For all the declarations that print is dead, there sure are a lot of magazines on the racks. But while there'll always be new niche publications–humble periodicals devoted to tube electronics, knitting, puppies, etc.–there is a growing category of magazine that defies understanding. Thick, glossy, and expensive, these magazines fall under the category of "style" but seem to have aspirations to…something more, though they're not sure what. Culture, maybe? They have all the trimmings of content–self-congratulatory notes from the editors, slick designs, and expensive printing gimmicks–yet without any actual commitment to providing cogent words to read. Their bold editorial visions mostly amount to third-tier celebrity interviews and baffling fashion spreads with lots of cheek sucking. Who actually reads these publications? How can the publishers afford to keep printing them? Why do corporations advertise in them? The answers may lie in the mass delusion shared by all parties that these magazines offer something of importance. They don't.

 

Crunch

A style magazine launched by a trendy gym chain? Welcome to the new millennium. (Seems like the old millennium.) "…Crunch intends to swap the stationary bike that gets you nowhere for a wild bungee jump into popular culture that embraces the brilliant, the bizarre, the bashful and even the boring," writes editor-in-chief Brigit Bailey-Grant. That plunge would come in the form of fashion photo spreads (including a barely fathomable video parody based on The Sopranos and Sex and the City), an essay in which the author confesses to being bad at sports, headshots 'n' blurbs of wannabe stars (a tradition in the Superfluous Yet Self-Important category), and a cover fluff piece on fading star Juliette Lewis that claims in its second sentence, "…Lewis has amassed a body of work (and some would note, life experience) to rival any of the grand divas of cinema…" Roll over Meryl Streep and tell Cher the news! While Crunch does offer what appear to be hundreds of blurb-articles (short enough to distract you while on the treadmill), this scattershot approach buries interesting stuff (cooking with Christopher Walken) amid the mundane (Chelsea Clinton goes to school!) and the idiotic ("How to not slip your dad the tongue"). Nevertheless, Crunch gets bonus points for at least delivering some interesting stories–even a few that don't reference Sex and the City.

 

Surface

"the substance of style"

I ask you: What glossy style magazine these days doesn't contain "175+ pages of aggressive elegance and high street chic"? While Surface puts its fashion skew more upfront than other the other Bottom 5 contenders, it also seems to think it's doing something really amazing by printing abstract photos of models wearing clothes that only .00000002 percent of the population will ever have a chance to wear. "We mean to push the magazine even further beyond (below?) the surfaces of fashion, design, and pop culture, deeper into what we're cleverly calling the substance of style," write the editors-in-chief Tom de Kay and Noel Millea. What does this substance consist of? A profile of a new chi-chi home furnishings store, a profile of a chi-chi fashion designer, and a feature on how corporations use teenagers to advise them on their marketing (a good topic—too bad the article consists mostly of quotes from teens on how much they like being co-opted, with but a mention that this might not be the greatest thing in the world). Then there are the traditional pages of snapshots of drunken celebs at parties and nightclubs. Trailblazing work in the realm of substance.


Flaunt

Drawing its design esthetic (but not, unfortunately, its editorial inspiration) from the classic Flair magazine of 1950, Flaunt often bursts with cool extras: die-cut and dual covers, multiple inserts, fold-out spreads, even buttons in one issue. All of this must be incredibly expensive to produce. Why, then, are Flaunt's stories so inconsequential? Each issue looks as if the art director has furiously tried to distract readers from the lighter-than-air editorial content. Cover stories usually tackle their celebrity subjects like this one from November 2001: "Actress/producer/icon Drew Barrymore isn't your typical Hollywood success story, but there has never been anything typical about our favorite Flower Child." Yes, cutting-edge celebrity fluffing, circa 1995. The rest of Flaunt's stories are a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss assignments: more interviews with second- or third-rate celebrities, headshots 'n' blurbs on wannabes you'll never hear from again, the occasional tired essay ("How to Find True Love on the Internet"), a travel piece, music and film reviews you'll forget even as you're reading them. Great packaging for an almost nonexistent product.

 

clear

With its translucent cover and sparse design, clear is certainly the most tastefully stylish of all the Bottom 5 contenders. It's also one of the most vacuous. "At clear, we wanted to share with you what we feel to be the most wanted items, people and places you should know about," writes managing editor "ivana." That would consist of retro-modern furnishings that nobody can afford anymore and fashions that only models in magazines wear. But that doesn't mean clear wants to limit itself. In fact, it offers a three-page, one-paragraph (!) treatise on the current state of religion in the world ("According to modern wisdom, religion is the belief in and reverence for a supernatural power that transcends human consciousness." Ohhh!) as well as a five-page piece explaining different modes of transportation ("If you prefer your transport lo-tech but high-style, the camel is the way to go.") Wow–all this intellectual stuff and models with smeared mascara to boot!

 

SEED

"Science Couture"

Really, none of the other contenders even came close. SEED embodies pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness with such brazen stupidity it's truly breathtaking. Single-handedly fusing science and fashion, SEED goes where no other style glossy has gone before. "We watch the sun rise and amass the stars. Run away from home and trek through the bush. We sense love and beget selves. We feel it move and manifest the rhythm. Wait nine months and count the seconds. We paint blue skies and pick red berries. Clear the rubble and are born again. And again. We freeze metamorphosis, stall change, ponder the act of beginning… and push," rants nonsensical poet/editor-in-chief Adam Bly in his introduction to the first issue. Then he gets down to, er, business: "SEED is science couture. At the helm of a cultural shift, SEED defines the science of contemporary urban culture. SEED is a carnet of sequential epiphanies. A playground for the influential. A coffee-table complement. A conversation piece. Raw. Simple. Eclectic. Provocative. A periscope for what's beneath the surface. A book that reinvents science as a lifestyle."

Reinventing science is a big job for any fashion magazine, but SEED pursues its lofty goal with an intimidating array of bizarre photo essays and inane articles. The cover photo is from a fashion spread inside–apparently about hormones and semi-nude models. "Communication at all levels, molecular, cellular and organismal, is essential in maintaining functions instrumental to our being," declare writers/hormonal-model experts Laura McNeil and Mary-Jo Diehl. It makes you wonder why Scientific American hasn't looked into this yet.

At least the cover spread has a shred of context. Another scientific photo essay, on the other hand, features a naked, dirty (literally) model submerged in a glass tank of murky, green water. Could this be a science experiment to see how long models can hold their breath? There isn't any text per se, except for a quote from Jacques Cousteau about gravity and how freeing it is to be underwater; of course, according to SEED, you also need someone to do your hair and makeup before you plunge into fetid water.

For lovers of unintentionally bad prose, SEED is a treasure trove of guffaw-level pomposity. Most of its science/fashion journalism is written in the first person. This technique is exemplified in "ME" by Jane Aspell that leads with: "In the silence, there is only I. A shifting feeling beyond depiction. The me-ness of me. An ineffable notion that vanishes on inspection, curling up into a point of singularity. Its meaning dissolves, like a word too long stared at. I am an atmosphere, an anthology of moods that colour the world. Nothing is seen as it is; only through the windows of self is a partisan perception painted onto consciousness. I am the interpretation I project onto reality. I am the director of the movie that I star in as the centre of the universe. An immaculate fiction in a tragedy of flesh."

In SEED's case, this would be a tragedy of wasted paper and ink.

—March 11, 2002

 

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