This is the first of three posts examining Vice media. The next two posts will be published in order on Monday and Thursday of next week.
If you’re in your 20s, you remember VICE magazine as the edgy 90s zine your older/cooler sibling would bring home and leave around the house. Vice magazine, the self appointed voice of Generation X, was known for its streetwise fashion and cultural commentary. Much of Vice’s shtick was to pair glossy high production visuals with salty aggressive commentary. The high art/low art contrast proved a winning combination; the magazine moved from its native Montreal to New York and eventually grew into an international multi-media empire.
Vice is often described as punk; in fact, it’s probably the last bastion of the punk movement left that hasn’t crusted to dust. Try as they may to reinvent themselves and stay relevant, Vice still retains its 90s punk ethic: aggressive mean-spiritedness, destructive narcissism and a desperate attention-seeking need to be controversial.*
The Sex Pistols are often celebrated as the originators of the British Punk scene. Less celebrated is the fact they were created by Malcolm McLaren, a 1970s Simon Cowell of the dispossessed, who wanted to use the band as an advertising gimmick for his fashion shop. Yes, the band that fired their bassist for listening to the Beatles was actually assembled by their manager to flog t-shirts. And controversial t-shirts at that; in 1975 McLaren churned out shirts displaying a masked portrait of the Cambridge Rapist, who at the time was still at large. The rapist had actually purchased his trademark mask, made of pieces of a leather bag with a zipper sewed over the mouth and “rapist” printed on the forehead, from McLaren’s shop. McLaren was keen to capitalize on this stroke of publicity.
When asked what he thought about selling the lurid t-shirts to young teens, McLaren responded, “I thought it was fucking great, all these kids buying the shirts and going down to the local disco wearing ‘em. Those ideas really invigorated kids. They saw them as slightly shocking, and that was all that was important, to be shocking, to annoy a few people because they felt lethargic.” The publicity stunt really did have ‘bored teenager’ written all over it (actually, the shirts had the caption “IT’S BEEN A HARD DAY’S NIGHT;” the Beatles’ lyric presumably added for maximum provocative effect in case the image of a masked rapist was too subtle. It would also prove to be the patient zero of the glib/irritating message t-shirt).
Another way to approach the original punk movement is to understand the aesthetic it was reacting against. Of course punk was a movement against the 1960s, baby-boomers, mainstream society and all previous generations. But more specifically, and more accurately, punk was a backlash against a concurrent musical movement in the early 1970s: Prog rock or Progressive rock. Emerging from art rock and psychedelic rock, Prog rock greats like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Genesis carried musical experimentalism into the 1970s. Prog rock abandoned the 3-minute single of the 1960s, allowing for greater experimentalism, structural complexity, and virtuoso instrumental skills. Where Prog rock aspired to enlighten its audience with creative excellence, Punk rock responded with anti-intellectual simplicity.
David Byrne of the new-wave band Talking Heads describes punk as “more a kind of ‘do it yourself—anyone can do it’ attitude. If you can only play two notes on the guitar you can figure out how to make a song out of that.” Personally, the do-it-yourself ethic, and the independence self-sufficiency brings, appeals to me. But punk goes even further than simple DIY and attempts to do things while deliberately doing them poorly. Why would anyone revel in being bad at things? Because doing stuff poorly is just so much more accessible. And really, that’s what punk music is all about: a celebration of being bad at music. Johnny Rotten once said, “We’re not really into music. We’re into chaos.” I can tell.
Punks were nihilists in the extreme, and not the fun clever Monty Python nihilism, but the get so intoxicated you stab your girlfriend to death in the bathroom nihilism. Sentimentality was fake, society was fake, and Punks were angry about it (an attitude with appeal to disaffected youths who can’t be bothered to figure out why everything is terrible); the formula would continue to appeal to generations of disillusioned youths to come.
The problem with punk’s anti-intellectualism is something I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “mission creep.” It’s pretty easy to drift into purposeless oblivion when you don’t have any ideas. At the centre of punk you won’t find ideals or politics, only your angry self. When you reach a level of self-absorption where you have zero regard for everything around you, the unfortunate consequence is a complete loss of self-awareness. And when that happens, you might just become the thing you hated most to begin with.
Take Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk, who decided in the 1982 election to go campaigning for Ronald Reagan (true!). Said Iggy Pop, “I’ve been waiting for someone who could communicate the joys of liberty as compared to the joys of equality.” At first it doesn’t make sense that a heroin addict, with a habit of spraying the leftover syringe blood from intravenous injection all over his apartment, would vote for a war-on-drugs religious conservative like Ronald Reagan. But then it suddenly does make sense. Because Ronald Reagan told people they could do whatever they wanted, and that made them feel good again (important when you’re a heroin addict). Really, it’s amazing how versatile you can be when you only care about yourself.*
Similarly, the empty churlish core of Vice is what has allowed it to transition so seamlessly from rebellious street magazine to multi-national media corporation. In fact, Shane Smith, a founder of Vice magazine and the current CEO of Vice media, has gone full Ronald Reagan, saying after a visit to the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park:
“When you get down to it the politics of it is juvenile…. They’re saying, well, we should tax the rich and give it to more people. And I say, well, I get it, but you understand that government tax redistribution has another name, and that’s communism… Have you not read a book?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to try and decipher Smith’s incoherent ramblings to get at what he’s about, as he helpfully continues with this illuminating statement:
“If there was a real revolution, man, I’d be there just for the fun of it.”
Translation: “I’m not really into politics. I’m into chaos.”
Punk would win the 1970s battle against its opponent, Progressive rock, and endure well into the 90s. Here Punk achieved a massive resurgence. Not only did third-wave Punk flourish, but Punk’s values were widely assimilated into the Grunge movement and popular culture generally; the mean-spirited nihilism, aggression, and deliberate ignorance of Punk would be enthusiastically embraced by the youth of the era, Generation X. This is where Vice was born.
As Vice tries to update itself to survive, it faces an uphill challenge. How to reconcile a magazine modeled on MTV’s Jackass with a new generation, one with decidedly Prog rock sensibilities?
For the answer to this question, check back on Monday, September 2nd for part 2 of Jackpine’s Guide to Vice.
*Disclaimer: Not everyone at Jackpine agrees with the views expressed in this series.