The current issue of The Word magazine includes my review of Jake Kinzey’s broadside against hipsters, The Sacred and the Profane. The magazine version was edited down from a longer draft which, with The Word’s permission, I’ve decided to publish here:
Just before Christmas a blogger at NPR posted a witty list of the “20 Unhappiest People You Meet in the Comments Sections of Year-End Lists” which included Harry the Hipster-Hater, Who Really, Really Hates Hipsters. If you Google the word “hipster” you’ll quickly conclude that Harry is legion. In the past few years, the hipster has become a whipping boy (or girl) for everyone from highbrow cultural theorists to snarky bloggers (chiefly Look at This Fucking Hipster and the ouroboros-like Hipster Runoff). Hipster-hating is seemingly a victimless crime because nobody will admit to actually being one, although if you’re at all bothered by them then you’re probably somewhere on the spectrum. “The hipster is everyone else, never oneself,” writes Jake Kinzey in his book-length essay, The Sacred and the Profane: An Investigation of Hipsters (Zer0 Books, £9.99). Or, as a 2006 Onion headline put it: “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster’”.
Kinzey, a history student at Montreal’s McGill University, has a meaty, fun topic but instead of an “investigation” he’s delivered a butterfingered hatchet job which fails to answer a simple, essential question: “What exactly is a hipster?” Offering no examples, Kinzey presents hipsters as a faceless, undifferentiated mass united only by the contempt in which the author holds them. By the end, the archetypal hipster appears to be an authenticity-obsessed ironist; an idealistic cynic; a slumming elitist; a camp New Age postmodernist in vintage jeans who eats expensive organic food and smokes cheap cigarettes and loves (or maybe hates) indie music and rejects (or maybe embraces) mainstream pop. But the reader is left in no doubt that this paradoxical creature is bad news. “Some have said the spread of the hipster is part of the breakdown of Western Civilization,” he thunders. Blimey.
The debate about hipsters is a battle over the politics of taste. Norman Mailer began his classic hipster-diagnosing essay <em>The White Negro(1957) with an extract from a fabulously snooty Harper’s Bazaar article (“He may earn his living as a petty criminal, a hobo, a carnival roustabout or a freelance moving man in Greenwich Village”) before offering his own racially charged definition: “the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life.” “Hip” taste is an act of distancing oneself from others — what Bourdieu called “distinction” — and Mailer’s transgressive hero was driving a wedge between himself and white America by drawing on the outsider energy of black culture.
But that gap has been closing ever since and the modern hipster, who evolved in the late 90s and became a full-fledged cultural villain during the following decade, has his work cut out for him. While Mailer’s hipsters could use taste as a form of resistance, now that bloody battles over jazz and rock’n’roll a thing of the past the 21st century hipster doesn’t have people like the lady from Harper’s Bazaar to make him feel dangerous. The different forms of distinction enjoyed by previous generations — a new drug, a new politics, a new slang — have been reduced to one: the new hipster is defined almost entirely by the goods he consumes.
Furthermore, the internet means that developments happen too fast and in too many places at once. Secret knowledge, the cornerstone of hip, can no longer remain secret. Whereas in an earlier era a new idea such as hip hop could have fermented for years in a local scene before going overground, the modern equivalent is discovered, disseminated and dissected in a matter of weeks. Norman Cook recently said on 6Music that when he started DJing he could unearth a floorfilling obscurity and it would take months for a rival DJ to identify it and track down a copy. If today’s cratedigging DJ plays a new discovery it’s on a thousand hard drives on the other side of the world by the next morning.
As the old hierarchy of taste disintegrates, hipsters still crave hierarchy so they salami-slice differences in taste, each person drawing lines in different places so as be able to look down on the dilettantes and poseurs: the narcissism of small differences. Keen to retain some uniqueness, they are locked into a race with Urban Outfitters or Vice magazine and become cultural vagabonds moving from one micro-trend to another, trying to stay one step ahead of everybody else, in the same way that cash-strapped bohemians colonise one cheap neighbourhood after another in an effort to outflank the real-estate developers and the yuppies. But they can never escape because capitalism is too quick to adapt. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism (Zer0 Books, £7.99): “This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”
This constant effort to distance themselves from the “wrong” kind of hipster is why the small distinctions that Kinzey’s broad brush ignores matter: the transition from the working-class iconography of trucker caps and Parliament cigarettes to the upper-class whimsy of The Royal Tenenbaums and cutesy indie-pop; from the high-contrast realism of Terry Richardson’s fashion photography to the wistful blur of polaroids; from blogs to Tumblr; from Hoxton to Dalston; from the Strokes to Animal Collective.
Another strategy is to project bad faith on to others. If nothing is secret anymore, then it becomes about not what we like but why we like it: “We like the Smiths because we appreciate Morrissey’s wit and Marr’s musicianship; they like the Smiths because Zooey Deschanel mentions them in (500) Days of Summer.” This is why hipster-bashing is both unhealthy and dishonest: it makes you distrust everyone’s motives for liking things. Because there’s no such thing as “pure” taste, aloof from social context, people argue about differing degrees of impurity and thus end up playing the hipster game they claim to disdain.
All of this is annoying and often comical but is it dangerous? Drawing heavily on Douglas Haddow’s 2008 Adbusters article “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” and Mark Greif’s 2010 essay “What Was the Hipster?”, the perpetually furious Kinzey thinks it is. Hipsterdom, in this analysis, is bohemia stripped of its passion, its sense of refusal and its traditional core of cutting-edge artists, with hipsters as quislings funnelling underground style to the corporations. As Greif mordantly writes, “It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.”
Greif’s use of the past tense suggested that the hipster had already peaked by the time the economy went south and it cannot last indefinitely. Even American Apparel CEO Dov Charney declared in 2010: “The hipster is over.” But as a youth tribe (albeit one that denies its own existence) the hipster has already had a longer lifespan than the beatnik, hippie, punk or slacker. And if it keeps mutating then how can it die?
Kinzey would like to be the one to wield the knife. These “ironic post-modern kitsch zombies… finding comfort in the apathy and over-consumption of late-capitalism” epitomise everything that he hates about western culture. There is no escape. You’re an internet-scouring omnivore? Hipster. You’re a nostalgic vinyl buff? Hipster. You fetishise the retro and lo-fi? Hipster. You worship the hi-tech elegance of Apple? Hipster. If there is an acceptable way of enjoying culture in the 21st century then he keeps it to himself because he never tells us what he actually likes, which is suspicious in someone so devoted to demolishing other people’s taste. What for example does he make of LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge, which is a funnier, warmer and more relevant examination of hipster taste than most of the academic material he quotes in undigested chunks? Or Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s Nathan Barley which soundtracked its mockery of trendhoppers with a howl of real moral outrage? But then qualities such as ambiguity and humour are frowned upon as, he grouches, “In most cases hipsters just want to dabble and play, being committed is passé.”
Writing before the geopolitical spasms of 2011, Kinzey’s real beef is with what many people would agree feels like a cultural and political impasse: the much-discussed “failure of the future”. He mourns the absence of “something new and world changing”, rages against possible causes — postmodernism, nostalgia, the coopting of the counterculture, the myth of authenticity, American Apparel adverts — and blames it all on the hipster, by which he seems to mean virtually everybody apart from Jake Kinzey. By Chapter Three, “The idea of a truly new humanity hangs in the balance,” which strikes me as a lot to lay at the door of Brooklyn web designers wearing vintage jeans. Towards the end he grudgingly admits, “The hipster does not represent absolute evil,” which is nice to hear.
But in his hankering for a new punk or hip hop, a cleansing bolt for the blue, he overlooks his own nostalgia for upheavals of the past, in a time before globalisation and the internet destroyed the slow-burning local scenes that produced those upheavals. And unlike Simon Reynolds in the similarly troubled Retromania, who is too empathetic and self-aware for hectoring, he mistakes symptom for cause, ignoring the possibility that many of the people he loathes share his longing. Wouldn’t most of us prefer some thrilling cultural gamechanger to another round of boxsets? And if we’re not avant-garde artists or political revolutionaries forging fearlessly into the future, aren’t we all part of the problem? By declining to name names or propose alternatives (except perhaps “Read more Zizek”) Kinzey sets the bar for cultural change impossibly high. A more sympathetic writer might argue that the various strands of hipster culture are attempts to engage with art and identity in the absence of that new world changing thing — that the hated hipster is merely the reluctant symptom of cultural malaise rather than the cause. A more honest critic might recognise that if you spend this much time fulminating against hipsters then you probably are one.
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