Playing to two Americas

Magazine names separated by letter

April 13, 2004|By David Carr | David Carr,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Who can stake a claim to today's America?

Is it American Magazine, a do-it-yourself publication out of Memphis with a relentlessly sunny, rural disposition? The magazine was muscled into existence last year by J. Mignonne Wright, an independent publishing executive, when she walked into a Wal-Mart with a few pages of ideas and came away with a commitment for distribution.

Or is it America magazine, which uses a musical movement to assert its dominion over pop culture? This lush slab of a publication, conceived by Smokey D. Fontaine, a former editor of The Source, has the backing of the hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash.

The magazines, with names separated by nothing more than a single letter, will probably not share a single reader. That two publications with so little in common have chosen such similar names says something about the mutability of the word "America" and the bifurcated republic it represents.

The two magazines nicely convey the dyads: rural and urban, mass and elite, red and blue. America's America is sleek, multiracial and wonderfully coiffed. The images on the oversize, foil-edged pages are outre; in one photo essay, actress Juliette Lewis is curled up in a refrigerator, having a moment with herself. Using hip-hop as its motif the magazine roams across fashion, film and technology. It takes the reader behind the velvet ropes and assumes anyone who is reading it belongs there: America magazine defines and covers its own species.

American Magazine's America seems more like a teddy bear you can hold on your lap. The January-February issue was anchored by photographs of Valentine's Day cookies, with 40 or so hearts sprinkled through pages that included a paean to the world's largest snowman and a story about being nice to strangers. This is a magazine in which nobody is special because everybody is special, in which warm, friendly people move through vast, pretty landscapes.

The word "America" is both generic and tremendously powerful. According to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, more than 16,000 products and services have been identified with the word in one way or another. "America is what trademark attorneys would call a `weak mark,'" said Edward W. Gray, an intellectual property lawyer in Washington. "A term like `America' conveys all sorts of meanings, so it is generic in that sense."

In other cultures and countries "America" may be deployed as invective, but domestically it is still as much an ideal as a noun.

"Anytime you are trying to start a magazine, you would be well advised to latch onto a movement or a myth," said Roger Black, chairman of Danilo Black, a New York content design firm, who has designed many publications. "On that level both of these magazines may be on to something."

America magazine became a reality when Dash signed on as a backer.

"I'm an American, I'm from America, and I think I am part of an America that represents a lot of what is going on right now," he said.

Wright, who owns American Magazine with two investors, uses some of the same words to describe her publication.

"When we first started talking about this, we were really surprised that there wasn't something out there called American Magazine," she said. "We are focusing on a magazine that features the best of life in America. It is the family version of America, sort of a `Chicken Soup for the Soul' that comes out every other month."

Each publication is tugging on a different corner of the national tapestry.

"America magazine is an attempt to consolidate a 20-year movement," said Michael Bierut, a partner in Pentagram, a design firm. "Hip-hop began underground, became an urban youth movement and then a suburban youth movement, and finally became so mainstream that it can be posited not only as an alternative to America but as American as anything else."

Bierut said that the two publications represented very different regions of a very large expanse of patriotic real estate.

"America is the latest in a long line of groups coming in from the margins of society who are seeking to align themselves with the national identity," he said. "But American Magazine represents the other impulse, a rear-guard action that celebrates keeping things the way that they are."

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