For the last couple of years around this time, I’ve written about the Maxim Hot 100, and that was great. This year it’s different, and now it sucks.
Lad mags in general have always been mostly comedic to me, even when I was a lad. I can’t say I knew much about it at the time, but Maxim’s place as the sort of bro-oriented GQ – its drunker, louder cousin – always made it seem the funniest of an already-funny pack. And then, a few years into its run, I discovered that they made a list1 of women that I – a newly minted member of the coveted 18-34 demographic2 – was supposed to be drooling over when they appeared, inevitably, later on in the pages of Maxim magazine. It was a neatly little circular bit of self-promotion disguised as a photo-service photo essay about, say, Eva Longoria.
1 this may be difficult to believe, but the Maxim Hot 100 spent a few years as Kind of A Thing. There were a couple of tv specials (VH1 or E! Or something aired them. There was also a bit where Stephen Colbert launched one of his satirical campaigns to get named to the list because, y’know, people paid attention to the list) about the issue itself. Magazines, kiddies, used to sell copies to people. There was also a weird obsession with ordinally ranking people based on how pleasing they were to think about bonering. The past is truly a different country.
2 I suppose there’s something interesting, honestly, to this happening right before I leave the coveted 18-34 demographic. My cohort has, among whatever else, the distinction of being the people at whom the Maxim Hot 100 was aimed. I mean, it’s still there, but it really isn’t the same thing, y’all. Read on.
For the first decade and change of its existence, the Maxim Hot 100 was like the dumbest of holidays – I caught early on the fascination with being told, editorially, what it was that I thought was attractive. I appreciate the notion that, somehow, the consensus opinion on this set of women was meant to reinforce my own opinion and, thus galvanized, convince me that I should also buy, say, Ketel One or whatever watch is on page sixty or what-have-you.
That fascination eventually gave way to a slightly different one, which is the knowledge that all of this is constructed as a punt – all lists, remember are an excuse to have a bunch of different staff members turn in some numbers, pay for some photo rights, and churn out an issue with less work than, say, launching an investigative report into frogs or whatever3 – the equivalent of a sitcom clip show. “Remember that time we ran that picture of Amy Smart? Well here it is again!4” That sort of thing. Its self-contained marketing efficiency was peerless, but it also came in such a low-effort package. Truly it is the dream of the magazine world5.
3 I mean, this is still Maxim, so they’d be, like, business frogs or motorcycle frogs or something, but you get the idea.
4 For many of these years also, there was a sort of sport in my reading these lists of trying to figure exactly whose idea of attractiveness and/or sexuality was being represented here. I confess to having been a participant in some of that – the “who on earth is dreaming of bonering THAT lady” sort of discussion – but it’s not something I’m happy about and not something I’m interested in doing publicly. There’s enough of telling women How to Be out there without even that small addition to it.
5 I mean, there’s also the fact that it’s the thing the magazine is known for and high-visibility, which could explain some things that happen later, but that’s a reason for the change more than a reason for the thing itself.
And, y;know, over time it got weird. Print media pretty much died (and remains pretty much dead). Maxim started also publishing, online at least, their reader’s poll. They may have even given the Hot 100 over to the readers entirely. The point here is that, a couple of years ago, when I started commenting on it, the list was clearly in a state of flux, and that made it interesting. What had been an identity that was intertwined with the magazine – The Maxim Hot 100 as a sort of apotheosis of the General Maxim Message, which was that girls are hot and also there are more than 100 of them so you have to narrow down the field somewhat and also hey buy this vodka – was suddenly a thing that was too immutable to allow the magazine to change nimbly in a field where magazines were closing down constantly by the force of people not being interested in them anymore. Clearly something had to change so that this thing that was 1) their calling card and also 2) the thing that kept them from pivoting in a fast-paced market like they should be able to could be a more agile sort of thing.
The real problem, of course, was the monoculture6 In the year 20007, the internet had yet to become the main means of socializing for everyone, the ability to clamor about the thing you were interested in was limited, and your exposure to things that weren’t specifically chosen by marketing companies and program directors was generally more limited than it would become. It was, therefore, not much of a task to put together a list of pretty ladies and have it more-or-less accurately reflect what was already going on culturally. Most peoples’ window into the monoculture (see FN) was fairly small, and you had little to know exposure to who, say, any given model was. It was prior to the television explosion that would come soon, there was still a record-selling industry to speak of, and movies were…well, they were different. So there were, simply put, fewer people in the cultural purview to choose from. Getting 100 of those together in 2000 was a simple matter. In 2016, it’s much less so, and relying on the public to make that decision for you is going to put you in some pretty weird places. So you have to be more proactive.
6 a term which is not without its issues, but which I’m going to use here because you probably have some idea what I’m talking about.
7 in the year two thou-SAAAAAAAAAAAND
Let’s step back a moment. The point of the Maxim Hot 100, as far as I can see, is probably not about the pictures of women themselves. As covered previously, lists have a number of publication purposes, but the thing itself being amassed is very rarely one of them. The hot 100 post-dates Google, for example, so if, say, you were a member of the 18-34 demographic that wanted to see pictures of (to choose a name at total, absolute random) Alessandra Ambrosio, you could find pictures of Alessandra Ambrosio without paying a single dollar to the people at Maxim magazine. The point, then, was of course the quibbling, and the idea of there being some sort of “right”. And that requires a couple of things to be said about the “lifestyle magazine.”
I hate the term, I hate the form, I hate the idea. But my feelings about them notwithstanding, they’re part of the formation of the wildly popular idea (currently running wild on the internet in the form of social networks building walled gardens, and the obsession with openness and hackability6 turning over into having functionally-identical conversations about curation and gatekeepers and blah and also blah. This used to take the form of lifestyle magazines, where you could go to read all about “your” “interests” in between ads for products that would be conducive to “your” “lifestyle,” thus saving you the trouble of having to find anything on your own. You could just buy, as it were, the whole package, and you would be “correct” because someone said you were correct.
6 everyone who just barfed blood because I typed that word, I assure you that I did too, and I will never type it again, but I’m doing a thing here. My apologies, and send me any dry-cleaning bills from the blood vomit.
I realize I’m not saying anything new here, but I feel it’s necessary to say all that so that I can say this: the Maxim Hot 100 was, in that climate, a follower. You took the year’s list of women you talked about, you smooshed them together, figured out a way to put them in order that meant you had a story (and also was probably based in no small part on who you could get a cover story for at the top9). But as of June/July 2016, it’s meant to be a leader.
9 Digressively, I have also always wondered how much of the placement on the list had to do with photo clearance – we need a big splash photo every couple of pages, but this lady never posed for Maxim, so we’d have to pay for that photo, and we won’t, so it’s got to be this other lady and the photo is a couple of years old so we need to bury it in the thing becausee the people have already seen it. That sort of thing.
The letter thing at the beginning of the photo-spread (which is a much more democratic-seeming array, rather than the formerly-haphazard-seeming mishmash of different pictures of different sizes/qualities/states of undress) talks about shoving a bunch of new people in there, to help guide us all toward future stars or whatever. This is turning the Maxim Hot 100 into more of a “soon-to-be-Hot 100”, and making it a leader, and no longer a follower.
I can’t fault a magazine for trying to go from descriptive to prescriptive – it certainly seems more interesting, from an editorial perspective10 – but this is sort of a weird way to do it, and it makes the list boring. It’s less freakish than it used to be, for starters – the list clearly skews younger, and clearly skews a great deal more international11, and is, therefore, more carefully-selected and much less scattershot-seeming – and is much more like a list that someone curated (see above paragraph), and less like something that was cobbled together from a mishmash of who-knows-what opinions. And that’s almost certainly better!
10 I say that even though nearly everything I write here for this blog is descriptive, not prescriptive. I am a terrible predictor, and have no real interested in getting any better at it.
11 this is by stated intention and, honestly, is probably a good thing both for the magazine and for the world – Maxim readers are almost certainly not a representative sample of the population, and it’s probably pretty difficult to open up your demographic sales options if you’ve got a magazine full of white ladies that you’re calling the hottest. That’s just sensible business practices for a magazine in 2016.
Because it was never, in my years of reading and also writing (for the last couple) about the Hot 100, about the 100 women that are horse-traded into the magazine. I mean, they’re all lovely women or whatever, but that’s completely beside the point. The point is that the thing existed, and existed in such a howling, bizarre way. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t change its form significantly before now (although with the new editorship it fell under last year, it was clear that this was coming from last year’s list).
I never read Maxim, particularly12, beyond the hot 100 issue. I think I have bought maybe two or three of them ever, for reasons that are particularly elusive now. But man, that one thing, that one weird, crazy thing where they lined all the women up and picked them like it was a dog show, (but, again, only in their mind, because I’m pretty sure none of these women are sweating out their fucking Maxim ranking) that was quite a thing to behold and to be alive for.
12 I read – and I’m not kidding – every single issue until the last couple of years of their sister magazine Blender, which started out as a magazine that published full-on over 100 record reviews a month (over 100 record reviews a month) and turned into a laudably daffy lens through which to watch the end of rockism*. In the time from its launch to its turn into dumbshit, it covered (admirably!) freak-folk and the rise of noise music in the popular mind, even while it upped the number of bikinis on the cover and, inevitably, cut huge whacks of record reviews out of itself. Shame, that.
* Blender’s role in the rockism wars was never really staked out, and they took seemingly-irreconcilable positions w/r/t, say, rock and roll being the only “real” music and also certain interests in pop music being worthy of concern. It contained multitudes and, by the end, must have appealed only to people who were specifically interested in things like that, which is almost no one, which is why it doesn’t exist. When it tried to break out into being, basically, Maxim-affiliated Alternative Press, it ceased to be at all worthy of anyone’s time, and it died basically unmourned.
Of course, there’s also the distinct possibility that the editorial change of direction and re-direction of effort could fail, and we could end up in a situation where the old Hot 100 comes back, in which case I’ll be here with open arms, ready to read it and figure out what about this, exactly, is meant to reaffirm my place in the world.
And then I’ll google pictures of Alessandra Ambrosio, because they used a dumb one from a photo service again, god damn them.
Bunch of damn philistines.