Whither the hipster?

The label, Hipster, has been thrown around quite a bit in the electronic music scene and, in my experience, it has generally been used in a pejorative sense. It appears now as a marketed lifestyle absorbed into the mainstream and is subsequently full of posers/wannabes/fashion-victims and just as any trend that attracts significant attention, there is a backlash: “the fashion party’s over.”

The hipster “movement,” while originally based in New York, spread around the globe online via personal blogs, myspace, facebook, youtube, zshare, yousendit, vice magazine (esp. the infamous Do’s/Don’t section), streetbonersandtvcarnage – and the style section of even our local NOW magazine. According to the Hipster Handbook:

“Hipster – One who possesses tastes, social attitudes, and opinions deemed cool by the cool. (Note: it is no longer recommended that one use the term “cool”; a Hipster would instead say “deck.”) The Hipster walks among the masses in daily life but is not a part of them and shuns or reduces to kitsch anything held dear by the mainstream.A Hipster ideally possesses no more than 2% body fat.”

Essentially, my party is better than your party.

In the lingua franca of the day, we could use the following popular tags to describe hipsters:

fickle, shallow, trendy, kitsch, irreverent/irrelevant, students, glamour, irony, photography, social networking, download, mash-up, internet, diy, low-rent, urban,  party, youth, fashion, indie, dance, blog, mp3, youtube.

Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the stereotypes:

In brief, hipsterism or hipsterdom spread around the Western world through the internet and was fueled predominately by “youth culture” over the past 8 years.  As kids partied, took /posted photos, wrote/read blogs, and visited social networking websites, a cross-pollination of music and fashion occurred: tech-savvy hipsters re-mixed music and video, fashionistas borrowed accessories and designs from different cultures and time periods –  and they put it all online. Free,  for everyone to see.

A couple of weeks back  the Toronto weekly, NOW Magazine, declared to its readers that Hipsters are obsolete, parroting the call of BlogNGR on streetbonersandtvcarnage who opined that the recent Democratic victory in the U.S. meant the end of the hipster worldview: “Obama has already changed the world by bringing hope and healing to B-B-BILLIONS of people around the globe. Neo-Cynisism(sic) can’t fuck with that – it’s real.” Later in the post, he eviscerates the posers of  hipsterdom by attacking  Neo-Cynisism(sic):

We must never fall into the common retard-trap of allowing ourselves to believe, for even a second, that there’s any deeper “meaning,” or “movement” behind our chosen music-and-t-shirt collective…Never believe that the cynicism you spend on scene-dues is actually legal tender in the real world – it would be as dumb as a Hippie thinking he can fight global warming by fashioning a testicle-choker out of hemp.”

Equating the politically self-indulgent lifestyle of the Hippie with that of the cynical Hipster, BlogNGR offers up the following matrix:

It appears to me that the recent trend of  hipsters have a certain sense of irony about them that has kept them grounded in their own bullshit, i.e.  to never take “the life” as anything but a fun way to party and offset the 9-5 drudgery. To outsiders,  hipsters’ fickleness and their seemingly endless parade of recycled and flash-in-the-pan trends makes them come off as vapid and lacking a “raison d’etre.”

However, since when did people need a manifesto to party?

BlogNGR’s post is perhaps well-intentioned, undoubtedly self-serving, but fundamentally absurd. Trying to re-centralize, control the movement, or launch a claim of authenticity about the collective hipster identity is futile at this stage. We can’t fault him for trying, but his magic Obama bullet is ineffective as a rhetorical device and he is guilty of the same type of 1-dimensional bullshit that haters and marketing execs would claim. Raging against posers and “shills” in the name of Obama places the president-elect and all his supporters in the “do not mock” or “real” category…for now. Telling his readers to grow up or buy into the current tide of  politcal optimism is too rich coming from someone who plays chief of the fashion police online. Sure, there are probably some in the scene who need a reality check on their priorities…but what exactly about hipsterism is OVER? Eschewing analysis for rant, he sells hipsterdom short by focusing on the outward trappings (cynicism) rather than the far-reaching effects it’s had on media and its role in youth culture.

A few months back Adbusters, printed a damning article about the “movement” entitled  Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization. The author, Douglas Haddow, decries the newest trend in youth culture as both destructive and lazy. Consider his criticism of the Hipster music and aesthetic:

“The “DJ” is keystroking a selection of MP3s off his MacBook, making a mix that sounds like he took a hatchet to a collection of yesteryear billboard hits, from DMX to Dolly Parton, but mashed up with a jittery techno backbeat. …An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal…

Clearly Haddow has missed the boat on”youth culture,” and is unaware of the changes that the internet and new music software have wrought on djing and the production of electronic music.  Whereas samples have been used throughout the history of electronic dance music, the “mash-up“(something djs have been doing for decades btw) trend brought sampling techniques fully into mainstream music, i.e. Diplo, Aaron LaCrate, Soulwax aka 2Many Djs, Girl Talk, etc…Haddow is uncomfortable with sampling’s musical legacy and rather than examine the political economy of new media and the hipsters’ subversive approach to copyright and DRM,  he wastes time with cheap shots at fashion, blogging, and photo-whoring.

Haddow is most interested in the superficial elements of  hipsters and his article is permeated with  a lexicon of  political concepts from 30 years ago.  Mainly, he is offended by the hipsters sense of fashion as living bricolage as they are either ignorant or indifferent to the social context from which they borrow:

“Punks wear their tattered threads and studded leather jackets with honor, priding themselves on their innovative and cheap methods of self-expression and rebellion. B-boys and b-girls announce themselves to anyone within earshot with baggy gear and boomboxes. But it is rare, if not impossible, to find an individual who will proclaim themself a proud hipster. It’s an odd dance of self-identity – adamantly denying your existence while wearing clearly defined symbols that proclaims it…The American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class…”

Ah yes the Vee-neck: proud workmanly attire of the proletariat. Give me a break!  What do all the hipster items have in common? They are cheap and students/kids can afford them.

To his credit as a “fashion policeman,” the concern is not wholly without merit…How many times have you seen a Che shirt on someone here in Toronto? How many of the people wearing it know the life story of this revolutionary figure? (interestingly, a custom shirt place on Yonge advertises a Che shirt w/ the caption: “I don’t know who this is”)likewise, the appearance of the politically-charged keffiyeh has also been decried many times in the court of public opinion…

Of course when you are judging someone’s politics by their clothes it’s an easy/lazy call to make no? Pass me another Pabst, I feel like drinking my politics.

Toronto Star article written by Sarah Barmak presciently noted that much of Haddow’s poo-pooing of hipsters was based in his inability to see the shift in political aesthetics in “youth culture,” and quite simply how out-of-touch he is…

“In the near-forgotten, pre-digital days before a mass SMS could ignite a flashmob, style warriors communicated subversive intent – or just membership in a subculture – with materials they had at the ready; the gritty semaphore of a plaid hanky in the back pocket, for example. If you saw someone in a Mohawk and Doc Martens, you had a good idea of her politics. Now, a hipster in a neon ’80s fanny pack could be conservative or ultraliberal. The subversive function has largely faded from style, leaving us with mere fashion. So instead of speaking with our clothes, we broadcast opinions and start micro-movements online.This has led us, perhaps wrongly, to conclude that kids are obsessed with the aesthetic.”

Youth have always been interested in fashion, music, and (with the invention of the polaroid) taking tons of inappropriate photos.

“Damn kids and your party music!”

Yet why is the label “hipster” so maligned?

Labels  exist as  an external judgement mandated by, and in relation to, the mainstream. A label effectively strips away a person’s originality and creativity and lumps all “like-minded” people into a homogenous mass. No news there right? Modern hipsters already have a sense of irony about them and accepting the hipster label really takes the piss: you are a joke.

Perhaps sensing hipsterdom’s unstoppable slide to the morass of the mainstream, BlogNGR tries to deflate the collective hipster ego by laying bare the limits of cynicism and the political inefficacy of “partying,” i.e. there’s something more than the “scene” and his name is Obama. Thus, hipsters can be simultaneously labelled and maintain a sense of individuality or purpose beyond the ascribed hedonism.

BlogNGR won’t change but you will.

Outsiders seem to mirror his points. Yet their attack is focused on hipster aesthetics which for some have come to represent the “end of Western Civilization”: hedonist, consumerist, and unorginal.

This is a perplexing argument.

As Western Civilization is firmly rooted in capitalism, which puts a market value on everything – scenes included, how is hipsterism any different than any other youth trend that has been co-opted, bought/sold on the market? Within capitalism we are told to express ourselves through brands and consummerism. It’s remarkably effective. You can buy an image and have a whole lifestyle/span of goods mapped out for your consumption. Our civilization has become fascinated with decadence and a lust for leisure and credit (if reality shows and trashy tabloids are any indication) so according to the values of our society hipsters are essentially living the shared dream albeit from an alt-urban perspective.

In it’s mainstream branding, hipsterdom thrives on the novelty of kitsch (one of the best definitions of kitsch I’ve ever heard is the denial of the existence of shit!). Mining and aping past trends, hipsters appear to burn through the fashions/sounds/images of the past to meet the ever-quickening pace demanded by novelty, i.e. lifestyle mags, blogs + pics mean that a “style” gets played out faster because more people can see it and copy it. Fuelled by the internet, trendiness has broken the natural speed limits of “seasons” in all scenes. A scene implies a look, a sound, an identity, and in this day and age – a brand.

If we took the view of marketing agencies, Adbusters, and mainstream media: all hipsters are merely consumers. In fact, quite a number of them are cultural producers and have their own blogs, bands, art, etc…The merits of which and their effects on society have yet to be debated.

A “scene,” on the other hand demands novelty lest it grow stale by virtue of it’s own ubiquity.

Novelty for the sake of the scene has always been distasteful among those who have a stake in a sub-culture and it has never been particularly helpful in creating or sustaining anything but the demands of capitalism. I’ve never liked the hipster aesthetic, but then again, according to the political aesthetics of yesteryear: I’m a prep. Hipsterdumb (the mainstream, cynical, poser aesthetic demanded by the marketing machine) is an unending parody of the past: a regurgitation of kitsch devoid of meaning aside from the individual’s cry for attention or acceptance. But there have always been fakers/wannabes/copycats/fashionistas/scenesters etc…

A question remains, is there any point to try to defend a unique or “authentic” hipster identity in the face of criticism from within and without?

Does the true hipster set out to destroy and re-make the images/ideas of the past or simply parade them around like dad’s old porn collection, sneering and joking about “how big the bush is” and “look at his sideburns!” En masse, I would be inclined to say the latter…but what does that say about me? True irony would imply knowledge of the past trend and its social context…an irony based on the aesthetic alone would be a parody. Is the average hipster literate, educated, reflective? Does it matter? Does authenticity really matter in a digital age? Tracing the thread of origin back to a discrete historical occurance is the stuff of religion and fantasy – and it’s so 20th Century. Nowadays everything is everything all the time.

The “revolutionary” aspect of hipsterdom, as I see it, is in the relatively rapid consumption and appropriation of cultural goods. Ignorant, indifferent, or deliberate, hipsters – for a time – challenged our relationship to media. A truly post-modern movement immersed in it’s own sense of (inter)subjectivity. The plugged-in, creative, and technically-inclined hipster has made use of our connectivity to advance his/her own creative pursuits. The wide-scale synthesis of fashions, sounds, and ideas have given rise to a new sense of global perspective. Now that it has attracted the attention of the mainstream, hipsterdom is of course flattened out to it’s most readily recognizable image: cynical and garishly clashing fashion.

Bricolage is perhaps the best legacy we can attribute to hipsterdom: cultural recyclying to meet the demands of today’s youth. Maybe BlogNGR is right…the mainstream has picked up on hipster communication and run with it. What do we really need hipsters for now?

3 responses to “Whither the hipster?

  1. The funniest thing is that the tone set by magazines like NOW perfectly embody the “hipster” mentality of “My shit is better than your shit” and “My interests reign supreme… in an offbeat, unconventional sort of way… which makes it cool, unlike the mainstream.” :S Ha ha

  2. Pingback: Look at this… « Hot Jambalaya!·

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