On the first page of the most recent Times Sunday Review, there’s a(nother) broad indictment of the “hipster culture.” Christy Wampole, a French professor at Princeton, is here to tell you how and why the irony you face the world with is lazy and based in fear. She’s calling you out on the “the mustache, the tiny shorts” and the “home-brewing, [the] trombone playing,” that she classifies as your manufactured interests, the quirks you’ve cultivated only or especially to make you feel cool at all times. Ms. Wampole wants you to know that it’s misguided, your attempt to “negotiate the age old problem of individuality not with concepts, but with material things.” And by last call, she has some advice. She wants you to ask yourself: “do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? …What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative?” If the answer is yes to any of these questions, in the Wampole theory one takes stock from here and commences the project of becoming genuine. Other people call this growing up.
Of course, everyone who’s ever read The Catcher in the Rye (or The Velveteen Rabbit, for that matter) oughta be awake to how fraught the idea of “becoming genuine” is. For one, unless you’re made of cardboard, you probably go around thinking you are genuine, or at least non-genuine for reasons you feel you can genuinely defend. If you are made of cardboard – a Caulfield-ified phony in the rye– perhaps you are afraid. Perhaps you’re so un self-aware that you couch your emotions in those so-called cultivated habits, you buy LPs and tell everyone Lost in Space is your favorite TV show in lieu of admitting that you actually prefer your iPod and The Jersey Shore and sometimes sad things make you sad.You get your kicks calling other people out on not knowing basic trivia or certain bands, because these things are the I Ching to you. You could be a pathetic sham of a human unable to connect to the world at large, wrapped up in the deity that is the Un-cool Cool, a talisman of the Millenial drunk on their own absurdity… then again, it’s also not impossible that you just like LPs and Lost in Space and I’m being an ass-hat for condemning what I can’t quite understand. It’s also possible you just suck, for no reason explicable by generational rage. It’s also possible that in diagnosing what I perceive as a profound existential ailment merely by looking un-scientifically at a wash of trends, I am lumping everyone of a certain age and area into this cult of the ‘ironic hipster’ – which is a term that loses its value when complicated by the idea that it’s possible for people to genuinely like a disingenuous thing. What seems fairest in this murky rhetorical is to call all of us out and say instead that Ms. Wampole’s article is really just more proof that the root of human polarity issues is alive and well: I don’t understand you, so I assume you’re wrong.
Hello world! My name is Brittany and I come from a New York outer-borough. I buy LPs to play on my record player, I write to you now from a blog, and I went to college to learn to act and now I bartend and muse for a living. I have been to Union Pool on every single night of the week. My favorite author is David Foster Wallace (who both me and Ms. Wampole are quick to point out is not a so-called hipster writer, but rather a kind of deacon in the church of New Sincerity…I’ll get semantic with this later). By all counts, I am a “hipster.” But I’m not politically apathetic. I care about lots of things. I read the paper and get angry at its contents, I want to do big and serious things with my days, I believe in love. I’m pretty sure I like my record player because I like my record player. I have had cause to feel like a person ‘out of time,’ but will tell you quick that this is not the same thing as me hating the time I was born into and making my whole life a big statement of ‘this is still the 60s’ delusion as a result. Yet when at Union Pool, I have felt the need to differentiate myself from clusters of other people my age wearing beanies and twirling weird facial hair, I roll my eyes when I overhear certain buzzwords (e.g anything that starts with “idio-” as prefix). I get mad when I go to parties with the beanie-wearing unicyclists of my milieu and some of them seem to be unable to hold real conversations. But less and less do I tend to write off everyone of a certain age and attitude as an ‘ironic hipster person’ and myself as magically outside this world that everyone plainly sees me attending; more and more do I consider the possibility that this is 2012 in New York City, and certain fashion and musical and neighborhood tastes prevail the way certain tastes prevail in any time period with any collective, and there is always the possibility of the dirtbag anywhere you go.
Some other truths universally acknowledged: teenagers have always been and will always be confused, fractured freak creatures who blame the world for their problems. In a post Gen-X, post WikiLeaks, post multiple wars 2012 America where the average youth is disenchanted with their government to say the least and plugged into multiple technologies 24/7, there is also perhaps a logical explanation for the genesis of irony as defense mechanism. The world is overwhelming. As such, prior tools like the melodrama and the ballad and the impassioned speech and the church, the comic book hero… these can feel like canoes before a monsoon. And while the world’s overwhelmingness probably shouldn’t undermine our human capacity to connect and believe in things and make eye contact with people when speaking to them, I can look around and very nearly understand why the youth would rather start an arrhythmic drum circle or go on night bikes over going to sit-ins these days. It’s not because nothing matters to us. It’s the opposite – because we’re exhausted or spooked or so worried we’re sick, we flounder, we look for new things to care about, or old things to care about in new ways. Longform lifestyle experiments. Or maybe we’re just looking for a new language with which to discuss what we have always cared about, because somehow what has been tried and denied before will not suit this hyper-techy area, this new frontier.
(Reminder: this is not to say I feel for and defend the politically apathetic, or think that arrhythmic drum circle drummers are not de facto asshats. I refer you to any Adelpheans political post ever.)
It’s also important to deconstruct irony a little more than Ms. Wampole has in her piece before calling it criminal. Irony’s genesis, after all, is in Socrates and the great philosophers, irony can be smart and incisive and profound when used correctly. The self-awareness implied in irony is sparingly great; it does mean, after all, that any of its hipster acolytes are well aware of their own ridiculousness. It’s bad because it can act as substitute to real feeling and act as smoke and mirrors in art over content, but when you’re feeling squelched by your surroundings, Irony is a great way to talk to other people who are similarly overwhelmed. This is because what irony is at functional root is funny. And everyone knows no crisis can be weathered without an indefatigable sense of humor.
I am very wary of defending The Hipster, because I do think The Hipster is wrong. I think solipsistic apathy is blasé and put-downs can be cruel. I believe in the workforce and communities. I think some of The Hipster’s wardrobe and accessory choices are truly horrifying. I never intend to go night biking and I won’t talk to anyone on OkCupid who puts on their “can’t live without” list the likes of ‘whiskey, madcap adventures, hand-rolled American Spirits…’ but that’s really just a matter of judgmental taste on my part. But – wait for it – I also think The Hipster is fiction. A projection, a worst-case-scenario, the foregone conclusion of a movement happening now, impossible, a robot. Because no one is actually entirely insincere, or if they are they won’t be for very long. Because puberty will end.
- I go to a rooftop in Bushwick to see a friend’s band play. I go with two friends. Some of us are wearing Toms shoes and we’re all in a book club together where one of us cooks weekly meals based around a novel. The club has a blog called Om Nom Novel. (This is just backstory.)So back on the roof, friend and friend and I meander around and it’s very cold, and a lot of people are standing in duets wearing fake (?) furs and swigging from PBRs. We overhear some inane conversations about other concerts other people have gone to, and this and the look of the crowd elicits from my trio a kind of giddy fear: are we like these guys, with their crappy beer and their dumb brouhaha? Do we look like them? The band starts to play. It’s a really great show. The lyrics are all personal and deeply felt, but we are on a roof in Bushwick and no one here is yet thirty.
One super drunk doofus in the front starts dancing madly to the music, alone, yelling that he has never been to another concert before. Sir is a mite distracting, but he’s so into it we can’t help but laugh. And we decide later, no, we’re not like them. I consider even later that maybe the freaky They we watched a good show alongside think the same thing when they go out in public.
- CMJ Festival. Me and friend go to a horrorshow warehouse party to meet other friends M and E. The bathroom at the horrorshow warehouse party is basically a hole in the ground, and the warehouse is packed, and it smells terrible in here. The artist in question – I never hear her name – is a drag queen out of drag, and M tells me later that she’s lip-syncing to her own music, which is just “so meta and so cool.” M is very drunk. M yells, “THIS IS JUST LIKE AN EPISODE OF GIRLS!” Me and original friend survey this carnage and feel awful, just awful, about being in our early twenties.
The four of us laugh about all of this later, at a second bar. At the second bar we talk urgently and seriously about what art means to us (as ya do) and our place in the world, we have the conversation everyone always seems to be having. We stay out late. We get street meat. We have fun. It ends up being one of those magic nights not at all concerned with the dumb way it started.
It just keeps happening to me, guys: I go to a place that is supposed to be “full of hipsters,” with friends who are purportedly “not hipsters” and I end up having bona fide fun at this “hipster dive bar” feeling very much a part of a community. To write off all the people I meet at these places who are using huge words to discuss In Rainbows (and I LIKE Radiohead!) would be reductive and missing the point; my friends miss the point by going to pains to separate themselves from these “hipsters” we perceive. I think we all of us want the same thing: to be happy. And the culture available for the liking and the taking when you’re twentysometing in New York might all be de facto hipster, but that’s just because the young people are vocal in their way, and they are young, and most of all they are are here and they are young. I urge all of us to think harder about what we’re criticizing before we hop on an L train and start looking down at everyone for what they’re reading or wearing or saying, because that’s the real problem, that’s the bona fide irony. Sure, people should be judged, and harshly, if we’re talking swastikas and 50 Shades of Grey and knock-knock jokes, but I think it’s proving the worst in everyone to hear that Ms. Wampole is peering down from thirtysomething to tell everyone with “costume-like raiment” that one just can’t connect with or respect or understand absolutely everyone who is twenty-four and a carrier of one or two cliches. It’s a matter of taste, the feathers, the sequins, the staches.
After all, my friends who Ms. Wampole (and occasionally myself) might consider ‘hipsters’ are some of the most ardent people I know, so serious about their electrofunk orchestras ‘and theatre companies’ and vintage store’s ability to affect change. Some of them are over thirty, members of Gen X themselves. What we tend to have in common is primarily our zip codes, and what I like to think of as a new renaissance mentality. The friends I have who are of the ilk to not get day jobs in favor of freelance and feel alienated from their government…while I can’t entirely defend their worldviews, I do believe they do the things they do because they think life can be something different than what has come before. It can be silly, it can be off the grid, it can be these things and meaningful as well. Just maybe the new world isn’t contingent on the nuclear family or the savings account. And this non-logic, that’s gotta be the most sincere thing ever, right? It’s total faith, just a different church. And moreover, it’s individual people who think this way. Not everyone with a tattoo.
Some of us write sloppy fiction and are obnoxious; the inverse is also and fantastically true. The gun has no trigger! The emperor has no clothes! Hipsterhipsterhipster, why THE WORD DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING! Ask a Hippie or a Beatnik for proof of the moniker’s power…oh wait, your parents who also went to coffeehouses in San Francisco 1969 would NEVER HAVE DESCRIBED THEMSELVES THAT WAY. And didn’t, until an article was written re-christening an entire generation as contingent on Haight-Asbury. See here: Bedford Avenue. Then I urge you to contemplate where and why cliches occur: why the resurgence of 60s and 70s fashion, 90s fashion, 90s music, say? Is it a coincidence that the 90s were one of the most prosperous times in American history, and the 60s or the 70s have become synonymous with movers and shakers and deep feeling and great music and change? What if the present era is more of an homage than a mockery? And off I go. You just don’t get it, grown-ups! Ain’t that always the way.
And finally, think a bit about the real disease. Because there is of course a real disease, but it’s not only in the young people and it’s not only on the Eastern Seaboard or the college campus. I don’t think this disease is going to kill anyone anytime soon, but its’ sweeping, stubborn laziness is arguably what has lead our government to its recent stand-offs. The disease is part technology (though technology is not in itself a disease) and it is related to the cheek that functions as defense mechanism for we the overwhelmed.The disease is fear, the disease is entitlement – the 1%, then the lack of unity in the 99% – but rest assured, It is everywhere. And It is Irony’s worst usage and “the problem with us kids today,” but it is not us kids.
As hard as it is to take the “Trapeeze Artists Union” seriously, or your laissez-faire comedian friends with their haircuts, I think that maybe you could, Ms. Wampole. Just as an experiment. Because if you even acknowledge the possibility that all these dumb goofy Williamsburgers believe in what they believe for a reason and for real – silly as it seems to you – then the conversation changes names entirely. Maybe we can find some middle ground for productive argument, say in the fictiosphere: David Foster Wallace made a case for the difference between stylistic tricks for tricks’ sake and the awake, deliberate use of dialogue and character and pop culture to speak to people who speak that way. A good comedian is a serious student of human nature and the crisis of the individual; it is an art, and a useful one sometimes, to point to a familiar problem and really encounter it. Of course, the next and important step is to build something on top of our awareness. This comes off as more a defense of The Hipster than I mean. I do know we kids can be real goofasauruses, layabouts, fools…
but we do mean it, I think. And heck – one day we’ll be grown-ups. Then we’ll all see.