What better way to celebrate modern pop culture than by creating your own serial piece of it? That’s the mentality behind the newsstands’ current crop of culture magazines – and we’re not talking about Entertainment Weekly. These guys are all about thick paper, matte covers, haute layout design. They offer their back issues for sale. They go beyond their fashion features; they are themselves lessons in style. You’re not going to find them at the grocery store, either.
With most based in London, New York or Los Angeles, “culture” magazines come off as unapologetically mod, somewhat European and definitely metropolitan. Marketed as entertainment along with information, they have a lighter approach, favoring topics along the lines of futuristic style, political discontent, eccentric celebrities, offbeat world cultures, incongruous fashion pairings, deconstruction of the banal and street art of any kind. They’re not necessary – they’re just fun.
Even their ads are engaging. Flaunt Magazine’s back page, listing the featured merchandise of its fashion spreads, is titled “Buy Curious.” Bon magazine offers a two-page “Where’s Waldo”-style ad for Absolut vodka. Flaunt also boasts the best public service announcement this side of the Atlantic: a notice about the dangers of forest fires from the Joshua Tree Chamber of Commerce, and it doesn’t involve Smokey the Bear. A smoldering drag queen lays sprawled wide-eyed and horrified in the middle of the desert. “Fires are a real drag,” the caption reads.
But the high-end magazine business, it’s a hard to remain profitable – even the venerable Life couldn’t stay in the black. Culture magazines, then, sell themselves on the freshness and individuality of their personal approach, funneling the world of high art, hip fashion and only the most stylish of music and movies through the lens of their proudly elitist view.
Take the brand-spanking new and admirably specific Lemon Magazine, billing itself as “Pop Culture With a Twist,” which declares on its website that the magazine will “stake its claim at the intersection of ’60s/’70s pop and 21st century hyper-culture.” Every issue spins this impressive mission statement around a single, all-consuming theme – with an emphasis on all-consuming. Literally every page of Lemon’s current issue embraces the magazine’s loving tribute to espionage’s pulpy noir style.
Most of these magazines take a broader view of things. In fact, along with their shared passions for unwearable avant-garde fashion (littering page after fascinating page) and healthy doses of sex (Bon magazine used the three-letter word so much in its cover article on Justin Timberlake that it might as well have interviewed Jenna Jameson), many of these publications share an almost fetish-like love for the whimsical. Flaunt jumps charmingly from the Black Panthers’ 40th anniversary to a Dutch artist known for reinventing her country’s traditional Delft ceramics into an appreciative essay on “ass-kickers for peace” (and yes, Jesus’s temple rampage tops the list).
Another Magazine similarly skips around from a pessimistic interview with writer Gore Vidal to an inside look at utopian schooling in Appalachia. It presents a short photo essay on the small traditional Longhorn Miao tribe of China, whose women elect to thread half-foot horns into the hair at the base of their necks. It offers specialized interview briefs with assorted B-listers, such as “Joan of Arcadia’s” Amber Tamblyn’s obsession with junk art. But just when you start to skim through its yawningly Vogue-like fashion spreads and Kirsten Dunst cover story, you hit the jackpot on its back literary section and remember the advantages of a culture magazine’s flexible anything-goes format in the first place.
Along with stories and essays from the likes of James Fox and David Sedaris, Another prints exam questions from the 1960s Oxford Men’s College applications (“Should we bless or curse the motor-car?”), a script excerpt from Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (its coy dialogue deemed a lesson in flirting) and famous authors’ youthful letters home (Sylvia Plath to her mother: “If my printing’s crooked, it’s only because I drank too much cider tonight”). Finally, a magazine with the space to simply revel in the wealth of our pop culture’s rich history – with media so focused on the now, when is our chance to appreciate the then?
There are certainly more traditional culture magazines among the current yield, namely Black Book, whose hipper-than-Elle layout acts as a sort of starter course to the world of trendy print. With safe indie it-girl Maggie Gyllenhaal on the cover, Black Book spotlights tamer fashion spreads (accessories paired with modern art) and celebrities in more mainstream surroundings (Justin Theorux, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell and Billy Crudup as an all-star-benefit charades team).
The remainder of the best current culture magazines fork off noticeably from a fashion-heavy focus, organizing instead around top-notch writing and tongue-in-cheek commentary. The two branches relate like joined twins – same heart, individual souls.
Chicago-based Stop Smiling (“The Magazine for High-Minded Lowlifes”) may have a photo spread or two, but its cover story is on Kurt Vonnegut instead of Kirsten. Its essays cover Mark Twain and Kim Novak, its interviews quiz Garrison Keillor and Dave Eggers and its reviews combine the New Yorker’s essay length with The Onion AV’s Club’s spark – not a six-inch-high heel or couture spandex dress in sight.
The same can be said for the McSweeney’s family of irreverent magazines, although McSweeney’s literary magazine and its offshoots, The Believer (books and writers) and Wholpin (far-far-far-from-mainstream film, with a DVD sampler included), regularly take wit to such dazzling heights that a separate category of media creation might be warranted.
“There’s not enough room for it all!” These magazines seem to scream it as they cram in every interesting cultural tidbit their editors have culled together before deadline. Another Magazine concludes with an irrelevant photo spread of various observatories from throughout the world, each paired with a philosophical quote about the insatiable human search for truth. Other magazines might give you answers: the latest political brouhahas, some qualitative postseason sports analysis, a definite letter grade on the latest movie. These magazines just enjoy the questions.
I dare you to ever pay for People again.