From downtown Manhattan, it’s a 10-minute ride on the L train to the warehouses and loading docks of recently gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn, once the heart of New York’s industrial park. Outside a former toy factory, among renovated lofts and studios filled with artists and young urban hipsters, the words “Vice Magazine Publishing” are scrawled across a Dumpster in black marker. If that Dumpster were moved for some reason, you would never know that you had arrived.
Upstairs, on the third floor of the building, eight desks are littered around the outskirts of the Vice office, which is about the size of a small parking lot and has much the same ambience. A pair of leather chairs and a sofa sit in the middle of the room, positioned around a bamboo coffee table and rug. Otherwise, a vintage Asteroids arcade game in the corner is the only decoration. The low-key decor perfectly matches Vicemagazine’s rude-boy, DIY ethic. Suroosh Alvi’s, Gavin McInnes’s and Shane Smith’s sense of style hasn’t changed much since they founded Vice in Montreal four years ago, publishing their newsprint repository of urban culture out of an apartment that McInnes and Smith shared. Today, however, Vice maintains editorial offices in both Montreal and New York, having successfully crossed the uncrossable border between Canada and the United States and expanded its distribution into England and Japan. Now glossy and perfect-bound,Vice distributes 100,000 copies in four countries and has spurred a designer clothing line and streetwear boutiques in New York, Montreal, Toronto and London, England.
Smith, who handles many of the publisher’s duties, is 31 and the most style-conscious of the three. He keeps his quarter-inch-long hair combed forward and his goatee trimmed. When wearing a tank top, he displays a tattoo of a dragon across his broad shoulders. Alvi, who is also 31, wears secondhand jeans and a messy beard. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses gives him the look of a tormented graduate student. He is a jack-of-all-trades in the office, performing business duties and occasionally dipping his hand in the editorial.
But it’s the 30-year-old McInnes who controls most of the editorial. He is also Vice‘s resident loose cannon, known for speaking first and thinking later, such as the time on Politically Incorrect when he told Bill Maher and the Episcopalian bishop sitting across from him that Jesus was a fag. It used to be, if you were lucky, you could spy McInnes puttering about the office in a pair of Y-front briefs with a T-shirt tucked into them. Under a pair of unnervingly shifting eyes, he wears his mustache Stalin-style. His work space is neatly organized. On the shelves behind his desk are copies of Spin , which are carefully sorted and dated, as are the copies of Hustler beside them. Asked about the positive press Vice has recently garnered from Canadian media (Marketing Magazine, National Post, The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette have for the past year been trumpeting the success of his small underground publication), McInnes claims he is bored with it.
“You’re so fucking lazy,” he says to me. “You’re not doing this article because you like us. You’re doing it because you read about us somewhere else. You’re probably the hip guy at the office because you wear cargo pants or you snowboard or something.”
Confused by the sudden attack on my character, I ask if he is talking about me specifically.
“Well, do you snowboard?”
“You’re probably okay then.”
One quickly learns that cool is not a subjective term at Vice. There is a certain type of self-reflexive irony that one is expected to strive for. For example, under the Vice rules of cool, it’s okay to do something lame, as long as you’re sincere about it, like sitting up all night listening to the records of ’70s metal band Mot?rhead and loving every minute of it. Understandably, the nuances in Vice‘s brand of cool, the uncanny sensibility that has propelled the magazine’s success, escapes most Canadian journalists.
“That’s why we lie to them,” continues McInnes. “We convinced Le Devoir we were all gay. We convinced the Globe we were addicted to heroin. We told them we all met in rehab.”
“But you’re not addicted to heroin?” I ask, wanting to be sure.
“It’s not an addiction. I do a lot of different drugs,” he says, leaving me to wonder if the statement was meant with an ironic wink.
Precariously balanced between the covers of every issue of Vice are stories that range from the pointless to the profound. Profiles of independent pornographers sit uneasily beside serious pieces like last year’s “The Authority to Kill a Minority,” an investigative article about how NYPD officers were hired to train militia in East Timor. But be sure that it is the pointless articles for which Vice has earned its street credibility. Take the Vice Guides, an ongoing series of serVice pieces offering counsel on everything from which drugs to take while being tattooed, to surviving your first day in prison, to properly giving head, the last of which was achieved through interviews with “piles of sluts and exactly one homo.”
Or there is Dos and Don’ts, a monthly look at fashion disasters and triumphs taken straight from the streets of Montreal, New York and around the world. Candid photos are accompanied by cruelly sarcastic cutlines. In one typical Don’t a man walking down a Montreal sidewalk warrants the comment: “Whoa, it’s the walking police sketch. Did you purposely set out to look like the personification of rape or is that a look that sort of just toppled out of the closet onto your head.”
McInnes writes most of the Dos and Don’ts himself, explaining that their irreverent nastiness is at the core ofVice‘s M.O. “I think people appreciate the honesty,” he says, asserting that Vice contributors are encouraged to be as subjective as possible, conveying their raw opinions.
The prose of Stephen Reid is about as raw an example as one can imagine. Currently serving an 18-year prison sentence in British Columbia for bank robbery, he writes a recurring column about life on the inside from a first-hand perspective, never skimming over the dirty details. In a recent article, “Like Father, Like Son,” which appeared in last December’s issue, Reid tells the story of Gordie, an inmate with a penchant for raping transvestites. Gordie, who is capable of inhuman acts of cruelty, was sexually assaulted in a New Brunswick boys’ home. He came to win a class action lawsuit on the matter, but couldn’t read the results. “Only a god could contrive a day like that day in the law library with Gordie,” writes Reid. “I was being given instructions on what it is to be human, in the most cruel and tender of ways.” This is Vice at its best, insists Alvi: providing a voice for and perspective on stories deemed too marginal or irrelevant by the mainstream press.
Almost a decade ago, Jon Katz, in his famous Rolling Stone essay called “Rock, Rap and Movies Bring You the News,” decreed that pop culture had unwittingly become a news source in itself for those who consume it. He explained how the then-emerging hip-hop genre was the CNN of black America. It is not a stretch to say that Vice is performing the same function for its audience. “Straight news, the Old News, is pooped,” wrote Katz. Replacing it was a “hybrid New News, dazzling, adolescent, irresponsible, fearless, frightening and powerful.” Now, consider for a moment that Vice‘s readership ranges in age from 17 to 26, so its audience is the least likely to read a daily newspaper or watch a nightly newscast. To a middle-class parent who might find an issue of Vice in a teenager’s school bag, the magazine will most likely seem like nothing more than perverted gibberish and sophomoric poo jokes. But to its readers, Vice is nothing less than a trusted source of useful information.
Vice‘s readership transcends the usual assortment of drug users and DJs, drag queens and criminals found in its pages. Instead, it has found a valued audience among the educated urban hipsters of the world who are fascinated with, but are often outside of, “the underbelly of urban culture,” which is how Alvi describesVice‘s content. This quickly becomes apparent when you take into account the social circles Vice‘s staff circulate in.
Recently, at a launch party for Satellite Records, a record store on Manhattan’s Bowery Street, the broad spectrum of Vice readers was in attendance: sketched-out kids, young urban bon vivants and fledgling counterculture entrepreneurs. Inside, the crowd’s fashion was a mix of clubber-cum-snowboard chic and SoHo high-fashion. The DJ was spinning house records and a three-year-old boy was dancing in a three-year-old way next to his mom, who, like everyone else in the room, was busily engaged in small talk. A buffet set up in the centre of the room, which had the appearance of a sparsely decorated Ikea showroom, offered everything from spinach crab cakes to flat-crust pizza. Smith was in the corner drinking a beer, disengaged from the schmoozing going on around him. Sarah Bronilla, Vice‘s fashion director, tried to get Smith to dance, but with the exception of a brief and token hip swing, wasn’t having any luck.
Parties like this are an opportunity to meet and greet, and everybody there seemed to have a project he was working on or a script to sell. A sketchy looking blond kid in an oversized T-shirt and big pants, who couldn’t have been more than 19 years old, introduced himself to Smith. The kid’s pupils were fully dilated. The music was loud and the lights were distracting. He was trying to tell Smith about his business plan, but neither of them had the attention span. Smith took another sip of his Red Stripe and turned to me to say, “Hey, it can’t be all that bad. Free drinks.” As comfortable as Smith looked rubbing elbows in this miasma of urban hip, his demeanour that night testified to how tedious the scene has become for him.
The story of Vice begins in 1994, when the three founders returned to Montreal from stints teaching English abroad. It was Alvi’s idea to start a magazine called Voice of Montreal that would chronicle the city’s thriving punk scene. He found an editor in Gavin McInnes and financial backing from a nonprofit Haitian group called Images Interculturelles. There would be just one condition: Images Inter
culturelles was only allowed to give grants to welfare recipients. At 24, with a degree in philosophy from McGill, Alvi fudged an application and received his first welfare cheque. McInnes followed suit, and when Smith arrived back from Budapest to attend his brother’s wedding, they convinced him to do the same.
“I was fucking pissed,” recalls Smith. “I was rich, I was living in a dope pad and had a car and all this shit, and they were saying you have to get on welfare?” The first time Smith completed the forms, he mistakenly did it honestly, mentioning his MA in political science. The next day, Smith returned with McInnes, who coached him to fill out the forms with his left hand and to let out a deranged “Ernhhh” every time a clerk tried to assist him. The first issue of Voice was printed with the limited funding supplied by Images Interculturelles and featured an interview with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten.
“It was like publishing in the Third World,” remembers Alvi. “We didn’t have the money to do our mail-outs. We hustled, we figured out how to sell ads, write articles, take pictures and copyedit.” It was all done on the fly. In 1996, Voice magazine dropped the “O” and became Vice. The magazine’s tag line declared it was “rumoured to be among the best.”
The key to Vice‘s success came in the lucrative advertising contracts it found with specialized urban clothing labels like Snug and Geek Boutique. For many of the advertisers, it was the beginning of a long and loyal relationship. Vice offered something no mainstream publication could: street cred. Advertising with Viceallowed a company to reach its audience directly without compromising any of its underground cachet. Whether they were peddling pocketed pants to ravers or clunky shoes to skateboarders, advertisers in Vicecould bypass risking their integrity as underground labels by advertising with magazine giants. Vice also enabled these companies to be more provocative in their ads than they could be in mainstream media. Clothing label Serial Killer in particular was known for pushing the envelope by running ads featuring porn stars in various states of undress alongside its T-shirts. In 1998, Carleton University banned Vice from distributing on its campus because of one of the ads.
In the same year, Vice began courting major publishers such as Larry Flynt Publications, owner of Hustlerand Rap Pages, and News Corporation, which owns the underground hip-hop label Rawkus Records, to back an expansion and redesign. There was little interest. But when the Montreal Gazette phoned, Smith told the reporter there was a bidding war between those two companies and Behaviour Publications, the company responsible for buying and revamping Shift magazine. It was a lie. When Behaviour owner Richard Szalwinski read the article, he called the boys into his office. The guys stumbled their way through some explanations and, when they were done, Szalwinski asked them to come back Monday with a valuation of their company.
“We didn’t know how to value a magazine, and it turned out to be our greatest asset,” says Smith. “If we would have valued it traditionally, it would have been worth nothing, and we valued it at four million bucks.” They walked out of Szalwinski’s office that Monday, cheque in hand-a cheque they really didn’t know what to do with. “We actually just ran around in circles outside for a while.”
“We were rolling around in the grass,” recalls Alvi. With the newfound wealth, Vice became perfect-bound, increased its page count and moved to Manhattan to share offices with Shift .
“Shift were in our offices,” maintains Smith. Vice, he explains, had 14 people working out of those offices, while Shift merely ran a satellite operation with three people in New York (the editorial operations remained in Toronto). This is a sore point for the staff of Vice, who are vocally bitter over the publicity Shift received for moving into the American market.
“We always used to boast that Vice was the first Canadian magazine in history to come down to the States and make it. And then Shift came along and said the same thing. We had a bit of a beef with them because we were the little kids and they were the big kids; then we just shot past them and they didn’t like it. Shiftwould have died two years ago if it weren’t for fucking Richard Szalwinski. He spoiled them,” says Smith.
But Vice was spoiled too. Under Szalwinski, it opened streetwear boutiques in Toronto, Manhattan and London. It started its own fashion line headed by Peter Trainor, a former Diesel designer. The phrase of the day was “multichannel strategies.” Then, after a phase of explosive spending, Behaviour (which by then had changed its name to Normal Networks) found itself in the red and running out of cash reserves. When the money dried up, Vice was owed nearly $500,000 in ad fees that it had neglected to collect. In May 2000, Normal Networks gave the word to operate on minimum burn. The Vice founders saw the writing on the wall. If Normal Networks was to become just another Titanic of the New Economy, Vice was going to sink with it.
Meanwhile, Szalwinski had fled New York and was nowhere to be found. After a month of calling his secretary and other contact numbers, McInnes, Alvi and Smith jumped in a car, drove to his home in Nantucket and persuaded him to sell them the magazine back, after which they vacated their lush Manhattan offices and rented the warehouse space in Brooklyn.
Today, the Behaviour fiasco seems to be nothing more than a small bump in the road for Vice. It’s business as usual at the flagship store on Lafayette Street, a short scooter ride from trendy SoHo. Perched on a stool behind the counter is Sarah Bronilla, who wears brown leather boots and a knee-length skirt, completing her mod go-go girl look. The store is modelled after a turn-of-the-century men’s club locker room, complete with tiled floors and toilets in the change rooms (though if anyone had the idea of urinating in one, he would be discouraged by the goldfish swimming in the bowl). An effeminate middle-aged man is modelling a pair of wool dress pants in the mirror and Bronilla is doing her best to part him from his $100. Turning to me she says, “You should write your story about how the magazine spawned a fashion line.”
Since the first streetwear boutique opened in Toronto in 1999, Vice wanted to start a fashion line. When asked whether running a magazine and a store and a fashion line infringes on the magazine’s editorial integrity, McInnes becomes upset. “It’s just stupid fucking Canadian bullshit!” he says about the perceived conflict between church and state. One of the main reasons clothing lines advertise with Vice is to make it appear as if their products receive a personal seal of approval from the magazine. Nonetheless, the Vicefounders are adamant the magazine is beholden to no one.
“There are some advertisers in there that make me cringe,” says Alvi. We’re having what he calls brunch: a burnt bagel and about a dozen coffees in a Brooklyn cafe. Jnco Jeans, for instance. “It’s wack. Ugly clothes. Ugly ads. There’s nothing cool about it,” he says. He understands the consequences of what he just said. Jnco, after all, has bought the inside back cover spread in several recent issues. He’s not worried though: space in Vice is golden. Advcrtisers rarely take issue with Vice‘s nasty content-over 60 of the December issue’s 132 pages were full-page ads. “Independent publishing is hard as hell,” he explains. “It’s a game of survival. In America we’re an anomaly. Everybody’s got backing. Everybody’s got investors,” says Alvi.
As Vice continues to build its empire of magazine publishing and fashion, as well as dabble in film production and Internet content, it seems to be effortlessly weaving counterculture and capitalism into a Zen state. Paradoxically, the magazine exists in the urban underbelly of the counterculture and in mainstreet consumer culture, two worlds that are, by definition, opposites. What has allowed this uneasy existential state to continue and not implode on itself has been an ironic detachment on the part of the Vice founders.Vice‘s content has always been self-reflexive, but has grown more so in the past few years as its notoriety has grown.
In the December 2000 issue, for example, the coverlines that are supposed to tease the stories to be found in the magazine instead tease the ads. “555 Soul Two Page Spread p.2,” they read. “Droors p.8, Ben Sherman ad p.4, Transfer Ad p.6.” It’s like advertising the advertisements. Be sure, this is not a ploy on the part of Vice to get more money from sponsors. Rather, it is the magazine reaching a new plateau on the mountain of irony the Vice empire is built on. The prank is both confusing and brilliant, forcing readers to question their relationship to the magazine and media, subversive and mainstream altogether.
Of course, Vice isn’t the only medium using irony to explore our media-saturated culture. In 1994, Sprite launched a series of TV commercials declaring that “Image Is Nothing.” These anti-ads, as they were called, featured intelligent spoofs of modern-day soda advertising. In one, a teenager sitting on a couch opens his soda can and a party spontaneously commences in his living room, complete with roaring music and vapid bikinied models. The effect was to convince viewers that they were smarter than advertisers generally gave them the credit for. It was an ironic wink to say that, yes, we manipulate you into buying our soda, but please buy it anyway. Thus began a revolution in advertising. Clothing companies like Diesel followed suit, unveiling its Brand O campaign, in which the ads contrast scenes of the oppressive living conditions in North Korea with the all-too-perfect world that advertising portrays. In an age where consumers are becoming more wise to the come-ons of Madison Avenue, advertisers have been forced to become more subversive and reinvent the anti-ad again and again.
Vice has extended this ethos to journalism. The image Vice sells is that of anti-image, and the effect leaves readers clamoring to understand exactly what the road to cool entails. Clive Thompson, who has been an editor at both This Magazine and Shift , thinks Vice does this better than anyone else: “They’ve managed to sound unbelievably subversive while trying to sell something. People feel bad about being consumers,” continues Thompson, “and the way Vice counteracts that is by being subversive, by buying the right stuff.” It’s the yin and yang of Vice: to consciously-or not-meld together the ideals of countercultural rebellion and capitalism. It’s what Alvi calls “punk capitalism,” and what it means is that Vice has become the news source for what is cool.
But is there anything cool left? Now that mainstream marketers have co-opted every aspect of underground culture and turned it into a parody of itself, the very act of trying to be subversive becomes an exercise in what Naomi Klein calls ironic consumption. Klein articulates the theory in her book No Logo , where she examines how mainstream items are mass-marketed as punk-rock lifestyle choices and have come to “elicit sneers from those ever-elusive, trend-setting cool kids.” Instead, she observes, “they are now finding ways to express their disdain for mass culture “not by opting out of it but by abandoning themselves to it entirely, but with a sly ironic twist.”
It’s in this realm of “so-bad-it’s-good” consumption that Vice dwells.
“Musically, Vice has always been a little bit ahead of the curve,” explains Alvi. Vice has long been an advocate of the resurgence of ’80s hair metal bands like Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses, a sentiment growing in support, as evidenced by Spin magazine’s recent “150 Sleaziest Moments in Rock” cover. Vice was the first news source to chronicle the world of horror rap, a Detroit hip-hop movement known for its serial killer?style lyrics, of which rapper Eminem is a descendent. The problem is that no sooner do people begin liking and consuming the right things than they no longer become right.
Vice is specializing in a product that loses its shelf life soon after it hits the newsstand. The result is that reading it can feel kind of like listening to your sarcastic older brother and his friends give you adVice about sex. It doesn’t work. As Vice‘s popularity grows, it is in danger of becoming a snake eating its tail. Pretty soon people will be listening to Mot?rhead albums all night long, simply because it’s a lame thing to do.
How precariously Vice teeters on the edge of self-parody was apparent in March 2000, when McInnes was invited to discuss religion in the White House on Politically Incorrect. McInnes’s shirt was stained from sloppily drinking the cans of Guinness he smuggled into the show’s greenroom. He also admits to being “wasted” from a few lines of cocaine. The other guests that night were actress Lisa Ann Walters, star of The Parent Trap remake, Robert Conrad, who played Agent James T. West in the ’60s gunslinger series Wild Wild West and John Shelby Spong, an outspoken liberal bishop of the Episcopalian church. Host Bill Maher mentioned how strange it was that both presidential candidates had claimed to base their platforms on, among other things, what Jesus would do. This prompted McInnes to exclaim that Gore and Bush were “asking the adVice of a gay man.”
“What’s this?” Maher asked.
“Well, Jesus was gay. He was a gentle guy. He had long hair. He wore a dress,” McInnes responded.
“I’m just saying it’s open to debate,” he then backpedalled. At which point Maher took the opportunity to point out McInnes’s faulty logic: “A second ago it was known fact,” he said, throwing McInnes’s words back into his face. The audience exploded in applause at Maher’s deconstruction of the statement. McInnes, embarrassed and ridiculed by the studio audience, jumped on his chair and yelled: “Stop clapping. Stop all your clapping.”
But the audience didn’t.