There are many, many ways Rolling Stone magazine could have put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover. It could have chosen a surveillance video still from the bombings, showing a backpacked figure nonchalantly walking through the crowd. There’s the black-and-white shot of Tsarnaev before a patterned wall-hanging: a bleary-eyed malcontent. And the prom picture with its half-lidded gaze, sweet and maybe stoned.
Instead, Rolling Stone went with a selfie. That, in itself, says everything — most of it ill-advised.
This is less about images than about the frames we put around them. The release Wednesday of the cover of the upcoming Aug. 1 issue of Rolling Stone featuring a photo of Tsarnaev that he took himself created a predictable and thoroughly understandable fury, both online and in the real world.
There was the cover boy, looking out at the viewer with tousled sensitivity. It was the magazine’s classic and coveted pole position, held down over the years by everyone from John Lennon to Jim Morrison (“He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead”). The boy could easily be mistaken for the latest indie-rock sensation — a new Sufjan Stevens, perhaps, or that guy from Vampire Weekend.
But the headline read “The Bomber,” and the cover boy is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, currently facing charges in the Boston Marathon bombings. The subhead tried to put things in perspective: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” But the glamour of it all — tragic or ironic, intended or accidental, it doesn’t really matter — is there for anyone to see.
Make no mistake, this is a legitimate story for a magazine. While plenty of media coverage has rightly focused on the victims and survivors of the April 15th attack — and it wouldn’t have hurt Rolling Stone to acknowledge them on the cover as well — the question of what motivated Tsarnaev and how a seemingly mild-mannered teenager allegedly came to commit an act of unimaginable cruelty is worth probing. The article itself, reported and written by Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman, was released Wednesday and lays claim to be responsible journalism.
The cover is not: It’s marketing. The unseemly fascination with Tsarnaev — the reason he is a kind of rock star to a woefully naive (and hopefully very small) segment of the public — stems in part from his gentle good looks but more from the distance between those looks and the crimes with which he has been charged.
He is an enigma: An Americanized son of immigrants who friends said played soccer, smoked a little weed, liked hip-hop, had a Twitter account, and professed few, if any, political opinions. There is little to distinguish him from millions of other teenage boys in this country. Other than what he is being tried for.
Our popular culture doesn’t quite know what to do with enigma. We’re drawn to it and disturbed by it, moved to explore it while hoping that someone, somewhere, will solve it. If we could connect those dots, could we stop it from happening again? Would we know what to look for next time? Or do we want to solve the puzzle so we can understand what made the kid a “monster” and be done with him? The seeming averageness of Tsarnaev, the boy who went to the same school as Matt and Ben, unnerves us. What’s the difference between him and us? The more we know, the safer we feel.
The choice of Tsarnaev’s selfie for the cover does nothing to clear matters up and everything to muddy the parsing of his meaning in the public square. The cellphone each of us carries on our person is a miniature but fully functioning portrait studio, one that many of us can and obsessively do use to document daily life and our own self-willed centrality to it. The selfie is our modern mirror. It’s less a way of looking out at the world than reminding ourselves that the world is looking at us, even when it isn’t.
When you take a selfie, you are imagining yourself as how you’d like to be — as who you’d like to be. You are engaging in persona management: the creation of a cuter, cooler, more glamorous you. There’s a reason that adolescents take selfies at the rate of about 100 per minute. They’re trying on masks. And the ones they release to the world are the masks they want us to see.
In Tsarnaev’s selfie, he stares just off the camera’s eye-line with an opaque but calm expression. A tangle of hair falls over one eye; it’s very possible he worked for a minute or two to get that lock just so. The faintest ghost of a smile hovers around the corners of his mouth. He’s slumped against a white wall, wearing a white Armani Exchange T-shirt whose letters cluster like artful scribbles. He is the picture, literally, of a relaxed, sincere, slightly mysterious young dude. As Howling Wolf and Jim Morrison both sang, “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”
The little girls buy magazines, too. By putting this Tsarnaev on the cover, Rolling Stone at best plays with and at worst buys into the accused’s own manufactured image, casual but potent, speaking in a language we all understand. Worse, by placing his selfie within the context of a magazine cover, a format regularly used to sell rock stars, movie icons, and models, the editors have collaborated with Tsarnaev in the creation of his own celebrity.
It didn’t have to be that way. The magazine’s designers could have contextualized the image, to foreground the dissonance between subject and presentation — to call attention to the self Tsarnaev saw himself as, rather than the complex person he was. But that probably wouldn’t sell as many magazines.
By placing his selfie within the context of a magazine cover, the editors have collaborated with Tsarnaev in the creation of his own celebrity.
Instead, they’ve legitimized the glamour shot he carried in his head and on his cellphone, surrounding it with headlines about Jay-Z and Willie Nelson. The subhead dutifully calls him a monster, but there’s nothing that visually contravenes the notion that he’s a star. Given the human suffering he’s alleged to have caused, the irresponsibility takes one’s breath away.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.