BACK IN HIGH school in 1980s New York, I found myself surrounded by a maelstrom of Yuppie-image lust: a frantic, almost-audible feeding on the high-end chum that defined the era. Brands were king and we their loyal servants. But now that I'm witnessing my second wave of conspicuous consumption, I've noticed that status has the added dimension of action. Today it's what you do and how you do it, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the spate of new men's magazines aimed at attracting a young, newly affluent audience and instructing it in the how-to's of what is smart, attractive, and cool.
Publications such as P.O.V.(The Men's Magazine with the Smart Point of View), Men's Perspective, Verge(Essential Gear for Real Life), and ICON (Thoughtstyle Magazine) have all emerged in the last 18 months, and all are competing for the same pre-Esquire-demographic dollar. The editor's monthly letter to the reader is where the tone is set in these mags, and judging by how they read, "attitude" is what's for sale. The sentences are clipped, the tone conspiratorial, and the message is something like this: "You're a man. I'm a man. So let's cut through all this horseshit and get down to what's real."
In the October '97 issue of P.O.V. (the Hollywood issue) founder Drew Massey promises none of the "usual Downtown Julie Brown gossip." Instead there will be stories that help you "create a future by being the boss of your own mind, body, career, cash, and life today." As a P.O.V. reader, you aren't awed by celebrity--you're already on the way to becoming one yourself. Read the magazine, however, and the conceit breaks down. The same issue of P.O.V. features stories on how to buy a computer, how to buy a car, and how to answer your girlfriend when she asks you if she looks fat. As for the no-bull take on Hollywood, it turns out to be the same celebrity-driven, mailroom-to-mogul stories you've heard everywhere else, but with a faux-indie bent--in short, the Kevin Smith report.
The fall '97 issue of Verge exhibits a more unabashedly commercial mission. Editor Jeffrey J. Csatari opens with a crackling anecdote about his anxiety-ridden experiences buying a computer, thus preparing the reader for a mind-numbing six-page shopping spread. Technology, and "gear" in general, is a big concern for these magazines. None bothers to question what all this gear might be good for, but you'll get plenty of help making sure you don't embarrass yourself at the register. In no time, Best Buy sales clerks will see you and wonder, "Who is that guy over there buying toner for his inkjet?"
Of course, having a new Pathfinder, tight abs, and 64 megs of RAM doesn't mean a thing without that special lady, and there can be no surprise that among the many rehashed themes--cars, working out, computers, the prostate--sex is never far away. In a recent issue of Men's Perspective, Editor in Chief Trevor Miller promises to help your love life with "an exclusive MP guide to dancing, Jim Belushi's best discourse on manliness for the millennium, even Baywatch star David Chokachi's answers on how to get the best bike and the best babe." As a modern man you're about more than merely getting laid--but not that much more. One Men's Perspective article does double duty with a star-fucking profile/photo spread of Carmen Electra that also features her expert dating advice. (Carmen's ingenious tip: Go with the flow.)
While most of these magazines assume you're barely sharp enough to dress yourself in the morning, there is one brainy standout, ICON. Not content only to tell its readers how to have a satisfying workout, ICON positions itself as the thinking man's alternative. To its credit, there is good writing to be found here, thoughtful pieces that appeal to more than the brain's "shopping" lobe. Unfortunately, ICON still has plenty of attitude for sale, with an editorial mission that gives a lot of space to blowhards like Oliver Stone and to the examination of manly questions like "What is Risk?"
For all its intellectual accouterments, however, ICON is still caught in the young men's magazine trap. Because, at its core, this magazine and all the others never question the what of being a man, only the how. These publications are about looking good while looking good, as if no conversation, no decision, no purchase in a man's life went unobserved. Behind the products and the posturing lies a paranoid vision, though it's never clear who exactly is watching. And none of these magazines dares confront the scariest possibility: that no one is watching at all.