How Details magazine turned me into a rebel consumer.
I think of Details as the Pearl Jam of the magazine world, the glittery showplace where rebellion, individualism, and nonconformity are conveniently packaged and paired with all of the correct accessories. And like Pearl Jam, Details knows how to translate nonconformity into sales. With the combination of Conde Nast's deep pockets, tremendous newsstand clout, and its unifying vision of the rebel as consumer, Details' circulation has leapt from 150,000 to over 450,000 in less than four years.
The magazine chronicles what I should buy, what I should wear, where I should go, what I should see, and what mass-culture offerings I should choose from. Details is a sort of Sears catalog with 'tude, the fabulous intermediary between the latest offerings of the nation's clothing and entertainment industries and excitement-starved people like me. And with its utilitarian, punk-inspired typeface and its fractured layout, a reader intent upon learning the secrets of youthful rebellion can be assured Details is serious about delivering.
Not that catering to the needs of the status-anxious is anything new. We Americans, as the Monthly has argued in the past, have long looked to magazines to guide us through the dizzying array of consumer choices. The roots of this tendency, indeed the roots of Details' beguiling come-on, are easily traced to the years immediately following World War II. It was then that postwar prosperity and the GI Bill made a college education widely available, thus debasing the undergraduate diploma as the preeminent emblem of achievement and sophistication. When anyone could earn a sheepskin, how were you supposed to prove your refinement? And with so many parvenus blessed with large discretionary incomes, how were you supposed to distinguish yourself from others in the newly monied masses?
A one word solution was discovered: Taste. As members of the new middle class scrambled to improve their social standing, they were eager to adopt the accouterments of their social betters. But while spending and acquiring increasingly became sanctioned ends in themselves, questions remained about how to assess individual performance in the new taste wars. Whereas traditionally the rich could rely on the customs of heritage ("Always shop at Brooks Brothers"), the middle class was attempting to camouflage its roots. That's where magazines came in; many publications proved happy to play the role of discriminating doyenne.
For a solid 20 years, beginning in the forties, The New Yorker emerged as the dominant voice of taste--a reign remarkable not just for its duration, but for its demographics. The New Yorker, after all, catered to the over-30 crowd, not generally the sort insecure enough about themselves to be easy marks. (Details wisely targets the more insecure pre- and post-college types.) But the magazine knew its craft. With pronouncements on this book and that art exhibit, ads for the "correct" scotch and "right" clothes, The New Yorker functioned as a kind of consumer finishing school. And, helpfully, the products pushed--swishy liqueurs, silk ties--were tantalizingly affordable. Just about anyone could save up and buy a seersucker suit from Brooks Brothers, if only once a year. In effect, The New Yorker traded on its literary cachet to play arbiter in the evermore convoluted status game. As the magazine counseled readers on consumer selections, it grew fat with the ad pages of companies eager to reach this captive and suggestible audience.
Yet as the process of acquiring status became more complicated, readers sought more explicit instruction in the art of the buy. In the late sixties and early seventies, Clay Felker brought to life his vision of the chic, upscale, fantasy magazine for the urban middle class with New York, which was designed for a new generation of readers. With king-of-the-mountain bravado, Felker signaled his own magazine's arrival with fillips at the fusty, passe New Yorker. What panic and dyspepsia must have set in when hordes of older readers woke to discover that their beacon of chic had been deemed dowdy. Even as it asserted its bona tides, New York promised to offer more and clearer signals about how to consume. Recognizing the success of early articles in this genre, New York took to offering readers pullout guidebooks on topics which The New Yorker would consider too vulgar to mention: where to ski, which summer house to buy, which private schools to send your children to--purchasing decisions new to most readers.
New York provided the goods--the inside dope on how to go about assessing such decisions-but in doing so, it raised the stakes. For implicit in such guidebooks was a new hierarchy. It wasn't enough to know to send your kids to boarding school, it was a matter of which one--and, to be sure, there was always at least one out of the reach of most New York readers. Those unattainable schools or apartments or summer homes were there to keep those who might feel they had it sussed just a little off-kilter. That was because New York offered a particularly fragile sort of status--the fashionable kind--and it wanted to make sure its readers remained uncomfortable enough to keep coming back for more from those truly in the know: namely, the editors. New York's success was confirmed by a rash of identical glossies that emerged in most American cities.
The eighties saw the advent of Spy and Vanity Fair, which wove the "how tos" of taste and purchasing into the very text of each article. Spy's innovation was offering helpful consumer hints in the guise of snobbish putdowns. For instance, in a piece about the demise of Times Square, the magazine approvingly sneered that it might "make Florsheim shoes harder to come by." What exactly is wrong with Florsheim shoes--they seem sturdy and stylish enough to the untrained eye--is a question left unanswered, the kind of if-you-have-to-ask omission designed to draw readers in and make them feel happily allied with the magazine's sense of humor as well as its commercial appetites. (The clear implication was that Florsheim shoes were lousy because they were so available, and thus so damn middle class.) Not spelling this out was typical of Spy's approach to what's-hot-and-what's-not journalism. The point was never to argue for the cool; the cool explained itself, or more precisely it was cool because the folks on the masthead had decided it was so.
Vanity Fair writers used the vehicle of celebrity profiles to offer hints to readers about which brands of Italian loafers and mineral water were suitable. Readers are presumably thankful, having been given both valuable information on how to plan their next purchase as well as nifty cocktail party trivia and handy opinions. As the half-life of fashionable status became ever more compressed, these monthlies strained to stay one step ahead, keeping their readers slightly off-balance and anxious about their own standing on the tote board of hip. Spy played this game well, but apparently not well enough. Hemorrhaging talented editors and ad pages for years, the magazine which made its name lampooning the rich of the eighties seemed to wither with the scene that it loved to roil, and in February announced that it would soon expire. Ironically, Donald Trump, one of the magazine's favorite targets, showed up on the cover of Vanity Fair the same month that Spy's imminent death was made public. The man who put Trump in Vanity Fair: editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, one of Spy's original founders. Whatever moves the magazines.
Details may also be outpaced by its own definitions of hip, but don't count on that happening any time soon. After all, the magazine had its start as a hip downtown club sheet and chronicler of the Manhattan fashion scene, formidable credentials in my generation's worldview. The magazine added sinew to this potentially effeminate image by adopting the look of the early American punk scene, even recruiting rocker Henry Rollins to become part of the Details glitterati. The mannequins on which Details hangs its expensive clothes are rebels, with real tattoos to show how close they live to the edge.
Recognizing that Details was the real thing, my quest to become a Details man was hampered by an unnerving fear. How on earth was I going to reinvent myself month after month with the latest cool identities? How was I going to pass myself off as an aficionado of all these disparate trends when I knew nothing about them? Details had the answer. It didn't just fill me in about grunge, it gave me an encapsulated history of the movement, so I could wow my friends with my firm grasp of alternative arcana (Did you know that the Smashing Pumpkins' lead singer had a fling with Courtney Love while Kurt Cobain was still sleeping on the Melvins' front porch?). It even had a feature showing me how to alter my clothes so it looks like I've been a punk rocker for years. Details never introduces a new youth fashion without painstakingly delineating its rebel credibility.
Despite the whirlwind of trends, Details retains a unifying philosophical viewpoint: The archetypal American male is a rebel consumer. A recent issue that featured $300 silk Versace shirts also included a revealing apotheosis of Lollapalooza performers Anthony Kiedis and Henry Rollins as the quintessential men of the nineties. "These guys are not only musicians, or even rock stars," the magazine affirmed, "but modern men, emblems of a new masculinity." These "Rock and roll samurai live outside the law, but are bound by their own moral codes." The words used to describe this new man were exciting and fresh: explosive, individualist, all for one, self-styled, rebellious, existential, heroic, and--most appealing of all--nonconformist. (These attributes are presented as virtues in themselves. Absent is any sense that the magazine's self-styled, rebellious, existential hero should do or strive for anything beyond consuming.) Furthermore, Details was offering to show me how to buy the appropriate gear so I could become just as individualistic.
Others articles further impressed on me the magazine's guiding vision of alternative as a set of consumer choices. When Details pushes expensive bathing costumes, it pairs them not with suntanned frat boys, but with skinhead men with tattoos, Doc Martens boots, and leather jackets emblazoned with the names of hard-core bands from the eighties. A $900 silk shirt was photographed with the instructions, "Wear it loose with tight jeans and a rock and roll attitude." Another time it divulged which expensive home video games are preferred by the members of Faith No More. It treated me to a photo spread featuring Perry Farell, Billy Idol, and a member of the Stone Temple Pilots posing in the latest designer clothes. It showed me that I, too, could show the appropriate level of insouciance by lying down on my office couch while wearing the expensive clothes of designer Calvin Klein.
And Details understood my abiding anxiety about falling behind the curve, and failing to purchase and display the appropdate books and CDs, emblems that would show that I, too, flouted convention. That's a kind of nervousness that is only exacerbated as one grows older and less dating, feeling further removed from the latest in youth culture. When fortysomething columnist and CNN pundit Michael Kinsley showed up at a party for Doug Coupland, the hot and newly anointed voice of "Generation X" (Coupland's own coinage), Kinsley told a reporter that he was there because he "wanted to know what the other generation is thinking." I could just about hear the tension in his voice as he uttered those words, even as I saw my own future pass before my eyes.
After drinking in a few issues, I was ready to become a Details man. Setting out right away, I got myself a few baggy suits and bought a copy of Rollins' poetry to display from my back pocket. I got a particularly menacing tattoo on my neck, bought the sort of car Anthony Kiedis drives, purchased some of Iggy Pop's brand of underwear, and wore one of Michael Stipe's characteristic hats. While I was spending my money, I thought I'd better pick up a few packs of Excita condoms, some sex-technique videos, and a few muscle building machines (all helpfully advertised in the back of each issue). Unfortunately, all of this paraphernalia cost me $150,000, and I was still behind the times--the next month's issue had just hit the newsstand.
But my greatest disappointment came in a more recent issue. Tucked away in the back pages of the magazine was an elaborate apologia to all readers who had been led astray by the misfires of Details' cultural divining rod. "Hypes and Sleepers" was a year-end scorecard on how the prognosticators had fared over the previous twelve months. Reading through the list--glam revival, cyberpunk revolution, jazz rap, girl grunge, Tabitha Soren--brought back painful memories, like the time I had showed up at a party wearing a tight purple jumpsuit and eyeliner only to find the room full of Beavis and Butthead manques. But the people I really felt sorry for were the folks whose warehouses were full of now-unwanted platform spaceboots, minidisks, and virtual reality machines--trends which had received countless editorial pages as Details valiantly tried to convince its readership of their viability.
Perhaps the real secret to being a Details man lies in the magazine's recent apology: "Mass taste is perverse and unpredictable, [but] that's also why keeping tabs on it is so much fun." This statement of regret seems directed less to readers than to the magazine's true clients, the real Details men--the guys who manufacture these trends and make money off them: the editors and the advertisers. Perhaps this shouldn't have been such a shock. After all, it was the dollars of eager advertisers that helped keep magazines like The New Yorker, New York, Vanity Fair, and until recently, Spy, afloat despite the development of television and cable. While TV offered the mass marketer the mass consumer, magazines became venues where advertisers could reach a more specific audience, the "top of the pyramid," the segment that would consume their most upscale products. Once advertised in a magazine with trend-setting readers, any product can thus be differentiated and command a premium price from those nervous about their hip credentials. Look what Absolut did for plain old tasteless vodka in the eighties.
The difficulty with this approach in the nineties, of course, has been in developing a new segment, finding a package with the right credentials to slip past the ultra-sophisticated media sensors of a younger set of consumers. These are, of course, the fabled "twentysomethings," the by now monotonous subject of film, news program conjecture, and solemn editorial head-shaking. What the media wanted, when it talked about the undefined and mysterious "twentysomethings" in articles like those in U.S. News & World Report, Advertising Age, and Business Week, was not cultural expression, but some way of serving us up to the national marketers. The idea was to try to get us to care about and try to quench our own particular status anxiety and, eventually, to part with our money. Details saw the opening for a magazine which could accomplish this goal.
If ever thicker copies of the magazine weren't enough to prove its success, the people behind Details knew that it had pleased the right audiences when Advertising Age named it "Magazine of the Year," citing it for having "established itself as the leading media vehicle to reach Generation X." Indeed, publisher Mitchell Fox boasted of "delivering these twentysomething people to marketers in whatever way we can." Elements of that creativity include a column called "Hardware," devoted to items a would-be urban hipster should own, a monthly travel piece going so far as to give the phone numbers of the Details-approved places in which to hang out and spend your money, and an ongoing parade of new looks from the purveyors of too-expensive clothing and attitude.
In the end, Details' message is no different than any other lifestyle magazine: Who you are depends on what you consume, and how hip you are depends on how enthusiastically you keep up with the new. Nonconformity may be the language, but fashion is, as ever, the logic.
Keith White is co-editor of The Baffler magazine. Baffler co-editor Thomas Frank provided additions to this article.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 1994|
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