Vice: We’ve Been Had, and We Let It Happen

How a trio of “punk capitalists” killed the counterculture and beat big media at its own game.

Alexandra Molotkow’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ...

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In 2000, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen trailed the founders of Vice magazine through Manhattan as they met with a talent scout from MTV. Vice was the sum of its three founders—Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes, and Shane Smith—20-something guys who, 20 years ago this month, took over a Montreal community newspaper and made it their own. They ran the stories they wanted to, took it national themselves, and courted a millionaire investor by lying about his interest to the Montreal Gazette; after that, they went “from living in their own vomit on Elgin Street to [becoming] millionaires in New York,” as McInnes told the reporter.

Now they were pitching Vice-TV, a “sort of counterculture version of 60 Minutes.” The MTV scout showed up late to the Soho restaurant, dragging along a strange-looking man whom none of the Vice founders had seen before—a potential host, it was explained. “You know, we heard this would happen if we went with MTV,” Smith said. “They say, MTV is like a dog. They have to go piss on the thing to make it their own. So basically what you’re doing is pissing… you’re pissing on me.” The exec agreed—he was pissing on them. “You guys have a pretty shady rep,” Smith replied.

The entire scene was staged, unbeknownst to the poor reporter (who turned out a good feature regardless). But 10 years later, Vice premiered its first MTV show; it’s now two seasons in to a much better HBO series.

I came across this anecdote while writing about Vice for The Walrus in 2011. I bring it up now to show that Vice has always had a knack for self-fulfilling bullshit, and that they have always made a big production out of their contempt for old institutions. At the heart of the operation is an attitude—Why Can’t We?—which has fuelled both its editorial philosophy and its business stratagem. And even as observers fawn over its latest accomplishments—as of last month, two $250 million investments, from A&E Networks and Silicon Valley’s Technology Crossover Ventures, valuing the company at $2.5 billion—Vice’s place in culture is oddly understated.

Shane Smith has said that Vice was building the next MTV. They’ve built something different altogether, something much more significant than MTV is now, through making it up as they went along. Vice got huge by inventing its own audience.

*

I was 14 when I started reading Vice, and it made no sense to me at first. While I tore through stories about Norwegian black metal, injaculation, and a band that drank its own pee, I wasn’t sure which parts were real and which were made up—whether the writers were serious or just kidding, and whether I was a sucker for taking their word for it or a sheltered idiot for not. Vice made me feel idiotic in general, and the only thing for that was to absorb and parrot its voice. I was privately shocked by what passed for normal in its world, so I kept reading until I wasn’t.

It was around the year 2000, and I’d been raised in Toronto by middle-class, mixed-race Boomer parents who made sure I turned out liberal; there was never any question that left was right. Just a couple of years earlier, my Mom had taken me to see Michael Moore’s The Big One at the rep cinema and, trying to wean me off the Spice Girls, bought me Feminism For Beginners. She would have been dismayed to find me looking at a fashion spread celebrating a vanguard movement of “New Conservatives,” who “believe immigrants should assimilate” and “claim politically correct words are the result of liberals trying to shape fear and guilt into meaningless syntax.” Reading Vice was always an exercise in doublethink.

On one hand, like a lot of people my age, I tacitly accepted “Vice” as the thing that cool was and had always been. Like the tune to “shave and a haircut,” its voice seemed pulled from the air, and that voice was in my head, judging my thoughts. Me and my friends, who were at least as liberal as I was, hung on and resented its every word—lines from its pages often turned up verbatim in our conversations, and the things it approved, we liked, or disliked pointedly. Over the years, I learned to associate its editorial identity with one person in particular: Gavin McInnes, the guy with the mustache. McInnes is seldom mentioned in recent accounts of Vice’s history—and there are reasons for that, about which more soon—but from around 2000 to about 2006, he gladly played the magazine’s mascot-in-chief. He had a knack for gathering an audience, and the urge to say whatever would rile it the most.

Shane Smith has said that Vice was building the next MTV. They’ve built something different altogether, something much more significant than MTV is now, through making it up as they went along. Vice got huge by inventing its own audience.

As an editor, writer, and mouthpiece, McInnes was ultra charismatic, and came off as something of a bully: he never explained himself, he never apologized, and he seemed to observe a grade-school value system whereby licking dog shit is a matter of honour if someone dares you to do it. Teenagers think of this as courage, which helps explain Vice’s once hegemonic grip over a certain kind of teenager. The magazine’s influence came more from its tone than its content: it addressed readers in a totalizing voice that was funny and plain and relentless, and which treated every statement, no matter how whacked-out or shocking or cruel, as a simple matter of fact. There was never a distinction made between sarcasm and sincerity, and that ambiguity made Vice more exclusive—you either “got it” or you didn’t. But Vice felt, paradoxically, like a community, more than any media brand before or since: as the right kind of reader, you might get to write or take photographs for it, work in its retail store, see yourself in the Do’s and Don’ts, or brag about the time you got drunk with one of the founders. At the very least, you could maybe intern for it.

Most of the attention the magazine received focused on content, which was heavy on sex, drugs, music, and jokes. Its editorial philosophy was twofold, and ingeniously simple: “smart in a stupid way/stupid in a smart way,” and “never be boring.” There were the sex guides, the Do’s and Don’ts, features on bodily functions, interviews with rap icons and indie rock stars as well as up-and-comers. Sometimes it was smart—for example, a 2002 issue devoted to, and partly written by How’s Your News, a show hosted by people with various disabilities—and sometimes it was incredibly stupid, as with “Hamster Party Throwdown,” wherein two guys cover a hotel room with shredded Yellow Pages, let loose six parakeets, and ingest as much booze and coke as they can without dying.

Vice didn’t create the modern “hipster,” but it helped to. Once established in New York, it became part of the scene that sprung up on the Lower East Side and hyper-gentrified Williamsburg in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The “Hamster Party” participants were fine artists Dash Snow (who died in 2009) and Dan Colen; Ryan McGinley, who had a solo show at the Whitney at age 25 and has gone on to mentor a new generation of photographers, served as Vice’s photo editor. David Cross wrote a column called “My America,” while Sarah Silverman wrote essays on, among other things, the fact that she had never gone to the bathroom.

The magazine was a point of intersection for a number of subcultures that started balling together around the turn of the century. It’s hard to say what this scene was about, exactly: clothing-wise, Vice “style” was defined negatively—the Don’ts were always funnier than the Do’s—so it was more about what you couldn’t wear (dreadlocks, sandals, pubes) than what you should. Musically, it was far-flung, though artists like Andrew WK and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were staples, and I remember it as a leading champion of electroclash. Coke was the drug of choice, but in drugs as in all things, Vice was omnivorous. It was ahead of its time that way; the end of genre boundaries and style tribes—along with a new emphasis on sensibility over taste—is probably the most distinctive attribute of “youth culture” after the Millennium (and part of what makes a “hipster” so hard to identify).

Above all else, Vice was a sensibility that both came from and rejected punk dogma, applying real ambition to an ethic of DIY. “It’s punk capitalism,” Alvi told the National Post back in 1999. “Staying who we are, yet wanting to do some business.” It’s also a product, and rejection, of Canada: we’re not an ambitious people, generally, but if you are ambitious here, you realize that there’s not much to live up to, and therefore nothing to stop you from doing whatever you want. Vice had started as counterculture, but, as an otherwise obnoxious Adbusters feature once suggested, came to signify the end of counterculture altogether—levelling itself against the hypocrisy of any “revolution” whose point was mainly to fuck and get fucked. Vice took the fucking, but applied its revolutionary fervour toward making itself huge. At its best, it was funny, energizing. At worst, it was nihilistic and self-obsessed—not rebellion for rebellion’s sake, but for its own.

*

At the beginning through to the early 2000s, when the magazine used the word “faggot” while running essays by Bruce LaBruce and photo spreads by Ryan McGinley, when it ranted against feminism while showcasing feminist writers like Amy Kellner and Lesley Arfin, the “irony” defense seemed plausible—its targets weren’t gay men, or women, or immigrants, or people of colour, but the bigots who would spout hate speech in earnest, or at least the sanctimonious, knee-jerk liberals who mistook jargon for activism. But sooner or later, a revolution without purpose is bound to become destructive. By the mid-aughts, Vice’s good intentions seemed to have been hijacked by its id.

In 2007, Vice launched an online TV network, VBS.tv, with help from MTV, installing Spike Jonze as creative director and stating their intention of airing harder, more substantive reporting. (“They gave me a pitch of ’60 Minutes’-meets-‘Jackass,’” the New York Times quoted Jeff Yapp, former executive vice president at MTV Networks.) They called it VBS.tv, to create some distance from the brand’s associations. The year before that, as I wrote in The Walrus, they’d reorganized their Williamsburg headquarters, gathering the founders into a nucleus apart. McInnes returned from a brief leave of absence to find that his desk had been placed out in the commons, and a Wired magazine feature soon quoted Smith on McInnes’s “personal notoriety for dealing with race issues.” In 2008, the parties split for good, over “creative differences.”

Above all else, Vice was a sensibility that both came from and rejected punk dogma, applying real ambition to an ethic of DIY.

Since then, McInnes has been a conservative commentator, as well as a straight-up comedian, which is what he’s best at, and which lets him get away with more. In 2010, he co-founded an ad agency, Rooster, which would allow him to find corporate sponsors for his comedy sketches. He was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence in August, after posting an article on Thought Catalog called “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural.” The article is worthless, inflammatory garbage, and I will not link to it. But if you read Vice during its heyday—I can think of an article by one “Donna Deliva” from 2003, which “calls bullshit” on “transsexuals,” and which I will not link to, either—you’ve heard it before.

As a teenager, I took a generous view of McInnes’s language, figuring it was all in jest and that his rhetoric worked like a power drill that sometimes got away from him. I’d assumed that McInnes was basically right-thinking—we tend to remake our idols in ways that reinforce our values—which was, of course, incredibly silly and naive. At some point I realized, as many of us did, that you can’t take someone’s convictions for granted; also, that the distinction between irreverence and bile is meaningless when the intention is to piss people off. In revisiting some of the allowances I made for him, I came to realize how messed up some of my own habits of thought had been.

Part of the reason McInnes kicked around so long is that, in 2003, implying that trans women weren’t “really” women was still tolerated as a matter of opinion; the word “faggot” was still a discouraged, but acknowledged part of schoolyard parlance; and using racial slurs with the caveat that you weren’t “really” racist was thought of, at least by some, as something other than racism. What Vice got away with 10 years ago, under the banner of “irreverence,” is now, thankfully, completely unacceptable. In a way, Vice at its worst did exactly what it was supposed to: demonstrate the ugliness inherent in counterculture, making it obvious that as much ignorance and prejudice was coiled at its centre—and more insidiously, since liberals tend to think of themselves as liberal. Vice helped to raise a generation, and then gave it an attitude to reject.

Vice’s transition into hard reporting and social commentary looked awkward at first. The company’s “unvarnished way of telling stories” generated interest from the likes of CNN, but also generated skepticism from former readers and old-media types. With its reputation for callousness, Vice could seem to trivialize the issues it turned its attention to; it’s hard to hear about genocide from the guys who brought you “The Vice Guide to Shit.” Smith, who emerged as the company’s de facto spokesperson, didn’t seem to have the stage presence of his predecessor. He could sound like a slick substitute teacher—in one 2011 press release, he likened a new batch of investors to “a rocket strapped to your skateboard.”

Interviewed by David Carr in 2010, Smith boasted about the reporting he’d done in Liberia: remarking on how “fucked up” his surroundings were, he’d spent time with warlords and visited the West Point slum, where sanitation is poor and residents often defecate on the beach. “The New York Times, meanwhile, is writing about surfing,” he said. Carr stopped typing. “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fuckin’ safari helmet and went and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.” The takedown, which was used in Andrew Rossi’s Page One documentary, rang as somewhat heroic.

Since then, Smith has bench-pressed his demeanour into something more poised and reliable—he’s cut down the badass posturing, practiced his gestures, and learned to sound like he knows what he’s talking about. More importantly, Vice has been doing some great work, and—on a few noteworthy occasions—been scooping its competitors. Recently, Carr congratulated the company for living up to its aims, listing its journalistic successes: its HBO series, whose first season capped with the famous “basketball diplomacy” mission to North Korea; a recent Vice News site and video channel featuring great reporting and commentary from writers like Natasha Lennard and Simon Ostrovsky, who was kidnapped in Ukraine; a widely acclaimed, and widely viewed, documentary on ISIS, which featured incredible access to the Islamic State’s inner circle. Carr asked Jason Mojica, Vice News’s editor-in-chief, how they’d swung it. “We asked,” Mojica replied.

The “edge” works best when it’s only implied, from that willingness to go and do what “old media” will not. At root, the company’s founding principle still holds: Why Can’t We? Why can’t we deploy Dennis Rodman, and three Harlem Globetrotters, to North Korea? Why can’t we ask ISIS for a ridealong?

*

Because of its audaciousness, reporters love to bet on Vice’s prospects. Over the years, the standard institutional profile, mine included, has hung on the question of how big Vice can get before its fuel runs dry and it starts running on exhaust. “Vice’s appeal is that it has branded a certain kind of cool, but coolness is an ephemeral concept,” wrote the New York Times this June. “And there is exponentially more content to compete with now than when MTV began in 1981, making it harder than ever to stand out.”

Can Vice expand the market for its cool without losing it?”— The Wall Street Journal, 2011

“The risk is Vice could become like an Urban Outfitters of cool.” — The National Post, 2002

This question misses the point: Vice jumped the shark years ago, but kept moving. The company’s continued success owes partly to the fact that Vice is, in a meaningful way, the collected efforts of those who grew up reading Vice. It helped shape the culture it now pervades, and more substantively than MTV ever did—the music network was ubiquitous, but Vice got under your skin. On the level of voice, Vice is no longer the influencer it once was, but it has, smartly, made itself useful for those with something relevant to say: the company uses thousands of freelancers and employs hundreds of full-time staff members, many of them intelligent and eager to stretch their wings in ways that old institutions won’t allow them to. (Though it has been under fire for its compensation practices, and responded.) The magazine once stood for the worst excesses of the aughts, but it now plays host to those who reject the callousness that was de rigueur when Vice was at its peak.

Vice’s transition into hard reporting and social commentary looked awkward at first. The company’s “unvarnished way of telling stories” generated interest from the likes of CNN, but also generated skepticism from former readers and old-media types.

Rejection implies acceptance, and Vice is also benefitting from the pro-corporate attitude it helped instill in its readership. Corporate sponsorship is no longer thought of as dealing with the devil—hungry creative people rarely perceive a moral disconnect between working meaningfully for the man. Vice is the man, a host for artists beloved by its readership, and its own corporate clients, by Smith’s logic, fund content that often stands on its own—somebody has to fund content. It’s an ingenious form of “vertical integration,” as the notorious American Apparel ads at the back of its magazine once advertised, which provides both a sea of new blood to draw from, and some insurance that the brand remains part of its consumers’ lives, professionally and socially. We’ll drink the free beer when it’s offered.

When I met McInnes in 2011, I found him to be funny, charismatic, and accommodating. I have also found his public persona to be a hateful nuisance hell-bent on pouring poison into the world. I regret not being more critical of the worst of his behaviour, which is both inexcusable and disappointing, given his talents. There’s an urgency in his writing that comes from a flattening of reason to instinct—riffing—which is brilliant when it says something worthwhile, and dangerous when it doesn’t. His voice has since passed into new entities—Gawker, despite the companies’ feuds, and The Awl, to name a couple—with better agendas. Young writers, copping the worst of his style, have often come off as idiots, but plenty have done him much better for betraying a conscience. Some of them have chosen to work with Vice.

Vice is no longer a status symbol, but it’s no longer our repudiated self—instead, it’s the Acme Corporation for young people who are into stuff. To call it the next MTV is to sell it short: it may not be as huge just yet, but it’s more pervasive, and more present in the lives of its consumers. Whatever you remember of its vulgar years, Vice, the brand, hangs over our lives, like a garbage stench that tells us we’ve come to the right place.

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