Capturing a twist of New York Zeitgeist, Spy magazine is one year old and quite grown up. No profiles, no reviews, no life-style, say its editors: but is this true? Andrew Solomon investigates the irony and the ecstasy of the new sensibility of glut.
The thing about Eighties youth in America is that it is totally humourless. People in their twenties and thirties are beautifully dressed, mindlessly pro-Reagan, and very food-conscious. But they are humourless, and the shortcoming is a grave one; it is what marks them as “Yuppies,” as “Dinkies,” as emblems of the failure of dignity in today’s world. They have come to realise this, in their usual slow and painstaking fashion, and, responsible young people that they are, they have decided that the problem should be remedied. And so they have created a sense of humour all their own — or rather, they have decided that the absence of a sense of humour is itself funny, and have taken to ribbing one another about the high seriousness with which they treat consumer goods and commodity brokerage. This version of humour has become a sort of status symbols among the youth of America, and the truly humourless and rapidly learning readers. And everyone comes back for more.
Spy is the brainchild of editors E. Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, both of whom were at TIME before they launched the project. They solicited the advice of Tom Phillips, who was then in the venture capital group at Rothschild Inc., and in “less than a lunch” he took on a position as publisher of the magazine.
The first issue appeared in October of last year. Only spectacularly trendy people bought the first issue, because they were the only ones who knew about it; advance publicity had been limited to 30,000-pieced mailing. But word of mouth has done the trick since, and each month circulation increases. Most buyers are in New York, but about a quarter live elsewhere. Most are under 40. Ninety percent attended university. Their median income is $45,000. It’s a recognisable type.
The boys at the helm — Carter, Andersen, and Phillips — are American casual clean. None of them have beards. They all need haircuts. They drink their soda right from the bottle. Carter is from Canada and wears a suit, but Andersen and Phillips both wear their shirts open at the neck and their ties pulled part way down. Phillips wears tatty shoes. All three radiate good-humoured self-satisfaction and complacent intolerance, and that’s what their magazine is like as well. The first issue featured a cover story on “Jerks — The Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers.”
Since then topics have ranged from “Prose Styles of the Rich and Famous” to “It’s OK to Hate High Culture.” Regular features include a particularly camp social page, called “Party Poop,” letters to the editor of the New Yorker, which does not publish letters, a gossip page in almost illegible tiny type called “The Fine Print,” and (copied from Private Eye) a brilliant column called “Separated at Birth?” in which strangely congruous photographs point up the virtually identical appearances of, for example, Lieutenant General James Abrahamson and Vanessa Redgrave, or George Shultz and the Cowardly Lion.
“Most general interest magazines in this country are made up of three elements,” explains Carter with the expansive gesture that punctuates all his abstractions. “At the beginning, they have short items about trends and then there are perhaps four profiles and then at the back there are reviews and small art features. We wiped all that out and started from scratch to do something completely different. We have almost no profiles, and no reviews, and no life-style.” So says Carter. The magazine is in fact full of larger-than-life portraits, which some might call profiles. It reviews the hair-styles of famed socialites and the social lives of famed hairstylists, though it does not in any straightforward way review books, plays or restaurants. As for life-style, Spy‘s primary function is to make of the deflation of one life-style another one. But Carter is right. The predictable and sometimes banal format of magazines like New York is absent here.
Because what defines Spy is not so simple. It’s not just a matter of selling a fantasy life-style to people who don’t live like that, or of confirming to the superior their own superiority. “We’re trying to capture a twist of the Zeitgeist,” explains Carter. “That’s funny by itself; no one here writes jokes.” Andersen expands. “There is a sensibility, we felt, that just hadn’t found its way into print. It’s ironic and it’s sceptical and it’s part of the sensibility of our generation.” The offices of Spy are in the Puck Building on the edge of SoHo. It’s one of those buildings that everyone admires; visitors to the city always ask what goes on in there, and seasoned New Yorkers with a nonchalant shrug of ignorance say, “Offices or galleries or lofts; chic things.” That’s where Andersen sits and discourse about “our generation” — his tone is one of unbounded magnanimity. “We saw that on the one hand there are these sort of dry ponderous think-magazines and on the other hand there are these trashy let’s-have-fun magazines and nothing between, and so we set out believing that you can be intelligent and playful.”
Of course, Andersen is dead right. You can be intelligent and playful. Sometimes Spy is intelligent. Sometimes Spy is playful. Sometimes it’s both. But marketing irony is tough. Even they admit that. “If you try to appeal to the whole nation, your yardstick for humour is too broad,” says Carter. “Our secret was to make it New York, which is a world-city itself, and then to choose the New York myth we wanted.” Here Carter gestures expansively again. “Our myth is self-aggrandising.” There is, according to Carter, no shame in this and no lack of humour. “The hardest job we have is slowing down the process of growing serious. We’re like the New Yorker in the Twenties, full of new life, and we don’t want to get political and sober.” But didn’t the New Yorker always have great pretensions to literary grandeur? “No,” says Carter. “To be frank, it wasn’t that great.”
“Our magazine is great and will continue to be great and that’s why people read it,” interrupts Phillips, who is of a somewhat less ironic temperament than the two editors. Andersen concurs. “Spy is loved by its core readership because of its substance,” he says. And Carter adds, “People read Spy for honest reasons.” What is all this earnestness? It’s an inevitability. You can’t earn your daily bread by selling your ironic sensibility and expect to keep it up. Phillips falls prey to this most easily. “I really sympathise with a lot of the views we present facetiously. Like it’s being OK to hate high culture. I mean I really think that!” Phillips bangs the table and takes a long swallow from his soda bottle. This is just what Spy is out to mock — irony used as an excuse, the slight lilt of tone disguising deeply held beliefs. Carter knows this — he doesn’t wince at Phillips’s comment, but he smiles. “The thing about the people who buy this magazine who don’t understand it is that they’ve been told that this is funny and so they’re likely to see it as funny because the more humourless they are, the more they pride themselves on their sense of humour.”
Ah-ha! This is high exploitation. This is the brilliance of Spy. In the August issue, the cover story is about fake WASPs. It describes in biting detail the absurdities of the Ralph Lauren shop on Madison Avenue, which sells new accessories of old money to new money for lots of money. Phillips announces with pride that Spy is sufficiently independent not to mind losing potential Ralph Lauren ads by running such an article. But in point of fact a Ralph Lauren ad on the next page would reach just the audience it wants and needs. Some of the people reading Spy are, of course, the real WASPs. But many of them are the fake ones who are so mercilessly castigated in the article, and though they read the magazine so that they will seem to have that rare attribute — a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at themselves — which justifies all sins, they are still fake and they are still Ralph Lauren shoppers.
There’s a pattern in New York with anything trendy. Like clubs, for instance. First the really trendy people go to them. Then all the less trendy people begin to go because the really trendy people are there. Then the really trendy people get kind of sick of the whole thing and they decide they don’t want to be seen where all the less trendy people are in evidence. So they stop going. But by that time the less trendy people have come to love the place and they keep on going. In the end, trendy places usually close, because even the less trendy people eventually get tired of them. But those are places. With a magazine it doesn’t have to happen that way. The really trendy people don’t have to look at the ugly faces of the less trendy people; they can go on enjoying the magazine for the same reasons they always did, just as if less trendy people weren’t reading it. According to the editors, the readers of Spy are not after its trendiness, which is incidental.
“It wasn’t designed as a hip magazine,” explains Andersen. “It was designed as a good and maybe even a great magazine. It’s not hip. It’s just perceived as being hip.” “If the people who are reading it in Manhattan are doing so only because people in New Jersey and Boston aren’t reading it…” begins Carter and then he makes a helpless gesture. “Screw ’em!” Phillips finishes the sentence. “I would love for people in New Jersey and Brooklyn to read this magazine.” But the magazine is perceived as being very much of the moment, and this disingenuousness of the part of the editors is a little peculiar. In the August issue there is a full page ad for the Tunnel, a with-it club with pretensions to brilliance. The ad promises free admission on Thursday nights to anyone who mentions Spy to the doorman — ostensibly because the kind of people who read Spy are so fabulously on top of things that the Tunnel is just aching for their patronage. “We didn’t design that ad,” says Andersen. “They did.” But why? Andersen smiles his least trendy smile, the smile of the boy from Nebraska he really is. “Just because the market and the audience that we’re reaching is also trying to be reached by things like the Tunnel and people who make trendy jeans and people who sell trendy soda pop and all the rest — I mean, that’s not our fault. And besides, we’re probing all that stuff.”
It’s not his fault, of course, and it’s great that he’s probing the trendy stuff, but by hook or by crook Kurt Andersen has become pretty trendy himself, and anyone who acknowledges the possibility of “trendy soda pop” can’t be blind to the intentional market basis for trends. So what about all this probing? The great redeeming factor in Spy is that it is sometimes analytical. It trembles on the brink of really saying something. The WASP article does try to get at the sentiments that have made us all yearn to be WASPs. The article on bad prose in pop biographies gets right at the core of pop ineptitude. There is an intelligence behind these articles. But the probing never runs too deep. Every interview the three “leaders” of the magazine have given — and they’ve given a lot of them — seems to have included the same coy explanation of their humour: “We’re Saturday Night Live and David Letterman in print.” But they’re not. Those shows are silly and wacky. Spy is at its best when it is something more than silly and wacky. “It’s irreverent and light and biting,” says Carter, “but there is a moral background, a purpose. We champion the underdog and bite the ankle of the overdog.” That’s what’s good about Spy, and that’s what makes up for all the repetitive bits in the magazine, for all the self-indulgence and arrogance. There are not only flashes of brilliance, but flashes of purpose. Sometimes the magazine is too mean; “I think it’s great to be nasty,” says Phillips. He’s missed the point. “We’re something more than literate sensationalism,” says Carter.
Despite Esquire magazine’s comment on Spy — “enough already” — it is much more than literate sensationalism; Carter, Andersen and Phillips do what they do extremely well. But what they do must be honed if it is to endure. The thing about the board of Spy is that they could easily be doing more monumental and more enduring things; that they are not reflects a choice, and that choice is at the core of their sensibility, is indeed what makes them truly products of the Eighties: they are people who have too much, and they are writing for people who have too much. They are documenting the glut. Their seriousness about the frivolous is far sharper than their frivolity about the serious; it is the defence of those who have disciplined need from their lives. Trendy people — Spy readers — cover their insecurities with external defences. The defence of the moment is irony. Spy is brilliant in places and it has discovered a voice for a generation that has until now been but half articulate. But it must be careful of redefining irony as a refusal to engage, wary of being too easily carried away with its own wit; if it is truly self-ironic, wry as well as cynical, it may yet be the forum for some of today’s best writing; it may be, in the words of Tom Phillips, “a really great magazine.”