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Pop culture criticized again for excluding achievements of women, people of color

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner was asked by The New York Times' David Marchese why his new book of classic interviews with musicians called "Masters" only included white men, he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANN WENNER: Insofar as women, I mean, there were just - none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.

FADEL: Marchese pushed back hard, but Wenner didn't back down. Of Black artists, he said, quote, "they just didn't articulate at that level." The backlash to the interview was resounding, but the criticisms of Wenner goes further than just one book. Historically, critics say Rolling Stone magazine and other gatekeepers of culture have excluded or minimized the achievements of women and people of color. To talk about that, we're joined by longtime culture writer Nelson George. Good morning, Nelson. Welcome to the program.

NELSON GEORGE: Good morning.

FADEL: So were you surprised by Wenner's comments?

GEORGE: Not at all. I mean, the history of Rolling Stone largely has been one of either exclusion or minimizing the contributions of women and men, Black men, and Black women. I think you have to look at the history of the magazine. From - I think from the founding in the '60s all the way into maybe the '90s, I don't think - they didn't have a Black staff writer. They had very few women writers. So there wasn't a lot of outside voices in those offices.

Moreover, what's really frightening or sort of sad about his comments is that because Rolling Stone was essentially the gatekeeper, the seminal voice of youth culture, at least perceived by the mainstream, they defined what the canon of rock 'n' roll was. And they defined the canon of rock 'n' roll in very narrow terms that basically celebrated white men with guitars that Jann Wenner liked. So when you have that as your criteria, it kind of limits who you celebrate as greats.

FADEL: So these comments really showed the way that gatekeeping excluded these other voices.

GEORGE: And the thing about Rolling Stone also to remember is because it had such an outsized voice, as the voice of sort of rock music culture or even youth culture at one point, it affected how TV programmers programmed. It affected radio, it affected newspaper coverage. So who they deemed to be important resonated throughout, and who they deemed not to be important resonated throughout. So if you were a white rock band named Kansas or Boston or Chicago in the '60s or '70s, you got more coverage than Chaka Khan or Parliament-Funkadelic or Earth, Wind & Fire.

FADEL: Now, Jann Wenner was scheduled to do an interview with us on his book. But after his comments and the backlash, his publicist canceled and sent us the written apology that's been issued in the wake of all this. He wrote in part, "The Masters" is a collection of interviews I've done over the years that seemed to me to best represent an idea of rock 'n' roll's impact on my world. They were not meant to represent the whole of music. What do you make of that apology?

GEORGE: Well, he called this book "The Masters," and that was already the first step. If the book was called "My Favorite Rock Stars," I think we all would have felt, oh, well, it's, you know, a little narrow, but that's who Jann is. But by calling it "The Masters," he suggests that these guys are the masters of a genre of music that helped define America in the last half-century. And that's going to get backlash, particularly when it doesn't include Marvin Gaye or Joni Mitchell or Stevie Wonder. And the list could go on.

FADEL: Right. And not only did he suggest it in this interview with The New York Times, he says women and Black people do not have the same intellectual level as these artists. So today, do these gatekeepers have the same power they did then?

GEORGE: I mean, the truth is it's a free-for-all now. There's a million websites. There's a million people posting on YouTube. So it's - we went from a very curated and narrowly curated culture to one where there is almost no curation. There really aren't gatekeepers with the power that Rolling Stone had in its prime, not anymore.

FADEL: That's culture writer Nelson George. His new book is "The Nelson George Mixtape, Volume 2." Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

GEORGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESTINY'S CHILD SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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