HOW SASSY CHANGED MY LIFE: A Love Letter To The Greatest Teen Magazine Of All Time

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer
Farrar Straus & Giroux ($18)

by Stephen Burt

I was never the Sassiest Boy in America; I hardly aspired to be one, much less to resemble Ian Svenonius, the first (and only culturally significant) young man to bear that putatively annual honor, bestowed by the teen mag Sassy at the apex—around 1990—of its wondrous influence. Instead, I wanted to be the target audience, the girls just slightly younger than me who were reading it and, learning to be at once independent and cool—what movies to watch first, how to start a band, how to get active in politics, and what lip gloss and sandals to wear to the beach. The early 1990s seemed to me then a kind of hinge, the start of a slow power shift in youth culture, from tired gender roles and omnipresent homophobia to… whatever is going to pop up in their place. That shift is hardly over—some would say it’s barely begun—and many people, institutions, and publications have done more to help it along than the makers of Sassy, but few have had more fun.

Svenonius sang in Nation of Ulysses, part of the DC-to-Washington-State indie axis that helped launch Bikini Kill, Nirvana, the Riot Grrrl movement, and a couple of hundred fanzines in the early 1990s. Svenonius’ connections—and writer Christina Kelly’s musical tastes—made Sassy a site for cross-pollination, a pre-Internet way for more-or-less indie culture (Sonic Youth, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) to pull in new members and fans. That story—how many young women discovered DIY aesthetics while still in high school, and how indie-rock became a bit less of a boys' club—is one of several told in How Sassy Changed My Life.

It’s not the main story, though. That would be the rise and fall, year by year, of Sassy itself: how Australia’s Dolly by 1987 became “the highest selling teen magazine, per capita, in the world” by talking like (instead of down to) its readers; how an Australian company tried to duplicate that success in America, and hired Oberlin grad Jane Pratt to do it; how Pratt hired a youthful staff whose stories encouraged readers “to be themselves” (and to attend left-leaning liberal arts colleges); how “the first American teen magazine to accept condom ads” became “an immediate business success” in 1989, before advertisers ran scared from a boycott led by the Christian right; how the magazine’s subsequent changes of ownership built a financial roller coaster, with highs, lows, and an eventual crash. (The mag readers loved folded in late 1994, though an anti-feminist impostor, with a new design and different writers, used the same name for almost two more years.)

Jesella and Meltzer tell a story, in other words, about the economics of glossy-magazine publishing, and it’s a depressing one. Kelly even regrets that Sassy’s success inspired some readers to enter an unexpectedly grim, bottom-line-oriented, recession-prone industry. It would have been neat to see more business statistics—how many copies did Sassy sell, where, and when?—though such numbers can be hard to interpret, once found. It would have been neat, too, to know more about the teen readers, now in their thirties, whom Jesella and Meltzer often quote. How did the authors find them? Where do they live? (Do any live outside big, hip metro areas?)

Another, weirder, story consists of gossip: Jesella and Meltzer depict with lipstick-bold strokes the office culture created by hip 24-year-olds writing for girls of fifteen. “Dealing with the material of teenage life,” Kelly says, “made us all act like teenagers.” Part of the magazine’s downfall involved skittish advertisers and clueless, volatile owners; part of the problem, late in the game, was Pratt, who reveled in success created by people she hired, then spent her time and attention launching a failed TV show when those same people felt that they needed her most. “Now I’m the popular kid I wasn’t when I was sixteen,” she mused at the time; no wonder she left her old clique.

This well-designed book also tells stories about politics, both cultural (who’s a sellout? what’s authentic?) and electoral. Sassy must have been the only teen mag that made clear how its writers would vote (none were fans of George H. W. Bush); often it was outspokenly pro-choice. It also, of course, encouraged its readers to buy stuff: start your own band, but pick up these records first; make your own skirt, but try out these sharp-looking shoes. Sassy asked readers both to consume and to create—in particular, to create their own publications. Its celebration of zine exchanges briefly backfired (if you were named Zine of the Month, you’d get thousands of orders, rather than the accustomed couple of dozen, and the photocopying costs could be ruinous), but did far more democratizing good than harm (especially after they started to ask the anointed zines for permission). The mag also ran annual "Reader-Produced Issues," designed, assembled and written by teens who spent the summer at Sassy HQ in New York.

It’s quite fair to ask if the post-Svenonius Sassy became too alert to a with-it late-teen and twentysomething audience, abandoning younger readers who needed it most, and to ask whether it created (in the words of "Reader-Produced Issue" beauty editor Lara Zeises) “this smugly superior alterna-chick. . . conforming to some standard of non-conformity.” It’s less fair to complain, as Jesella and Meltzer do, that Sassy remained “a very middle- and upper-class magazine.” No advertiser-dependent mag could exist without touting some products, which, of course, cost money to buy—but the writers tried to compensate, visiting Indian reservations and other sites where girls without money or privilege explained the choices they could make.

All teens—all adults—have to find some middle path between trying to be original all the time, doing exactly as they want to do, and conforming to some set of expectations (friends’, parents’, employers’). And not just any middle path will do. Sassy’s attempt to juxtapose recommended cosmetics with recommended social causes, defiant self-assertion with sociable compromise—visible, in retrospect, in every layout and on every contents page—might make a better guide to growing up than any number of hermetic, purist punk tracts.

Much that was forward-thinking in 1990 or so seems ordinary now, but to say that something called a mainstream (NPR? CBS? VH1? a randomly chosen high school lunchroom?) has caught up to Sassy’s mildly indie values, thus rendering the magazine’s project obsolete, is to underestimate what Sassy meant. If anything now makes Sassy look old-fashioned, it’s not a changed “mainstream” but a newly decentralized, teen culture epitomized by MySpace: to know how much has truly changed, though, you’d have to ask a teen, or a thousand teens.

If a work of art says to us (as Rilke put it) “You must change your life,” does any published writing that has changed our lives count as a work of art? If so, Sassy has a durable claim. Jesella and Meltzer’s researches imply that the contradictions of a politically savvy, center-left teen mag are the contradictions in most of our lives: don’t we all want to look good? Don’t most of us want to keep up with our times? Don’t we want to do it in a way that gives power to us, and to our friends, rather than to faceless systems and (beauty) myths that continue to get in our way? Don’t we want to feel both autonomous and endorsed, successful and attractive and interesting according to some set of outside standards, and yet able to create our own? Sassy never denied those contradictions: it tried to point them out, to work around them, and to look cool. And it did—well enough, for a few years, to change a few lives.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007