February 5th, 2008


Doing a number on Numéro

1. The first thing to say is that I really don't much care for -- or about -- Numéro Tokyo, which is a niche feminine title in the Japanese mag market, a spin-off from French Numéro. I did vaguely notice French Numéro in about 1996 as a mag with editorial content beyond the call of duty, ie quite good, but never bought it. Looking at the Numéro Tokyo website, I'm irritated by the mag's campy, vampy covers, its boring Helvetica design values, and particularly by the decision to use Western models (we'll really know China has won the peace when Western women start reading localized versions of Chinese magazines featuring Chinese-only fashion models).

2. So why then am I writing today about Numéro Tokyo? Well, I'm not, really. It's a lot narrower -- and a lot wider -- than that. I'm writing about some interesting questions which came up when John Jay met Ako Tanaka and then when Marxy blogged about it. Jay is Executive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency in Portland, Oregon (a company I have tenuous ties with, having taken the Nike dollar from them at one point for some music). Tanaka is the editor of Numéro. Marxy is a marketing analyst specialized in the mainstream Japanese feminine press.

3. Jay did a guest blog for the New York Times last week about Numéro Tokyo. As a fellow information-sensualist, I liked Jay's intro a lot -- he describes lounging about browsing the art and fashion press until 3am at the Tsutaya Starbucks branch in Roppongi Hills, and contrasts it with Portland, where everything closes at 9pm. (Then again, if the sound ambience is as aggressive there as in other Tsutayas I doubt I'd last ten minutes. Or is that why Jay says he's in the outdoor lounging area?) Jay's account is refreshingly positive; Tsutaya is great, the editor of Numéro is "charismatic and straight-talking", the Japanese magazine scene is lively and competitive, the fact that editorial content is determined by advertising is "honest", and "it is no secret that the young women of Tokyo rule as the consumer engine, their influence and sophistication make them a highly sought after audience". Therefore "the best editors and art directors" vie to capture these people's attention. Editor Tanaka is "taking creative risks" and serving readers "with a high consciousness... very aware of the world". Everything in the garden is rosy -- as rosy as the Nobuyoshi Araki "flora porn" that illustrates the piece.

4. Now, this account is way too positive for Marxy who, however many blogs he launches (at last count he presided over five) sticks rigidly to the same theme: that Japan is in a slow downward arc from the glory days of 90s Shibuya-kei, when elite hipsters determined the direction of the mass market. In his Meta no Tame analysis of Jay's post in the New York Times blog, Marxy hammers this theme home once more: "The hipster culture of the 1990s has failed to win over the younger generation," he laments. "Every time I go to an “opening” or “reception,” I find the exact same people getting older and older, not parties over-run with young people... While the forward-thinking creative culture we [the hipster taste culture niche to which John Jay, his agency, and most members of Néojaponisme’s staff belong] tend to advocate had a lot of influence on broader mainstream Japanese culture in the past, that is not true anymore. If there has been a narrative for this group in the last few years, it’s certainly its fall from commercial viability."

5. Citing the failure of Tokion and Relax magazines as further evidence of the unfortunate detachment of elite hipsters from the mainstream, Marxy goes on to say that if the Japanese female consumer is leading the market, it's towards the aesthetic represented by massively successful mainstream magazines like Can Cam, With and More: "houndtooth-check coats and curly brown hair and bejeweled cell-phones". "The CanCam girls are a social movement in a certain sense, but since it’s not one we hipsters approve of, we tend to dismiss it," he concludes. "Almost no part of these popular magazines’ styling or cultural guidance has “trickled-down” from somewhere like Numero Tokyo."

6. Okay, that's Marxy's take, and I don't fundamentally disagree with it. I think he makes (between the lines, anyway) a good point about how progressive journalism (hipster elite creativity design culture journalism) is forever trying to make its own interests more widely relevant (and therefore less elitist) by implying trickle-down -- this month's niche development will be important in the mass market in a year or so, just you wait and see. And of course it very rarely is, but by the time we realize this the avant press is talking about something else, promising something else. It's a "trickle-down treadmill", if you like.

7. However, I have a different take. I may be even more of a hipster elitist than Marxy is (possibly because I don't have to work in marketing, and therefore don't have to concern myself with dollar and circulation numbers). I don't actually care whether my values "trickle down" to the mass market; I do not require that process to legitimize what I do and what I like. When niche and mainstream meet, it's a double-edged sword. Sure, "hipster elite" values get to spread themselves through the mass culture, and that makes some hipsters and style mavens (Marxy's always harping on about Hiroshi Fujiwara and Cornelius) rich and powerful. But, in being diluted and copied and flogged to death in the mainstream, these values (which often start as semi-religious life-philosophies for some people) get quickly exhausted. Malcolm McLaren knew that when he put out the "Flogging a Dead Horse" Sex Pistols compilation, and Kurt Cobain knew it when he raised the shotgun to his head (no doubt as another Bush record came on the radio). Let me put it this way: ubiquity really is the abyss. Why is Creation Records no longer around? It's not because they had too few sales and too little impact. It's because they had -- thanks to Oasis, the band who became "familiar to millions" -- too many and too much.

8. I'm a "one swallow makes a summer" kind of guy. At any given point, I hate all pop singers except one, all magazines except one, all fashion designers except one, and all TV shows except one. But the one I love makes it all worthwhile. That swallow brings my personal summer. And, while it's really easy (and, in the digital mediascape, getting easier every day) to filter out the mass market pap, I don't discount the fact that that pap needs to be there to make the lone swallow possible. I'm quite happy to see the mainstream as a money-making mechanism which exists just for the subsidy of progressive minority forms. The lone swallow could not exist without an entire industry of crud, and the flamboyance of a Henrik Vibskov couldn't exist without an entire infrastructure of vanilla. I mean that in brute economic terms -- niche commercial artists need the mainstream to exist -- but also in terms of the relativism of taste and the processes of differentiation and distinction.

9. Ah, the relativism of taste. This is where Marxy -- despite being familiar with Bourdieu's book "Distinction" -- fears to tread. Marxy sees the dialectic between the niche and the mainstream in fairly simple terms: the elite taste groups who produce niche culture can either succeed or fail in going mainstream. What he doesn't seem to consider is that elite taste is produced by the mainstream, dialectically, in a Bourdieu-like "distinction strategy". It needs to be different from the mainstream, but not that different. Above all, though, niche culture must be designed to fail, because when it succeeds it fails too. By crossing over into the mainstream, niche culture stops being niche. Therefore you need to make new niche culture to replace it, new culture for people who want to distinguish themselves against the mainstream (that is, in reference to it, but negative reference) to embrace for the purposes of distinction. Nothing fails like success.

10. This actually contains some good news for Marxy: the hipster elite to which he belongs is not as sterile and separate and spent as he keeps saying it is. It's very intimately and vitally connected to the mainstream, although not quite in the way Marxy expects it to be (the way he hasn't seen happening since the 90s, and is a bit dewy-eyed and Golden Age-ist and retro about). I expect that's why executive creative directors at ad agencies pay so much attention to it. They weren't born yesterday. They see trend dialectics in a more complicated way than "Oh, we're not getting through to the masses".

11. The sole comment under Marxy's Numéro entry is from someone called Dudblankpathetic, who says: "People tend to make safe choices and play safe roles, and this has not much to do with creativeness, shifting the boundaries, pushing the envelope and other fancy words we adore so much... This is not a problem of Tokyo or Japan - this is mankind at its best and ugliest". And while that's a refrain Marxy (who tends to localize universal problems to Japan too much) hears a lot, we have to ask, is an aesthetic featuring "houndtooth-check coats, curly brown hair and bejeweled cell-phones" really such a terrible thing? As mainstreams go, that's a pretty benign one. Just imagine if your mainstream was the one I had to contend and flirt with in Britain early in my music career, for instance -- a mainstream consisting of aggressively mediocre major label A&R men, a bitchy music press and a toxic, venomous set of red-top tabloids which, at times, seemed to be vying to outdo each other in their condemnation of "pretentious" art, sex, refinement and beauty and their celebration of everything moronic, toxic, drunken and loutish. But you have to hand it to them -- they didn't put Chinese models on the front of their papers.