Friday, 25 January 2008

Preaching to the Esquire

Title: Esquire
Cover date: December 2007

The UK edition of Esquire has lost around half its readers over the past ten years, and yet it’s not in anything like the slump affecting the monthly lad mags. It can’t get near the sales of its main rival GQ, but it comfortably outsells its upstart competitor Arena. Like all other magazines, it must be suffering from the advertising recession; still, its publisher NatMags obviously had enough confidence in it to approve an expensive relaunch in 2007. Some perceive it as a stuffy old title but, with its drastically overhauled shape and look, it’s at the cutting edge of magazine design. It’s both a relative failure and a partial success story. It’s a bit of an odd one.

This issue isn’t on the shelves any more, but I’m reviewing it for two reasons: (1) it was followed by an issue featuring Rufus Wainwright on the cover and I simply can’t face anything to do with his wretched whiny warblings [Heresy!! Get off the blog, unbeliever! -- Canyon]; and (2) I love, love, love this cover.

This cover actually made me stop in my tracks, turn to stare at the shelf and, within seconds, make the decision to give up four – yes, four – of the pounds in my pocket to own a copy. It’s cheeky, it’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s arresting, it’s fan-effing-tastic. It helps that Becki Newton is the sexiest woman on US TV at the moment (give or take Connie Britton), or was in season 2006-07 anyway, before the Ugly Betty writers decided the way to get the best out of her was to heap humiliation on poor Amanda – ah, I digress. Anyway, it’s that knowing, faux-wide-eyed, how-much-do-you-want-to-bet-I’m-crazy-enough-to-do-it look on her face that makes it. A shot of a dimmer actor, and I’m not thinking of anyone in particular here, in this position would be less appealing and probably distasteful.

Apart from Newton, I love the stark scarlet/black/lots-of-white colour scheme, I like the twiddly font they use, I appreciate how it’s not cluttered with SHOUTY coverlines imploring us to buy it buy it buy it, I even like the frivolous little thing they’ve done with the barcode – all of it. It reeks of class. (And free aftershave samples.) If you accept that the primary function of a magazine is to get people to take it off the shelf, Esquire is a roaring success with me already. But will I be going back?

Page 24 After countless ads, and contents and credits that stretch over 15 pages (a bugbear of mine with glossies – when do we get to start reading, for goodness’ sake?!), here, finally, is the editor’s letter, doing its job of setting the magazine’s tone. It’s wordy, dry and takes quite a long time to say not very much. Not promising.

Page 29 Inquire is Esquire’s up-front section, full of short, punchy pieces designed to be digested quickly. The first of these is In Conversation With Russell Crowe, an interview with one of the biggest movie stars in the world that takes up just a single page. Its appearance here seems deliberately casual – “Yeah, other publications might put Crowe on the cover, but we’re not overawed by him, so this is all the space he gets”. Esquire’s older male reader is unlikely to be impressed by celebrities, and no-one needs another eight-page star profile about how great a given actor is, but the result is an unsatisfying mini-feature. Between plugging American Gangster and praising his frequent collaborator Ridley Scott, Crowe doesn’t have time to say anything much. His most revelatory comment is that he’s never worked just for the cash, because “you’ve got to have a higher level of motivation than money”. Which isn’t true. I find money motivating. I imagine I’d find the kind of money Crowe earns inordinately motivating. Russell Crowe is a liar!

Page 33 A list! For this is a Men’s Magazine with Men’s Things and, as we know, Men Like Lists. 30 Things Not To Do After 30 made me laugh a few times.
You might as well have posters on your wall

You don’t, really. And that’s OK

Far too much like hard work

“It’s funny because it’s true” has become a phrase of mockery, indicating trite obviousness, but you want your magazine to understand who you are and how you think, so it works here. I could do with fewer in-jokes about getting off with the office intern, a recurring theme in the issue (and why can’t they call them “workies” like everyone else, the great ponces?), but this piece is amusing.

Page 37 The feature trailed on the cover as A CHAIRMAN’S CONFESSION: The True Cost Of Football turns out to be a forum for tikka-tinged Crystal Palace FC bigwig Simon Jordan to air his dirty laundry and beg for investment in the club. In two pages, the Tony Hadley lookalike slags off three players, two coaches and a fellow chairman. They say if you meet three arseholes, maybe you’re the arsehole; if you call six people arseholes in print, I don’t know what that makes you. He also goes into super-boring detail about how much money he’s poured into Palace and how he’s done it all himself and how, like, no-one appreciates how hard it is for multimillionaires like him and it isn’t fair and he didn’t ask to be born! This is exceedingly tedious.

Page 46 Among the plugs for fancy gear and restaurants that make up the rest of Inquire is Good Against A Wall, Esquire’s sex advice column by Maria McErlane. She is described as a “sexucation specialist”, which is excruciating enough, but more to the point, isn’t she in fact a sometime actor/comedian/TV presenter/voiceover artiste of indeterminate age whose main claim to notoriety is a few appearances on The Fast Show? Why yes, she is. How this qualifies her to be a sexuca… no, I can’t even type it again – a sex expert, I’m not sure. Did she get this gig off the back of a stint narrating childish Channel 4 bongofest Eurotrash? Tellingly, the column is illustrated by a “sexy” silhouette (a ludicrous, Barbie-shaped fantasy figure that is about as sexy as an episode of Torchwood) rather than a picture of McErlane.

As if to prove my point, the column is inane and uninformative, and mostly it isn’t even about sex. Male waxing? Can you be friends with your ex? This is just pointless. Aren’t these subjects covered in every form of media eight thousand times a day?

Page 111 After Inquire ends with a bit of a personality injection – a short Flashman story and a witty column from David Baddiel about his history of buying crap cars – here is Design, a completely impersonal section full of sterile pictures of inanimate objects. Magazines are obliged to include such stuff, but I think this could do with a bit more gadgetry and a bit less bathroom cabinet. Gadgets, like lists, are popular with men, especially wealthy men, but few men care which style of cupboard their toothpaste is kept in.

Page 129 At this point Esquire pulls a surprising move and switches from shiny glossy paper to stiff almost-card for its Critics and Business sections.

It’s clear that this is what the mag is really about – serious, knowledgeable essays, verging on prolix, that give the reader something to get his teeth into. The Critics section covers film, TV, music, design, sex, food and books, while Business has interviews, advice, reviews of kit and general ideas. This is meaty and sophisticated stuff, and it demands that the reader devote some time to it – this definitely isn’t Nuts or Shortlist, to be flung aside after a bus journey. You’ll need numerous trips to the toilet to get through Esquire.

As well as the Business section, there’s a 36-page business pull-out, which is more high-end editorial and presented with some style. One thing I’m not keen on is the condescending tone of Women On Top, an article which clearly thinks it is celebrating women’s success in business despite the salacious headline and sentences such as these:

Men drool about how feminine [Jimmy Choo Ltd president Tamara Mellon] is, ‘unlike a lot of women bosses who are ball-breakers’

Working with [Ann Summers founder Jacqueline] Gold is probably not for every bloke. For many, it would be a touch intimidating

The fact that [Texperts chief executive Sarah McVittie] is a motorbike fanatic and triathlete is rumoured to get many a male pulse racing

Esquire seems determined to avoid appearing blokey, so the assurance that successful women fall into two categories – “still hot, don’t worry!” or “dragons” – is feeble and disappointing. Otherwise, this is a fine supplement and adds considerable value to the mag. But it does beg the question: do men turn to glossy magazines for business advice? Are they really thought of as serious career tools? Aren’t they just a bit of lightweight fun? Esquire is staking a lot on the idea that its readers are “men who mean business” in every sense.

Page 146 Becki Newton! I’d almost forgotten she was in here. Sadly, as delightful as Newton is, this feature falls flat. Esquire has decided to treat it as a fake interview for a job in the magazine’s office and, while this may be preferable to endless variations on “So what’s it like working with…?” or “Don’t you just love being naked?!”, it doesn’t work. Its tone is inevitably smarmy, the interviewer’s “notes” are inappropriate and frankly a bit creepy, and Newton for the most part fails to come up with amusing answers to standard questions such as “What are your strengths?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” She’s a funny woman, but man alive, give her something to work with.

In fact the whole features section is a non-event. James Brown gets five pages to witter on about divorce and how it’s, like, a universal problem for us men these days! In other words, I and most of my friends are divorced which may be because we made horrible, shitty partners. I tried to get through this, but when Brown mentions that one of his divorced friends LIVES NEXT DOOR TO PAUL McCARTNEY, I had to stop. Next is an interview with Paul Whitehouse, plugging The Ultimate Fast Show Collection on DVD, illustrated with pictures of Whitehouse and Mark Williams as saucy tailors Ken and Kenneth because apparently it’s 1995. Whitehouse is a talented guy, and has recently become retrospectively more interesting because he starred in a programme about psychoanalysis with a convicted sex offender [Later convicted, of course – Legal Ed.], but he hasn’t produced anything significant since Happiness ended five years ago. Besides, Whitehouse understandably refuses to be drawn into conversation about Chris Langham, preferring to keep the chat to The Fast Show and Harry Enfield. This is just nostalgia.

It’s followed by an in-depth story about Kevin Davies, the young Gloucestershire man who died in 2006 after being held captive in a shed by his supposed friends. Like the earlier essays, this is commendably serious (I seem to be using that word a lot) and detailed, but it does suppose that Esquire’s readers rely on the mag for news coverage. Surely most of them prefer a quality newspaper or the web. Incidentally, Esquire hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the web – at the time of writing, is promising “an all-singing, all-dancing, out-of-this-world, info-heavy, user-friendly, interactive website”, but there’s no hint as to exactly what this means or when it will arrive.

The best feature is one I’d normally look past – the fashion spread, shot in London’s shiny new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. It’s strikingly lovely.

Pages and pages more fashion are next. I guess men do turn to glossy mags for fashion, because you don’t get it anywhere else, but personally I find style pages frustrating because of the lack of content – there’s nothing to bloody read, nothing to take in. The mag ends with a few pages of travel and another list, Manifesto. This month: ten reasons Esquire doesn’t give money to tramps. We’re in funny-because-it’s-true territory again, except this time it’s not as funny.

Esquire is convincingly weighty, from its physical dimensions to its content. Not for this magazine the throwaway gags-n’-girls mateyness of so many modern men’s titles – it’s a thoughtful, sophisticated publication for thoughtful, sophisticated men. Men who mean business, in fact. Unfortunately, this means it’s more than a little dull. The flashes of wit don’t do enough to leaven the overall tone, and if you buy it to provide a lighthearted diversion on your commute, you’ll be staring out of the window before long. If you aren’t looking to get ahead in business, you’ll find a huge chunk of it inaccessible.

It’s admirable that Esquire is catering to an older, educated readership and not just slavishly following the T&A formula, and the design is undoubtedly sleek and alluring, but that isn’t enough – it simply needs to be more entertaining. In the end, though, Esquire’s worst offence is deception. I bought a publication with a funny, sexy picture of an attractive lady’s bottom on the cover, only to find a wordy, worthy magazine seriously lacking in humour and titillation inside. It’s not an encouragement to buy it again.


Masticator said...

I hate to be first to comment on my own post, but a few things that I thought didn't fit into it:

1. I hope I don't disturb the flow of Admiral Neck's paean to Lost too much.

2. Apologies to The Fiver for many of the jokes in the paragraph about Simon Jordan.

3. I've been photographing, rather than scanning, pages in these magazines for illustrative purposes. Obviously it hasn’t worked as well with Esquire, which is the first glossy mag I've reviewed, so apologies for the poor quality. But I'm keen to keep doing this, because I think it gives a sense of the texture of the mag, rather than just the content. I'll do my best to improve the quality in future.

4. I've got ideas for the next couple of posts, but if anyone wants to suggest a magazine for review, all requests will be considered.

Canyon said...

I know you've only done UK mags so far, but I'd be interested to see what you think of Entertainment Weekly. Dunno if you're a regular reader, but it gets a lot of (unfair, I think) flak and it needs a little defending. So maybe I should write that instead of telling you what to think of it.


Masticator said...

I haven't read EW, ever, although I've used the website. I may try that at some point.

I'm not planning on doing any women's mags, mainly because they don't cover much in the way of pop culture. I fear the bulk of my Cosmo review would be me going "Don't care… don't care… don't care…" However, that's not to say I won't do one if I see an issue that grabs my attention.

Canyon said...

That's why I think it would be interesting to do at least one women's mag -- to see why the hell they are so bad and what could possibly be done to improve them. I don't know even one woman who actually reads them.

I also think it could be interesting to compare the same magazine's US and UK versions (like Esquire's US version, or GQ's -- or Cosmo's, in fact, as my friends used to tell me the UK one was way racier [i.e., sometimes contained a chapter of a romance novel that TOTALLY HAD SEX IN IT!]).

Masticator said...

All right! There's only 24 hours in the day, you know.

Canyon said...

All right, all right -- I shouldn't cut into your time spent staring lecherously at Becki Newton's ass, after all.

Admiral Neck said...

How about awesome music mag Uncut? And Mojo. And Edge. And Popular Photography. And Maxim. And US Maxim. And Korean Maxim. Chop chop, sunshine!

I honestly did not believe when I took the plunge and created this blog that it would ever contain a link to a ::retch:: sports gossip page, but if that's the price I have to pay for this new and sexxy feature, then it's worth it.

Masticator said...

I can't believe you have referred to the Fiver, the best thing to happen to football since Brian Clough, in such a dismissive way! It's pretty much the main reason I still follow football these days, what with everyone involved in the sport being a ridiculous wanker.

I'm not enormously keen to review US mags in general, since in my experience they are almost uniformly dreadful, but I might do the occasional one, or a comparative review between US and UK editions. You lucky people!

johnilf said...

How about a Total Film and Empire comparison just to see which magazine really hates those damn shitty things they call 'movies'?!

johnilf said...

Oh, ive got to agree that that is one of the best covers to a magazine ever... good work!!!