

Their desperation to hide the depressing truth reminded me of the iconic scene from, The Wizard of Oz, in which the true identity of the titular wizard is revealed. Dorothy’s dog pulls back a curtain and exposes the simple man pulling the strings of the machine that they believed was the all-mighty ruler of the fantastical land of Oz.  The wizard tries to order Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” But they refuse to ignore what they have seen and heard.

In many ways, we too are being asked to pay no attention to the man that has been behind the curtain – Jann Wenner.  We are being told to ignore comments that, they imply, amount to nothing but the confused and irrelevant musings of an ageing baby boomer about music that has been the soundtrack of his own life.

But this is not only about Wenner.  His controversial comments to the New York Times also raise a number of questions in regards to the objectivity and integrity of the entities that have defined his legacy and contribution to music culture – Rolling Stone Magazine and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

For a number of journalists, music insiders, and historians who have been following Wenner and the organisations he helped found closely, his justifications for excluding Black and female voices from, The Masters, was confirmation of what they have suspected for a very long time: Jann Wenner is a cultural gatekeeper and for decades, has been engaging in cultural erasure through powerful organisations he has influence over.

This is a reasonable conclusion, given the ease with which Wenner revealed his contempt and disrespect for rock music’s Black and female voices, and the way Rolling Stone Magazine tried to minimise the impact of, and at times completely ignored, contributions to the genre that come from outside of Wenner’s preferred demographic.

In many ways, Rolling Stone Magazine helped shape music journalism and popular music history in the last 60-plus years. Founded in 1967 by Wenner and jazz critic Ralph J Gleason, it was seen from the very beginning as revolutionary and radical, but also as the leading record keeper of music culture. From its journalistic style and scope to its iconography, the magazine was, for a long time, the gold standard that others in the industry looked up to.

However, in the last decades of the 20th century when punk, the Black Rock Coalition, grunge, and hip-hop emerged and grew in prominence, the magazine all but ignored them. The journalistic gap created by this indifference was quickly filled by publications like Spin, Vibe, and The Source. Rolling Stone’s aversion to these genres, however, was duly noted.

The magazine’s extensive social currency and Wenner’s established place in the industry allowed both to skirt any criticism and continue to cast a shadow over music journalism for many years. The Rolling Stone Magazine never truly had a reckoning with its founder’s views on music culture, and dutifully continued to allow Wenner to promote his white- and male-centred narrative about rock music on its pages until very recently.

I have not yet seen or read, The Masters, but from what I’ve heard about it so far, it is clear to me that this collection of interviews is simply an extension of this same short-sighted and harmful narrative.

The way Wenner tried to defend the content and structure of his latest book was indicative of the shaky foundations of his music philosophy. By dismissing all Black and female voices in rock music as inadequate and inarticulate, he made it clear that his philosophic view of rock is not built on an acknowledgement of the deep connections between cultural practice, musical community, repertory, and sonic genealogy that underscores much of the genre’s history.

Wenner’s exclusion of Black and female musical voices from his supposedly definitive list of “Masters” is straightforward cultural erasure, and it is not really that different than the biases that dominate corporate boardrooms, academic spaces, country clubs, and social clubs.

Its purpose is to maintain homogeneity and a specific power dynamic in the world of rock music.

What the New York Times interview confirmed was that for 50-plus years, Wenner has intentionally scripted, promoted and ingratiated himself into a fantastical world in which rock was defined and dominated by white masculinity, and used Rolling Stone Magazine and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to promote and strengthen this alternate reality.

He has cherry-picked certain aspects of our musical and cultural past to fit his mythological rendering of rock music. His dismissal of Black and female musicians through the characterisation that they lack the intelligence and ability to articulate musical practice is a familiar articulation of racism and sexism that has its roots all the way back in the 19th century.

The irony in all of this is the fact that the success of the artists deified by Wenner in, The Masters, was largely built on a long and infuriating history of Black culture being fetishised, appropriated and refashioned as a revolutionary form of white expression.

Once the storm caused by his latest interview calms down,  Wenner will likely continue to try and negate the contributions of Black and female musicians to the progression of rock music, and the world of Rock – led by the likes of Rolling Stone Magazine – will likely turn a blind eye to his efforts. Thankfully though, excellent journalism from the likes of Danyel Smith, Touré or Joe Hagan, and books such as Gillian Gaar’s, She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Maureen Mahon’s, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, and, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, will continue to be at the service of those who really want to understand the true richness of Rock’s history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.