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Vice's biggest innovation is that it injects elements of gay sensibility into this otherwise adamantly straight men's mag. The Do's and Don'ts section essentially replicates what practitioners of vogueing called "shading": identifying the look and stylistic aspirations of an adversary, then viciously mocking it. (Caption for a guy wearing a transparent bag over tennis duds: "The problem with matching whites is that as soon as you get one little stain the whole outfit is ruined. We totally understand you wanting to avoid that, but a garbage bag? What are you, a Puerto Rican's couch?") Vice regularly publishes pieces by gay filmmaker/icon Bruce LaBruce. And it has its own "gay lad" mascot in photographer Ryan McGinley, the magazine's photo editor.
At 24, McGinley already has a solo exhibition lined up at the Whitney next year. His work mines some of the same ground as pal Terry Richardson'simages of himself and friends screwing, drugging, fighting, and vomiting. In a piece McInnes wrote about McGinley this summer for U.K. style bible Dazed and Confused, he recalls swapping sexual fantasies during a plane flight. "As I stared at the stewardess' ass I confided to Ryan that I was capable of tearing that whore's shit up. . . . Ryan pointed to the snowy mountains below and said, in his ideal world, that would be the hundreds of thousands of tons of cum that he would froth around in, like when they have the 'ball room' for kids at McDonald's." One of the accompanying photos shows an unconscious McInnes; McGinley has stripped him naked below the waist (and apparently sucked his dick for a laugh).
"Hanging out with Ryan you feel like you're part of an infamous moment," brags McInnes. "Like it's going to end up in our generation's version of Please Kill Me. Even when you're puking or getting swastika's [sic] drawn on your passed out face you're thinking, 'I'm making history.' " This is the self-consciousness of a generation that has watched reality TV become a feasible route to celebrity. Some of McGinley's pictures hark back to Nan Goldin's, minus the empathy. Goldin's subjects were presumably too busy living their fucked-up bohemian lives to calculate, as McInnes does, that "if we did something particularly amazing it would be documented on film and possibly end up in a museum."
Pseudo-bohemia is what Vice peddles. "Edge," here, doesn't mean subversion, but an aura you can cultivate and then hawk to the highest bidder. Concepts like "underground" and "selling out" are quaintly irrelevant to the Vice reader. After all, why wouldn't you sell out? Anyone who carps at the successfully crossed-over is just a player-hater. Dubbing themselves "punk capitalists," the Vice team coined a distinct sensibility and are cashing in. After the magazine's original backer, a dotcom millionaire, pulled out, they found a flush new investor in Montreal businessman Patrick Lavoie. According to Canada's National Post, Lavoie envisages Vice as "an aggregation engine," mining Europe and Japan for "nuggets of cool" (street-credible clothing companies, hip independent labels), then branding them with the Vice logo. "This has got the flavour of multi-media, the flavour of content," Lavoie enthused, projecting gross revenues of up to $70 million from the Vice empire.
All that said, why is Vice so successful? It's free, which doesn't hurt. It's glossy. And it has a consistent, larger-than-life personality, more than can be said of most other pop culture magazineseven if that personality is a swaggeringly obnoxious loudmouth reeking of frat-boy privilege and brain damage caused by overexposure to Andrew Dice Clay at an impressionable age.
But Vice isn't bucking any media trends. The format of caption-length reviews and glib micro-features is now standard across the pop-cult media spectrum. The more revolutionary move at this point would be to cover subject matter in depth. But as McInnes told a recent interviewer, "One thing we noticed is that people don't want to read about music, really. Nor should they." Instead Vice will focus on, say, the making of a porn movie by rap group the Smut Peddlers, or the seedy story of how Six Finger Satellite singer Juan Maclean once mistakenly injected himself with crack instead of smack.
Although Vice started out as more of a music zine, somewhere along the way its editors realized they could squeeze good money out of the fashion underground. In the process it's become just one of a horde of style magsSleazenation, Black Book, The Fader, Tokionscrambling over the same territory. Within this cool-hunting context, Vice is hardly ahead of the pack. McInnes crowed to Dazed and Confused that he's performing a service for the Everyman who moves to suburbia and works his ass off"It's my job to repay the favour by making a magazine that tells them: 'everyone is shitting their pants over the new Kid 606 CD; Oxycontin is the new drug of choice; and the latest thrill is subway surfing.' " These are stories you could've read about in Spin or the Voice years ago. Not exactly edge city.
The last several issues seem particularly devoid of pep or controversy, contents ranging from a kiss-ass profile of Larry Clark to pieces on indie hip-hoppers and electronica producers as solemn and straightforward as anything you'd find in Urb magazine. The Vice organization may be stretching itself too thin. Or has it simply run out of outrageous subject matter? The trouble with making taboo-smashing your trademark is that you have to keep upping the ante, all the while watching anxiously over your shoulder. In the area of sheer grossness, Vice has already been challenged by an extreme new breed of British men's magazines like Bizarre and Jack. Published by James Brown, the guy who founded Loaded and pioneered the anti-feminist concept of the "new lad," these rags have mainstreamed an approach that was once the preserve of fringe publications like Re/search and Amok. Apparently Vice was so impressed, it poached Bizarre's editor for the newly launched Vice UK.