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February 24, 2003

New Magazines

Friedrich --

Do you follow the style magazines? I don't mean the fashion magazines, I mean the style magazines. I do, though I sometimes wonder why. I guess that I simply enjoying keeping up with what people are doing with magazines.

And what I find myself mostly buying these days are examples of a new breed of style magazine. I wonder if you’ve run across them. Hard to describe; I don’t know if the genre has a semi-official name yet. Style, fashion, art, celebrity -- but, frankly, old fart that I am, I can’t tell what their subject matter really is, and I can’t tell what it is they’re selling. There seems to be nothing at the core. There’s little or no information in them, the writing is drivel (and next-to-unreadable anyway, what with the text being Quarked way over to the side, reduced in size and made sans-serif -- it isn’t writing, it’s decor). There’s no gear on sale. There seems to be nothing graspable there.

Which seems to be the point: style, look and attitude. These magazines seem to be all about edgy media values. Period. There’s a fair amount of art-school-style semi-nudity, fashion and performance-art self-consciousness, and new-look models hoping to make it big. But they’re a long way from a Maxim or a Stuff. This is alternative product, and part of what’s bewildering about them is the combination of grunge and uptown-quality production values.

For some reason, nearly all of them have one-word titles: Zink, Flaunt. Trace. Contents. And they’re often quite spendid, as lavishly and sumptuously produced as art books. They also make me think of those legendary custom-made art-thing magazines that were financed by rich people for about five issues back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and whose titles escape me at the moment.

The big diff between them and traditional art-and-word-centric publications is their value-set, which derives from the media. Whoosh. Fwoof. Kapow. They’re as consciously designed and constructed as art things, and in a way, that’s about as good a description as I can come up with: they’re media-derived abstract magazine experiences, Quark and Photoshop extravaganzas put together (as far as I can tell) by recent art-and-design grads.

The thing about Quark and Photoshop is that they enable you to compose a magazine in a non-linear way; designers actually speak about “constructing” pages, layouts, passages, entire issues. These magazines take that approach as far as any I’ve run across. The individual pieces are subordinated to the larger digital-media page-flipping experience. They’re disappointing -- nonexistent, really -- in terms of content. But why be square: Content, that’s so 20th century. No, they’re all about media effects. A lot of lavish paper, gorgeous models all shiney and full of ‘tude, photographs blown up so that the bigness is the point, and the whole put together to create (this seems to be the point) an abstract media-magazine experience. It’s all about look, feel, rhythm and effects. It’s as though the raw material is the Fwoof and the Whoosh.

And as look-and-feel effects experiences they’re pretty incredible. I’m amazed by the skill, the talent, the beauty. (Unfortunately, I’m too old for it ever to mean much to me emotionally. Such is life, I guess. Or at least aging....) Flipping through these mags, I’m thunderstruck by the extreme precision and lavishness of the production. You can sense the photos being tweaked to the point where the printer can’t register anything more fine-grained; you can sense Quark being pushed to an extreme.

It’s all about rhythm and digital effects, in other words; like many of today’s big Hollywood extravaganzas, they’re exercises in showing off the digital-effects cosmos. Which reminds me of an observation a record-producer friend once made. “Kids aren’t interested in tunes anymore,” he said. “They come to me instead with a rhythm track and a bunch of Dolby effects, and they basically want to lay the effects down on top of the rhythms.”

Look at the spread I’ve scanned and included below. (It’s a thumbnail, so be sure to click on it for a better view.) It’s from a recent issue of Zink; apologies to the photographer, whose name I’ve misplaced. A basic question: what is this spread presenting? A product? A girl? Fashion? My sense is that what’s being presented (or “sold”) is quite simply what I think of as Media-Fwoof. You open this spread and go, Whoah! And that’s what its about. Perhaps I’m missing something. If so, can you fill me in?

From Zink: Fwoof!

Is there any Blowhardish larger significance to be found here? Maybe in the replacement of art-and-reading values with media values. Maybe, as a friend who’s in the ad biz often says, in the fact that that we’re living in an art director’s universe. Maybe in the banal observation that the visual is pushing aside the verbal, and that impact is pushing aside thought, let alone reflection. I find it interesting that some portion of the population has developed such a hearty appetite for media experiences that they’ve developed a refined appreciation for them, as well terrific skill in creating them. There are minds, talents and personalities that live entirely in the digital world and live there very happily and have no perspective on it whatsoever. Who'd have imagined?

I do sometimes wonder what’ll happen to old notions of craft. In the past, because of the way the various media offered much more in the way of resistance, chances are you had to spend a lot of time in a field before you could mount your ideas in any way. The good side to this system was that you usually developed technical skills and (possibly) some character seasoning and depth by the time you were able to present anything. The bad side was that it could be a laborious and discouraging process; a lot of people simply gave up and left the field. The good side of the new digital tools is that they’re so available and responsive that anyone can create a handsome media thing based on the slightest whim. The bad side is that most of the ideas and values that are finding expression are so ludicrously infantile -- adolescent at best. A question: how does anyone raised on adolescent media values and surrounded by such groovy and seductive new tools ever make the leap from media values to art values?

My personal reactions? For what they’re worth...

Square, logo-centric and art-centric person that I am, I look through these magazines feeling as though the verbal and thinking sides of my brain (however lame) have been chopped off and left to bleed to death, while the media side of my brain (however tiny) gets a thorough pumping and stroking. I flip through these mags feeling like a happy, dazed, and inarticulate edgy idiot.

These magazines have no traditional magazine interest to me at all. It used to be that the packaging (the graphics, the presentation, etc) was there to enhance and/or sell the content. These magazines have abandoned content, and what used to be thought of as packaging has become central. (Another way of looking at this: there used to be a line between the values of the editorial parts of a magazine and the values embodied by the ads. The line has disappeared, and ad values have taken totally over.) Once I shift over to viewing them as composed media experiences, I can find them quite amazing. They’re like erotic art-school reveries, and they seem to take place in some parallel world where edgy media values are valued for their own sake. (There’s something almost pornographic about the way every design decision is offered up for delectation.) Cool, though it means nothing to me.

And I admit to a little jealousy. Back in the late ‘70s, when we were rude youth and imagined ourselves to be defiant up and comers, punk kids had to make do with Xerox machines and staplers. Our idiotic adolescent ideas simply couldn’t be realized in this sumptuous way. Wouldn’t it have been fun to have Macs?

That said, I have very little appetite for abstract media experiences, and tend to be rather shocked by people whose souls seem possessed by the love of media experiences. Personally, I don’t exist in order to be blown away by electronic dazzle, and I just don’t crave having my buttons pushed. It makes me feel like my mind is being micro-waved to cinders.

But who cares about my taste? I’m such a fuddy-duddy, I guess; I turn to art, writing and thought to get away from media values, which I associate with work. When I want pleasure of any deep sort, I want something with a basis on matter, substance, and history.

Hey, here’s a way of looking at these magazines: they are to traditional magazines what the buildings Herbert Muschamp champions are to traditional architecture. They’re ecstatic, talented, and symptomatic of the era -- pure design brilliance for its own sake. Harmless enough when it comes in the form of a magazine. A building has to be lived with, but a magazine can be left on the rack.

Veteran observer of the biz that I am, I can’t help wondering how long these magazines will last. Whose money is behind them? (The words “trust fund” and “Euro-sleaze” come to mind, don’t ask why.) And who the hell buys them? As with many digital-era media things, after you buy one you can’t imagine buying subsequent issues; they seem to burn themselves up as you go through them. My best guess is that while these titles won’t be around for long, we’ll be seeing what they represent in terms of approach and style percolating through the general culture in the near future.

Do you have any appetite for edgy and abstract digital-media experiences per se?



posted by Michael at February 24, 2003


I have come across some strange magazines at my local Barnes and Noble (so much for my hipness quotient!) My businessman brain seems to be the only part of me really interested--who is this stuff aimed at, who or what is paying the bills (advertising? newsstand sales?). Based on the images I've seen, it's all aimed at late teen-early twenties people. I suspect the zwoopy approach has something to do with the fact that its demographic is the age group most poorly integrated into organized society--all that artistry is expended in a frantic effort to avoid feeling the utter terror of being "kicked out of the nest and expected to find your own way." I sympathize, I really do, but my suspicion is that anyone who reads this stuff is desperate to do is to create/find/hook-into some life structure. And reading magazines like this is no way to go about that.

Still, did it ever seem to you that this "second wave" of adolescence is harder than it needs to be?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 24, 2003 6:30 PM

They are stroke books for gay men too tasteful to have porn out in the open, or even handy.

Posted by: j.c. on February 25, 2003 3:08 AM

The point of that photo from Zink is obviously that you can make something that looks really wonderful if you use dark blue, purple, black, and just a little smidge of white. I'm amazed that it works so well instead of turning into a dark blur.

Someone (Michael Venturi?) said that world was becoming more dreamlike--just flickering images of sex and violence...and that was some 20 years ago.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on February 25, 2003 8:51 AM

Ain't it just the natural conclusion of the post-modern decontextualization Foucault and his weenies were hoping for?

My interpretation of the photo is it attempts to evoke the childhood dream of jumping off your roof with a sheet hoping it would be enough of a parachute, but the woman is clearly in some sort of pre or post coital state (sweaty and in her skivvies), so I think it's equating a dangerous childhood dream with an abandonment to sexual fantasy. But that's just my interp.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 25, 2003 12:37 PM

Hey, you're all good media critics! The magazines (and this image from Zink) really are like some childhood/druggy dream of sexuality and flight. Many thanks for the responses and thoughts.

Bizarre, isn't it -- the pure emptiness of some of these chic new magazines? They keep making me think of Imacs, all the grooviness minus the bothersome computer parts. It's as though for some people (young designers, and young ambitious-media-people, I'd guess) the great thing about the new tools is that it frees them from having to engage with reality at all.

I do find some of the imagery and design pretty fabulous, although at the same time of almost no substantial interest at all. How do you guys react to this stuff on its own terms? As fun whooshy beauty? As annoying art-school carrying-on?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 25, 2003 2:05 PM

Thomas Disch, in a book of essays about the history of Science Fiction (The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of), said that if you want to understand the appeal of popular but vapid television shows, try watching them with the sound turned of. The layout of the sets, the colors, the costumes work enough power on their own. These new magazines seem to be something similar: a publication with the dialog turned off. And perhaps the best decision the designers make is turning the dialog off for us.

I feel the same compulsive attraction towards, and subsequent emptiness after consuming many modern whiz-gadgetry media products: computer games, special effects movies, photoshopped imagery. The pupils dilate, the adrenalin pumps, the breath quickens, and're left wondering what you got so excited about.

In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the librarian Giles explains that he prefers old books to computers because computers have no smell; that when information comes without physical form or context, it simply flashes past and leaves us un-enriched. Surprising dialog from a show that is about as visceral as they come (and an example of why I can't stop watching it).

People are just starting to play with these new tools/toys (photoshop & special effects etc). I suppose it'll take a while until the novelty wears off and they're used for communicating ideas other than, "Look at me, I have new software!"

Posted by: Nate on February 25, 2003 5:19 PM

Just a hypothesis, but all those designers are on the young side. They won't all be able to avoid having lives, lifespan is going up, and some of them may be doing work with a lot more substance and some very good tools a few decades from now.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on February 27, 2003 4:16 PM

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