Glossy Or Not: The Word

This is the second installment in a regular KEXP Blog column about worthwhile periodicals. Popular magazines and specialty fanzines have arguably been even more essential to the awareness and interest in popular music and semi-popular music for more of its history than either books or the Internet; that has been changing over time, with the ascension of authors such as Greil Marcus (whose punk-philosophy history Lipstick Traces seemed to inspire a whole new punk scene in the 90s) and the ubiquitously blurbed-from reviews on Pitchfork.

But for decades, you could typify music fans by Rolling Stone or Spin readers (meaning more mainstream or more alternative); since the 80s, American as well as UK fans of the New Musical Express or Melody Maker were as singularly defined by taste and style as any youth music subculture, sometimes totally influencing them (the Do It Yourself proto-shoegaze C86 movement, inspired by an NME compilation cassette); and punk and new wave would have hardly affected the nation’s heartlands and social margins without mass distribution of CREEM and Trouser Press to nearby stores. My own fanzine was reviewed in the latter in 1980, and it changed my life forever: I met people through the mails whose homes I could crash at whilst I traveled around the country checking out various music scenes.

Finding a magazine that matches your own music fan voice but still challenges you to seek out new music has become harder, though new unifying cultural changes from MTV to stations like KEXP contribute to both as well. And, despite all the doom saying, I am noticing new magazines as well coming up on the stands, and some that have been around for awhile are trying very hard to become worth the several dollars they can cost, when radio is free and the Internet so easy.

British glossy (shiny, bright, colorful magazines) The Word has become one of my favorite regular publications over the past couple of years. It is available at places like Easy Street Records (thanks, reading material store buyer Jefferson!) in Seattle, and at the city’s more developed magazines shops and stands. It is a little harder to find than MOJO or Uncut, and is less exhaustive than those tomes of nostalgia and almost OCD current musical coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those thick OG manuals of memories and hyperbole just fine, but The Word is a little more cosmopolitan, and somehow more accessible and pickier than its UK sisters.

The two most recent issues, featuring cover stories on “Glam, Sex, & Journalism” and “Why There’ll Never Be Another (John) Peel,” have deeper topics, excellent spot illustrations for lead ins instead of promo shots, and by-lines surrounding that will please the more sophisticated pop palette. Instead of yet another extensive run through about Beatles outtakes and Sid Vicious anecdotes, The Word focuses on David Bowie’s main producer Tony Visconti, leaving out the known needle-mark bits for a needle-on-the-record capturing of world-changing recording experimentation. An achingly good Nick Kent profile by Mark Ellen excellently hypes possibly the best and certainly the poshest and most lived-through-this of the punk-era NME scribes, whose crucial autobiography is set for release this summer. Statements on the inner workings of the music biz, such as “Will The Merch Outlive The Music?” and “Who’s Killing Stars? (Their PRs)” tells more about what really goes on behind the economy of the art-form than reports of big star label signings and sighings over ancient collectibles in other English glossies. The history of the song “Walking On Sunshine” is filled with creativity-revealing twists and turns left out of novella length interviews redux with 80s one hit wonders. The Word brings it back to the art of the article, letting the feature writers and columnists go crazy on what they care about you probably don’t know about, and then lets them chat all about their favorite books, magazines, movies, and such. It’s like a big sassy blog by British media addicts, who have bothered to study around a but and actually have something to say. Remember, if you were in a band, and you rehearsed at some guy’s house who always had a stack of CREEMs by his mattress on the floor? These days, next to his laptop, it’s more like he has a sweet pile of The Word than any other rock magazine.

Los Angeles-based author Wendy Fonarow was featured in a delightful article in a recent issue of The Word. I asked her about it and she graciously explained its charms much better than I can. And for good reason: She’s a music-loving anthropologist who has stunned the EMP Pop Conference with papers on music scene behavior twice now. A California girl weened on Beach Boys, she fell in love with Brit-rock at the Reading Festival in 1989 and devoted the next few years of her life to going to shows, talking to musicians and everyone else involved; reading, writing, teaching about the stuff till it culminated in one of the very best books about the subject, Empire Of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. I will eventually have a longer interview with her about that fascinating, spot-on book in my column Scribes Sounding Off, but in the meantime, knowing she grew up on and adored the UK rags like I did, I asked her why she thought The Word was so good:

“The Word did my favorite review of the book, primarily because it wasn’t a review at all but an application of the ideas within it. There was a debate in the UK about Jay-Z playing at Glastonbury because one of the Gallagher brothers had complained that Jay-Z shouldn’t be playing a guitar music festival. David Hepworth looked beyond the surface arguments to see the issue was not about guitars but about the contesting sets of values of indie and Hip Hop. I was lucky enough that when I was coming to the UK, David, Matt Hall, and Mark Ellen heard I was coming and asked me to come onto their podcast. The only thing was it would have to be the first morning after I arrived. I went to the podcast and after an initial introduction, they asked me about the first record I got. I thought, what a great question. My answer was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. David Hepworth instantly responded by recounting the The Rolling Stone review of the Archies’ Greatest Hits album: Apparently, the review consisted of one sentence “Contained within this record are 12 strong arguments against the capitalist system.” He even knew who reviewed it. I realized maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come in when I had jet lag. I knew the magazine has a very well researched, matured and thoughtful take on music, but unlike other magazines of that sort, they are not stuck in the past. The magazine covers what is happening now with a rich informed perspective. However, I had no idea that this vast compendium of knowledge was in their heads. They possess encyclopedic recall of cultural matters combined with remarkable insight. A conversation with these people and thir audience would require you to up your game. On top of that, they each had a wicked sense of humor. I often think when anyone asks about some music factoid, I wish one of The Word guys was here. He’d know the answer and make me laugh while he told it.”

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