i've been hating this particular magazine niche for so long, and finally was forced to write about my revulsion through a class assignment. this is the first school thing i'm putting up here, and it's kind of long, but it's something i've wanted to do for a while so i'm posting it anyway.
The most salient thing that the counterculture magazine Adbusters ever produced was a reader’s letter it published in November 2001. The letter read, “It was funny seeing Adbusters #31 with the anarchist on the cover: I was wearing the same black shirt, black bandana and black messenger bag. Then I saw issue #32, with the consumers seeing their own images on a soda machine as they bought a can. It wasn’t funny anymore. I think you see the irony.”
What this shrewd reader understood is that there is something inherently wrong with a magazine providing guidance to independent counterculture. The moment money is exchanged for a little stack of glossy pages, the person attempting to escape mainstream buys into whatever the magazine is selling. “Buy into this group in order to escape another,” the counterculture magazine exhorts – a perfect paradox.
Adbusters’ pages are full of mock ads attempting to cut to the heart of the American political-capitalist machine. But alongside strong graphic depictions of western hypocrisy and articles about fair trade, one finds a tear-off mail-in postcard offering to throw in a free Adbusters mug and t-shirt If You Subscribe Now. The design aesthetic and logo of the magazine reek of museum store luxury products bought and sold in western capitals. Non-selling through selling, group coercion under a brand to promote independent mindedness – a better example of mucky political ends-justify-the-means could hardly be found under Stalin.
Adbusters, though, is an extreme example of a confused counterculture magazine. Far more subtle hypocritical independentness is to be found in the mountain of “art” or “lifestyle” magazines vying for the would-be independent’s attention.
Filter, Paper, Nylon: the titles themselves proffer a level of intelligence on the reader. They aren’t straightforward titles, no; they contain subtle references and connotations suitable to and interpretable by an “artistic” mind. And being artistic, of course, means being countercultural, outside the mainstream, unique.
On each cover below the magazine’s name, Filter reads, “Good Music Will Prevail”; that is, not the bad music that everyone else is listening to and against which this little magazine must pit itself like David against Goliath. Artist features are divided into “Getting to Know” and “You Should Already Know” categories, suggesting that even outside the mainstream, there are levels of exclusivity one should strive for to be distinguished from the masses. In the case of Filter, the highest levels of special individuality are attained by those who know the most musicians, and know them before anyone else.
Paper pits itself against a mainstream but make less of an effort than Filter to disguise that it is doing so; essentially, it’s not just knowledge that elevates a reader. In its most recent issue, on the theme of “Un-Hollywood,” Penelope Cruz graces the cover in a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig to celebrate Pedro Almodovar’s new movie. “Hollywood blockbusters for the masses are unartistic,” Paper shouts. “But you, you are an artist, and you can tell real from fake.”
While Filter helps readers be unique by being most in-the-know artistically, Paper incorporates fashion – surface, shallowness, “un-art” – into the magazine to help. Showing that they are ahead of the curve, a series on new, up and coming filmmakers is introduced, “We’ve captured them now, before they get big. We hold them in a special kind of esteem. Why? Because you never forget your first.” Art isn’t serious. It’s sexy and fun. Each of the filmmakers is dressed in designer couture and at the end of each short bio the reader is told where he, too, can find the clothes of artists. Paper incorporates shopping with art, taking the edge and danger out of art and linking it with consumer commodities. At the same time, while helping the reader create the tastes of internal life (movies), it creates those that the world sees on the surface (fashion). Inhaling the pages of the magazine creates an overall persona or lifestyle for the reader that suggests artistic uniqueness in all of its facets.
Paper interviews experimental and perhaps individual enough artists that readers can fool themselves into thinking they are getting a whiff of the real stuff as they flip through the pages. But Nylon employs such cheap tactics in attempting to bestow something “original” or “real” – that is, artistic – it is frightening that readers are taken in. Nearly every fashion spread refers back to an older era or some cinematic archetype of glamour to explain the products it is suggesting. “Yeah, we didn’t understand the plot either. But we still loved Naomi Watts’s and Laura Harring’s film-noir style” – the caption for a David Lynch fashion spread. “Too Dazed In The Valley” – a spread somehow linking various make-up products to The Valley of the Dolls films. And, saddest of all, “Almost Famous” – a fashion spread on the groupie style of Pamela Des Barres. Art, or some vague notion of it, is employed in the service of fashion, not the other way around.
Nylon is the Seventeen magazine for the girl of today. Fashion pure and simple is no longer enough to draw the reader into some individualizing ether of uniqueness, though that – style – is still what the reader desires. Through these magazines, art, uniqueness, individuality – fetishized to a point of being unrecognizable – have become more of an aesthetic than the revolutionary countercultural mindset they once represented. But readers, none the wiser, still feel revolution is part of what they are getting.