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DIY Nike Style
Zines and the corporate world
Think! Think! It aint illegal, yet!!" reads the first page of U Dont Stop, a zine I picked up the other day. Its not an unusual request. Zines (short for fanzines, derived from magazines) are homemade pamphlets with a rebellious mission: to create an independent voice outside the mainstream. Though one could trace their roots back to the political pamphlets of the American Revolution, zines as a distinct medium were born in the 1930s. It was then that fans of science fiction, often through the clubs they formed, started producing fanzines as a way of sharing stories and ideas about a literary genre sniffed at by the cultural establishment. Forty years later, in the mid 1970s, fans of punk rock music, ignored by and critical of the commercial music press, also began publishing zines about their cultural scene. In the early 1980s these two tributaries converged with smaller streams of publications by fans of other cultural strains, as well as the remnants of printed political dissent from the 1960s, and a genuine media subculture came of age. Today, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 different zines circulate throughout the United States and the world. What binds all these publications together is a common prime directive: DIY (Do-It-Yourself). Stop shopping for culture and go out and create your own.
Often hand-lettered, illustrated with cut and paste collages, and run off on photocopy machines, the message of the medium is that anyone can put one out. "The scruffier the better," argues Michael Carr, one of the editors of the punk zine Ben is Dead, because, "They look as if no corporation, big business or advertisers had anything to do with them." The anti-commercial ethos of the zine world is so commanding that writers who dare to move their project across the line into profitabilityor at times even popularityare reined in with the accusation of "selling out." In the shadows of capitalism, the zine world is busy creating a culture whose value isnt calculated as profit and loss on ruled ledger papers, but is assembled in the margins, using criteria like control, connection, and authenticity.
The search for authenticity drives the ethics of DIY. Against a world of pseudo-events and image consultants, zine writers are defining for themselves whats real. They use their zines to unleash an existential howl: I exist and heres what I think. Pete writes about his quest to wash dishes in all 50 states in Dishwasher. Xtra Tufs Moe tells stories of her life as a professional fisherperson in Alaska. Aaron brings his readers into his boho punk rock world with each carefully hand-lettered page of Cometbus. Todd writes about basketball and progressive politics in Ball In. From the outside, the combination of basketball and politics in a single publication seems a bit odd, but in the zine world its not. As a self-described basketball fanatic and committed political activist, Todds zine is an expression of who he is. Authenticity is to be found in the real self, unshackled by social conventions and norms, and expressed through a medium unbeholden to puritanical censors or the dictates of the bottom line.
U Dont Stop is also a basketball zine; an intimate evocation of the street level scene which surrounds and sustains the game. Inside issue #2 theres a round up of the best public ball courts in Los Angeles, an interview with Munier, one of the few African-American comic writers, and a tribute to the great funk musician George Clinton. B-ball related poetry and comics are salted throughout. U Dont Stop, like all zines, reads like a labor of love. One of the co-editors, Jimmy "Stank" Smith, sets the personal tone of the zine early with his hand scrawled introductory rant. In conventional scruffy zine style, with crossed off words kept in the text, he blasts out an impassioned plea for independent thought, ending his extemporaneous riff with the evocation: "Power." Indeed, it is a powerful testimonial of the irrepressible spirit of independent communication.
Well, maybe not. A little digging reveals that the two editors of U Dont Stop, Jimmy "Stank" Smith and John "Doc" Jay, are, in fact, copy writer and creative director, respectively, for the advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy, the folks who sold us sneakers to Gil Scott-Herons "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and coined the famous DIY cry: Just Do It! Sure enough, the small print at the bottom of U Dont Stop reads ©1998 Nike Inc. This is DIY Nike style.
Co-opting alternative culture, of course, is nothing new. Nike, adroit at strip-mining black youth culture for years, is actually a latecomer to the commercial harvest of the whiter alternative scene that zines represent. For years Dirt was a zine produced by the employees of the "Alternative Marketing" division of Warner records. The clothing chain Urban Outfitters churned out Slant (including a "punk rock" issue). The Body Shop still prints up Full Voice, a zine lauding those who are "rebelling against a system that just wont listen" and encouraging others to do the same. Chris Dodge, professional librarian and zine bibliographer, estimates that there are dozens of these faux fanzines floating around out there.
What do corporations expect to reap in return from their zines? Not direct sales. Filled with the typical zine fare of rants, comics, interviews with musicians, and poetry, U Dont Stoplike most other astroturf zinesdoesnt openly sell its patrons products. True, the street ball heroes of the zines comic strip are wearing Nikes, and theyve subsequently appeared on billboards in major urban markets, but this is low key stuff. When I called Wieden & Kennedys Jimmy Smith and asked him why the Nike logo was conspicuously absent from U Dont Stop he explained that, "The reason [the zine] is done without a swoosh is that kids are very sophisticated. It aint like back in the day when you could do a commercial that showed a hammer hitting a brain: Pounding Headache. You know, its gotta be something cool that they can get into." The goal is to create an association between the brand and "something cool they can get into," that is, a genuine grass-roots alternative culture. As David Rheins, former advertising director for SPIN Magazine, wrote in the trade journal Mediaweek, "It is not enough to merely package the right marketing message in a creative executionit is necessary to deliver it in an environment that holds credibility with this audience." In more colloquial language Smith puts it this way: "If youve got them feeling you, youve won half the battle."
Advertisers, like zinesters, understand that commercial culture lacks authenticity. Built on instrumental market relationshipswhere people are considered a means to an end and not an end in themselvescapitalism is forever alienating the very individuals it relies upon to work, vote, and, in this case, buy. "Kids hate advertising," U Dont Stops Smith explains, "If they hate advertising and youre doing advertising, to me it sounds like youve got a little bit of a problem." Ironically, its alternative culture like zines that offer a solution, providing a primary expression of peoples lives and dreams: do-it-yourself authenticity. If properly packaged, the ideas, styles, and media of the underground provide material to renew and refresh the very culture they are created in opposition to. As Business Week reported in a special feature on new strategies in marketing, advertisers are now looking to "hide their corporate provenance." The report continues: "The idea is to fake an aura of colorful entrepreneurship as a way to connect with younger consumers who yearn for products that are hand-made, quirky, and authentic." An example Business Week offers of this fakery? No surprise: "mock zines."
Many progressivesand zinesterslike to think of The System as a gray, pleasure-stomping behemoth. It is that. The rabble have to be kept in line and the best way to do this in a society where the jackboot is frowned on is to impose a uniform set of values and norms. The system is also something else: its a consumer capitalist economy that depends on new ideas and new styles to open up new markets and sell more goods. "We track the movements among these progressive mind-sets," explains Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca, co-founders of The Sputnik Mindtrends Report and authors of the recent Street Trends: How Todays Alternative Cultures are Creating Tomorrows Mainstream Markets, "and interpret them into actionable opportunities for marketing, new product development, brand management and advertising." For the authors of Street Trends, anything and everything "progressive" becomes grist for the marketing mill, as chapter titles like "Positive Anarchy" and, you guessed it, "DIY: Do It Yourself," attest. In this environment, rebelling through culture means working as an unpaid intern for a market research firm.
But this sober realization neednt lead to a miserable fit of the blues. The dance continues, and faced with the discovery and commercialization of their culture, zine writers move on, some even poaching styles from the culture that stole from them. Carrie McLaren, for example, named her zine Stay Free!, pirating the name from a product that once promised womens liberation via the shining path of no-slide sanitary napkins. Shes also picked up design tips from the slick, commercial magazines that Nike et al. are so desperate to distance themselves from. As Carrie points out, using a personal computer for desk-top publishing means that its actually easier to make her publication look "professional" than it is to replicate the old amateur aesthetic of zines. Besides, she adds, making her zine look nice means that more people will read what she has to say. This is important, for while the look of zines may be changing their message is not.
"Im an asshole" reads the ad copy over a picture of a self-satisfied man showing off his sport utility vehicle on the back cover of Stay Free! #15, "And Ive got the vehicle to prove it. My expensive SUV." From fake ads to interviews with media critics to a satirical quiz on how to "Test Your Books Oprah Quotient" (Your protagonist is caught up in A repressive political regime, -20 points; Problems at home, +50 points), Stay Free! mercilessly exposes, lampoons, and slaggs consumer culture from cover to cover. But in the spirit of DIY, the zine proposes something more: fighting the system. The tactic, however, that Stay Free! counsels is not retreat into some authentic subculture but moving out into the world, learning from the big boys, and employing the language and symbols thatfor better or worseconstitute our lingua franca. Carrie and her friends, for example, staged a mock public salute to the Golden Marble childrens advertising awards being held in New York City. Dressed as Goldie the Weasel, they handed out comic books "celebrating" the most egregious abuses of corporate America in their quest for the hearts and dollars of young people. As Carrie writes in hercarefully typesetopening editorial in issue #14, "to fight a good fight you must access the enemys power, and to see your own role in it, before deciding where to go from there."
Jean Railla, editor of the web-zine Crafty Lady, feels liberated by the direction that Stay Free! and her owncarefully crafted and digitally renderedzine have gone, shifting emphasis away from preconceived style and toward what really matters: content and process. "Its not shocking to me that corporations are putting out fake zines. It makes total sense given the state of advertising in this culture."
"It used to make me sick; it was all the more reason to retreat into the subculture," Jean explains, acknowledging that "this separatism really limited my scope and view of the world." "Now," she reflects, "I try to focus on saying what I want to say...and on the fact that girls out in the middle of Kansas still make zines for one another. The activity of making zines is what is really importantand all the marketing in the world cannot change that."
The left, like bohemia, has long held as an article of faith that certain stances, styles, and representations embody certainprogressive or conservativepolitics. Its time to lose that religion. Sure, Im disgusted by Nikes looting of my beloved zine culture, just as I shudder each time I hear "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" as an ad jingle. But I also feel a curious sense of relief. The easy expropriation of even the most rebellious culture should open our eyes to the fact that pat notions about the "politics of representation," "cultures of resistance," and "authenticity" are hopelessly outdated. In our free-wheeling, postmodern playhouse of a world: Image is Nothing. No, wait, thats the ad copy for a Sprite commercial. Z
Stephen Duncombe is the author of Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. He is an activist in New York City and teaches Media Studies at NYUs Gallatin School.