Harlan Howard, country music legend, is credited with describing a great country song as “nothin’ but three chords and the truth.” If you’re like me, a northerner whose choice of southern music leaned more towards REM than Western, you probably mostly remember the U2 version where Bono told us that (and a red guitar) were all he needed. This proclamation, located in the extended outro to the Bob Dylan cover on Rattle and Hum, comes around the time the band was moving through their awkward teen years; Angry boys from Dublin easing into arena rock, performing the soundtrack to a film documenting their rise to stardom.
There is something in this quote with its origins blurred; A kind of truthi-ness that is both earnest and silly. An oversimplification that makes us cringe a little, but also activates a deep atavistic fuckyeah from the world where speaking truth to power works, and all a boy or a girl needs is their own voice and a flimsy soapbox to stand on.
This is the spot where zines sit. Wikipedia (arguably the most famous of recent self-publishing ventures) tells us that: “A zine (/ˈziːn/ zeen; an abbreviation of fanzine, or magazine) is most commonly a small circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier.” Adding: “A popular definition includes that circulation must be 1,000 or less…”
This definition, while probably correct in the most pedantic of ways, is wrong. It misses both the purpose and the meaning of zines, which are neither a stylistic exercise (photocopier) nor a deliberate player in any marketplace (circulation numbers). While both of these things might describe common characteristics of zines, they articulate only the red guitar, skipping over the three chords and the truth.
The zine is many things and like most punk efforts and all manifestos it contains the seeds of its own destruction. Zines have become a “thing:” a style and an attitude that can be duplicated cheaply. A shortcut for teen angst. An icon of the 80s and 90s. But while this great freight-train of an experiment called the Internet has blown the doors open on self publication and distribution, we haven’t ever needed anything more desperately than a few good voices, a little rough, a little raw, slightly embarrassing and badly copied.
For me the defining characteristic of zine is a return to love. When the Internet brought us all together into one big room of unfiltered humanity, it carried an adult discomfort with earnestness that expressed itself in ugly: nostalgic glances at our childhood leaning to irony, irony verging on cruelty, trolling into actual cruelty, all for “the lulz.”
This irony kept certain parts of our cultures and our selves safely contained: they allowed us to admire saturday morning cartoons, bad beer, unfortunate fashion choices, My Little Pony and goth makeup and U2, and still function in the adult world on Monday morning. But irony as a defense mechanism is thin and a hallmark of our maturing culture is that we can take our love seriously, even if it looks stupid and useless in the grand scheme of things. What I adore right now is the post-lulz internet, the space where the trolls are turning into activists, the cat gifs are stegonographic, and we no longer laugh when we sift something beautiful out of the stream.
So what is a zine? What does it look like, and what does it mean in 2014? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m confident the spirit is alive and well. Over the next 12 months, Feral Research will be investigating this phenomena with a series of interviews, examples of our favorite new zines and some of our own self-publishing experiments. Stay tuned and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, on twitter or to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like a freeway out / I need your love
– U2 Hawkmoon 269, 1988