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Publication: Tank Magazine, July 2005

The Cruel Jerk: Vice magazine and no things nice

A decade is a long time in popular culture, even when the refreshment rate of Nike’s colourways and time itself seem to be accelerating faster than ever. Just over 10 years ago, political correctness was the dominant cultural force. You could hardly shop, think, dance or rock without a feminist or Marxist critique hindering your satisfaction. Today, you’d easily imagine the opposite to be true.

A decade is a long time in popular culture, even when the refreshment rate of Nike’s colourways and time itself seem to be accelerating faster than ever. Just over 10 years ago, political correctness was the dominant cultural force. You could hardly shop, think, dance or rock without a feminist or Marxist critique hindering your satisfaction. Today, you’d easily imagine the opposite to be true.

Vice Magazine, the defining post-millennial magazine title among media insiders, ahead-of-the-curve lifestylers and public schoolboys, provided detailed opinion in its recent Sex Issue of what to say to black girls if you want to fuck them. Several pages later it ran grisly pictures of dismembered and blown-up Iraqi insurgents, and interrogated the photographer who took them on the ‘pussy sitch’ in Faluja. We shrug as 2005’s leading musician heads towards the aisle with Kate Moss on one arm, a hypodermic in the other and lungs full of crack. When Prince Harry shows up at a party dressed as Gestapo officer, it seems to many not so much an indiscretion or an outrage but almost the required duty of a 20-year-old with far more entitlement than responsibility. In last year’s most popular video game, ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, your character quickly gains weight if you don’t get out and murder enough citizens. Meanwhile back in the non-virtual world, GCSE kids are giving the PTA and the law a reality headache in the form of the ‘happy-slapping’ craze: violently attacking passers-by in gangs and capturing the performance on their cameraphones for later amusement.

Tricky may have been helplessly paranoid, but his prediction from a decade ago that Hell is round the corner looks increasingly accurate. If you live or socialise in Shoreditch, Hell is already here is the form of the zone’s newest and biggest bar. There’s another kind of purgatory around too, and you don’t even need to be a Daily Mail readers feel sensitive about it. Its presence is discernible in the pages of Vice, or in the online videos of Iraq aid-worker beheadings that get forwarded round school classrooms, or elsewhere in a generational appetite for the cruel sex, casual violence, petty drug glamourisation, obscenity for obscenity’s sake and gross-out, reactionary bad taste above – strands that coalesce into something we’ll call the Cruel Jerk: the newest evolution of youth culture’s ‘cool’ aesthetic that’s so grotesquely ugly and pornographically compelling we just can’t stop staring at it. Only, no-one seems to have noticed or care all that much.

And why, indeed, should anyone? The prevailing drift of a decade in general only defines itself half-way through, and there’s a strong case that the Cruel Jerk that could tentatively be defined as this decade’s Cool. The signifiers are all there: to anyone over the age of 25, the culture appears confrontational, discomfortingly vicious and voyeuristic, but free of the niggles of conscience that beset an older generation. Like so many other youth cults before it, it speaks with a broad New York accent. It also seems an impenetrable mess of contradictions. The attitude is paradox of unshockably fuck-you nihilism and rampantly acquisitive consumerism, a kind of Ikea satanism in which nothing is worth believing in so everything’s available to try on for size and appropriate without consequence. Grinding the remnants of PC under its shredded Converse Allstar, it positively embraces the unhealthy, the dangerous and the morbid as its life depends on it.

Vice articulates a culture that is bereft of its own symbols or codes and so hungrily seizes on and bootlegs those which are guaranteed to provide the maximum differentiation and maximum offence with minimum effort – hence a recent issue of Vice parades black men with swastika tattoos. What dressing in Comme Des Garcons, aspiring your weekends away in a loft and cultivating an interest in architecture was to the Eighties, so dressing in a pastiche of a heavy metal band whose records you’ve never heard, aspiring to a grimier way of life that leave more rooms to take drugs and cultivating an interest in brutal internet porn is to the Noughts.

It is written into the constitution of youth culture to forge a new definition of what’s cool every five or ten years based on the slaughter the past era’s sacred cows. Given a claustrophobic climate of oppressively cheery marketing that has commodified youth culture’s every new quirk into a pret-a-porter lifestyle, 2005’s Cruel Jerk indicates ‘the kids’ doing what the kids do best: turning vice into virtue, alchemising revolt into style.

You may not like it – you may not like it even if you don’t read the Daily Mail – but it represents youth culture fulfilling its central remit: rejecting everything its substantially middle-class upbringing taught was right, proper and good in favour of whatever’s infantile, dangerous and trashy.

It goes without saying the Beastie Boys had a lot to do with getting us here.


The roots of the Cruel Jerk stretch back a long way – just over a decade to the mid-Nineties. The echoes are all there in 1994. In Montreal, Gavin McInnes published the embryonic Vice magazine, while in the UK Tango screened a series of ads in which a bald, fat man dressed as a tangerine ran around slapping passers-by; widely mimicked in the schoolyard, the spot was duly banned. In the US, ex-punk Jim Goad’s Answer Me! fanzine set about causing maximum offence by publishing pictures of dead, mutilated women next to a lengthy refutation of the feminist stance on rape, echoing Vice’s later editorial balance. In the LA, the Beastie Boys and their new filmmaker buddy Spike Jonze were sewing together the corpse of hardcore punk, hip hop, Seventies cop-show iconography and point & shoot video into a new pick-mix aesthetic that seemed able to embrace seemingly any cultural detritus and re-fashion it into tokens of a universal hipness.

As the Nineties’ pre-eminent provocateurs the Beasties had a strict methodology to their game that went deeper than simple irony. They looked to short-term nostalgia and mined the opposites of any prevailing notion of cool – the typography and stylistic tropes of heavy metal and corporate golf culture among them – and blew the cliches up large. The Mullet began its long haul to become the default hairstyle of British estate agents and TV presenters in 1994’s Grand Royal magazine, where Mike D spent a day wandering round LA incognito with a wig and a gig bag. It may today seem difficult to appreciate that there was a time no-one wanted to watch Starsky & Hutch, wear a ‘porn star’ T-shirt or buy Ron Jeremy a drink. But as Air, Daft Punk, Sophia Coppola, Vincent Gallo and George Orwell all know, whoever controls the past controls the future.

Nonetheless what the Beastie Boys offered was only a dehorned and genetically modified versions of what the ferociously oppositional punk and skate cultures had been doing for ages. Both fetishised bad taste; both aimed to upset their parents; both went out of their way to find new ways of broadcasting their disenfranchisement to anyone who would listen. Both were so profoundly cool that the fingers of the mass market froze at the touch.

Both, curiously, turned self-harm into something you aspired to. The more forcefully you embraced the pain, the cooler you became. Rebellion became something you did to yourself, which no band, brand or advertising executive could hope to co-opt. The apotheosis of which arrived in the form of MTV’s Jackass in 1997. By the time ex-skater Johnny Knoxville was shooting himself for kicks while Spike Jonze filmed, exhibitionist self-harm with a homoerotic overtones had positioned itself as the coolest thing. Jackass’s appeal for shy adolescent boys caught in the glare of the Geri Halliwell’s Girl Power revolution was abundantly clear.

Yet in some ways, Jackass and its pale Welsh imitators Dirty Sanchez were less significant than the Bumfighting DVD that arrived in the UK in 2002. As consenting kidults, no-one questioned Bam Margera or Steve-O’s right to chose whichever novel ways to immolate themselves or each other. Bumfighting, however, symbolised the camera turning on others. Watching destitutes on skid row punch lumps out of each other for fun and profit chimed with the same cruel streak of comedy made South Park – in which poor no-hoper Kenny repeatedly dies while his chums snigger – required viewing since its release in 1997. It became cool to laugh at other’s people’s pain, and it was somehow okay to do so because the source material emerged from a coolly ironic strand of cultural activity. By the same token, Eminem successfully dodged homophobia accusations in 2001 with the flimsy argument that it wasn’t him but Slim Shady who didn’t like gays, and so that was okay. His a duet with Elton John eventually silenced the snipers. Eminem proved that even under the glare of global media, these days you can get away with it.


Where are we now? In Hell? It was thought that 9/11 would put an end to irony – to pretending to like things you didn’t like, to debasing yourself to prove you’re a good guy, to enjoying other’s pain by convincing yourself that it’s watching not participating, and to care would be uncool and bleeding-heart PC anyway.

Vice magazine, meanwhile goes from strength to strength, launching international editions in Italy, Australia and Scandinavia. There are plans for more books – How-To guides offering a codified anti-PC lifestyle advice on sex, drugs and fashion – records, shops and films, all of which suggest the appetite and attitude Vice articulates runs both deep and wide. The empire is now thought to be worth $40 million, a staggering amount of money generated by a magazine you don’t have to pay for. The old style mags made you pay, invest, to be part of the clique; Vice asks nothing more than that, happening upon a gratis pile in an acceptably hip distribution area, you stir yourself out of apathy far enough to pick one up. It hardly conforms to the constipated notion of cool codified years ago by the style mags that preceded it – in fact Vice has more in common with magazines including Nuts, Bizarre and FHM. (Asked about this, Buts’ senior writer Peter Cashmore says, ‘we do run deliberately unpleasant things. But we have a rule thatv if the person recovered orr walked away, then we’ll run the picture. Vbice magzine go beyond the pale – we are at the pale.’) In a time of extreme disposability, it is undeniably right on the pulse of the era.

The UK edition’s editor, Andy Capper, is irritated that people now consider Vice cool. ‘People are starting to hate Vice because it’s cool, because it tells you what to do,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we do - we go against the popular opinion absolutely all the time. It’s an attitude loads of people already had: that kind of ‘Why?’ attitude. Fuck You, Why? Why is that true? Plus half of it is a huge satire.’

The other half of capper’s his editorial amounts to a brutally honest depiction of the tawdry extremes of real life in 2005: features on whether gays or girls give the best blowjobs, narratives from the mentally ill, the disabled, and the sex-addicted - all delivered in a colloquial, opinionated first-person tone that dispenses with journalistic reserve in the name of telling a great yarn.

‘We write in a way that you can understand me, rather than in a writer’s way,’ Capper says. ‘You ring up a guy, he talks to you down the phone you do it verbatim so you get the actual fact rather than going through a PR or Googling. Without sounding pious, people admire truth and honesty.

There a proven methodology to Vice’s editorial, one that skips past the irony of the Nineties back to punk and to skate culture’s defiance of shallowness and pretension. ‘It’s that hand-held held, voyeurcam point-and-shoot point generation that Terry Richardson and Spike Jonze brought in. No Photoshop, no gloss, no lights, just a straight-on portrait. Let’s get rid of the gloss and can we please have an honest discussion of things?’

Yet with the first half of the magazine comprising of ‘huge satire,’ it becomes difficult to discern what, exactly, Vice’s ideology is. Plenty of Vice causes readers to flinch; it’s conceived expressly to do that. But which parts, and at what cost? Capper vigorously defends the decision to run pictures of mutilated Iraqis, claiming a higher moral purpose to the piece. Yet the message becomes quickly obscured between the layers of Nineties-style semiotic schadenfreude.

‘That’s a deeply moral piece,’ Capper argues. ‘We want people to look at how disgusting it is. The way to present that, rather than rather than a bleeding heart going, “well Iraq’s going pretty bad” would be to ask a soldier, and because it’s the sex issue, when they read it they go oh my god I can’t believe this, and eventually what we’re trying to do will sink in.’

So Vice asked the soldier, ‘tell me about Iraqi snapper – do they have huge bushes?’

What is mean to sink in though? Are we meant to laugh at the dumb-ass photographer, or do we just short-circuit the irony and laugh at the dead Iraqis? Or just laugh at the whole morbid absurdity of it all because if we didn’t we’d kill ourselves and in any case we’re all drowning in a cesspool of ‘black, heavy satire’ anyway?

Some may find a parallel in Terry Richardson’s work as pornography masquerading fashion or art. But Vice can’t call on the same defence: objectors are simply neo-prudes or stuffy moralists who can't cope with in-your-face frankness. Both camps succeed because in the end because they force through the boundaries of acceptability, swiftly followed by an army of teenage males desperate to discover a new way to transgress their own politically correct and middle-class unremarkableness. Both succeed because they arrive with a set of built-in caveats that absolve the viewer of any responsibility for what they’re participating in. Something similar is happening in comedy too: reporting on last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the Evening Standard’s comedy critic Bruce Dessau wrote: "Stand-up’s tectonic plates have been shifting for a while. Ricky Gervais, who brings his hit show Politics to the Fringe this Friday, has demolished most of the remaining barriers. Before he has even reached the stage, a short film mocks his wheelchair-using producer, Ash Atalla, with Gervais suggesting that at 31 he should be walking by now. Gags about gays, the holocaust (imagining Hitler thanking Nietzsche for inspiring him) and child exploitation follow. All with that essential ironic subtext that he is too outrageous to be serious.’

Vice, Richardson symbolise the next evolutions of a story that begin with Elvis and features The Beatles, Larry Flynt, The Beatles, Oz, the Sex Pistols, Viz, NWA, Marylyn Manson and Loaded. It seems to be more vicious than any of its antecedents. Seeing as it’s still only 2005, this decade’s Rebirth Of Cruel has probably only just begun twitching.

© Kevin Braddock 2005

A Shorter Chronology of Cruel

• Vice Magazine launches in Montreal
• Cop show pastiche, skate culture, hardcore punk and hip hop coalesce in Spike Jonze’s video for the Beastie Boy’s Sabotage.
• In their Grand Royal magazine, Mike D research the history of the ugliest hairstyle ever, the Mullet. A decade it will become the default hairstyle of a generation
• Former punk Jim Goad’s Answer Me!, published from Oregon, runs a refutation of the feminist stance on rape next to pictures of mutilated women.
• In the UK, Tango Ads are banned after schoolchildren begin clobbering each other in playgrounds

• Skate goes mass overground as Wall Street, Madison avenue and Hollywood wake up and plough millions into the culture

• 1974 pseudo-snuff video ‘Faces Of Death’ video re-released

• Johnny Knoxville shoots himself in the chest while Spike Jonze films. Jackass is born.
• South Park appears on MTV. We laugh as mute no-hoper Kenny gets killed every episode

• The bubble crashes, but mass internet usage brings pornography into the overground. Meta-porn - TV shows about porn – flood cable TV. Guilty viewers can jack off with a clear conscience

• Jackass becomes one of MTV’s biggest shows

• Media reports the 911 attacks close the age of irony. Irony continues unhindered several weeks later
• Eminem dodges Homophobia allegations by claiming Slim Shady didn’t really mean it. There is no satisfactory explanation beyond his Grammy’s performance with Elton John
• Grand Theft Auto: Vice City released
• Bumfights DVD surfaces to widespread acclaim in the style media

• Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d reprises ITV’s primetime pratfall show ‘Beadle’s About’ for the MTV generation
• Jackass the movie
• Gulf War II: snuff films becomes a reality after Iraqi beheadings are posted online
• Abu Graib abuse pictures prompt shock and horror, but no-one can stop looking. Piers Morgan loses his job for publishing faked abuse shots
• Vice Launches in the UK.
• Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is launched.
• Dixon’s withdraws Rockstar’s Manhunt game after 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah is murdered by 17-year old Warren LeBlanc, an obsessive fan.

• Happyslapping craze sweeps young UK
• Hell bar opens in Shoreditch

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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