May 2007

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

A Love Letter to Sassy

My generation doesn’t seem to need an excuse for nostalgia. But here’s a good one, anyway.

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer’s book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time will inspire all kinds of looking back and sighing. The book’s existence counts on there being a sizeable audience of former Sassy readers who will snap it up, and given our eagerness to reminisce about the good old days that were the nineties, this seems like a safe bet. Twenty-somethings will relive the pain of the magazine folding, this time over beers instead of sodas. A chorus of their voices runs throughout the book, all echoing each other’s totally sincere recollections: Sassy was a magazine just for me. Sassy spoke my language. Sassy understood when no one else did. It feels like a reunion.

You’ll marvel that a magazine like Sassy was ever available on the newsstand at your local supermarket. But once upon a time, from 1988 to 1994, it existed: a magazine for teenage girls that cared as much about bands as it did about boyfriends. It captured what those girls cared about, without assuming that their interests plateaued at make-up and dieting tips. It took girls seriously but never lectured, it was funny and snarky and smart. In 1992, a giddy Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love graced the cover, a tangle of dyed hair and smeared lipstick and blissful obliviousness.

All this makes the book’s subtitle kind of a joke… the greatest teen magazine of all time? Is there even any competition? Adolescence comes with a lot of baggage no matter what, but Sassy made it look like being a teenage girl was the best and coolest thing to be. Among the added bonuses: taking zines and bands like Sonic Youth for granted when you were fourteen could influence the way you looked at those things for the rest of your life.

The first chapter sketches Sassy as a utopia, and it will induce salivating. Whether you want to write for a magazine like Sassy or just read one, you’ll be convinced that life in 2007 sucks. Later sections take us through the magazine’s genesis (including the now-mythic hiring of a 24-year-old, combat-boots-wearing Jane Pratt as editor-in-chief), and its truly unique place in the culture. With its tributes to bands and zines and various ephemera, Sassy was in many ways a professionalized fanzine. The magazine hung out comfortably on the border between mainstream and alternative culture, displaying a rare lack of conflict about its split allegiances. This could make things a little sticky when it came to courting advertisers. In the thick of a threatened advertising boycott by the religious right, Sassy decided to pull an article about masturbation just as the issue was going to press. So the article’s writer, Karen Catchpole, gave the article to the riot grrrl zine Girl Germs to publish instead.

There were other problems. The magazine’s intimate tone – its trademark, and one of its more endearing traits – could also make for an alienating cult of personality. Editors paid lip service to diversity, but Sassy was mostly a club for white girls with small troubles. As an arbiter of cool, the magazine’s influence was so intense that some “grown up” Sassy readers report worrying that their adult lives don't live up to what would have been Sassy-approved. Eventually, of course, there was the lethal combination of corporate ownership and pressure from the religious right that led to the magazine’s demise.

We’re still talking about it though, and its endurance is has to do with more than just nostalgia. Sassy’s particular story -- part inspirational legend, part cautionary tale -- is one that resonates with former readers now grown up and immersed in our own creative projects. Jesella and Meltzer go so far as to claim that Sassy matters as much now as it did when it was in print. I’d say it matters differently -- there was something truly special about experiencing Sassy as a teenager, something that fans like Spike Jonze and Michael Stipe (and us, if we were reading it now, for the first time) couldn’t get. It’s part of what made the magazine’s death feel so desperately, personally tragic.

So yeah, Sassy did change lives, or at least help steer them toward a certain course. That's how high the stakes are when you’re at an “impressionable” age. And that’s why Sassy is an enduring cultural artifact, absolutely deserving of a book devoted to it, and why that book could really only have been written as a love letter.