And why not? Earlier this month I promised my teenage son he could spend the first few weeks away from his grueling high school curriculum, free from any serious intellectual pursuits. As for the rest of us, maybe being tasked with nothing more challenging than identifying body parts in an annual celebrity bathing suit issue is a necessary form of battery-charging on vacation.
If so, People remains up to the task. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, it's still the largest of all the 800-pound gorillas, with the highest ad revenue for the year to date. And as noted on this site last year by Phyllis Fine, People still stands out from other gossip and tabloidy mags because it "acknowledges humans beyond the Hollywood axis," focusing not just on the famous, but on interesting unknowns.
As Jeff Goldblum's character so memorably stated in "The Big Chill," the average People article can be read during a bathroom visit. Heck -- if anything, that challenge should be upped to about 2.5 articles. And there remains something vaguely summery about the content; the pages themselves seem particularly well suited to withstand suntan lotion and sand.
Even the correction in the July 20th issue makes for great beach reading: "In our July 6th issue we incorrectly printed the location of where Christina Aguilera shopped. She shopped at Color Me Mine in Studio City and not at the store's Beverly Hills location. We regret the error." Not exactly an editorial transgression to rival what or when Dick Cheney knew about yellowcake uranium in Iraq -- but then how many among us can spend all 52 weeks of the year mulling such weighty topics?
Yet despite the fluff, People seems to view itself as something of a periodical of record when it comes to celebs. For example, Karl Malden's short obituary on the Passages page was reported sooner, more thoroughly, and more eloquently by scores of other media outlets. Yet Passages reminds us this mag itself arose from Time's People page -- which dryly documented weddings, births, and deaths -- and that dogged spirit lives on somehow, even amidst the treatises on Beyonce's mascara.
This issue also contains a single-page "Life is About Choices" piece that details Sarah Palin's sudden resignation as Alaska's governor yet doesn't provide new or particularly noteworthy information or insights. With hundreds of newspapers, newsmagazines, and blogs covering the same story, the question arises why People would even bother.
However, when the magazine does focus its full editorial and photographic resources on a story, few rivals can touch it. Thus the cover story on Michael Jackson's memorial service, which is the type of event People was founded for in the first place.
What's interesting is how Jackson's passing so polarized the country, as reflected in the cautious commentaries issued by the White House and Congress and cable news shows. Clearly the millions of heartbroken fans seemed to be matched by at least as many who viewed MJ as tragic at best and a child abuser at worst. That's another debate for another forum, but it's worth noting that People quite deliberately did not attempt to take the journalistic middle road: "Farewell to a King" offers a passing reference to "his troubles offstage" but is as much about praising as it is about burying.
The 10th anniversary of the untimely death of another scion of another famous American family makes for an even better read. "My Friend John" provides personal commentary and photos from Sasha Chermayeff, a close and long-time pal of JFK Jr. It's People at its best: original, interesting, and even compelling. Just as interesting is the portrait of a San Diego man who founded a nonprofit organization that provides needy families with rides to local hospitals, a profile unlikely to make the cut in rival mags.
But there's plenty of nonsense in these pages too. Most entertainment mags would be happy to print a photo of Kim Kardashian in a red bikini on a waterslide. People ups the ante by printing two versions side-by-side and then, in the spirit of a preschooler's activity book, challenges sharp-eyed readers to find ten differences ("#6: Her bikini top has no clasp in the middle.")
The Kardashian reference reminds us that ultimately People has evolved into a litmus test for each succeeding generation. I'll confess I was hit by a severe case of culture shock several weeks back when I stood before a newsstand and saw the same woman in the same orange bikini simultaneously gracing the covers of seven -- seven! -- gossip rags. I had the odd sensation I was in another English-speaking country, reading about British rugby players or Australian soap stars I had no clue existed. Even though I was spotted the huge hint of her first name, I still didn't recognize Kate, and had to be told about her and her husband Jon and her eight kids and her reality show. Even then, I remember thinking: So are we supposed to care?
Obviously the answer is yes. Those PIB figures don't lie.
Published by: Time Inc.
Frequency: 53 issues per year, including 2 double issues
Web site: www.people.com