Cover photos: Zac Efron by Matthew Rolston for Rolling Stone; David Cassidy by Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone
It's really really hard for me to even fake the slightest bit of interest in High School Musical 2 and its unprecedented success. As TV Guide Channel's Nikki Boyer put it so succinctly the other night on Watch This!, if the record-breaking numbers prove anything, it's simply that kids love crap. But like a lot of people, I was struck by the recent cover of Rolling Stone and the magazine's positioning of HSM2's squeaky-clean "hunk" Zac Efron as "America's Latest Heart Throb." I realize a lot has changed over the years, and Rolling Stone is hardly the countercultural force it was in the early '70s, but the Efron cover - and the toothless interview within - immediately brought to my mind the staggeringly popular teen idol David Cassidy's appearance on the cover of the same magazine back in 1972.

Already a huge star thanks to the runaway success of The Partridge Family - and the grueling, nonstop touring schedule he endured over his weekends away from the set - Cassidy had begun to realize teenybopper stardom can quickly become a trap. Fave rave Cassidy hoped to use an interview in Rolling Stone as a means to transform his image into something more mature, and give his own clean teen-dream image a little bit of edge. The attempt backfired, and the cover photo became notorious. Shot by a young Annie Leibovitz, the portrait shows an obviously naked Cassidy sprawled on his back on a patch of grass, arms thrown over his head, eyes blissfully shut and a sly smile offering a small hint of what might be happening just outside of the frame, which cuts off right above the pubic line (the inside spread would provocatively drop that cut-off point about an inch). The headline was Beat and brilliant: "The Naked Lunchbox: The Business of David Cassidy." (You can listen to Leibovitz discussing the cover here.)

Robin Green's interview inside came as an even bigger shock. Revealing even more skin - and pubic hair - and making comments about the "sticky seats" left behind by his female fans, Cassidy let loose his deep anger over being so ruthlessly exploited without fair financial recompense (welcome to the jungle, David), and went so far as to make disparaging remarks about the Partridge Family's music. The effort was a serious miscalculation. However justified, Cassidy's griping sounded like the grumblings of an ungrateful 21-year-old hand-biter, and his sexy provocations only alienated his core teenybopper audience, many of whom probably had no idea that grown men even had hair, you know, down there. Worse, the image-changing strategy didn't work. It turned out that alienated core audience was Cassidy's only audience.

But what a difference three-and-a-half decades and one post-sexual revolution evolution can make. Pretty young men are now free to be displayed like pretty young women, but without the lewd catcalls someone like, say, a barely legal Britney Spears endured in 1999 after she posed for her own sexy RS cover in a black bra and polka-dot panties, a phone in hand and a Tinky-Wink babyishly clutched in the other (cue The Knack's "Good Girls Don't"). Rolling Stone has also evolved, becoming the kind of magazine that would cynically bank on attracting a certain young demographic with the same imagery it once used to repel it.

In a camera-phone-ready age when a vast segment of Internet users knows exactly what Britney's vagina and Pete Wentz's penis look like, posing like a twink porn star on the cover of Rolling Stone is a way of establishing your image, not challenging it. Sex can no longer be used to threaten (unless of course, it's same-sex sex), not when it's expected, even demanded. And while Neil Strauss' profile within the Efron issue allows Zac to sound downright Cassidy-esque about the appeal of the HSM songbook ("If I had to hear the High School Musical songs anymore," he tells Strauss, "I probably would have jumped off something very tall."), he knows exactly on which side his slice is buttered. "As long as I stay boring, I think I'll be fine," he opines, right next to a half-page nipple-baring photo. No worries there, Zac, no worries at all.