This week People magazine announced that Adam Levine is the Sexiest Man Alive.
Maybe your first thought was that Ryan Gosling, Tom Hiddleston, Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Idris Alba had all been killed in some freak intelligent-and-attractive-man accident, tragically taking them out of the running.
Probably your second thought was, Adam Levine? Really? That guy?
People is not exactly known for its scientific methodology. Its annual Sexiest Man cover story is always an atrocious bit of audience pandering. But it's usually an effective bit of audience pandering. This year you have to wonder who the magazine could possibly be going after. Who will pin the Sexy Adam Levine cover above her (or his) bed?
He is a mediocre musician and a second-rate reality-TV star. He's covered in mixed-message tattoos (a dove, an eagle, Mom, a shark, Sanskrit text). And he's vaguely skeezy.
Certainly, the Internet was not happy, the consensus on Twitter and Facebook being that the Maroon 5 front-man is like a canister of Axe body spray given human form.
Cultural commentators were peeved. It's not just that they think Levine isn't super-sexy. Many suggest that he's actively anti-sexy. Kind of repugnant, in fact. He's the "person who most reminds you of an infection you got from a hot tub."
The headline on feminist blog Jezebel put it this way: "Adam Levine is Not The Sexiest Man Alive. Adam Levine is The Worst." A writer for Slate suggested he is "a mass-produced parody of what an 'alternative' dreamboat is supposed to be." Youch.
And even though Levine is the first Jewish Sexiest Man Alive (Harrison Ford won in 1998, but there is an ongoing argument about his "Chanukah Song" status), Jewish commentators aren't exactly thrilled. "Out of the thousands of perfectly nice Adam Levines out there, they had to pick that one," joked one anti-Levine writer for Tablet magazine. A Time commentator suggested "Adam Levine may be the Sexiest Man, but he's not the sexiest mensch."
Well, what about the kids? The Sexiest Man used to be a grownup. (Harrison Ford was 56 when he was crowned. Pierce Brosnan was 48.)
Lately though, People seems to be desperately chasing after the youth demographic. Last year's pick was then-32-year-old Channing Tatum, a handsome but unremarkable former Abercrombie & Fitch model whose neck is bigger than his head. His Sexiest Man status suggested that maybe the People editorial board had been taken over by 14-year-old girls who just adored Channing in that Nicholas Sparks movie where he totally loved that girl and she, like, broke his heart.
But an (admittedly informal) poll of teenage girls suggests most of them disavow Adam Levine as well.
Levine's problem seems to be not so much that he's youthful but that he's a man-boy, possessing a kind of down-deep jerkiness that won't be cured by chronological age.
Most of People's picks, like the Ocean's Eleven gang of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, occasionally make a good movie or raise awareness about Darfur.
But at 34, Levine seems like an over-entitled idiot bro. His fame is of the Kardashian kind, his amorphous brand overextended into music, reality TV, bad merchandising and serial model-dating. People had a tough time rounding out Levine's personal profile and ended up with a lot of copy about his diet, his workout regimen, his manscaping and his first car.
Trying to soften his image a little, People insists Levine feels "ready to get married." Certainly, Levine is on record as saying that he loves women. And he does, if by "women" we mean Victoria's Secret runway girls under 25. He's on his third Angel at the moment. People magazine leaves that bit out.
Mostly, People falls back on "his incredible body," which is hard to fault. Even Levine's worst critics aren't saying that he's ugly. (Well, there's that one online detractor who called him "scrawny" and "giraffe-necked," but that was a minority report.) Most people agree, however reluctantly, that Levine hits the marks for physical attractiveness laid down by centuries of evolution: He has excellent facial symmetry and an admirable shoulder-to-hip ratio.
Of course, people, as in actual people, might insist that real sexiness involves something more. But People magazine seems to have decided that sexiness can be determined solely by the Shirtless Competition. It has thrown the Mr. Congeniality category and the Talent portion of the pageant right out the window.
That's a cynical interpretation. But the other explanation for the anointing of the off-putting Levine is even more sinister. Maybe People made the wrong choice on purpose. Maybe the mag deliberately picked Levine and his immaculate torso knowing he would generate a massive backlash.
After all, Levine has ended up drawing more media attention than less controversial choices like the "quirky" Johnny Depp or the pleasantly Canadian Ryan Reynolds. Levine's Sexiest Man designation has been driving Internet traffic, spurred by social media ranting and dozens of hostile articles.
Hostile articles just like this one. (Oh, darn. I've played into People's hands.)