Janet Jackson, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Britney Spears, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Have you spotted the difference? That's right, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn't a musician. So what the hell is he doing on the cover of Rolling Stone? (OK, so Ono is less of a musician than a human chalkboard, and yes you can get actors and Obamas on the front of Rolling Stone, but anyway...)
You might think you have spotted another difference, namely that whilst the former four caused controversy with their highly sexualized front page shoots, Tsarnaev's cover has provoked a backlash because the nineteen year old subject is accused of murdering 4people and injuring 264 others in the Boston Marathon bomb attack. But you'd be wrong: despite the comparative lack of partial nudity, Tsarnaev's cover is still controversial for its sexuality.
Within a month of the bombings there were media reports of teenage girls who feel that Tsarnaev is "far too beautiful" to be a terrorist. We might justifiably find these crushes troubling (not least for the future of our judiciary system), but the current controversy suggests that our reasoning merely matures into "he's far too beautiful a criminal to be on the cover of a magazine." I am not suggesting that everyone who is angered by the cover is sexually attracted to Tsarnaev (I don't think he's all that sexy, personally), but where was the controversy when Charles Manson appeared on the front of the magazine in 1970?
The day before the Tsarnaev edition was even released, Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts state police made public the photos of Tsarnaev's capture in response to the image "fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine." Murphy's desire to show "the real Boston bomber" (i.e, when he is looking bloodied and defeated rather than sultry and mysterious) is no less idealized than the world view of these teenage girls. For these girls, beauty cannot be evil; for Murphy, evil cannot be beautiful. Instead of tackling challenges to their assumptions, they re-shaped life into an action movie narrative.
In fact, the photograph was neither "fluffed" nor "buffed", but is merely a re-scaled self-portrait (or a "selfie", should you be offended by any implicit comparison to Van Gogh or Vivian Maier). So why did no one accuse the New York Times of glamorizing Tsarnaev when the paper used the very same photo on its front page?
A Rolling Stone cover is presumed to be something of an endorsement of its subject, since it's still considered a primarily cultural magazine, despite a reputation for hard hitting investigative journalism to rival that of the NYT. But any accusations of endorsement -- which are frankly slanderous -- are rendered ridiculous by the subhead, which promises details of Tsarnaev's journey from "popular, promising student" to "monster".
That said, the subhead is not without its problems. If Rolling Stone can be accused of anything it's of glamorizing trial by media circus. "Monster" is a highly charged description for a man who has pleaded not guilty. After the George Zimmerman case and the omnipresent, speculative coverage, you'd think that the media would show some restraint this time round, lest Tsarnaev's jury think of him as innocent until proven guilty... but a monster.
Yet somehow the danger of another trial by media is not the controversy here. Instead, people accuse the magazine of choosing pretty pictures of a suspected terrorist to cause controversy and shift more copies. Well, a magazine hardly chooses its images in an attempt to decrease its circulation. And if the media has the apparent misfortune of reporting on someone who is by some freak of nature both good looking and murderous, we can be grateful that Rolling Stone hasn't misrepresented the facts and indulged our simplistic conception of Murphy's real bomber.