With Bruce Springsteen currently no longer visible in photographs, Rolling Stone was forced to choose someone else for its vaunted cover for once: accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose artfully tousled self-portrait will adorn the magazine’s August issue, in the space normally reserved for people who have not been accused of terrible things. Of course, this isn’t always true; Charles Manson and Jar-Jar Binks have both graced Rolling Stone’s cover. But the decision to accord Tsarnaev the sort of symbolic, “you made it” honor that rock stars once wrote songs about has touched a nerve both online and off, leading to widespread social media shaming on Twitter and Facebook, calls for boycotts and subscriber cancellations, and the issue being banned by chains like CVS and Tedeschi’s. It has also, probably not coincidentally, led to the first time anyone’s discussed a Rolling Stone cover in years.
As the Charles Manson cover reminds, Rolling Stone has always made a practice of balancing pop culture with investigative journalism into politics and current events—indeed, some of the best investigative journalism around. But the backlash here isn’t against the fact that the magazine is running a story on Tsarnaev (except for those who would take issue with its painting Tsarnaev as just another good kid failed by the system). The backlash is against Rolling Stone putting Tsarnaev’s oh-so-dreamy-of-terrorist-acts face in an arena fraught with the contextual implication that Tsarnaev is just another media sensation, to be glamorized and considered alongside the likes of Willie Nelson and Jay-Z. (And hey, perhaps if Jay-Z had made a better album—or a bigger bomb—maybe he could have landed the cover.)
Running that specific photo is not without precedent. Indeed, it’s the same “selfie” that appeared on the front page of the New York Times, where it was similarly used as a symbol of how such a handsome, seemingly ordinary self-absorbed teen could have been hiding such murderous impulses. And obviously, Rolling Stone is attempting to tap into that same dichotomy, to force its readers to ask themselves the same questions and challenge those same presumptions. “Gaze upon the puppyish, lost-Jonas Brother-like face of evil!” it seems to be saying.
Unfortunately, Rolling Stone is not the New York Times—nor is it Time or Newsweek, where the faces of killers have often appeared, but those magazines’ editors have escaped accusations of glorification. That’s because, faded relevance or not, the cover of Rolling Stone still carries a connotation of fame—which is different from infamy—and so it’s been accused of packaging Tsarnaev in a way tailor-made for being framed and hung on the walls of others who might dangerously identify with, even worship him, or inside the lockers of the many smitten, self-deluded teen girls behind the “#FreeJahar” movement. Any defense that Rolling Stone is intentionally challenging what we think of as “evil” or even “celebrity” becomes somewhat lost in the imagined quietly envious awe or loud din of squeals the cover seems intended to provoke.
But if the magazine's plan was to tap into that (very strange) fanbase, as some have accused, that also seems to have backfired: #FreeJahar supporters have been registering their own outrage, decrying Rolling Stone for calling Tsarnaev a “monster” and “framing” him for the crime they are convinced he didn't perpetrate. Still, “Wowowowow lol he looks hot though,” one of them admits, in what may be the perfect distillation of this whole controversy.