DIY Nike Style

Stephen Duncombe

Think! It ain’t illegal, yet!!" reads the first page of U Don’t Stop, a
zine I picked up the other day. It’s not an unusual request. Zines (short for
fanzines, derived from magazines) are homemade pamphlets with a rebellious
mission: to create an independent voice outside the mainstream. Though one could
trace their roots back to the political pamphlets of the American Revolution,
zines as a distinct medium were born in the 1930s. It was then that fans of
science fiction, often through the clubs they formed, started producing fanzines
as a way of sharing stories and ideas about a literary genre sniffed at by the
cultural establishment. Forty years later, in the mid 1970s, fans of punk rock
music, ignored by and critical of the commercial music press, also began
publishing zines about their cultural scene. In the early 1980s these two
tributaries converged with smaller streams of publications by fans of other
cultural strains, as well as the remnants of printed political dissent from the
1960s, and a genuine media subculture came of age. Today, somewhere between
10,000 and 20,000 different zines circulate throughout the United States and the
world. What binds all these publications together is a common prime directive:
DIY (Do-It-Yourself). Stop shopping for culture and go out and create your own.

hand-lettered, illustrated with cut and paste collages, and run off on photocopy
machines, the message of the medium is that anyone can put one out. "The
scruffier the better," argues Michael Carr, one of the editors of the punk
zine Ben is Dead, because, "They look as if no corporation, big
business or advertisers had anything to do with them." The anti-commercial
ethos of the zine world is so commanding that writers who dare to move their
project across the line into profitability—or at times even popularity—are
reined in with the accusation of "selling out." In the shadows of
capitalism, the zine world is busy creating a culture whose value isn’t
calculated as profit and loss on ruled ledger papers, but is assembled in the
margins, using criteria like control, connection, and authenticity.

The search for
authenticity drives the ethics of DIY. Against a world of pseudo-events and
image consultants, zine writers are defining for themselves what’s real. They
use their zines to unleash an existential howl: I exist and here’s what I
think. Pete writes about his quest to wash dishes in all 50 states in Dishwasher.
Xtra Tuf’s Moe tells stories of her life as a professional fisherperson
in Alaska. Aaron brings his readers into his boho punk rock world with each
carefully hand-lettered page of Cometbus. Todd writes about basketball
and progressive politics in Ball In. From the outside, the combination of
basketball and politics in a single publication seems a bit odd, but in the zine
world it’s not. As a self-described basketball fanatic and committed political
activist, Todd’s zine is an expression of who he is. Authenticity is to be
found in the real self, unshackled by social conventions and norms, and
expressed through a medium unbeholden to puritanical censors or the dictates of
the bottom line.

U Don’t Stop
is also a basketball zine; an intimate evocation of the street level scene
which surrounds and sustains the game. Inside issue #2 there’s a round up of
the best public ball courts in Los Angeles, an interview with Munier, one of the
few African-American comic writers, and a tribute to the great funk musician
George Clinton. B-ball related poetry and comics are salted throughout. U
Don’t Stop
, like all zines, reads like a labor of love. One of the
co-editors, Jimmy "Stank" Smith, sets the personal tone of the zine early
with his hand scrawled introductory rant. In conventional scruffy zine style,
with crossed off words kept in the text, he blasts out an impassioned plea for
independent thought, ending his extemporaneous riff with the evocation:
"Power." Indeed, it is a powerful testimonial of the irrepressible spirit of
independent communication.

maybe not. A little digging reveals that the two editors of U Don’t Stop,
Jimmy "Stank" Smith and John "Doc" Jay, are, in fact, copy writer and
creative director, respectively, for the advertising firm of Wieden &
Kennedy, the folks who sold us sneakers to Gil Scott-Heron’s "The Revolution
Will Not Be Televised" and coined the famous DIY cry: Just Do It! Sure enough,
the small print at the bottom of U Don’t Stop reads ©1998 Nike Inc.
This is DIY Nike style.

alternative culture, of course, is nothing new. Nike, adroit at strip-mining
black youth culture for years, is actually a latecomer to the commercial harvest
of the whiter alternative scene that zines represent. For years Dirt was
a zine produced by the employees of the "Alternative Marketing" division of
Warner records. The clothing chain Urban Outfitters churned out Slant (including
a "punk rock" issue). The Body Shop still prints up Full Voice, a
zine lauding those who are "rebelling against a system that just won’t
listen" and encouraging others to do the same. Chris Dodge, professional
librarian and zine bibliographer, estimates that there are dozens of these faux
fanzines floating around out there.

What do
corporations expect to reap in return from their zines? Not direct sales. Filled
with the typical zine fare of rants, comics, interviews with musicians, and
poetry, U Don’t Stop—like most other astroturf zines—doesn’t
openly sell its patron’s products. True, the street ball heroes of the
zine’s comic strip are wearing Nikes, and they’ve subsequently appeared on
billboards in major urban markets, but this is low key stuff. When I called
Wieden & Kennedy’s Jimmy Smith and asked him why the Nike logo was
conspicuously absent from U Don’t Stop he explained that, "The reason
[the zine] is done without a swoosh is that kids are very sophisticated. It
ain’t like back in the day when you could do a commercial that showed a hammer
hitting a brain: Pounding Headache. You know, it’s gotta be something cool
that they can get into." The goal is to create an association between the
brand and "something cool they can get into," that is, a genuine grass-roots
alternative culture. As David Rheins, former advertising director for SPIN
Magazine, wrote in the trade journal Mediaweek, "It is not enough to
merely package the right marketing message in a creative execution—it is
necessary to deliver it in an environment that holds credibility with this
audience." In more colloquial language Smith puts it this way: "If you’ve
got them feeling you, you’ve won half the battle."

Advertisers, like
zinesters, understand that commercial culture lacks authenticity. Built on
instrumental market relationships—where people are considered a means to an
end and not an end in themselves—capitalism is forever alienating the very
individuals it relies upon to work, vote, and, in this case, buy. "Kids hate
advertising," U Don’t Stop’s Smith explains, "If they hate
advertising and you’re doing advertising, to me it sounds like you’ve got a
little bit of a problem." Ironically, it’s alternative culture like zines
that offer a solution, providing a primary expression of people’s lives and
dreams: do-it-yourself authenticity. If properly packaged, the ideas, styles,
and media of the underground provide material to renew and refresh the very
culture they are created in opposition to. As Business Week reported in a
special feature on new strategies in marketing, advertisers are now looking to
"hide their corporate provenance." The report continues: "The idea is to
fake an aura of colorful entrepreneurship as a way to connect with younger
consumers who yearn for products that are hand-made, quirky, and authentic."
An example Business Week offers of this fakery? No surprise: "mock ‘zines’."

progressives—and zinesters—like to think of The System as a gray,
pleasure-stomping behemoth. It is that. The rabble have to be kept in line and
the best way to do this in a society where the jackboot is frowned on is to
impose a uniform set of values and norms. The system is also something else:
it’s a consumer capitalist economy that depends on new ideas and new styles to
open up new markets and sell more goods. "We track the movements among these
progressive mind-sets," explains Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca,
co-founders of The Sputnik Mindtrends Report and authors of the recent Street
Trends: How Today’s Alternative Cultures are Creating Tomorrow’s Mainstream
Markets, "
and interpret them into actionable opportunities for marketing,
new product development, brand management and advertising." For the authors of
Street Trends, anything and everything "progressive" becomes grist
for the marketing mill, as chapter titles like "Positive Anarchy" and, you
guessed it, "DIY: Do It Yourself," attest. In this environment, rebelling
through culture means working as an unpaid intern for a market research firm.

But this sober
realization needn’t lead to a miserable fit of the blues. The dance continues,
and faced with the discovery and commercialization of their culture, zine
writers move on, some even poaching styles from the culture that stole from
them. Carrie McLaren, for example, named her zine Stay Free!, pirating
the name from a product that once promised women’s liberation via the shining
path of no-slide sanitary napkins. She’s also picked up design tips
from the slick, commercial magazines that Nike et al. are so desperate to
distance themselves from. As Carrie points out, using a personal computer for
desk-top publishing means that it’s actually easier to make her publication
look "professional" than it is to replicate the old amateur aesthetic of
zines. Besides, she adds, making her zine look nice means that more people will
read what she has to say. This is important, for while the look of zines may be
changing their message is not.

"I’m an
asshole" reads the ad copy over a picture of a self-satisfied man showing off
his sport utility vehicle on the back cover of Stay Free! #15, "And
I’ve got the vehicle to prove it. My expensive SUV." From fake ads to
interviews with media critics to a satirical quiz on how to "Test Your
Book’s Oprah Quotient" (Your protagonist is caught up in… A repressive
political regime, -20 points; Problems at home, +50 points), Stay Free!
mercilessly exposes, lampoons, and slaggs consumer culture from cover to cover.
But in the spirit of DIY, the zine proposes something more: fighting the system.
The tactic, however, that Stay Free! counsels is not retreat into some
authentic subculture but moving out into the world, learning from the big boys,
and employing the language and symbols that—for better or worse—constitute
our lingua franca. Carrie and her friends, for example, staged a mock public
salute to the Golden Marble children’s advertising awards being held in New
York City. Dressed as Goldie the Weasel, they handed out comic books
"celebrating" the most egregious abuses of corporate America in their quest
for the hearts and dollars of young people. As Carrie writes in her—carefully
typeset—opening editorial in issue #14, "to fight a good fight you must
access the enemy’s power, and to see your own role in it, before deciding
where to go from there."

Jean Railla,
editor of the web-zine Crafty Lady, feels liberated by the direction that
Stay Free! and her own—carefully crafted and digitally rendered—zine
have gone, shifting emphasis away from preconceived style and toward what really
matters: content and process. "It’s not shocking to me that corporations are
putting out fake zines. It makes total sense given the state of advertising in
this culture."

"It used to
make me sick; it was all the more reason to retreat into the subculture," Jean
explains, acknowledging that "this separatism really limited my scope and view
of the world." "Now," she reflects, "I try to focus on saying what I
want to say…and on the fact that girls out in the middle of Kansas still make
zines for one another. The activity of making zines is what is really
important—and all the marketing in the world cannot change that."

The left, like
bohemia, has long held as an article of faith that certain stances, styles, and
representations embody certain—progressive or conservative—politics. It’s
time to lose that religion. Sure, I’m disgusted by Nike’s looting of my
beloved zine culture, just as I shudder each time I hear "The Revolution Will
Not Be Televised" as an ad jingle. But I also feel a curious sense of relief.
The easy expropriation of even the most rebellious culture should open our eyes
to the fact that pat notions about the "politics of representation,"
"cultures of resistance," and "authenticity" are hopelessly outdated. In
our free-wheeling, postmodern playhouse of a world: Image is Nothing. No,
wait, that’s the ad copy for a Sprite commercial.

Duncombe is the author of Notes from the Underground:
Zines and the
Politics of Alternative Culture.
He is an activist in New York City
and teaches Media Studies at NYU’s Gallatin School.