Saturday, August 2, 2008

a menace to society.

"Advanced capitalism maintains itself by fostering spurious individualism, pressuring us to define ourselves through our purchases, with ever more precisely marketed products that create a fetishistic concern to have 'this' rather than 'that,' even without significant practical or aesthetic difference. It profits from the dissatisfaction and rage that are engendered by unreal social comparisons, encouraging us to fill the consequent psychic void with material
goods and drugs of solace." - Psychologist Oliver James

This article is about everything I studied in college. Yay sociology! It won't get me a job, but isn't it fun to read about?:

"Hipster: the Dead End of Western Civilization", from Adbusters

My reaction:

The irony of hipster subculture is that a "true" hipster will never admit to as much, mainly out of fear of rejection. Despite having all of the requisite consumer products that immediately grant entry (PBR, a keffiyeh, anything American Apparel, a polaroid camera, ironic eyewear, heavy blunt bangs), the moment one admits to being a hipster, they are immediately labeled a poser. What is that? How can you be a poser in a group exclusively defined by its consumption habits (be it fashion, beer, music or literature)?

The logic here suggests that the person who happily accepts the hipster label isn't as authentic as the rest of the group because they are actively TRYING to fit in, to be cool, to have any label at all. People assume that this "poser" (probably a past emo!) woke up one day suddenly liking the idea of becoming a hipster and so consciously went through a cliched shopping list of items in order to assemble this persona. The "poser's" self-consciousness is to be held in sharp contrast to the rest of the group, those authentic members that just came to be, their united interest in the same brand of cheap beer and gold lamé leggings not an attempt to gain entry into any specific group of cool kids but rather an essential part of their personhood.

Because to be considered authentic in this subculture, you're just supposed to "be who you are" and hope it goes against the grain in an appropriately ironic way. Be unique, try hard to not to try too hard, and cross your fingers! There's a lot of pride in being immune from the grasp of targeted marketing and, at the same time, it's frowned upon to mimic your peers. The idea of going into a store and actively thinking, "If I buy this, I will seem like more of a hipster" is THE cardinal sin. It's all about authenticity, people! Authenticity through apathy and randomness. "Real" hipsters never aspired to be a part of any fashionable group; they were simply born cool. Again, in this vein of thinking, these kids simply embraced what appealed to them (nerdy, ironic things), and it happened by chance that those things are in style right now. Or maybe instead of some objective cool meter finally giving them their due, they finally had enough in the numbers department to create their own group of cool kids, which now reigns supreme. But the best part is that they all happened to find each other in the first place! The internet helped, of course, but if they really have existed all along, in all their ironic splendor, surely the planets must have come into alignment? How else could they have suddenly become such a force to be reckoned with?

My main beef with the Adbusters article is that, based on my own academic study of past youth subcultures, I think the author is overstating this sudden superficiality. There have always been tag-a-longs (free riders? posers?) who followed the fashion of a counter-cultural movement while oblivious or apathetic to its message. Even "authentic" members of any past, supposedly more profound subculture placed some emphasis on a cohesive appearance. To some extent, they had to in the name of group solidarity and identity and all that. But they also did it because they thought they looked cool. And do I even need to mention the importance sex and drugs played in the hippie and punk movements?

I agree that it's upsetting that hipster culture seems to lack a critical message (We buy expensive things, but from places you haven't heard of! We engage with working class culture, but we're upper-middle class! We're all artists and that defines us!), that it's all style and no substance, but this isn't the first time we've seen this in counterculture. Similar complaints of vapidity can easily be lobbed against the club kid scene of the nineties, where dropping ecstasy and dancing to techno were the crux of the movement. What kind of message is that? The author's exclamations that "this is the end of the world, this is the end of youth creativity" are far-fetched and a little too familiar. Elders have always criticized youth culture while nostalgically admiring a more earnest time (through rose-colored glasses, no doubt.) The author gives far too much credit to the youth of the past, presenting them as noble beings that were bursting with originality and immune to vanity, the desire to have a good dance party and today's common art of imitation.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with hipster culture. The fuck-you vibe everyone gives off is so ridiculous. Everyone obviously cares desperately about how they are perceived and yet the natural response is to act like an asshole when approached. Stare at any perfectly disheveled guy or girl for more than a few moments and you'll see them self-consciously check their reflection or touch their hair to maintain that perfect tousle. They want you to look at them and approve, just don't dare talk to them or compliment their shoes! Surely there are plenty of nice hipsters, but the unwritten hipster code seems to dictate an air of unfriendliness. Why can't we just be nice to one another? Obviously by coming to a certain show or art gallery, we have something in common. But it's a community that loves to hate itself, and that I dislike. From my time in Richmond, I've found parts of the scene to be as cliquey and backstabbing as high school. As far as the good stuff: the dance party vibe, the indie music, the emphasis on bike culture, fashion and art, that's stuff I really adore. And while there are plenty of douchebag misogynistic hipster guys, there's also a strong emphasis on gender equality (and queer acceptance) within the hipster community. That's a good thing.

Where the author gets it right is that those past members of youth subcultures didn't live in the advertising-obsessed bubble we do now. If you've ever seen a cool-hunting site, its design aesthetic and photographic subjects look exactly like the pages of Vice Magazine/NYLON/an Urban Outfitters catalog. Remember when NYLON was cool and seemed to reflect independent culture? The covergirls were unknowns, the advertisements were interesting, and the stories were subversive. As it stands, the magazine is still a good place to hear about emerging designers, but ever since NYLON started collaborating with Urban Outfitters by promoting bands that simultaneously modeled UO's clothes (the Plastiscines) and designing shirts for the chain, it's impossible to tell whether the magazine is reflecting hipster culture or encouraging a corporatized version upon its readers. On NYLON's blog, they link to Urban Outfitters products (like their rubber leggings by Members' Only). Don't even get me started on Urban Outfitters featuring a photoshoot by Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter. This is all pretty overt. But don't other magazines and blogs link to and tell us about the products they like, too?

It's a vicious feedback cycle driven by profit. As we reproduce what we see on others, companies reproduce what they see on us. And then we buy their products. Until they get too mainstream. After that, we move on to the next thing (until that inevitably gets tired as well.) This is how fashion has always worked: if things didn't become out of style, we wouldn't feel the need to shop for each upcoming season. But never before has there been such an active omniscient force guiding what we deem to be cool.

Technology has allowed viral marketing to blossom, and that's the danger. There exists an underlying "evil force" at these hipster dance parties and clothing sales: the cool hunters, representatives of huge corporate marketing teams who are members of this movement themselves (and probably started out as everyday hipsters, then jumped at the offer to get paid for it.) Cool hunters watch our every move, engage in our culture and then report back to their bosses. I HIGHLY recommend watching the Frontline piece, "Merchants of Cool." The author of the Adbusters piece claims these cool hunters only go so far as to stalking photo sites as much as the hipsters themselves, but you know what? They're often the ones behind the camera.

So this is the part that bothers me. I hate that blanket of corporate culture and its attempts to co-opt "authentic" culture from the street. I realize that no culture exists in a vacuum, it's always a two-way street, that we can often see through bad attempts at marketing and that we are influenced by them just as they are influenced by us. And yes, we often co-opt mainstream culture as well (like Girl Talk). But just as the corporation killed the flash mob, it's going to kill the archetype of the hipster. And then we'll move on to some equally shallow, consumer-driven idea of cool. Hipsters can be so self-righteous in thinking of themselves as outside of mainstream society, but they're being targeted just as much as everyone else. They assume they're more critical by criticizing mainstream society, but what are they critical of? The fact that mainstream society is susceptible to marketing? If that's the best message they can think of, I suggest they look in the mirror. In all this time, I haven't been able to find any good message in our current brand of hipsterism. Is it the apathy? The fact that it's cool not to "give a shit about shit"? The real message seems to be that "the only thing you should worry about is yourself and your appearance, and don't tell anyone about that last one!"

I just wish there existed some kind of moral goal or aspiration, or even truth in the discerning taste hipsters pride themselves in having, especially in regards to consumption. Do they not realize all the marketing aimed at them? Do they buy into it in an ironic, apathetic sense? Can you subvert something as you buy (into) it?

I know it's impossible for most people to break free from capitalism. I'm not suggesting we all live in a commune, I like small businesses, and I obviously engage with the market. It's just that the hipster has become a key market segment above all else. Even with regards to music, any indie band with a good publicist can do well despite sucking major ass. Just as any other group, we're being infiltrated by profit-driven marketers despite our claims of immunity. And if so much of being a hipster is consumption-based, and our consumption is heavily driven by corporate culture that we readily buy into, what the fuck are we even reacting against?

As for me, am I a hipster? I've used "our" in this piece because I'm not too cool for school. I admit that I love laughing at the ridiculousness of hipster culture while fully engaging in it by wearing American Apparel, dancing to Girl Talk and drinking PBR. I don't know if my love for Rachel Comey belts or passionate political ramblings jives so well with hipster "thriftiness" (though $42 American Apparel zebra leggings? really?) and apathy. From a fashion standpoint, the way I dress is probably too cutesy and trendy, not deliberately disheveled but deliberately put-together, to make me appear very hipster-esque. I also like to shower on a daily basis. But I think, if I may be completely honest, my apologetic attempts to exclude myself from hipster culture actually place me smack dab in the middle of it.

All in all, if I may paraphrase, I read somewhere that hipster girls just want to look cute and hipster guys just want to get laid. That sounds about right.

{credit to amalia for showing me this article!}


katie said...

oh it reminds me of richmond. and you're thoughts at the end are exactly the truth of it all.

SOTTO said...

This is why you are one of our favorite bloggers.


Dennise said...

Interesting. I love the point you made about people trying to seperate themselves from the subculture only inadvertenly placing them right smack in the middle.

Well said.

Miranda said...

pbr is a hipster beer? i didn't know that. i love pbr. it's so cheap! and i'm cheap.
i've been labeled a hipster before. i don't consider myself one because when i hear that i do think of the kids that all look alike and that irks me. i definitely dont' want to be lumped in with them just because i may dress a bit differently from the mainstream.