[27 September 2009]
I get it. Hipsters are easy to pick on. It can be tough to look at someone wearing skinny jeans and a keffiyeh and not assume he’s vegan, owns a fixed-gear bike, and refreshes Pitchfork hourly. Such stereotypical hipsters, decried everywhere from Time to Time Out and lampooned regularly on blogs like Hipster Runoff and Look at This Fucking Hipster, are deplorable. They sneer and sardonically bemoan everything you hold dear without standing for anything themselves. They destroy culture. Et cetera. But they also probably don’t really exist.
But let’s talk about these people who meet some of the hipster criteria, which no doubt owe at least partially to reality: those who sip PBR at Wavves concerts, wearing their thrift-store flannel, discussing the latest Wes Anderson movie and why his earlier stuff is more authentic. None of these things are bad in the abstract. After all, everyone is entitled to personal taste.
What we find irksome about the people we imagine fit the stereotype is that they’re all so damn ironic.
The irony, intensified to such a volume, is so detrimental because it not only strips the meaning from the things we hold dear (by coopting and thereby mocking everything we value), it does nothing to offer an alternative. Hipsterdom is, in its purest form, harmful because of how acridly ironic it is, deconstructing not in a Dadaist attempt to make sense of things, but simply because it’s cheap. It’s so much easier to knock things down than to hold something up yourself.
But those who decry this hipster are guilty of the same thing: identifying problems without suggesting solutions. It’s iconoclasm at its worst. Tearing down elements of culture can be valuable, but the zeitgeist is not a zero-sum game; that is, countering the hipster critiques doesn’t cancel them out and in fact only intensifies the acrimony on both sides. Hipsters (among others) add to our cultures’ vapidity, but so do their critics.
And hipsters have plenty of critics—perhaps most of all their self-loathing selves. In addition to the aforementioned links, there is a ceaseless flow of poptimism plied by legions of Klostermanites and the Idolator set in direct response to the different-for-the-sake-of-it fetishizing of your everyday hipster, championing the opinion of the masses. These people are, for the most part, wrong. The monoculture is dying if not completely dead, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to track. Pop culture is simply too nuanced anymore to make any sort of broad analysis of how or why anything is popular, and for a variety of reasons, it’s become overwhelmingly difficult to even tell if anything is popular. Album sales and box office numbers indicate only how much money a record or movie brings in; given the myriad ways to get media without paying for it, these numbers indicate nothing culturally. For every person who bought a copy of the bestselling A Million Little Pieces, or the worse-selling A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez, another thousand knows who James Frey or Selena Roberts is.
That is, how many people pay for or own in some way a CD, movie, book or what have you is culturally less important than how many people simply know about it, and those numbers are decreasingly correlative. When everything is everywhere, there can be no dominant trends.
So without a monoculture, how can there be a counterculture? Counterculture is born out of the need for a minority to rise up against a dominant majority, and it cannot really function without an antithesis. With nothing to contradict, it seems empty. So the counterculture that exists today, if we can even call it that, has nothing against which to rebel: Our society is too fractured, niched, and disjointed to find any one thing that can be deemed truly significant. The cultural marketplace—and as important, the means for distribution—is oversaturated to the point that nothing can be truly pervasive.
Thus, everyone is in the minority, held down but without a monolithic scapegoat to blame. Everyone feels the need to criticize something, but they have no idea what that something is, or if there is a something at all. So the criticisms are hurled aimlessly, not at all curbed by the snarkosphere that is the internet, where only the rancor and virulence survive.
What we admit to liking is as important as what we actually like, and everyone secretly knows this. But the very social networks that offer to keep us connected simply build walls, contributing to a disconnectedness in which any sort of monoculture is impossible. Because of how much time we spend obfuscating ourselves from one another through the digital dressing screens of Facebook, Twitter, et al., we live in a world increasingly fraught with manipulation and interpersonal artifice. We all do it—it’s just that hipsters are among the most overt about this, outwardly and explicitly manipulating their image while few others are bold enough to acknowledge this.
Of course, the popist counter-counterculture is complicit in this too, which in turn sparks a counter-counter-counterculture (of which I suppose this piece is a part), and it quickly devolves into a fiat call-and-response recursivity that’s about as productive as the discourse found in YouTube comments. Everyone is mad at everyone but themselves, basically, so it makes sense that the harshest of criticism is hurled at those who often criticize the loudest.
We all feel like we’re being held down, and perhaps more importantly, we want to feel like we’re being held down, because it offers an excuse for our insufficiencies, our anxieties and our insecurities.
But we’re not being held down, really. And in realizing that these fetters are mostly imaginary, we can rise above the criticism levied by every other pseudo-imprisoned sucker with a laptop and actually create something new, as opposed to merely destroying the old. With how rapidly our culture is evolving, censure is a waste, since by the time your complaint is levied, it’s already an anachronism. Defining ourselves solely by what we’re against—be it inauthenticity or authenticity or something else entirely—is no definition at all.