Alas Hits: to while away a journey recently I bought a copy of Smash Hits. I am so far outside the target market for SH as to be on an entirely different archery range, so the following grumblings can, maybe should be dismissed as the drool of a sad nostalgic. Nevertheless grumble I will.
The first thing you notice about Smash Hits nowadays is the text: it’s ENORMOUS! The only magazine I have seen with larger text is the Dorling Kindersley ‘kewl facts’ one Isabel buys to help the 7 year olds she teaches. 7 is probably the low end of the Smash Hits reader range, though – judging by the letters page the typical reader is the same as ever, 11-13 year olds. When I bought it regularly I was 11, as it happens – that magazine now seems impossibly wordy. When you read the current Hits you feel like the ‘zine would happily dispense with the vestigials of text entirely, or even better beam it straight to the readers’ mobiles.
The lack of words in Smash Hits isn’t a big deal for me (except inasmuch as I want it to waste more time than it does), it’s the way it reflects a very deep change in the magazine’s focus. When the magazine began it succeeded because it flattered pop stars visually at the same time as refusing to take them seriously verbally. Reading it made you feel like pop was a big gossippy club and you were in on it: I would be amazed if the people who started things like Popbitch don’t have happy memories of Bitz and Black Type.
The tone now is knockabout and gleeful but a lot less snide: no pop stars are mocked anymore, unless it’s for yawning when there’s a paparazzi around. But here’s the thing – no pop stars are praised either. There’s no great sense of enthusiasm in Smash Hits these days, which makes the magazine read rather oddly. Here are McFly bouncing about in a field. Why McFly? Why a field? Why? Of course if you’re in the core market you don’t need to be told why. The newer bands still get photo captions saying “l-r: Tom, Dick, Harry” – a couple of hits in and these drop away, everyone knows who they are. (Maybe that’s where the clubbiness comes from now).
The editorial line on Smash Hits now seems to be that readers want pictures and trivia about pop stars, and that’s all they want. The disconnection between brand (the pop star) and product (the music) is pretty much total. But readers are still buying singles, downloading ringtones, listening to music, loving it and disagreeing about it. Beyond any fogeyish complaints about less words or less bitching, I have a real disappointment that Smash Hits refuses to reflect any of that, refuses to be about the sounds in any meaningful way. Smash Hits radio (you can get it on digital) is wall-to-wall quality at the moment, I listen to it at work most days. Read the magazine and you’d have no idea any of the people in it were even releasing records!