If the last page of a magazine is supposed to be a good-bye, then New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix is a smack and a kiss at the same time.
After leading a renaissance at the New York Times Magazine in the late ’90s, Adam Moss was hired in February 2004 to be the struggling New York Magazine’s editor-in-chief. He was tasked with giving the magazine a complete overhaul and hired Emily Nussbaum almost immediately to be the culture editor and to give the section a much-needed face-lift.
One of the things that Nussbaum created was the Approval Matrix, a four-quadrant chart that aimed to tell readers which parts of lowbrow and highbrow culture were brilliant and which ones were despicable. Inspired by a chart in Wired, it first premiered in November 2004 and after a rocky first few months became one of the magazine’s signature features, replacing the crossword puzzle as the ever-important back page in early 2009.
Under Moss, New York Magazine thrived, and the Matrix became perhaps the brightest symbol of its irreverence and wit. In a decade that saw both the greatest profusion of culture writing in history, and the collapse of the traditional relationship between editor and reader, the Approval Matrix blossomed by running largely against those trends — pithy and exact where the internet was rambling and imprecise; fundamentally autocratic where the internet played at a democracy of opinion. The Approval Matrix considered the same subjects as Pitchfork and The A.V. Club, but from above, not within, and not before filing its fingernails.
Over the last 11 years, the chart has tried to move online to weak reviews, been turned into a failed pilot for Bravo, and now is the impetus for a pop culture review on SundanceTV that premiered this week. BuzzFeed spoke to the creators and editors of the long-running feature to try and find out why this charticle endures.
A Need for Something Visual and the Importance of Despicable
Adam Moss, editor-in-chief of New York Magazine: When I came in here we started all of these group projects trying to imagine how we would tackle fashion, politics, sex, or culture, and out of this group came many dozen of ideas. One of them was the Approval Matrix. At least a form of the Approval Matrix.
Emily Nussbaum, former culture editor of New York Magazine: The upshot was that when I was hired by Adam to be the culture editor I was asked to present, redesign, and mark out how to change the culture section. It was very text heavy and I wanted to do something visual on the last page. I wanted it to have a longer essay and then end with something bold and funny. I was brainstorming trying to come up with something like a chart or a big image and I was reading Wired magazine and I saw a good model for the Matrix. I can’t remember what the axis was — nerd to geek and the other was cool to hot or hip. It was laid out. It didn’t have visuals or jokes, just names like Joss Whedon and Steve Jobs. It was very funny because it was very mathematical. Philosophically, I wanted to talk about relationship of art altogether, rather than separate.
Moss: At the beginning we were concerned that no one would understand the references. It’s so brief that we would have to do [summaries] in three words and be worried about that, but we embraced that confusion and saw that the very obscurity of the Matrix is part of its greater appeal.
Nussbaum: I do think there’s something appealing about the way that it looks — that it’s official. It’s so absurd to call something despicable that it has this gaudy authority. A lot of magazine charts do look like they have rational factual elements but it’s really strong opinions reduced to pointillistic expression of them.
Luke Hayman from design did such a great job on it. I always knew that I wanted the visuals to be funny.
Moss: Highbrow and lowbrow is a famous way to divide up the cultural universe and it’s been much argued about; there have been famous essays about it. There was just one last week by Tony Scott in the Times. The others axes are just positive and negative but a lot went into finding the right word to describe that — despicable has a lot of hard consonants. Brilliant is brilliant!
Nussbaum: I said brilliant and [Moss] said despicable. I think it’s what makes the entire premise; it’s outrageous to say something is despicable. It’s snotty but it sets the whole tone.
I do think that despicable is so important and people love to talk about it. There were T-shirts and no one would buy highbrow brilliant, but anyone would want lowbrow brilliant or highbrow despicable.
Chris Bonanos, editor at New York Magazine: In the very beginning, Emily and Adam made some prototypes with Luke Hayman; I came in a little after Emily and Adam’s imagining of the chart. It was 90 degrees different from what it is now. Highbrow and lowbrow ran from left to right instead of bottom to top. The format is so ingrained in your perception now, but it didn’t look like that on the first prototype. In the very early days it was little and a square and at the back of the culture section.
The Codification of the Voice
Nussbaum: During his job interview I showed [Adam Sternbergh] the mockup. He was like, “This is my dream.” He was just so on board for it. He was good at this kind of thing. He started overseeing the joke collection; it was a writers’ room sort of thing. Some of the most fun parts were talking about where things should be placed.
Bonanos: When [Sternbergh] took it over, he sort of created, not the voice, but codified it at that time. A lot of magazine features get going like this and work along for the first few months and you figure it out on the road. He was the perfect person to figure it out. His taste was highbrow and lowbrow, with strong opinions, and a comedy writer’s soul. Emily and Adam created it, but Sternbergh’s voice became the Approval Matrix.
Adam Sternbergh, current New York Magazine writer, former editor at large: It kind of scratches a very traditional magazine itch. Every week you catch up on the news and pop culture with a smart-alecky twist. It was a very smart iteration of a very familiar magazine staple. On the other hand, it did arrive during a long moment when people were realizing how broad the cultural landscape was and how highbrow and lowbrow were clashing.
We wanted to put an episode of Sopranos on the Matrix, but figuring out where it would go was a problem. It was TV so it was lowbrow, but HBO is the Dom Perignon of TV so it’s high brow; on the other hand it’s about the mob, so that’s lowbrow, but it is a well-executed, complex show so it could be highbrow. These are the Talmudic arguments we’d have deep into the night. That’s what appeals to people about the idea.
Not for Everybody
Moss: This is something that a lot of people here thought had a lot of possibilities and I didn’t get at all. It seemed arbitrary to me and I never heard of half of the things that were on the Matrix — which were both things that made it as good as it was. It’s very randomness and obscurity was key to its appeal. Other people understood that and they willed it into existence.
Nussbaum: In house, it was a source of controversy. [Moss] didn’t like it and the tone about it. In internal meetings, discussing what should stay and what should go in redesign, people wanted it to go. It forced a debate about the nature of irony and snark.
Sternbergh: I have a clear recollection of 2004; Moss had everyone do a memo for him where each of us got to say what we thought was working or wasn’t. There were quite a lot of people who were saying, “I don’t get it and I think we should stop.” I had started working there and it was the one thing I was doing and it was the one thing people hated and I thought, I’m going to be fired.
Kurt Andersen, founder of Spy Magazine: The fact is that shortly after it was created, I was talking to [Moss] and he told me that it was partly inspired by Spy. I knew that and I said I had feelings about how it should be done, and I met with Adam Sternbergh and Emily and realized how smart they are and that they were going to do it fine. Part of it was that the nature of its reductiveness was part of its humor. Everything could be put on these axes and some of it was inevitably going to be in disagreement. I have always been a fan of highly reductive charts and graphs, and this one’s obviously been very successful.
A Failed Online Experiment in 2006
Moss: We did have an interactive online version of this, which was a total failure. We let the readers play and move things around. You’d move something around to a quadrant and then you’d see how that changed the Matrix. It was kind of a wiki-Matrix. It didn’t work because people disagreed so much and everything really clumped in the center. We took it down pretty quickly.
Nussbaum: The thing online was a complete wash. Nobody wants to put things on the Matrix; they want it to be a stable thing or think about it, or be annoyed by it, or resist it, or embrace it. It has to be an outside force.
The Big Success
Bonanos: In the early days when [the Matrix] was fairly new, I once spotted someone in the subway who was going over it as a treasure map. They were holding it right up to their face and circling with a pen and really examining it.
Sternbergh: When Adam [Moss] decided to move it to the back page, the crossword got moved to a couple pages before. It was the moment that the Matrix became of age. The back page of a magazine is a hallowed ground. It was satisfying because a few years earlier there was the thought that it should go altogether. It became closely associated with the magazine and people looked to read it every week. It was graduating from high school and going out into the world.
The First Co-Editors
Emma Rosenblum, past Matrix editor, now at Businessweek: Ben Mathis-Lilley and I did it together. Took it over after Sternberg. At the time we were assistant editors together. We were a pair — these two young kids. We were given the Matrix and it was like, “We are handing you the Matrix and you can do it if they’re doing it together.” We have very different interests. He has traditional guy interests — huge interest in sports and politics. I’m into more lowbrow stuff, especially reality TV. We were a good team in that way. The way we did it, every week we’d get together and send out a desperate email asking for suggestions, especially highbrow stuff. We didn’t know what opera was cool that week. In terms of highbrow we needed help. Then we’d put together big lists, we would kind of argue a bit, and we’d sit there for a couple hours and make up jokes.
A Pilot for Bravo
Michael Hirschorn, one-time editor at New York Magazine and producer of The Approval Matrix: I know that the project was a passion of Lauren Zalaznick. We did a pilot for [Bravo] after the early success of Watch What Happens Live. I think we did a decent job. Ultimately it was a little expensive for something that had to be produced every night after Andy’s show. Maybe we couldn’t totally make it happen. You take a swing and sometimes it doesn’t work out.
Rosenblum: When that happened they had magazine people try out to be panelists and we all failed — we’re not comedians.
The Current Column and the Sundance Show
Carl Swanson, current Matrix editor: In some ways it’s a diary of what I read on the internet. When you talk lowbrow-highbrow now, there is no real distinction. You are constantly bombarded by information and we know a lot about other things now. The point of it is that we’re all of these things now — I really like ballet and I also really like Wendy Williams. I also like things that have to do with my sensibility but other times it’s just something I’ve read. It’s nice to put things in here that people might not otherwise hear about. There was a book last week, Rebels Rebel. That’s not a book that most people would read, but because the Approval Matrix is well read you can get people to pay attention to it.
Moss: We really have nothing to do with the TV shows. Bravo wanted to do the show in the first place and Sundance is doing its version; they’re quite different. I do think this one is very successful and it will evolve. It’s an excellent format. The first version was too complicated; this one is simpler.
Hirschorn: Nicole Defusco from Sundance called us and they’ve been having success with The Writer’s Room and so they asked if we had any ideas. I had overseen programming at VH1 when we launched Best Week Ever, so they saw us as producers who understand pop culture. I mentioned the pilot we did for Bravo and they said that they liked the format but tonally they wanted something very different.
I think the first mistake is adapting it too literally, and the existing Matrix is a very inside-baseball, timely, glib, and funny page that doesn’t translate literally to TV. What does [translate] is the fun of the grid. You kind of go, “No this doesn’t belong here; it belongs here.” You argue with the grid and how the grid is made. This show is about the making of the grid.
Sternbergh: I’ve been amazed that people have responded so well to this after all this time. It’s really the last great magazine charticle, not because it’s better, but because it happened at this specific moment. It’s a whole different world now and that kind of feels like a bygone era. It stands as a final culmination of brain power to come up with the perfect charticle — not perfect, but an excellent monument to that era, and now it’s going to live on TV.