Saturday, June 4, 2011

Beyond the Pale: The Rising Profile/Declining Relevance of the Hipster

It would appear that the hipster is officially dead. This is how I know:
  1. In the mid-00s, hipster awareness hits the masses. Or at least, the small portion of the masses with  hipsterish tendencies. In 2006 a creative team from Williamsburg, Brooklyn produces the web sitcom The Burg about Williamsburg hipsters, with the tagline, “Who Says Gentrification Isn't Funny?” Although I only found out about that show a few days ago, I'm fairly sure that 2006 is the same year I start using the word, in such sentences as, “Oh my God, I'm SUCH a hipster.” I probably started using it in theatre school in Montreal, but when I returned to Regina, Saskatchewan, in the Canadian prairies, in 2007 – so, hardly a major metropolitan centre – it was in use in hipsterish circles. I have no idea where I first heard it, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't in an article or on TV. It's much like that other amorphous, all-purpose term that was tossed around in the 00s and with which “hipster” has developed much overlap, “metrosexual,” except I know I did discover that term in an article. (From 2002: Mark Simpson's "Meet the Metrosexual." Mark has taken the occasion of the start of new decade to review the metrosexual's influential 00s trajectory in the just-released collection Metrosexy.) Like metrosexual, it was one of those terms where you instantly recognized the phenomenon (probably with a giggle) and understood its application even though you couldn't define it in less than 5000 words. Also rather like that all-important but all-subjective/all-contextual distinction of the online era, nerd vs. geek, which was gaining currency at the same time.
  2. In October 2007, New Yorker popular music critic Sasha Frere-Jones bashes indie in the article “A Paler Shade of White” for being, you guessed it, too white, apparently unaware of the Unfortunate Implications, whereby you can't stereotype white people (i.e., mainly guys: they have no balls, rhythm, or “vigour”), however fair game they may be, without stereotyping black people (again, mainly guys: figure it out). Indie fans such as myself feel butthurt, but are also pretty quick to accept that they're bland, boring, and, of course, secretly deeply racist. And this despite the fact that Frere-Jones's thesis is reflecting perception more than reality, since during the 00s, there's been more indie/hip-hop collaboration and crossover than ever, what with the efforts of Danger Mouse and the critical and popular success of Damon Albarn's Gorillaz and M.I.A.'s art school hip-hop. Perhaps the British don't count.
  3. In January 2008, Christian Lander creates his Stuff White People Like blog, a sort of rewrite of Theory of the Leisure Class as satire, but less snarky, and it instantly becomes a phenomenon, with a book deal. People love it, hate it, or love/hate it. It's widely recognized in the blogosphere that Lander is not talking about “white people” per se but rather hipsters. More Unfortunate Implications ensue, and the Great Cultural Divide between elitist hipster culture, middle class and apparently exclusively white, and white trash culture (e.g. reality TV), enjoyed by “the wrong kind of white people,” as Lander puts it, and all of their ethnic working-class friends, becomes apparent. No one knows what black people think about the uncool implication that if they have hipster taste it “makes them white,” which is what this tortuous form of white liberal guilt has resulted in by contorting itself into pretzely shape. Even though white people have been praying that having “black taste” (i.e., appropriating hip-hop culture) will make them black for, like, over a decade. Hipsters appear to be the only white people left who realize that they are hopelessly white, no matter how many ethnic foods they try.
  4. Catching on to this trend rather late, in July 2008, and making up for it with hysteria, hipster magazine Adbusters declares hipsters the dead end of Western civilization. The article attracts a crapload of comments, most of them telling Adbusters to chill out. Adbusters might have avoided the uproar by specifying that they were describing the wrong kind of hipster – the kind who reads Vice. (First I'd heard of it. Is it like Mad magazine was in the 50s, or something? I mean, it sounds like the Futurists fighting the Dadaists, or some shit.) It becomes apparent that hipster self-loathing is an unprecedented intensification of the self-loathing that Marxist sociologist and art critic Arnold Hauser dryly identified as uniquely and bizarrely characteristic of the bourgeoisie, hence giving rise to the avant-garde (i.e. the ultimate roots of counter-culture and thus hipsterism). Obviously if Arnold were alive now he'd have a satirical faux-sociological blog instead of, like, massive tomes that I still haven't read all the way through.
  5. Around this time, the hipster debt to indie makes me nostalgic for my youth, so I start wearing skinny jeans for the first time since I was 16. Luckily, as a recent graduate with an MA in English, I'm so poor that I'm thin enough to more-or-less get away with it for the first time since I was 16. At some point I also sport an ironic mullet, but grow afraid that no one in my city, where the wrong kind of white people are barely recovering from the non-ironic mullet, will realize that it's ironic, even though a co-worker at the bookstore drops a Karen O reference. I manage to resist every other hipster fashion movement because, frankly, they're as hideous as the hip-hop clothes. Trucker hats? Ironic vintage tees? (Funny for five minutes.) 80s sweaters – again? Designer nerd glasses? (Okay, if I'm honest, I would get those if I could afford a nice pair.) Neckerchiefs? You do know you look like a complete tool, right? Also, I'm in my mid-30s now, which puts me just outside the upper range of the hipster demographic, so I've got to watch it.
  6. A little later, I go to browse in an HMV outlet and notice a table of books (since I work in a bookstore, I've always got my eye out for any undercutting by non-bookstores) whose theme appears to be counter-culture and which includes some of the subversive, underground books I read as a young teenager, which one found out about from word of mouth or researching David Bowie – notably Naked Lunch. When I next see my 20-year-old hipster sister, I share with her my shockhorror, declaring, “They've got a marketing table of hipster literature at HMV!!!!” But where was Story of the Eye? I mean, if Naked Lunch is no longer beyond the pale, what is? And what are the kids going to read now to shake up their middle-class sensibilities, now that The Man is selling the horror-porn milestones of counter-culture to them (and not Lou Reed's Man, either)? No wonder hipster youth is commonly characterized as jaded.
  7. In the summer of 2009, the unthinkable happens: Jay Z attends a Grizzly Bear concert, then blogs that he hopes indie will “push hip-hop.” Indie music critics rejoice, since there's nothing to make something okay for white people like black people acceptance, and also because this seems to be a move in the direction of even more indie/hip-hop integration. Jay Z was apparently dragged to the concert by Solange Knowles, a high-profile black hipster – which, as we know, according to the definition of hipster made explicit by Lander, should be logically impossible. After all, if there's no such thing as an intellectual (assuming: hipster=faux intellectual), since intellectualism is always only class snobbery in disguise (you mean someone went to grad school and got indoctrinated with p.c. theory?), and, according to the guilty white liberal mind, black people can never be guilty of class snobbery, not even if they're middle class and over-educated like their white hipster brethren, ergo, black people can't be hipsters. Unfortunately for Lander et. al., it appears that hipsterism, rather than hip-hop, is the up-and-coming youth movement, and young black hipsters (born circa the mid-80s) are getting in people's faces about it. Another example: comedian Donald Glover, writer for 30 Rock (never seen it: too hip for me), actor on Community (just the right amount of wrong hipness: seen it, like it), member of web college humour sketch troupe Derrick Comedy (seen it on YouTube, funny), and nerdcore rapper under the name Childish Gambino (from his 2010 mixtapes: “Ima make my street cred stack up / I mean I'm rapping over Grizzly Bear, what the fuck?”).
  8. And then, in spring 2010, indie critics expire with joy when Janelle Monae releases The ArchAndroid (I'm not kidding: the NME review actually made reference to Jay Z's blog remark), an uncategorizable hybrid album that embraces the entire history of 20th century black American music while also overtly laying claim to the European avant-garde conceptual approach for popular music by black musicians. Suddenly, hipster recycling of the past (which has also, simultaneously, characterized underground hip-hop and dance) isn't dead-end, unoriginal pilfering but scintillating eclecticism. Whatever: as a YouTuber put it, at last, a female pop star with clothes and talent. If this is the future of post-rock, I can handle it.
  9. Which brings us to summer of 2011. First, a few days ago I found myself using the term “hipster” in a positive sense for the first time ever. A hipster that I became friendly with over Doctor Who (note the hipster-geek overlap; also, in North America, the right kind of British pop culture is always hip) while working in the warehouse of my bookstore (note the hipster working class cred) – he works in the affiliated coffee shop, and we met when he'd take the garbage out through the back – told me he had a new job as a chef in a new restaurant. I asked him if it was a hipster joint. He said he thought it was going to be. And I said that in that case, I'd have to come and check it out. Note (because I have to spell it out) that this exchange took place without irony. It might have been the same day I observed in a memo from a publisher that “hipster” is now a literary marketing category, apparently identifying a strain of “literary fiction” that people actually read; not, obviously, because it's good, but because it's hip (mainly by guys: Palahniuk, Chabon, Franzen... is this the first time marketing has told the strict truth?). (No Logo – remember that? – author Naomi Klein was thrown in as the token chick.)

    COMING UP: In Part II of this post-mortem, I ask, “Who Was the Hipster?” (Unsurprisingly, NYMag already declared this death in the fall of 2010, but hey, even in the online/global era, trends take a while to reach Regina from New York. Anyway, my definition of “hipster,” and most people's, is probably a bit broader than the one they use in, excuse me, New York.)





    (I googled “Who Was the Hipster” to find out whether to capitalize the “was.”)




26 comments:

  1. interesting. I don't remember when I first used 'hipster' but it was definitely 1999 when I first referred to what we called 'Shoreditch twats' -it was a character satirised in a Newspaper in the UK. And Shoreditch is the Williamsburgh of London. So that was the equivalent of 'hipster'.

    (well it was then it was Hoxton now I don't know where the hipsters live- everywhere?).

    But I don't use it ironically or non-ironically really. I just don't really engage with Hipsterism. Probably because I am not very hip. Or young. I doubt it will ever be used positively in Britain. Not many epithets are we are all too sarcastic in our style of communication.

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  2. Oh and don't forget Unhappy Hipsters:

    http://unhappyhipsters.com/

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  3. p.s. I am looking forward to part two!

    :D

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  4. Thanks Elly! Don't know what's happening with Part 2... I did that thing where I rambled for 15 pages and then got bored with the topic! It's entirely possible that the only reason we ever use "hipster" semi-positively in my city is that there are so few hipsters.

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  5. It could be.

    I think maybe my one divergence from your interpretation - and I am not sure if it is really or if I have misread- is that I only think of 'hipsters' as 'consumers' not cultural producers.

    So things like 'indie' music or hip-hop don't really mean much to me in relation to hipsterdom. Only that these things go in and out of fashion in terms of which gigs are seen to be cool to attend, or which cds/tracks on your ipod are seen to be cool to own.

    And maybe the hipster is dying because it is not needed in order to sell stuff anymore. The demographic is too narrow for a start.

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  6. Well, that's how the term is often used - to refer to a youth consumer demographic. Which is why it's consistently used negatively in the media. However, in my own use, it's basically just a new way to refer to a new kind of indie kid - but one with a predictable set of interests that extend beyond music and fashion to include TV, books, food - all sorts of things. So it's not wholly negative. One of the reasons I suggested for the hispter's "death" is that it has become an overt marketing demographic, much like indie did in the early 90s. That goes along with its more positive use among young people especially, who want to be considered a "hipster" (despite what the media said) and may therefore respond to the marketing. Or - depending on the person - be disgusted by it.

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  7. In London and even some other UK cities I think there was a myth (put about by hipsters and possibly marketeers too) that hipsters are somehow above average consumers. That they don't buy what is sold to them. That they have a 'taste' that may influence fashion but is not led by it. They are 'opinion leaders'. Love them or hate them, I think this myth was widely accepted for a while. But now it is not anymore. People see through it.

    Like all myths, there will have been an element of truth to it. There were some 'opinion leaders' amongst hipsters, but many more followers.

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  8. Hipsters themselves have thoroughly deconstructed that myth (like Lander's Stuff White People Like Blog - he's a Canadian). But the word came to be used more broadly, basically to take in anyone loosely affiliated with any subculture (or affiliated with them in high school!) or with a set of what might be called "elitist pop culture" tastes. Hmmm... now I'm thinking I can only properly respond with a full post!

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  9. yes but that is a typical hipsterish thing- to think you can deconstruct a myth by making a cool opinion-leading blog about it. The myth was being deconstructed anyway which meant those blogs were greeted with knowing joy!

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  10. I've written Part 2, prompted by this discussion. I think you'll find lots to disagree with in it, so I'll be interested in more discussion on a post where I've explained my position more fully. First, though, I'm sending it to Mark, since one of his articles gets a mention.

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  11. Great look forwards to it!

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  12. Damn! Part Two hasn't materialised. I feel the Hipster is in some kind of purgatory waiting for the Final Judgement!

    Meanwhile on my blog I have put up a statement by Camille Paglia made only a few days ago, about the Slutwalk movement. It's fascinating and in my opinion, shows her back on form.

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  13. Wha, Paglia back on form? *goes to see*

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  14. More hipsters - a chat on my blog under a poem about hipster thighs that was inspired by a chat on Mark's blog about something that led to thighs, of course:

    http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/hipster-thighs/

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  15. You write really well Elise and this Hipster analysis is fascinating. I think Mark would be honoured to have you include his work in your deliberations on the death of this genre of personage. I am sure you don't need to ask his permission to include it. But I say that as someone who has invented a daughter for Michel Foucault - so I evidently don't have that much respect for my elders and betters on one level! But on another I do. If they are alive and still functioning, they can argue with people who interpret their work. If they aren't then it is tough!

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  16. Normally wouldn't care, but this particular piece of his was more personal than usual, so thought I might as well run it past him since after all I'm not on a deadline! I discussed Slutwalk with two guys I work with today, literate young men, even hipsterish in spots. The one who'd heard of it thought the women involved had too much time and not enough thought on their hands, the other thought the whole thing sounded lame. Lol, so much for hipster sensitivity!

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  17. p.s. so who are you on Twitter, I've decided to give it a whirl?

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  18. I agree with them about Slutwalk.

    I am @quietriot_boy on twitter I had my quiet riot girl identity stolen by a feminist when I changed names briefly for a joke. I kid ye not.

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  19. More hipster/metrosexual nihilism:

    http://fuckyeahmenswear.tumblr.com/

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  20. Good grief, what IS that anyway? Er, beatnik poetry as menswear ads?

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  21. It is a statement on the demise of culture and the objectified man as THE contemporary icon in consumer capitalism, as a kind of death wish.

    That's my interpretation anyway!

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  22. ...makes a good lead-in to my big hipster post, which will appear by the end of the weekend, promise!

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  23. I like how the hipster has lost interest in him/herself, but we are still hanging in there!

    S/he doesn't deserve us!

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  24. It is particularly nuts that I consider myself a hipster who's lost interest in hipsters but is completing an essay defending hipsters...

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  25. yes that's a bit meta!

    I think it may mean you are not a hipster too. Hipsters don't care about anything enough outside their own image. But I don't want to be writing part two for you!

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  26. I just read that last comment about having lost interest in hipsters soo....

    Well, anyway, my friend sent me a link to this recently and I thought I would mention that from my perspective as a mid-20s San Diegan, "hipster" for me and my friends has become like one of the basic archetypes of all humanity, with its douchey aspects and its positive aspects, like all other subcultural stereotypes. If you have the time, I've done my own faux-sociological article on these stereotypes (and on stereotyping itself and its value) that you might enjoy and disagree with to some extent: lmslms.net/onething.html It contains an entertaining work of fiction to illustrate what I talk about. If you do read it, let me know what you think, especially if you have anything to add to the stable of stereotypes -- the more, the merrier.

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