The Frisson of Monocle Magazine
It’s those jaunty, perky, banal headlines that usually set me off. “Be Friendly: We all want a bit more warmth” “Smile: A small gesture transforms transactions and makes them matter.” These are the cover of Monocle magazine’s tips for “Charm, the next offensive: Why businesses, brands and nations need a new buzzword for 2012 and beyond.” There’s a hideous moment where I stop and stand there, slackjawed, in the magazine aisle of the airport WH Smith, and think about to which kind of smarmy preppy-wannabe creep these trite tidbits might appeal, which hyper-mobile, faux-aesthete might be the least bit interested in “Locking up your money in Milan, a Stockholm ‘hood and an Austrian culinary classic.” And somehow in that timeless moment something snaps in the reptillian quarters of my brain and I see my hand reaching out and prising the exquisitely typeset black cover off its rack between Newsweek and TIME. I place it under my arm and the next thing I know I’ve bought the damn thing and a snack size pack of pringles and I’m on my way.
So goes my ongoing relationship with Monocle magazine, Tyler Brule’s astonishingly successful foray into the world of luxury lifestyle publishing. For those unfamiliar, Monocle has recently celebrated its 5th year of monthly publication – no mean feat considering the perilous state of all things print – and has begun to extend its M-branded tentacles into television and radio (or whatever it is you call radio piped through the internet).
A quick disclaimer: Despite my previous evisceration of who I imagine to be the prototypical ‘Monocle reader,’ I, too, am also exactly the type of person you could also comfortably imagine reading the magazine. I am a 29 year old communications designer, living in London and working for a global design firm. I have quote-unquote ironic facial hair (not my quotes, btw). I have black framed spectacles. I am not unknown to wear a plaid shirt every now and then (top button done up, no tie), and I ride to work on a bicycle that although has 15 gears has often been mistaken for a fixie. I own several Apple devices. Oh, the shame of my teetering tower of lifestyle cliches. But that’s the way it is and I’m in no way apologising for my wearing the colors of my tribe.
So when Monocle makes it’s conspicuous appeals for my attention, my antenna vibrates reflexively. I am interested in politics, design, food, culture, travel. I’m a modern urban human and these are spheres that I regularly interact with. So amid the swamp of printed detritus at your airport WH Smith, which ranges from a bafflingly large number of magazines concerned exclusively with a single gadget or application (iPhone tricks and tips or 101 word processing applications for your PC! ) to gossipy pap, to the tired, culturally withered dad-like music magazines reliving every golden era except for the present one, I’m increasingly drawn to what’s broadly called the Business & World Affairs section. Here you’ll find the general interest American big names still coasting off their reputations (TIME, Newsweek), The Economist (essentially, in paper form, a drunken old Tory who talks at great length about anything that seems to cross his mind, and is by turns startlingly interesting and so dull you’d sooner impale a sherry glass through your eye). There’s the heavy breathing of the CEO-fellating triumvirate: FastCompany, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek, and the rather quaint, shrivelled presence of National Geographic. Wired is the occasional interloper in this heady, capital ‘I’ important section of the newsagency, but its presence seems slightly like an embarrassed teenager in a hoody turning up at his dad’s work during school holidays. Amid all this, without fail, is Monocle. And partly its the astounding greyness of it’s competitors that makes it stand out. Wow! I can read about being charming rather than how China is going to take over the world and enslave us and feed us only on our own ground-up consumer electronics – mixed with shit. I’ll take the magazine about Charm please!
There are a number of things that Monocle has going for it. It has a startling, unique, editorial voice – a kind of suave, cocksure authority that in these relativistic times seems quaint and almost colonial. No other magazine, quite frankly, has the balls to sum up a country’s entire public transport agenda in a snarky aside. The strength and clarity of this voice is, my opinion, the magazine’s most endearing feature. It’s clean-cut, tightly gridded, neo-modern layout and design is beautiful, and has been massively influential both in the magazine industry and beyond, and its crisp, understated lines have become as much a signifier of luxury as they content that they carry. Add to that a liberal smattering of cheery (yet stylistically on point) illustrations, a hearty splash of photography and you’ve got the best looking mainstream magazine by a fair margin.
Which is handy, because beyond the aesthetic sheen, the actual written content of the magazine is … well, it troubles me. It’s vision is not my vision, and yet it’s ‘Now’ is so undeniably, totally, certifiably ‘Now’ that I tremble at the thought that the future will be more and more like the values espoused between its pages.
It is shallowness that is packaged up as an ideal, and it’s designed to appeal to our shallowness, our portentous need to feel informed, even when we aren’t.
Who is it, for instance, gives a shit about the metro system in Jakarta a small bakery in Melbourne? One of my most tiresome irks is how Monocle strains ever so hard to present local issues as having international relevance. Their rationale is, I presume, that this reveals a global sense of interconnectedness, a 21st century ‘It’s a small world after all.” The answer of course, is no one cares about one city’s local metro system and another’s bakery. But the other answer is that we would all like to appear to be the kind of person that does care. So Monocle’s prescription for this mild quiver of cultural dissonance is to wave it’s Burberry-sheathed, Starke-designed wand, give you a sentence or two about said metro system and bakery and say, “There, there, poppet, now you know.” And the aesthetic quality of worldliness is thus bestowed.
Monocle doesn’t really present news: its articles read more like succession of facts, free floating, lacking sustenance and connective tissue. It presents these fact in brief. In teeny, tiny little pieces. Like tasting samples that are gone down your gullet before you’ve really gotten any sense of their actual flavour. For example:
While the rest of Europe chases austerity, oil-rich Norway has no such worries. The government can spend up to 4% of the country’s sovereign wealth “oil fund”, valued about $500 billion.
Okkaaay. Thanks Monocle for that stringy, tasteless fleck of knowledge. So there are a number of questions I’d like answered. Why only 4%? Why not 5%? What does Norway like to spend its money on? Why is this being published now? Why is this being published at all? Outside of those who keep themselves up to date with Norway’s relative riches, who would actually care? And for those who do care about Norway’s oil wealth – well, don’t they already know this? It’s just a fact. Banal. Mundane. And stripped of any meaningful context as it is, it’s a fact that is utterly useless. To me, at least, the problem with Monocle’s entire 100-odd page ‘briefing’ section is this: it’s fact after meaningless fact, and all it adds up to is an affected form of middlebrow channel surfing, a mindless skimming of random irrelevancies.
The trouble with having such a strong editorial voice is the single mindedness that it by definition requires, and the blindspots it produces. There is a vary particular bias at the heart of the Monocle Way that seems to not only revere commerce as an end in itself (not an uncommon fallacy, that one), but seeks to elevate commerce as the ultimate expression of creativity. Now I don’t want to get bogged down in some kind of anti-capitalist rant – I like stuff. I like buying stuff. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to sell stuff. Our relative worth is defined through our economic value – that’s an unpleasant fact that bombards us every day – but do we need to be so damn sycophantic about it? Shouldn’t our heroes be those who do things with the promise of no reward rather than those for whom reward is the reward? Monocle reveres stuff – and the producers of said stuff are treated with sanctity of Mother Mary’s birth canal. Monocle is a commercial entity first and foremost, which means its loyalties lie to its advertisers first, and its audience second. I get this. But it’s the near invisible line between advertising and editorial – the profiles patter with in the same taut, chipper PR-friendly language as the cleverly integrated advertorials – that leads me to the thought that in the world of Monocle, what is PR and what is news is interchangable. Worse, that they’re actually one and the same.
There’s a strange thing that you won’t find in Monocle. Every news and current affairs outlet thrives on it but you’ll hardly find a dash of it between Monocle’s 300 pages. It’s doubt. Mistrust. Cynicism. Monocle has no edge. It’s a spoon. It’s a giant ladle designed to feed. Spoon-ready, without the knife, without an edge, it’s all too easy to gorge on shoes, destinations,leatherbound notebooks, frequent flyer programs, architecture, et cetera, without stopping to ask questions, to debate, to disagree, to be heretical, to fight. This is what scares me about Monocle – its total acquiescence to the status quo. It’s utter prostration to the God of Consumerism. It’s shallowness in the face of depth. It’s beaming orthodontically-perfected smile in the face of it all.
Maybe it’s some kind of moral outrage that made me write this, or maybe it’s just what the reading of aspirational magazines is simply designed to provoke: envy.