Content is something Michael McCullough takes for granted. As editor of the new Costa Mesa-based Lava magazine, he admits, "We never know which way we're gonna flow."
Consider the contents of Lava's first few issues: a fashion spread of underwear and clogs; a review of some foreign liqueur affectionately called "Sammy" and critical reviews of "Speed Racer the Movie," a boxing nun toy and Gumby watches. The images float in a draft of white space, easily digestible by a generation that grew up biting the heads off their Flintstones chewables.
A lava lamp seemed the perfect iconoclastic symbol to launch this publication, aimed at the twentysomething generation, says McCullough. "It's unpredictable, it's kinda free-flowing, and all that kinda artsy stuff that goes along with it."
The door of his office is actually a bamboo curtain, through which bounds--like an overzealous secretary--a friendly yellow dog.
In the lobby, a sculptural fountain in the likeness of a volcano flows into a stagnant pond where some black fish live.
Lava is one of dozens of new magazines by and for the 40 million people between 18 and 30 years of age, who spend $125 billion a year on goods and services, say market researchers. It offers the standard fare--alternative music, art, movies, food, fashion--"stuff that's stylized and nice-looking. We want to be a real visual publication," says McCullough, who at 32, narrowly escaped being labeled part of this nebulous Generation X.
At his austere workstation, McCullough explains that he needs to capture the attention of an MTV youth used to being bombarded by overlapping images.
The magazine is the pet project of Jack Martinez, 29, and Dan Flecky, 42, two surf dudes who started Black Flys Eyewear, sunglasses for the surf/skate/snow industry, in 1990. The wildly successful Fly Industries made it possible to launch the magazine, which is distributed mostly in Orange and L.A. counties' coffeehouses, video stores, art galleries and select stores, but also travels to Japan and Europe as a stowaway in Black Flys shipping crates. It has a circulation of 30,000 and a staff of 10.
Such impressive backing is not typical of other youth publications operating on skeletal budgets while trying to attract big advertising dollars.
Other titles include Might and bOING bOING from San Francisco, Hypno and Axcess from San Diego, Pure from Chicago, Slacker from New York, and others--Warp, Baby Sue, The Nose and Ben Is Dead--with unconventional mastheads that leave marketers scratching their heads.
What makes them distinct is their averseness to distinction, their disgust at being marketed to by demographers trying to stuff this segment of society into a tangible niche. Say the three under-25-year-old editors of Might, "We're sick of everything that's aimed at us."
"Since the 'Generation X' label was created, a lot of magazines have been grouped into that category. But the best are those with an independent spirit not marketed for mass consumption," says Julie Jewels, 25, editor-in-chief of Project X, a magazine in New York City that chronicles underground culture.
Jewels began Project X when she was 19, as a 1,000 circulation, 16-page club handout. Two years ago, it went to a 30,000 national distribution. She admits there were no demographic studies conducted in the launching of Project X.
"We broke every publishing rule," says Jewels. "Though a lot of magazines are repositioning themselves in the marketplace to cater to (youth), this was just a side project we were doing. We were all involved in the club scene at the time, and we wanted a magazine to document what was happening."
The name Project X is not about a generation, but a reference to the secret Russian KGB files in a James Bond movie. "Not for everyone's eyes," says Jewels, adding the allusion could be lost on young people coming of age in a post Iron Curtain world.
"This is definitely a more fun-oriented generation," says Tony Fellow, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton who teaches magazine writing. "They're not interested in politics at all . In the '60s, we went out and marched ."
Though he could not count an Abbie Hoffman among them, Fellow maintains those in the current youth culture are more creatively resourceful than their predecessors.
"They're very entrepreneurial," he says. "They believe they're probably not going to have the positions we did, because technology is taking over. So they better go out and make their own opportunities."
"Everybody's been called 'slacker' at one time of their life," says Rex Edhlund, whose title is "the man of ultimate editorial responsibility" at Hypno magazine. "We're just getting a feel for the world. There's another generation of slackers coming up right behind us."
Edhlund, 30, says Hypno aims to be "the best pop cultural guide to the planet. This is the age of oversaturation. Everything's been done--we are trying to do it better."
It has a circulation of 55,000.
Hypno wants to be politically aware. Along with reviews of music, art, fashion and other fare, it offers "The Activator Pages," a regular feature developed in conjunction with the national youth activist campaign Lead . . . or Leave, which works to educate and motivate young people on political issues. Plus, Hypno is printed entirely with soy ink on recycled paper, so it is absolutely politically correct.
"I think this magazine will last forever," says Edhlund. "We'll grow with our readers."
bOING bOING is "Pop culture for the techno-savvy," says editor Carla Sinclair, who started the publication with her husband, Mark Frauenfelder, now an editor at Wired. "We cover the fringes of pop culture, those into computers and the digital era. We look at the fun side of technology."
Sinclair is tapping a market niche within a market niche--twentysomethings who grew up with the computer and recognize its place in their future.
"Their vision of the world is much smaller," says Sinclair, citing Marshall McLuhan's prophecy that computers would shrink the world to a global village. bOING bOING offers such features as "The Ignorant Human's Guide to the Internet" and "Neurotica," for the technologically neurotic.
"These magazines present a non-linear organization of articles and pages, and a style that replicates the way information comes through," says Carl Burrowes, associate professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton.
"My sense is that much is made of the malaise of the MTV Generation, but much of what is passed off as characteristic of it could be said of earlier generations. I think of Hemingway, who was a part of the so-called Lost Generation. After the turn of the century, artists and writers suffered from a general inertia, a loss of direction. They lacked the certainty of the previous generation.
"There's a tension between representing the values of a generation and succeeding commercially and being able to survive," Burrowes asserts. "To the extent that a publication can do that, it risks rejection."
To his twentysomething students, Burrowes ascribes certain kinds of psychographic properties: a listlessness, lack of material drive, a self-conscious lack of flash. "The counterpoint to 'yuppie' is 'grunge,' " he says.
"Unlike the '60s, there have been few defining moments that have helped to shape the current, thus their values were acquired somewhat passively. There's a sense of resignation, a need to exit the rat race, and they're questioning the automatic course set for them. Their magazines are going to reflect this."
Consider the far-reaching contents of Might magazine's third issue: A citizen's guide to what happens if you don't pay your taxes; a consumer plan detailing the financial liability of unprotected intercourse; a glossary of bugs you can eat, and a synopsis of religions and pseudo-religions, including "weird quirks," celebrities involved and costs.
The cover reads: "Inside: All Your Questions Answered."