My Generation, the humongous new magazine for baby boomers, arrived this week. The launch event for newsies featured a blue-neon peace sign, a lava lamp, cutouts of Captain Kirk and JFK, "All You Need Is Love" cranking from speakers, and a lot of talk about ... plastic surgery. Even if you weren't in the mag's target demographic—Americans around age 50, or the leading edge of the generation that "refuses to grow up," as the press release put it—the launch was a mesmerizing little moment in media evolution.
And after rifling through the bag of period party favors they gave out (a purple tie-dyed bandanna, a pair of red-tinted granny glasses, a tiny disco mirror ball), it was easy to spot the event's more salient messages.
We now know where the children of the '60s, the Dionysian anti-establishmentarians who gamboled naked at Woodstock, finally wound up: in the embrace of one of the Establishment's biggest and wealthiest lobbying outfits, AARP, the magazine's publisher. The hardball interest group that makes elected officials quake will send the bimonthly to members between ages 50 and 55, meaning an instant circulation of more than 3 million. Unlike its sister publication Modern Maturity, which will still go to the 55-plus crowd (poor wretched souls, they never rocked nude to Country Joe and the Fish), My Gen will also be sold on newsstands.
Then there's the way the magazine was designed, which was by focus group. Editor Betsy Carter told The New York Times' Alex Kuczynski that the name of the magazine, which most people under 50 would associate with a song by the Who, didn't come from pop music at all (understandable, when you recall that the lyrics included the prayer, "I hope I die before I get old"). It came from the way boomers referred to themselves in focus groups.
There's nothing new about focus-grouped magazines, and good reason to expect that this latest product of that revered process might succeed. A little of this, a bit of that, a touch of the other, and pretty soon you're pleasing practically everyone. Those boomers will be reading it hungrily, renewing their annual memberships, and helping AARP sell the ads that pay the bills.
Or will they? The people behind My Generation are pros, and they came up with some impressive stuff. There's a nicely written piece by Judith Levine on having a father with Alzheimer's; a well-reported story by Annie Cheney about a judge who tried, at age 50, to start a second career as a New York City public schoolteacher; and an amusing Bruce McCall illustration of the ideal doctor's waiting room, complete with bar and strolling violinist.
But the mag is jammed with much other stuff, too—celeb profiles, personal finance, fashion, memoirs, advice columns, gadgets, travel—so jammed that you can almost hear the grabby focus groupers demanding it all. A piece about cosmetic surgery, based on a survey of popular attitudes toward face-lifts, eye jobs, and other enhancements, is overtly framed to respond to the boomers' fears about their drooping looks. (This must have come up a lot in the demo research, because AARP devoted most of the launch event to the subject. The coming plastic surgery boom will be way bigger than love beads and bell-bottoms ever were.)
When a magazine strives this hard to please everyone, it's easy for the reader to feel a little lost. What's remarkable, and a little puzzling, is that My Generation chose not to imitate the most successful magazines of our time, which use a simple device to make their content hang together: a famous person. First there was Martha Stewart's magazine, a phenomenal success. Then Oprah's magazine, more phenomenal. Rosie O'Donnell has one in the works, and there's talk of a Tiger Woods magazine that would draw male readers.
The success of such magazines is based on the cardinal principle of boomer culture—celebrity sells. It's especially good at selling magazines, because a beloved person is a terrific organizing principle. When you open O magazine, it's like entering the mind of Oprah herself, and for her many readers, that's a very good place to be. Oprah, Martha, and Tiger are not just names and faces. Each is a movement, a secular religion, and an extremely powerful way of getting people to buy a magazine.
So while wishing My Generation all the best, I'd suggest that if things don't work out with this version, if the readers don't come running, a solution is near at hand. There's a gigantic boomer celebrity who would make a fabulous magazine. He's more beloved than Oprah, and his fan club dwarfs Martha Stewart's. He's the chief fascination of our time, inspiration for countless biographies, novels, movies and TV shows. He's a historical drama, a crime show, a tearjerker, and a porn flick in one. Best of all, he's not simply the right age, he's the epitome of the boomer personality in all its beauty and horror. And now he's facing the same challenge as his generational cohorts: a sudden sense of self-doubt and purposelessness, a fear that the world is leaving you behind.
Forget the focus groups. Bill Clinton, the magazine, is aching to be born. You might not even need his permission—the man's a public figure. But somehow, one imagines he'd be up for it.