Is Rolling Stone magazine getting too polite?
That question might have occurred recently to readers who have long relied on the magazine's record review section for consumer advice.
Albums are rated in Rolling Stone on a scale of one to five stars, which leaves room for plenty of critical gradation: One star indicates poor, two stars for fair, three for good, four for excellent and five for a classic.
What may have the faithful thinking the venerable rock journal can't find an album it doesn't like these days is that virtually every album reviewed is deemed worthy of at least three stars.
In the Oct. 31 issue, no album received fewer than three stars. This seemed to be a familiar pattern, so Pop Eye did a research project, surveying the 72 albums reviewed over the last three months.
* The number of albums with a 1- or 1 1/2-star rating: None.
* The number with a 2- or 2 1/2-star rating: Eight. The unlucky trio bottoming out at two stars: Tin Machine, Slick Rick and Inspiral Carpets.
* The number of albums with 3 or 3 1/2 stars: 52. That puts almost 75% of all the albums reviewed within a negligible half-point difference from one another. This 3 1/2-star group included such not-so-unanimously hailed artistes as Julian Lennon, Foreigner, the Allman Brothers, Heavy D, Blue Rodeo and Straitjacket Fits.
* The number of albums with 4 to 5 stars: 12.
Sound a bit g-e-n-e-r-o-u-s?
Apprised of these findings at Rolling Stone headquarters in Manhattan, record review editor Anthony DeCurtis, a Stone stalwart, groaned with dismay.
"That's dreadful," he admitted with a laugh. "I hadn't noticed that." Of the high number of 3- or 3 1/2-star albums, he said, "That's a ridiculous percentage."
DeCurtis added that the ratings pose a perennial editorial dilemma: "Those stars are the bane of my existence," he sighed.
Is Rolling Stone taking advocacy journalism literally? Do staffers vote on albums and come up with an average star rating somewhere on the upper-middle end? Or has a decree come down from kinder, gentler editor Jann Wenner?
"It's not a matter of policy at all," DeCurtis said. "Reviewers suggest a star rating, and then I make the final determination.
"Very rarely, as it goes up through the (editing) ranks will there be discussion over changing the rating to more accurately reflect what the review says. But there's no consensus. It's me, alas."
DeCurtis says part of the positive tone is a feeling of responsibility to recommend lesser-known acts instead of knocking easy targets.
"It certainly isn't that we only run positive reviews. But with newer bands, yeah, we do tend to run only positive reviews. Since Rolling Stone can significantly damage a band with a negative review, with bands that have a debut album I tend to only go with stuff we can be supportive of, or else it can be a case of crushing butterflies with a sledgehammer."
STONE II: Publicists say they haven't necessarily come to expect rave reviews from Rolling Stone all the time, but agree that the biweekly offers fewer outrightly nasty broadsides than many other rock publications.
Not wanting to offend anyone at the rock institution, record executives would comment only on Rolling Stone's review policy on an off-the-record basis.
Noted one major-label West Coast publicist: "The reviews aren't always overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes the star ratings don't seem to correlate exactly with the reviews. But it's easy (for publicists) to pull them out and say 'four stars in Rolling Stone!' just like the movie people, even if the review was mixed."
Do artists still consider a commonplace 3 1/2-star review prestigious?
The view of a top East Coast label representative: "Sure. I think that people still care about it because it's a nice little signpost, something to refer back to."
But what about the public? Does a parade of positive reviews sell records?
The same executive: "From our research, we don't see any impact" from Rolling Stone--or almost any other magazine. "The only (magazine) where we see appreciable impact of press, sales-wise, is . . . People."