By Jared Chausow
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Vice seemed to appear out of nowhere. Floating into downtown Manhattan record and clothing boutiques in the late '90s, the freebie magazine's peculiar fusion of style-rag gloss, fanzine irreverence, and wigga attitude rapidly snagged a devoted readership. With its Do's and Don'ts (fashion takedowns funnier and more evil than Joan Rivers's snarliest bitchfest) and its infamous guides (to anal sex, female ejaculation, gold digging, etc.), Vice's reputation spread faster than an STD.
Originally based in Montreal, the magazine's editors relocated to New York in 1999, aiming to parlay their trendoid street cred into an empire. So far, so good: They've got the chain of Vice clothing stores (in L.A., Toronto, and London, as well as Manhattan), the Atlantic Records-affiliated label (which has just debuted with the ultra-hip album by British rapper The Streets), and the book deal (a forthcoming collection entitled The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll). Like junior-league Tina Browns lusting after Talk/Miramax-style synergy, the editors regularly tease reporters with enticing snippets about Vice TV shows and film production deals in the works.
Vice sells itself as a subversive magazine that kicks the shit out of mealymouthed p.c. attitudes. "We're very pro-hate," co-founder Gavin McInnes once told the Montreal Gazette. "We should always be questioning stuff. We should always be uncomfortable." But here's the catch: It's all a big sham. What's so fresh or edgy about Vice? Its calculated shock-jock tactics couldn't be more perfectly in sync with the mainstream. From Jackass to The Man Show, Eminem to Maxim, white boys with foul mouths and loathing in their hearts still drive popular culture. In fact, Vice's clumsy attempts to clobber the paper tiger of political correctness are almost comically passé: Bill Maher exhausted that joke circa 1996. Anyway, p.c. was always just a caricature, a stick used by the right wing to batter the left with its own kindness.
That's not to say that Vice isn't funny sometimes, or that its foundersMcInnes, Suroosh Alvi, and Shane Smitharen't savvy. If nothing else they've got a knack for weaving together different subcultural strands into a highly marketable sensibility, whose seeming coherence disguises its derivative nature. It's defined as much by what's omitted as what's included: Not so much anti-p.c. as post-political, Vice avoids anything that suggests liberal wussiness or earnest idealism. It also jettisons such fuddy-duddy journalistic hang-ups as researched pieces and critical thinking in reviews, in favor of anecdotal ramblings and uncensored rants. The recent "Vice Guide to New York Graffiti" immediately directs the reader to a definitive, field-researched 1995 Rolling Stone piece on the subject. As the Vice correspondent writes: "I ain't no kamikaze reporter fresh from covering the events in the war-torn Republic of Chechnya, nor am I any kind of expert on the graffiti scene. I do, however, enjoy getting blotto with a couple of the most unusual and gifted kids currently bombing New York."
When it comes to actual content, Vice turns to the old standbys: Sex (only if it's freaky, mean, or icky) and Drugs (lots of Polaroids of kids tweaking and tripping, catatonic or puking) and Rock'n'Roll (actually more like a scattershot mixture of hip-hop, techno, and that fast-fading fave of the style press, electroclash). Feed in some gonzo Tom Green-style self-abasement, and you have a perfect composite of all that's sensationalistic and vacantly au courant.
Vice admires anything that is rampant, excessive, and in your face. Hip-hop is a big influence, but strangely, so is gaynessat least, a certain ultrahedonistic strand of gay culture that jibes with their loutish appetite for mayhem. Head honchos Alvi and McInnes have defended the magazine's incessant references to niggas and faggots by arguing they're rehabilitating these words, and it's all OK anyway because (you guessed it) some of their best friends are black and/or gay, and they talk like that. Vice imagines itself as a little utopia of equal-opportunity obnoxiousness. Check out the magazine's online chat forums, though, and you find that such nuances are lost on many readers, who revel in racial and sexual insults precisely for their undiminished power to offend.
Far from groundbreaking, the mag is just the latest in a tired tradition that stretches back through the early-'90s hatezine Answer Me!, the '80s underground of Amok Press, Loompanics, and Forced Exposure, all the way to Hustler and Screw. Vice also trails in the slimy wake of the British magazine Loaded, whose unrepentantly reprobate machismo (slogan: "For men who should know better") reached our shores via Maxim and FHM.
Sure, there are a handful of women writers at Vice to counter charges of sexism, mostly employed to cover saucy stuff like female ejaculation or cunnilingus. (One fascinating exception: Amy Kellner's tortured piece on Bratmobilesubtitled "The Time Bratmobile Hurt My Feelings"in which the riot-grrrl band expects Kellner to justify Vice's politics, sending her into a maelstrom of ambivalence.) And sometimes the magazine's attempts to be transgressive are so darn cute, they almost win you over: Witness the persistent obsession with anal sex ("the only sexual taboo left"). Last year's "Vice Guide to Getting Reamed Up the Cake" outlined a five-month campaign to coax your reluctant girlfriend into getting "down with the brown." McInnes advises, "She won't like anal sex until her seventeenth time. It's an acquired taste. But you have to get her to want to go through that good pain, seventeen times. To get that response, you must employ the 'Pavlov's Dog' technique." The piece's underlying message is more Camille Paglia than Dr. Ruth: "Love hurts and sex is hostile."