Thursday, June 21, 2007

How Esquire Let Angelina Jolie Ruin Its History

You know, I want to like Esquire. It's one of the few publications out there with a really interesting, esteemed history. The famous covers by George Lois. The famous writers, like J.D. Salinger. Much like Madge, the magazine has reinvented itself a few times with mixed results. But the masthead always holds just a bit more worth to me than say, Maxim.

But I've got to tell you -- lately, it's really been grating on my eyes. No, not that way -- I mean that the writing is a little hard to digest. Like Play-Doh.

Yesterday, Slate's Ron Rosenbaum wrote a scathing piece on the magazine's recent profile of uber-actress Angelina Jolie. In theory, this interview should have been the magazine's bread-and-butter: Not only is she attractive and rife with celebrity, but she's got that whole Bono-esque "save the world" thing to her. Glam and slam. A little star power combined with some sobering hobbies. Exactly the kind of split Esquire needs, right?

Apparently not. Because according to Rosenbaum, Esquire hedges its bets on the hope that readers will be too busy looking at Jolie's tattoos to notice the thousands of words wrapped around her picture. He writes:

"In the history of fawning gentlemen's-magazine profiles, there is unlikely to be a more ludicrous example than the profile in the July Esquire of—yes—Angelina Jolie, which spends many thousands of words and invokes grave national tragedies to prove to us that Angelina Jolie is not just a good woman, not just an enlightened humanitarian, not just a suffering victim of celebrity, not just strong and brave, but, we are told, "the best woman in the world."

Rosenbaum continues on, analyzing some "key points" of the article to show that it's empty writing, but he misses a great point:

Where has Esquire gone?

It's no secret that Esquire competes with GQ, Maxim, Stuff, and other man-gazines. But I've always secretly hoped that one day, Esquire would grow up just a little and take the tongue-in-cheek to higher ground. You know, kind of like a Vanity Fair, Jr.

Right now, I'm just not compelled to read it.

Don't get me wrong -- editor-in-chief David Granger's done a great job reinventing the magazine for contemporary times. But this Jolie article is a bit too far of a stretch toward the mundane for me. It just reads like wasted opportunity.

According to the ever-factual Wikipedia, " 'esquire' was a title of dignity ranked below a knight and above a gentleman, allowed, for example, to the sons of the nobles and the gentry who did not possess any other title."

Right now, Esquire's coming off a lot more like the rank below its own namesake. And I think that's a big problem. Why? Well, its a crowded market, and I'm seeing an ever-increasing amount of homogeneity. Seriously, what makes Esquire different from its rivals? That it includes a token couture suit jacket or two that cost $1,000?

So Esquire, I'm torn. I want to like you, but I don't see enough in you to hang out with you on a regular basis. Even New York magazine, which is technically just a local magazine, runs better and more relevant features than you. More interesting. More clever and ironic (but not in that try-too-hard Village Voice way). And they run weekly.

With a month to write and two months' lead time, shouldn't you be blowing me away?

Rosenbaum puts his criticism gingerly: "Before I begin quoting from this amazing essay, I would like to say that I don't regard this piece as an attack on the writer (whose noncelebrity work I've often admired), but as an attempt to rescue him, to save him from further assignments of this nature. It's a losing game: The desperate attempt to endow celebs with Deep Meaning is not worthy of his talent."

And maybe he's right. Maybe this particularly egregious example is just a mis-assigned story. But every time I read Esquire, I hope for a little bit more. But I might be in the minority; ad revenue isn't exactly faltering for the magazine. Guess I'll keep hoping.


MPP said...

Esquire is still running provocative and interesting articles..."The School" by C.J. Chivers recently won a few magazine awards and, agree with it or not, John Ridley's essay entitled, "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger", was certainly buzz worthy.

The Editorialiste said...

@Michael: You're right, Esquire's done some very good articles in the past. But on a month-to-month basis, I just don't see enough consistency. This Jolie article for example -- sure, it didn't have to be investigative or political, but surely it could have been an interesting take on it. I just opened up MSN's homepage, which claims to have its own Jolie interview. So if everyone had an interview, why should I read Esquire's? Because of the pictures? I was hoping for something a little more enticing than that long-winded ode to Jolie. She's attractice. She's famous. She's philanthropic. Tell me something I don't know.

You could say the article was unpredictably predictable.

In the end, sometimes Esquire excites me, and sometimes it doesn't. But it's never enough for me to go, "OK, I'll definitely subscribe to this." The problem for me is, I don't know how that can be fixed. Their target market is clearly defined and they're successful addressing it, and while I'm sure Granger wants to put more editorial in it, I think he's limited. Here's hoping he can hook 'em with girls and keep 'em with memorable writing.

Again, thanks for your comments and keep on reading,

The Editorialiste.