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 founders—McInnes, Suroosh Alvi, and Shane Smith—aren’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 gayness—at 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 Bratmobile—subtitled “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.”
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’s—images 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 magazines—even 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 mags—Sleazenation, Black Book, The Fader, Tokion—scrambling 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.
Those who live by cool die by cool. As labels like Grand Royal and Mo’ Wax discovered, once you’re established as a brand name, nobody with any maverick spirit wants to be subsumed within your identity. Right now Vice still resembles a funky Williamsburg boutique, but it could soon become the magazine-world equivalent of Urban Outfitters.