Editor's Choice

The Death of the Hipster

I went to n+1's "What Was the Hipster?" panel discussion at the New School on Saturday, but went away a bit unfulfilled. There was little evidence presented that hipsterism is over, that it was a concrete product of specific historic moment, and no coherent theories for what might supplant hipsters. The participants never really made much of an effort to establish a stable definition of what a hipster is, despite n+1 editor Mark Greif's valiant effort in his opening remarks. He wondered if the white-trash-worshipping 1999 model of the hispter (the one that wore trucker hats, listened to redneck music, and oozed an aesthetic derived from a largely hypothetical and imaginatively reconstructed 1970s rec-room amateur porn) was the hipster qua hipster, the only one deserving of the title, the way those from the late 1950s and early 1960s who fit the Maynard G. Krebs caricature were the only actual beatniks, and the San Francisco arrivistes in the 1967 were the only true hippies.

Or is the hipster a kind of permanent cultural middleman in hypermediated late capitalism, selling out alternative sources of social power developed by outsider groups, just as the original "white negros" evinced by Norman Mailer did to the original, pre-pejorative "hipsters" -- blacks looking for modes of social expression that could serve as a source of pride, power, unification, and emblems of resistance. Hipsters are the infiltrators who spoil the resistance -- the coolhunting collaborators and spies.

This struck me as a really interesting question: Is it that outsider groups are the only ones that make possible new forms of cultural capital? And thus hipsters are always necessary to the powers that be, that in an endlessly repeating pattern of co-optation hipsters serve as agents for the stakeholders in the established cultural hegemony, appropriating the new cultural capital forms, delivering them to mainstream media in a commercial form and stripping their inventors groups (if not the inventors themselves, in the best case scenario) of the power and the glory and the unification and the mode of resistance.

As Greif mentioned in his talk, hipsters function as a "poison" conduit between the marketing machine and the street. Does the internet jeopardize this cozy relation between power groups and their hipster minions, or does it assure the circuit will always be completed, forcing resistance further underground, perhaps into a region where it cannot be expressed publicly in any form without always already being co-opted? (Can you perform a significant act of rebellion on Facebook?) Jace Clayton, another of the panel speakers, discussed how the internet seemed to foster a globalized hipster brand that obviated organic local scenes or made them seem passe. As I understood it, his point was that the internet has made international recognition the standard of relevance for cultures that once were detached from and unrecognized by Anglo-American media. Those who revel in and facilitate that recognition are the hipsters of places like Peru.

I was all ready for a more thorough exploration of the ideas the panelists opened with, but that conversation never materialized. The sputtering confusion of the group discussion at the panel may have been inevitable. It's impossible to obtain objective distance from hipsterism; if you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyze it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of its "taint" -- as n+1's announcement of the event noted. We all had a stake in defining "hipster" as "not me." I thought that would be the core of the discussion, the paradoxes of that apparent truth. In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity -- but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? What good is it to stay a few steps ahead if you always remain on the hipster path? How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are "hip", the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into cliches against our will?

The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how "cool" it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster. But are there hipsters, actual hipsters, or just a pervasive fear of hipsters? Hipster hatred may actually precede hipsters themselves. Maybe that collective fear and contempt conjures them into being, just as the Red Scare saw communists everywhere, or how the Stasi made spies of everyone. Late capitalism makes us all fear being hipsters and thus makes us all into one, to some degree.

The hipster, then, is the boogeyman who keeps us from becoming too settled in our identity, keeps us moving forward into new fashions, keep us consuming more "creatively" and discovering new things that haven't become lame and hipster. We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to us to be the hipster's fault, not our own.

One must start with the premise that the hipster is defined by a lack of authenticity, by a sense of lateness to the scene, or by the fact that his arrival fashions the scene -- transforms people who are doing their thing into a self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit. The hipster is that person who shows up and seems to ruin things -- then you can begin to ask why this person exists, whether he is inevitable, whether he can be stopped, and what it will take. The hipster's presence specifically forms the illusion of inside and outside, and the idea that others will pay for the privilege of being shown through the gate.

The audience didn't regard the quest for a stable position from which to critique hipsterism as a challenge; ignoring it, it did not rise above postures of self-defense and projection. Instead, when audience members began to contribute to the discussion, it began to feel factional and accusatory, as if many had gathered to accuse everyone else of being hipsters, or at least to mock n+1 itself for presuming it had somehow escaped hipsterism and insult its editors to their faces and show them what pretentious hipsters they themselves are. They seemed to want to peg n+1 as a hipster vehicle, as failing to escape the trap it sometimes seems to wish to spring on others. (One audience member asked the n+1 editor if he was afraid the magazine would get too many readers, because presumably there are some readers who shouldn't be allowed to subscribe, who would tarnish the brand.

Somewhat inexplicably, these "wrong" sort of readers were associated in the questioner's mind with Slavoj Žižek, his trendiness among philosophical name-droppers, and his alleged nihilism. Perhaps his question was whether n+1 feared becoming trendy and then thereby vulnerable to the nonsensical and non-comprehending attacks and dismissals that Žižek himself is subjected to by the likes of this questioner.) The faint air of self-satisfaction inherent in the premise of a post-hipster conference grew thicker and thicker, and the tacit and necessary agreement to use terminology in the same way to move forward was increasingly ignored. Some even seemed to confuse hipsterism with an artistic avant-garde when they are in fact opposites by definition (by my definition anyway, and by any that would make the hipster a discrete object of analysis).

There was some discussion of the hipster as the embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics. But one could hear mutterings in the crowd that no one had the right to judge what cultural products were better than others, and it was clear that this audience was not ready to surrender cultural relativism and subjectivism, that they still wanted to remain mired in that endless fight. (Statement actually overheard in the lecture hall: "What gives you the right to say that Charles in Charge is not important!") The tenor of the discussion made me wonder if n+1 wouldn't eventually take a New Criterion turn in its future and try to escape hipsterism and pop-tart relativism by hewing to a conservative ethic. I hope not, but it seems latent in the air of arrogant fustiness it sometimes projects. The more its would-be audience reviles it for its unrepentant intellectualism, the more it may steer toward a weary elitism.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.

For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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