The New Cool

The entirely reasonable suspicion that somewhere else people more attractive than oneself are having the time of their lives reaches its apogee in late adolescence but never fully abates.

This uncomfortable mixture of envy and fear returned recently as I surveyed alternative magazines, publications that, by their own description, are the voice of the young (18- to 28-year-old) trend-conscious outsider. These titles live rather than describe the hip urban life: they go out more, drink more and stay up later than regular magazines.

My review includes three publications in brief--the West Coast magazine Anthem, Brooklyn's Mass Appeal, and Manhattan-based The Fader--and three in greater depth, because they seem editorially and visually less mainstream, these being Vice (Brooklyn again), While You Were Sleeping (Bethesda, Md.) and Tokion (Tokyo and Manhattan), which is Japanese for "the sound of now."

A definite sense of The Group prevails across the selection. The work of fashion photographer Terry Richardson and artist Ryan McGinley--both known for their youthful and sexually provocative imagery--often appears in Vice, but is also in Anthem and The Fader. The current issue of The Fader contains a tedious hagiography of McGinley, and includes a critical yet fawning review of the recent volume "The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll." So it goes: Mass Appeal interviews the band The Stills, who are on Vice Records; While You Were Sleeping (WYWS) contributor Celestine Arnold also writes for Vice; the rap combo Fannypack are in Vice and Tokion; artist Shepard Fairey, who designed the WYWS logo, has also produced limited-edition toys for Tokion.

These magazines claim healthy circulations. Vice, which began in Montreal almost 10 years ago before relocating to Brooklyn's Williamsburg section in 1999 and last year launched a U.K. edition, estimates that by January 2004 it will have a circulation of 200,000 worldwide. Tokion has a combined circulation for the Japanese and North American editions of 145,000 copies. WYWS, which began as a magazine concentrating solely on graffiti, has a circulation is 75,000. Tokion is sold in boutiques, as well as chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Tower Records; WYWS is in the latter two; Vice, thanks to its rambunctious content, is given away free at "key music, fashion and leisure locations." Both Vice and Tokion have other business interests: they run stores with clothes and novelties and produce films (Vice claims four in production, including director Spike Jonze's next work).

They are not backward in coming forward. Tokion coos to prospective advertisers: "Tokion readers are the ones you want to reach: from boutique buyers to news media, from the entertainment industry to the arts community, where the other magazines go broad and shallow to reach the masses, Tokion goes deep to the core audience."

That core audience--rather than markets and journalistic merits or demerits--was on my mind as I leafed through the glossy pages, perusing articles that reported the self-promotional gambits of musicians (Sample Q: "How do you want to be remembered?" A: "As a f--king genius!") and that offered "A Girl's Guide To Getting Back At Your Parents" (Tip Number 8? Turn Gay). So what it is to be young and spirited in America today? What excites kids? What makes them laugh? What do they value?

Contrary to the efflorescence of baby-boomer youth culture, which espoused liberal ideals both in the bedroom and at the ballot box, bright young things now seem to want to mate pornographic values with conservative political ones. These two may appear incompatible, but if viewed as part of the young (a phase that can now last beyond your 21st birthday) trendsetter's desire for freedom from the norm, they are more readily equated. Being an autonomous individual means you can make love as well as war.

Sometimes you can do both at once. WYWS, for example, has a theme issue on "Sex and Violence" with the explanation, "This issue ... is for 'resentment sex,' the only sex worth having ... It's for how much I like f--king you because I hate you." Vice has famously published a guide to anal sex between men and women, accompanying it with a piece, written by young women on how your common hetero guy will respond to his girlfriend--how to put this?--taking charge from behind.

A fashion spread in the usually more design-orientated Tokion shows a bare-breasted girl-child holding a steak over her right eye. The text on the opposing page has the disturbing S&M formulation, "I can't tell you yes if I can't tell you no." The next image shows two girls locked in a Sapphic clutch; one is blowing the marijuana smoke that she has inhaled from a phallic bong at her delirious friend who is, of course, also inhaling.

Count me in as apoplectic if it helps. Fornication is a standard interest for kids, though I can't imagine what this generation, having worked its way through light S&M, B&D, gentle sodomy and role-playing in their callow years, will have to look forward to in their 30s and 40s. (Chastity perhaps; now there's a turn on.)

But more notable is the regularity with which these titles employ conservative (as opposed to traditional) positions and sources. Maybe it's a sign of the times. Conservatism in America currently enjoys a rewarding diffuseness, simultaneously providing the lingua franca of the disenfranchised, of atavistic humor--by invoking "political correctness"--and of the reigning political establishment.

So Tokion will quote a Japanese bare-knuckle fight promoter explaining the popularity of his sport by saying, "Because pride doesn't exist in Japan these days." When WYWS interviews G. Gordon Liddy, the first question is, "How do you talk to a 25-year-old today who is on the cusp of conversion [to conservatism]?" Later in the magazine, two birds are killed with one stone when a leading porn Web master says, "I love the NRA, less government, less taxes, supply-side economics and freedom of speech. I believe in family values...."

Vice magazine's conservatism is declared rather than inferred. Just before the American invasion of Iraq, its cover featured two concupiscent breasts, a sparkly crucifix and the motto, in Gothic script, THE WEST IS BEST. Last month, Vice's cofounder Gavin McInnes wrote an article for Pat Buchanan's magazine the American Conservative bearing the subtitle, "It's getting cooler to be conservative," in which he asserted it has "become fashionable to link liberalism with weakness and conservatism with honesty."

Vice's politics allow the magazine to avoid conventional youth-title pieties, the belief, for example, that black musicians are particularly equipped to offer piercing commentaries on social issues. And it can be hilarious, like a guest at a dinner party who has had too much wine. But funny can be boorish, and "honest" can mean inaccurate. This year Vice printed an apology to Jessica Hopper, a female freelance writer whose story it had altered to imply that she had had sex with a musician she was interviewing. "The resulting message was not one Jessica intended to convey," it said, "and was an affront and discouragement to women writers." How the editors must have choked as they penned that. Yet young women love the magazine; according to April 2002's Cassandra Report, a brief produced by a youth market-research company whose clients include Microsoft, Vice was the preferred trendsetter title for women aged 19-24.

On reflection, the confluence of conservative and porno culture in alternative youth magazines seems reasonable. Conservatives portray themselves as outsiders, pornographers are outsiders; both are positions for which the staff of alternative titles must have natural sympathy. The conservative fondness for elemental pastimes (calling their enemies names, proclamations on the importance of freedom) also fits the emotional rhythms of the early twentysomething. Ditto porn; few activities are as stridently basic.

Conservatives like to quote the maxim that if one isn't a liberal under the age of 30 one has no heart, and if one isn't a conservative over that age, one has no brains. This concurs with another item of faith for the young: the belief that experience forms a path to wisdom. It also preys on one of their major insecurities.

All youth magazines, alternative or not, proclaim world-weariness. Innocence and naivete are weighty burdens to bear through the desert of continual peer review that most kids must traverse. One means of appearing less unworldly is to have had a diversity of experience. Here, too, the alternative magazines are ready to help. The reader can go from an article titled "I Love My Parents For Having An Autistic Baby" to one in which the writer recalls a dinner she had with Marilyn Manson to an interview with Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari.

Such range may suggest that cool is no longer a simple mixture of sex, drugs and rock and roll. As a practicing nerd, I couldn't be happier to hear this, but I can't help thinking that cool has fractured and become even more complex. Good looks seem insufficient. You must be exotic also. In this milieu, if you're not half Ghanaian and half Pashtun, living in Brooklyn's Ft. Greene area, with a great sneaker collection, a penchant for French house music and an encyclopedic knowledge of recreational pharmaceuticals, you tend to feel a little declasse.

That whiff of self-loathing is not because you don't fit in, but rather that you do fit in to an inherently uncool group: i.e., the largely white, middle-class and heterosexual audience that consume alternative youth titles. It also encapsulates a paradox of the genre. The truly cool tend to come from outside this cohort and have no need of political or sexual prescriptions, much less magazines that tell them what they already know.