Fifty years ago today, 21-year-old editor Jann Wenner introduced Rolling Stone, a new publication that he promised would offer something to “every person ‘who believes in the magic that can set you free.’ ” The magazine became a phenomenon, more popular and more profitable than its founder ever dreamed. Eventually, this countercultural icon would become the anchor of a media empire that included Men’s Journal and the celebrity magazine Us Weekly.
Its success proved to be as ideological as it was commercial. Rolling Stone became the touchstone for a larger cultural phenomenon: the rejection of conventional political action and the embrace of “lifestyle” as the vehicle for remaking society. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the magazine promoted a new conception of personal identity — one in which popular culture, not partisan affiliation or political commitments, defined the way Americans communicated, entered the marketplace and made sense of themselves and the world.
Now, a half-century later, Wenner and his son have sold their once-flourishing business. The magazine, like so many others, has struggled to overcome the financial challenges wrought by the digital revolution. But it also struggles to navigate today’s political landscape in which political polarization is changing not only how Americans think, but also how they work, play, shop and marry. Rolling Stone pushed for the opposite: a lifestyle politics — with self-fulfillment and pop culture preferences as a substitute for conventional political action — that became irrelevant as the magazine contributed to the politicization of aspects of American life from dinner choices to musical taste to living arrangements.
To be sure, a magazine that championed John Lennon and published the campaign journalism of Hunter S. Thompson did not shy away from political conflict in its formative years. In those headier days, Rolling Stone denounced the corrupt political mainstream, opposed the war in Vietnam, and denounced censorship and repression at home.
But Rolling Stone had little interest in or patience for political action conventionally understood — the arenas of party competition, interest group trade-offs and public policy. “Why would anybody want to get hung up in a pile of s‑‑‑ like politics?” one young hippie asked Thompson, and that question captured Rolling Stone’s attitude through the 1970s.
The magazine reserved special scorn for young radicals, those campus leftists and antiwar activists who hoped to end the war in Indochina and dramatically reshape American institutions. Rolling Stone rejected such political radicalism. When the Yippies, a group of inspired radicals led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, planned a “Festival of Life” as a counterpoint to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Wenner denounced the radicals for exploiting rock-and-roll and its cultural agenda. “The Yip protest,” he concluded, “in methods and means — is as corrupt as the political machine it hopes to disrupt.”
Instead the magazine embraced the countercultural ideal of authenticity — living life to the fullest, right now, within a community of like-minded, liberated people. Why bother with protest, columnist Ralph Gleason asked, when the “new music has established a Stranger in a Strange Land head community, vibes in concert, thoughts and ideas and concepts changing together.”
Revolution, Rolling Stone asserted in the late 1960s, would come not through politics but through lifestyle. As a business itself, the magazine never embraced the critique of capitalism and consumerism that many Sixties radicals had advanced. Rather, Rolling Stone saw the marketplace and the profit motive as agents of reform. “Change the way the moneychangers change money,” one 1968 column declared, “and you change the society.”
Even as the magazine paid attention to politics and cultural affairs, rock-and-roll remained its central concern because it believed the latter was vital to the former. The magazine and its readers saw music as having revolutionary, transcendent possibilities. It embodied a set of principles, a critique of the dominant culture, a way of life. Certainly during its first decade and a half, the editors, contributors and readers of Rolling Stone believed in the transformative force of rock music.
When the popularity of San Francisco rock bands forced radio stations and record companies to drop their resistance to songs like Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit,” the magazine crowed that “rock music has already made important and basic changes in the record world which is an accurate reflection of American society.”
By the early 1980s, Rolling Stone had transformed itself into a guide to American popular culture in general. Celebrity and fashion began to crowd out, or at least share space with, the magazine’s music writing. Critics accused Wenner of selling out, but he heatedly and sincerely rebutted the charges. In its early pages, the magazine insisted that lifestyle, especially rock music and the culture that surrounded it, offered the recipe for radical change. People would cease to define their identities by ideologies or political affiliations, contributors wrote, but by music, cuisine, clothing, drug use, living arrangements, attitudes.
The magazine’s founders imagined a much less formal America, where culture and entrepreneurship — not electoral campaigns or political activism — would ignite dynamic social change. And for several decades, they were largely correct.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Rolling Stone’s suspicion of politics and its do-your-own-thing message reflected broader tendencies in American public life. And it brought the magazine even more into the mainstream of American politics and culture as Wenner embraced those establishment pot smokers (if not always inhalers) Al Gore and Bill Clinton and expanded his media business with Us Weekly.
Rolling Stone’s rise from counterculture rag to cog in a successful media machine highlighted the triumph of lifestyle over livelihood in contemporary American public life, of culture over politics. As Americans defined themselves more and more by the mass-produced products they consume — clothes, food, movies, games, podcasts — they retained little attachment to political parties, government action or established institutions.
But now, these alternatives to political affiliation that the magazine both championed and embodied seems outdated. Even if party organizations remain weak (witness President Trump’s easy defeat of the GOP establishment), partisan attachments and political affiliations increasingly shape the broader social experiences and cultural preferences of Americans. The magazine has followed suit, including regular political coverage and, since the 1990s, routinely supporting liberal candidates and causes.
Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary has unleashed a wave of reminiscences, including an HBO special that is filled with the predictable nostalgia for those headier days when baby boomers were cool, when the music mattered and the counterculture flourished. But, the anti-political vision that Rolling Stone championed in the 1960s and ’70s — the dream of social transformation through “the magic that can set you free,” the idea that cultural markers like music, movies, cuisine and clothing formed identities more sharply than political ideology — backfired. Ironically, lifestyle became a marker of partisan identity, rather than an alternative to it.