The death of the Village Voice has drawn out a coterie of mourners bowing their heads over the venerable radical rag, but their orations at its funeral are completely wasted. The death of the Voice is not due to mismanagement, the right wing or its complicity in human trafficking. After all, its former competitor, the New York Press, which forced it to go free instead of charging a buck fifty, died fairly recently. The end of the Village Voice has to be seen in the context of the death of alternative media.
The passing of the Village Voice, its thick greasy pages smudged with desperate cries for attention in between glossy cigarette ads and phone sex ads, also coincides with the passing of the bohemian nature of the East Village, now little more than tall glowering condos and coffee shops. To those residents who showed up there in the 70’s and 80’s bearing art school portfolios and a burning desire to be part of the “Scene”, it’s one more triumph of the capitalist running dogs over the “People”.
But the real reason that the Village Voice is dead is because the alternative media is dead and the alternative media is dead because there is nothing for it to be an alternative to. New Yorkers can just as easily read shrill rants about the NYPD in the Daily News, pretentious movie reviews for artsy films at The Onion and leftist denunciations of the War on Terror in the New York Times.
The way that the Village Voice used to cover Republicans is now the way that every media outlet, but the handful that aren’t part of the liberal collective, covers Republicans. Every mainstream media outlet is opposed to fighting terrorism, opposed to the police and opposed to any notion of balance in reporting. And every outlet is churning out the same tired 24/7 coverage of something provocative a Republican allegedly said because every outlet wants to be the Village Voice, the ink-stained pamphleteer on the corner screaming about capitalist pigs before heading off to a concert at CBGB’s, also as dead as the Village Voice and the rest of the East Village.
Newsweek, once the paragon of middlebrow inoffensiveness, now does the kind of covers that the Village Voice used to do. It still hasn’t run a picture of Bush drinking the blood out of the green neck of the Statue of Liberty, but, if Romney wins, you can expect that as the March cover. And by then even that might be considered tame.
If anyone deserves credit for killing the Village Voice, it’s George W. Bush, who was its unwitting cover boy more often than Obama has appeared on the cover of Essence. Under Bush the entire media became alternative and the alternative media became supplementary to requirements. When mainstream newspapers give positive reviews to books and movies that envision Bush’s assassination, cheerlead anti-war rallies run by militant Trotskyites and demand unilateral surrender in the War on Terror; what possible territory is left for the alternative media to explore?
All that was left for the alternative media was to run yet another profile of a new bar where people drink the tears of Ecuadoran children purchased through fair trade while looking at themselves doing it in video monitors as an artistic commentary on capitalism. And these days that’s what the internet is for. A culture eager to document itself doing everything, take photos of the food on its plate, review the movie on Twitter while watching it and run a blog about its streetcorner is in no need of an alternative paper to kludgily do these things for it at a snail’s pace.
The same forces that swamped the Village with Obama-supporting hedge fund managers who wanted a place with trendy bars that made them feel like artists also killed the Village Voice. The death of the mainstream meant the embrace of the alternative. With no standards left in any paper, every paper and magazine became the Village Voice, but with a subscription price and better quality control. The Village Voice became a classifieds section for people looking to rent a room, find a concert or rape a Ukrainian teenager– and Craigslist was busy destroying that business model.
Alternative represented the hipster ethos of being different for difference’s sake. It’s why every indie quarter boasts signs like, “Keep Portland Weird” and “Keep Austin Weird”, not to mention “Keep Berkeley Weird”. But how do you stay weird when everyone is trying to be weird at the same time? What does weirdness even mean when everyone is weird and doing their best to get a condo in weirdsville, only to move out in protest because weirdsville isn’t weird enough anymore?
In a rebellious culture, rebellion is meaningless. It has no form and shape, no substance and no direction. All that’s left is the trendy steeplechase of fashion, doing things until other people begin doing them and then quickly moving on to doing something else.And that search for alternative purity becomes eminently mockable for its transparent shallowness.
The very effort to preserve edifices of radical history like the Village Voice runs counter to the alternative instinct to escape the past, denounce it in a Tumblr post that will be reblogged by all the right people, and then move on to doing something that hasn’t been ruined yet by the unspeakable appetites of the bourgeoisie. The death of the Village Voice serves only as an occasion for denouncing the soulless mercenary capitalists who bought up the alternative media, even if the soulless mercenary capitalists are actually their own more successful comrades who wanted to make the Village Voice into a viable concern.
The death of the Village Voice only matters to those for whom exclusive radicalism was an identity and for those who are concerned by the sight of the entire press turning into the Village Voice and the entire country turning into the East Village, concerned only with staying weird. A decade ago, Lady Gaga would have been a warm-up act in the Village before a transvestite beauty pageant to raise money for a documentary about Nestle’s depredations in the rainforest. Now that forced preening weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness is being marketed to everyone.
Alternativism used to be for the people who felt ill at ease, who weren’t comfortable anywhere and made a fetish of their discomfort, transforming that awkward disconnection from the larger world into art and poetry. And now everyone feels disconnected or wants to feel disconnected. Weirdness is fashion in a time when no one fits anymore because there is nothing to fit into anymore.
The molds have been broken, the expectations are gone and there is nothing to adjust to except the weird culture of trying to be weirder than everyone else for weirdness’ sake. Everyone is searching for meaning outside traditional religion. Everyone doesn’t feel like the country is headed down the right road. Everyone lacks confidence in the future. Everyone hates corporations, including corporations. Everyone dives into the gutter, defies whatever norms are left and cultivates the ironic detachment that allows them to distance themselves from their own words. Everyone is weird and everyone is alone.
The alternative media which once chronicled weirdness, has nothing left to chronicle. There are no longer any extremes to escape to, no refuges on the far coast of transcendence, only the grim reality that everyone is desperately unhappily different at the same time. In these United States, where a radical community organizer sits in the White House, Fifty Shades of Grey sits on top of the bestseller list and plastic bags are being banned around the country– we all live in the Village.
If mainstream has gone alternative, then the new alternative is the mainstream. The new wild ones, the rebels, the ones who don’t fit into Weird America are the squares, the Romneys and Ryans, the Palins and Santorums, the ones who smile patiently and explain that they believe in family values and norms. In the kingdom of the weird, the weirdest of them all are the ones who aren’t weird and aren’t trying to be. The unselfconsciously normal people strike a culture that has torn open its own head to see the technicolor stars as stranger than anything in their visions could be.
As weirdness has become the norm, the norm is the alternative to weirdness. But it is also what gives weirdness substance and rebellion meaning. Only by restoring a meaningful norm will there be anything requiring an alternative, and the defeat of weird culture is also the only hope for weird culture to thrive outside the weird-eat-weird steeplechase of hipster fashion.
Today, we are the alternative media because we are the alternative to the alternative that has become the new norm. Their norm is the alternative, while our alternative is the norm. There is no longer any place for a leftist alternative media because it is no longer an alternative to anything. Only we are the alternative.
We are the ones standing aside while the herd rushes over the cliff. We are the ones who see what they cannot see, because we are outside their culture and their world. We lack their fears, their anxieties, their guilts and their insecurities. We are not afraid that the world is about to end, the poles about to melt, we are not terrified that we are secretly racist, that we lack racial consciousness, that we are not afraid enough, that we have still not learned the meaning of life in the back of the self-help section or gotten real enough. We are not worried about being cliches or losing our souls to corporate America, and we do not wake up in the middle of the night wondering who we are.
We are the alternative that they have left behind but cannot escape. We are the alternative to the endless alternative, the alternative to national guilt, national suicide and national armageddon. We are the rebels who rebel against the rebels, the counterrevolution to the revolution, the people, who, when the noise has grown loud enough and there are fires in the streets, step out and show a better way.