Of late comes word that Playboy magazine will stop publishing nude photos of women, and will turn its focus toward being a lifestyle magazine. As a traditionalist Catholic, I suppose the correct reaction is to be happy to hear it. And yet I must admit that as a child of the 80s, this news caused me a pang of melancholy nostalgic reflection. After all, as with so many other young boys raised in the late 20th century, Playboy was the first place I ever saw a woman with her clothes off (Miss December 1983, to be specific – the delightful Miss Terry Nihen).
But more than anything else, the reaction I have is that this new strategy won’t work. The conventional wisdom is that Playboy has declined because the level of raciness found in its pages has been so thoroughly surpassed by more explicit material that it is no longer relevant. While there’s certainly some truth in that, I don’t believe that’s what’s really at the heart of Playboy’s relevance problem. The reason that becoming a lifestyle magazine won’t save Playboy is the fact that more than anything else, even more than its now-tame degree of raciness, it is the Playboy lifestyle itself that is no longer relevant.
So what exactly is the “Playboy lifestyle”? Rather than turning to the magazine itself to illustrate it, let’s have a look at Playboy’s Penthouse, a TV show starring Hugh Hefner that ran back during the Mad Men era (a revived version of the show, renamed Playboy After Dark, ran in the late 60s). It was a talk show with a somewhat unusual format – instead of a desk and a couch for interviews, it took the form of a hip, classy party happening in Hef’s swanky Chicago apartment – and you were on the guest list. The camera was your eyes and ears as Hef guided you around while mingling with all of the famous, cutting edge artists, intellectuals, and performers who had accepted Hef’s exclusive invitation. The likes of Lenny Bruce, George Plimpton, Roman Polanski, and Gore Vidal were there, along with songsters like Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, or Sammy Davis, Jr. who could, with some encouragement from Hef, be persuaded to come over to the piano and favor the guests with a number or two. The decor in Hef’s pad was impeccable, and the guests so very elegant; the men in tuxedos (or at least tailored suits and ties), and the ladies in tasteful gowns from the finest designers.
Here’s a playlist of some of it:
And here’s Sammy belting out some tunes at Hef’s piano:
But Hef didn’t keep the hipness confined to his Chicago apartment, nor to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles (on the door of which is a plaque in Latin reading Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare, which translates to: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring”). No, to travel between the two (and anywhere else he pleased), he had the Playboy jet! And not just any private jet, but his own personal, customized DC-9 airliner designed to be a non-stop party in the sky, complete with its own disco, movie theater, dining room, full-service bar, photo editing station, and bathroom with stand-up shower.
All of this reflects the vision that Hef had for the Playboy lifestyle. According to the New York Times: “When Mr. Hefner created the magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its debut cover in 1953, he did so to please himself. ‘If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,’ he said in his first editor’s letter. ‘We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, [or] sex’”. Yes, the Playboy lifestyle may have been degenerate, but it was also jet-setting, cultured, and sophisticated. It was certainly avant-garde – in art, philosophy, music, and sexual morality – yet to be avant-garde in those things, it is necessary to know them in the first place. Any genuinely sophisticated person, even a degenerate sophisticate, understands that the heart of being cultured is found in cultivating the self, something that can only come of endless hours devoted to study; much of it dry, frustrating, and boring (a fact to which anyone who has actually ever read Nietzsche, or any other German philosopher for that matter, can attest). The Playboy lifestyle was aspirational, and like any aspirational lifestyle outside of the realm of fantasy movies targeted to adolescents, it required effort in order to achieve.
But to what do we as a people anymore aspire? Certainly not to real culture or sophistication. Nor either to much of anything else that requires serious effort, other than the soulless corporate drone jobs that fund our ability to spend the remainder of our existences sitting on a soft couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television set.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. As Fred Reed once pointed out: “The United States holds three hundred million souls, or people anyway, enjoying an historically high degree of wealth, leisure, and access to universities…. All that is needed for a truly Florentine flowering of the arts, of thought and culture, of manners, we have. Yet by most measures of cultivation, the country is a desert. A literate Florentine of the fifteenth century would regard it with horror”. And while there is a certain degree of laziness that is responsible for this, there is also the Whiggish horror of anything that smacks of genuine elitism (As opposed to the phony hipster elitism that one may attain by listening to unknown rock bands, ironically drinking lousy beer, watching the Daily Show, and reading Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. An elitism that demands little more of its supposed elites than that they spread the right hashtags and vote for the right candidates is easily-achievable enough to remain acceptable to egalitarian, democratic sensibilities). This is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in societies that are either democratic or are in terminal decline (a correlation that should not be lost on anyone). As Oswald Spengler noted, in rising societies, the poor and proletarian seek to copy the manners of the rich and elite; in declining societies, the opposite is true. Our society is in a race to the bottom, and is so far along in it that we can no longer even see any use for a little bit of Picasso or Nietzsche with our titillation. Even if we say that these were only there to provide the enterprise with a veneer of respectability (and I, for one, believe Hefner to have been sincere in his desire for genuine sophistication to be a part of the Playboy lifestyle), what does it say about us as a society that we no longer have the slightest craving for that respectability? What do we crave, other than blind consumerism, meaningless sex, and validation via cheap social signaling?
No, the problem with Playboy wasn’t that its nudes were too tame; it is that there is no market left for the Playboy lifestyle. Nobody wants porn that you have to put on a necktie for, much less that you have to read some boring book in order to keep up with. Modernity is not about sophistication, but about authenticity, and authenticity is easy (Do you really think that corporations started to construct office buildings in the International or Brutalist styles because they admired the philosophy behind them? Or is it more likely that they took to them merely because they were cheap to build?). And of course, there is nothing more authentic than the procreative urge; than feeling the need to ejaculate and satisfying it through the quickest and most straightforward means available. Hardcore porn serves those purposes admirably; what is added to that by talking about philosophy or jazz, or by having a chat with Norman Mailer along the way? How inauthentic! How elitist! What a waste of time! Just get to the sex! Hey Mailer: “Go away – ‘batin!”
This is us: a society with no desires beyond materialist comforts and whatever Whiggishly practical means may be necessary to acquire them. Beautiful naked women are no longer enough sugar to make the medicine of Picasso, Nietzsche, or Miles Davis go down. Hef is old, lives in a world that is far in the dusty past, and has the problem exactly wrong. He thinks that he can still sell an aspirational lifestyle – the one that he once aspired to, and eventually managed to build for himself – but it is only possible to sell an aspirational lifestyle in a society that still has real aspirations. We are no longer such a society.
Our aspirations are dead, our intellectual life is dead, our culture is doomed, and the only question left is whether or not Hef will die before the magazine he created does.
Goodbye, Playboy. We’ll always have December, 1983.
P.S. Hef eventually sold the Playboy jet, at which point it was converted into a normal airliner. Though now quite elderly, it is still flying today, in the service of a cut-rate airline in Mexico. And so Hef’s private plane, once the very symbol of the jet-setting lifestyle of America’s 20th century elites, is these days little more than a flying bus; its cramped, uncomfortable seats crowded with lower-class Mexicans. Make of that what you will.