Why do I recognize these three images? Because they happen to occupy the covers of the three titles that currently hold positions of prominence on my coffee table. Like most self-involved media halfwits, I'm flooded by so many images every day that only a few actually register.
You'll have to excuse me, then, for regarding yesterday's double-super-special unveiling of the American Society of Magazine Editors' list of the top 40 covers of the last 40 years as little more than the business giving itself another hearty slap on the back. Is it sorta cool to glance back at what constituted cutting-edge magazine design back in 1974? Yeah, I suppose. But do the covers tell us much about the business or the era or anything else? No. Without historical context--and without access to the editorial that backstopped the iconic images--it's not much more than a list of purdy pictures 'n stuff.
It doesn't help that descriptions of the top ten covers distributed to help us nose-pickin' writers digest their monumental import would likely mortify the honorees. Take the list's top-ranked cover, Rolling Stone's cover of a naked John Lennon embracing wife Yoko Ono photographed by Annie Leibovitz (identified in the press materials as Annie "Liebovitz") hours before the musician was shot. The ASME, which likely boasts the collective editorial aptitude of 462,300 Larry Dobrows, tells us that the cover was "generation-defining." Uh, no. "On the Road," for better or worse, was generation-defining; this photo, while striking and elegant and, even now, painful to gaze at in the wake of the tragedy that preceded its publication, didn't even have the cultural impact of the Macarena.
So what of the rest of the list? It contains a handful of the usual suspects, including Demi Moore's Vanity Fair exhibitionism (number 2), the National Lampoon's threats of caninicide (number 7), and Time's nutjob-baiting "Is God dead?" query (number 12). Browsing the list, I found a handful of covers that, while not historically relevant, would have amused me enough at the time to prompt a magazine purchase--like The Economist illustrating "The Trouble With Mergers" (number 16) with a glam shot of two camels humping. You can view 'em all at www.magazine.org.
In the end, I wish somebody had bothered to frame each of the covers in some kind of context--not only culturally, but also from a business perspective. How'd each of the 41 covers (there was a five-way tie for the number 37 slot - seriously) fare at the newsstand? Can we divine a correlation between a smart/showy/controversial/artful cover and a given issue's bottom-line success? Without that piece of the puzzle, the Top 40 list relegates itself to the level of mere PR ploy.