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"Why are New Kids on the Block so Famous?," pondered Christina Kelly in Sassy, the genre-breaking teen magazine, of the hair-gelled fivesome that, back in the late 80s, grinned lustily from the pages of MTV, Seventeen and every other adolescent rag. "Me and my friends refuse to accept that New Kids on the Block, wholesome pop demons that they are, should be allowed to live," she announced, in her trademark darkly comic style. Christina — everyone used their first names in Sassy — goes on to bitch that the band is prefab and that their music is "watered-down pop." She wonders, "What's so great about five guys who don't write most of their songs, who don't play any instruments on their albums, who've performed to recorded tracks, who wear what I consider daggy clothes, who dance in unison and" — italics the magazine's — "who aren't even that cute."

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Don't let Christina's daggy use of the word daggy distract you: The publication of "Why are New Kids on the Block so Famous?" is a seminal event in the history of sex education. Who but Sassy was going to tell girls that the pablum being served up to them by the rest of the press actually sucked? The Sassy staff had other idea of what their sophisticated teenage readers — yes, they thought teenage girls were sophisticated — should be lusting after. In fact, the magazine almost single-handedly shifted the paradigm of what kind of guys a teen girl should be hot for. (Okay, they got a little help from Cameron Crowe.)

Teen magazines have always existed to proscribe suitable parent- and teacher-approved cultural interests to their pubescent audience. From 1945 and into the 1990s, Seventeen was the grande dame of teen publications. It was essentially an etiquette guide for the all-American girl, doling out no-nonsense advice on appearances and relationships in between fawning celebrity profiles, home decorating how-tos, and a parade of Nordic-looking models. Its owner, Walter Annenberg — a Nancy Reagan crony and millionaire with a gold-plated toilet seat in his private plane — called it "a national trust."

In fact, Seventeen practically invented the teenager as a category that could be marketed to. It touted parentally-approved entertainment in parentally clueless language. Witness: "It's the underage rage these days as adult dance clubs open their doors to the under-twenty-one crowd. Fruit juice flows and the music pounds as the younger generation rules the night!" The magazine was most American girls' first piece of direct mail; 50% of them received it, and it was rumored that many of these subscriptions were bought by parents or — even worse — grandparents. As such, its tastes were oppressively mass, with requisite stories on Top-Forty favorites like mall queen Tiffany and hair band Nelson. The magazine rarely sexualized its featured musical acts, preferring to cover them in a detached, blandly optimistic, journalistic fashion.

The religious right almost bankrupted Sassy when it dared use the words "blow job."

In 1988, the fearlessly feminist Sassy debuted and reinvented what passes for teen culture. There were a few things that made Sassy different from Seventeen and its downmarket copycat competition, YM and Teen. It was based on the Australian magazine Dolly, which had the highest per capita readership of a teen magazine in the world and was known for its sexual frankness and first person journalism. Unlike the editor-in-chief of Seventeen — who was in her 60s and an ex-nun — Sassy's editor-in-chief, Jane Pratt, was a twenty-four-year-old Oberlin grad with a nose ring who was best friends with REM's Michael Stipe. The rest of the staff was also really young — many just a few years out of college — so they were still tied to that community and were reared on influential 1980s college radio. And instead of the faux-hip language that Seventeen used, Sassy used the colloquial language that sounded the way kids really spoke: The beauty column was called "Zits and Stuff" and the religious right almost bankrupted the magazine when Sassy dared to use the words "blow job" instead of "oral sex." What all of these elements amounted to is that Sassy had a different kind of authority than the other teen magazines — that of a cool older sister rather than a parent.

A typically atypical Sassy cover line.

In the beginning, the musical acts that Sassy featured weren't all that different from the competition's, but its coverage of them was. Sassy wasn't afraid to say that rock stars were sexy. In the second issue, for example, there's an article called "Dating a Rock Star," in which writer Karen Catchpole says, "You'd probably think you had died and gone to stereo heaven if you were passionate with Prince or had Bono for a boyfriend. Boy, have I got news for you." The piece was filled with sexual innuendo, telling girls that dates get squeezed in between concerts, groupie competition is hard to deal with, and that rock stars are not only flabby from all that junk food they eat on the tour bus, but that ninety percent of them are short.

Sassy never succumbed to the PR machine that powered most magazines' entertainment pages. Instead, the magazine's music coverage featured music the staff thought girls should know about that were too obscure for the cursory coverage of the other teen magazines. So, Christina's interest in Olympia, Washington, and Washington D.C. translated into endless stories on riot grrrl, K Records, and Fugazi. Jane's friendship with Michael Stipe resulted in lots of fawning profiles of his band (and free REM flexidiscs). Kim France, now the editor-in-chief of Lucky, joined the staff in 1990; she was a big fan of rap, so the magazine started having more hip-hop coverage. No doubt she was influenced by her then-boyfriend, Charles Aaron, now an editor at Spin, who held a notoriously ambiguous gofer-type position as Staff Boy.



           

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