By Peter Margasak
Rock zines don’t cover rock anymore. Or if they do, they’re usually making fun of it. The indie rock explosion of the 80s–rechristened “alternative rock” for marketing purposes–was accompanied by a proliferation of sharp-tongued publications exuding the same distrust of the mainstream as the music they chronicled. Zines–from hefty, near-encyclopedic journals like Forced Exposure to less consistent, more scabrous rags such as Conflict to oddball subversives like Lowlife–obsessively detailed a complex web of underground activity. (I started my own zine, Butt Rag, in the mid-80s.) The connections to the 60s counterculture were obvious. Though the 80s movement had none of the optimism of 60s hippies, it shared a fundamental opposition to the man; in the 60s they tried to topple him, and in the 80s they just complained about him.
But the scene that spawned Nirvana, the Butthole Surfers, and White Zombie no longer exists, and whether it sold out or found itself assimilated into the mainstream is irrelevant. Upstarts lose their edge. The revolution was televised, and MTV simply bought the whole production. A few years ago a handful of genuinely talented, important bands achieved commercial success without artistic concession, but their styles have been so suffocatingly embraced and commodified by the industry that their original outsider stance is untenable. Tune into your local alternative rock station and you’ll hear bands crafted after a scant number of models: Nirvana, Green Day, Alanis Morrisette, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nirvana and Green Day may have developed inside authentic underground scenes, but most of their imitators skipped the street and went straight for the bank. An underground still exists, yet it’s so scattered it’s hard to know just what to make of it.
Rather than keep up with shifting styles, many publications have either turned against indie rock or simply turned away. However, they haven’t necessarily abandoned the spirit and mentality that indie rock began with. Even when they’ve left punk behind, they express themselves with the same dark, questioning attitude. Apart from chasing the trends in the underground and engaging in mindless boosterism, there are a couple of methods to achieve this rock ‘n’ roll worldview.
San Francisco’s Bananafish predominantly covers noise, from the gushing feedback shrieks produced by combos like Prick Decay to twisted avant-rock by such outfits as Melt-Banana. It’s written for a limited audience, and there’s no desire to expand readership. Rarely is there any historical angle or even analysis. Interviews might discuss personal hygiene as much as music, while the publication’s review style has evolved into a dense fabric of nonsensical banter, hallucinatory non sequiturs, and visceral imagery that makes no attempt at actually describing the music: “If it’s been too long since orange smoke poured out of your eye sockets, you’re overdue in picking up Knurl’s Nervescrap CD. Finally, someone who’s not afraid to toss brass fillings in a gigantic electric shaver.” The writing mirrors the illogical turns of the noisy music. Even readers who follow the music Bananafish covers won’t always understand the zine; to others it may as well be written in a foreign language. Bananafish revels in jumbled tangles of words, making meaning a secondary concern.
On the other side of the fence we have Motorbooty, a Detroit-based publication that in recent years has been transformed from a slickly produced zine with features on standard indie rock subjects into a masterfully conceived version of Spy magazine for nihilists. It’s well-edited, cleanly laid out, and often covers topics outside the myopic world of indie rock. The most recent issue of this loosely perennial satire zine sharpens its relentless attack on an underground that has become mainstream, not because its offspring have become popular but because they’ve surrendered meaning to enhance their salability. Motorbooty viciously excoriates the rigid uniform of a lifestyle that supposedly values individual freedom. As a phony personal reads, “Alternative female, age insignificant, Carhartt, Doc Marten, Aveda, Fruitopia, Betsey Johnson, seeks male, Carhartt, Doc Marten, Aveda, Fruitopia, Made in Detroit, for Viper Room and possible Lollapalooza.” Along the same lines is the scathing “Rock Resumés: A How-to Guide.” Motorbooty manages sarcasm without much self-righteousness. As it proclaims on the back of the current issue, “Leader of the Backlash Since 1987.”
While including the requisite comix and several straightforward interviews with figures like oddball Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, musician and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, and Detroit cult figure Nicodemus, Motorbooty mostly focuses on topics tangential to the dead rock underground. Though there’s the occasional fake ad mocking punk rock sellout Henry Rollins or the bogus review of alternative rock travel books–Fodor’s Pocket Punk Rock, Let’s Go, Inc.’s Let’s Go Grunge, and Frommer’s SXSW on $0.00 a Day–the magazine’s humorous critiques of the underground’s commodification work because they’re so close to reality. A feature called “On the Newsstand” surveys the covers of other magazines, each with the same shot of Courtney Love, including Time (“Woman of the Year”), National Review (“Courtney Love, Voice of the New Left: Need We Say More?”), Omni (“Against All Odds: The Healthy Birth of Frances Bean and Other Miracles of Modern Science”), and Michigan Sportsman (“Courtney Love’s 16 Favorite Chinook Spots”). While Love’s artistic accomplishments may not be as blatantly specious as that of a prefab band like Bush, Motorbooty has plenty of disdain for the manner in which she has become the mainstream archetype for the underground.
Several pieces parodying non-musical facets of the alternative mentality also hit home. A fake college catalog for Fuck University–get it, Fuck U–attacks trends in postmodern academia with mottos like “No more Class Civ, no Great Books, just Ted Adorno and bell hooks!” The piece is clearly aimed at schools with less traditional curricula, like Oberlin and Hampshire College, but even Georgetown recently dropped Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer from its required reading list for an English literature degree. Motorbooty delivers a rather witty condemnation of academia’s current plight when Fuck U’s catalog stiltedly describes an anthropology/nursing class called “Body Ornamentation”: “By mining new orifices, do we invert totemic dualities of pain and pleasure, desecration and purification, and intelligence and stupidity? We will also attempt to articulate an aesthetics of body art, querying if a common muse is at work behind the roof of the Sistine Chapel and the roof of your own ornamented mouth.”
A piece on “Ten T.V. Pilots That Didn’t Make It” predictably satirizes the medium’s general inanity, but it also focuses on recent examples of how television plays catch-up with culture. A spoof of MTV’s series The Real World rips on the program’s inauthenticity by describing the scrapped plans for The Real World: Kalamazoo, in which the participants are boorish, beer-swilling slobs rather than the artificially multicultural and well-scrubbed cast that appears on the actual show.
Humor is the magazine’s primary objective, and most of its wit comes from recognizing the ways in which the 80s underground has worked its way into the dominant culture. As Motorbooty’s circulation has expanded to 20,000 copies one wonders if it will fall prey to the same forces it derides. While Bananafish retains its fervent insularity with its esoteric subject matter and nonlinear writing, Motorbooty avoids such rigid narrowcasting. With the once-underground Rolling Stone standing up for the establishment and Spy having lost its edge years ago, will Motorbooty succumb as well? The more pointed its attacks have become, the better it’s sold. But if sales figures multiply the publication could find itself inhabiting the same cultural landscape as Henry Rollins. Through eight issues the magazine has been unsparing in its attacks, and it seems unlikely that it will yield to commercial pressure. By publishing only once a year they’ve effectively fought financial temptation. For now Motorbooty continues to critique popular culture with a rare blend of humor and substance, two traits missing since the underground ascended to the mainstream.