Saturday, February 21, 2009

What We Talk about When We Talk about Hipsters

I have yet to come across anyone who proudly self-applies the term hipster.  A hipster is always someone else and someone who is exhibiting one of the many characteristic failures of the post X generation.  Hipster then is a label, not an identity.  As a label it is capable of conjuring a dozen different shades all at once.  Its imprecision is part of genius. Like Indy Rock a little too much? Hipster.  Interesting haircut? Hipster.  Boll wevil? Hipster.

The hipster spectrum as far as I can tell includes: fashion kids; haircut kids; indy rockers; po-mos or theory kids;  anyone under the age of 40 who hasn't worked in Finance, Law, or Medicine; rich white kids living in poor black or hispanic neighborhoods; bloggers; liberals; and contrarians. The word hipster is revenge for every perceived shallow short-coming the speaker has felt since the age of 12.  The one point of agreement in the many uses of hipster I've heard used is the shallowness.  Hipsters are not deep.  They live on the surface.

As a potential hipster on at least 3 counts, I tend to use the term to refer to people who are holier than though in their aesthetic choices.  People who make you feel bad for the music you like, the clothes you wear, the books you read, the art you like, etc.  Normally this is an unconscious defense built into the hipster's years of trifling toil. It is their own severe unease with enjoyment that keeps them searching for the next new (or rediscovered) thing.  It is that inability to enjoy things that makes hipsters feel as if they are deep, because they do what they do out of a compulsion that seems natural, but is just a displacement of the same materialism they no doubt watched their parents slop in the '80's. The subversion of mainstream materialism aside, anhedonia breeds sadism.

There's no genuine pleasure in being a hipster.  It's like being Tantalus, except instead of bending to drink from a lake that eternally disappears they are bending over the dregs of post-60's western/global culture.  Just as soon as sustenance seems within their grasp, it disappears: buyers remorse or the approaching stampede of the masses toward their tastes.  

Part of the issue is that with the closing of the Cold War nihilism no longer has any real caché.  Sure nukes are still everywhere and we are more likely to suffocate on our own mass than by anyone else's hand, but the fear is less true and we all have a sense that we need to build something new.  The problem is that everything created in post WW II America is part of the condition of the wealth and power we won from the fascists.  U.S. power in and of itself is a useless, uninspiring lie for the landed gentry.  For the immigrant who has sat among a few thousand fellow immigrants without water for a week in the belly of a tanker pulling into San Francisco harbor the promise is more tangible.  The only genuine motivation available to the middle and upper classes is the prospect of  humiliation.  Rarely do we find the sort of noblesse oblige that would bring a person to commit themselves to making millions of dollars to create a new U.S. culture and when we do it is always distasteful-- should I mention Waco, TX, Jonestown or Jerry Falwell?  

As long as the U.S. exists as a comfortable and more or less accepting place, there will always be new cultures arriving on our shores-- even as we burn the forests and villages they used to live in.  Our culture is slight enough to shift with the advent of every new invention.  People coming from highly ordered places have no idea how to navigate the looseness of our system.  The U.S. is held together by bubble gum, spit and string and this can make for some odd decisions in your twenties.  

1 comment:

  1. From the article in the NYT about the decline of the Eagle Rock neighborhood in LA, I found this blog - basically what the above post would look like if it became a blog.

    I would have to say the number one hipster trait is self-abnegation - the above blog is the essence of the conundrum.