The Death of Hipsterism
I walked into an Urban Outfitters last week. Don't ask me "why." I can hear your accusatory tone from here. I was on a walk, the temperature suddenly dropped, and figured maybe I could find something to pass the time in there. I was wrong. If Urban Outfitters is in some kind of financial trouble, then I'm unaware of it, but the large location was unusually sparse.
Moreover, while I used to be able to find at least a handful of interesting items in there, those that were on display were consummately boring. While the prices there have always been too much, I definitely wouldn't pay retail for any of the trite, uninspired threads I saw on this day. Even hearing Best Coast blasted over the store's speakers didn't put me in good enough a mood to want to buy anything.
As I walked out, I pondered why Urban Outfitters had changed--not because I ultimately cared but because its fate had to represent something larger culturally. Was it in my head? Was it simply that the chain was sucking fumes in the "cool department?" Had other stores just surpassed it? What exactly had changed?
It may be a combination of all of these factors, but in the end, there's a rather brief answer: the recession, followed by the jobless recovery and the "new normal" we are experiencing, has effectively killed the phenomenon of the hipster.
Really, commentators have been speculating on this for the past year, so the death of hipsterism may hardly come as a shock to many readers. But the demise of this trend--and the subsequent inexplicable need to poke the corpse with a stick--actually does represent some deeper questions about class in 21st century America. In turn, it opens the possibility for a culture more vitally and consciously linked to working people.
Just to be clear, I've never been comfortable with the glib hipster-bashing that plenty of folks from other sub-cultures have all-too-gleefully engaged in over the past several years. To me it seemed to smack of the kind of elitism that hipsters themselves were supposedly guilty of. Moreover, it seemed to let the actual villains off the hook. Ben Davis, co-editor of ARTINFO, makes an excellent point in his recent column on this topic:
"At any rate, if you are actually concerned with gentrification and social class, you might start by advocating for public housing, jobs programs, or anti-racist initiatives--not ridiculing girls with bangs or guys wearing tight pants. That is counterproductive, particularly if... your whole point is that an obsession with signs of cultural distinction insulates hipsters from real-world concerns. The fact that so much fire is wasted attacking a style says more about the closed intellectual hot house that the anti-hipster critics operate in than about any actual group of people being attacked."
For as frustrating as all the finger-pointing could be, it was hard to ignore how equally frustrating the culture's dominance was in indie circles. The end finally seemed nigh somewhere between the backlash against Vampire Weekend's second album (where they were rightfully derided as tourists) and when a friend looked at me and called the new MGMT album "hipster vomit." It was only then that I felt perhaps I could breathe a sigh of relief.
The mention of these two groups--MGMT and Vampire Weekend--isn't coincidental. Both reflect the most obvious internal contradictions of the culture. Namely, that even as it sought to reject the inequities of "the norm," it ended up merely replicating those same inequities.
For the past forty years, Americans have undergone an ideological campaign against the notion of class. Everything from the shameless proliferation of advertising to the constant harping by politicians on "the middle-class nation" have gone a long way to blunt what was at times a militant consciousness among workers. We live in a land of limitless opportunity for all people according to the fable. If you're poor, in debt or not ahead in some way then it merely falls on your own personal failings, not the divisions of social class. Of course, this perfectly complimented the onslaught against wages, unions, and really anything safeguarding the living standards of working people.
The hipsters were a generation raised on this contradiction. For the most part, they came from what music journalist Simon Reynolds termed the "liminal class" (shorthand for the most financially secure elements of the working class and lower echelons of the middle/managerial class). These are kids whose parents most heartily imbibed the "American dream," who raised their children believing that a good college education is enough to be successful.
There's only one problem with this viewpoint: it's fundamentally incorrect. The "baby-boomers" had a relatively prosperous economy and decent jobs waiting for them after they graduated. Decades of globablization and drops in the standard of living all but obliterated this. By the end of the 20th century, a college degree no longer guaranteed you a decent job. Add on top of this the crushing debt that most young people have had to accrue in order to get that education in the first place, and you start to understand where the alienation of "millennials" comes from. Young people are no longer likely to do better than their parents. In fact, we're the first generation in over seventy years are who are most likely to do worse.
Davis, quoting economist Paul Craig Roberts in a 2006 article, rightfully states that "the turn towards the service economy meant that the U.S. was becoming 'a nation of waitresses and bartenders,' not some cultural-economy utopia." This friction between a fantasy classlessness and the reality of instability is the starting point for any 21st century sub-culture.
Hipsterism, at least in its earliest days (the days before it was labeled "hipsterism") was in essence an ironic jab against the myth of the American Dream, albeit wrapped a kind of post-modern cynicism. The whole aesthetic was based off a host of stereotypes of different social groups--particularly the white working class. It's here that Davis' "signs of cultural distinction" come into play. The trucker hats and sunglasses, the v-necks and porn-staches. While there was an implicit rejection of classlessness here, there was still an air dripping from most hipsters that they were "above it all." At best it was a fantasy, at worst it was an insult. Basically, it was a simultaneous rejection and reflection of latter-day neoliberalism.
Musically, however, hipster culture was one part of a wider progression and partial shaking off of the segregation that entertainment industry had imposed on art. "Indie" (a culture much broader than hipsterism has ever been, despite frequent confusion of the two) is distinct because it doesn't describe a sound or genre so much as an outlook that rightfully distrusts the music industry and puts a premium on artistic integrity. The label has been applied not just to the rock of the White Stripes, but the electro-pop of Ladytron and the folk of Fleet Foxes. Lady Gaga, despite being a mainstream phenom, continues to carry cred in indie circles for her unique and independent aesthetics. Hip-hop too, from Jay-Z to dead prez, has also been embraced by the indie scene (however condescending the view taken by taste-making sites like Pitchfork).
In the years leading up to the economic collapse of '08, the irrefutable credibility of the indie outlook lead to the emergence of some truly incredible acts. The experimental analog-electronica of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Hot Chip and Animal Collective gained accolades all around. The intricate, earthy beats of J Dilla finally gained the credit they were due (tragically after their composer's untimely death). Arcade Fire's baroque pop-folk-rock made them a veritable powerhouse of the music world and put them on the path to winning a Grammy.
In the best cases, these acts have also made the long-absent jump toward actually standing for something. Arcade Fire have opposed the war in Iraq, Gaga's become an icon of LGBT liberation, various indie artists have joined the boycotts of Arizona and Israel. Then, of course, there's M.I.A., an artist who in the matter of five years rocketed from underground favorite to one of Time "100 most influential people," even as she's controversially stumped for refugee rights, skewered corporate pillaging of the developing nations and protested against Sri Lanka's massacre of Tamils. It's notable that in her now-infamous hit-piece last year, journalist Lynn Hirschberg clumsily attempted to lump M.I.A. in with the "hipster" crowd. Among the many things Hirschberg failed to recognize was the fact that not everyone criticizing consumer culture is a snide art student.
It was after the Panic of '08, however, that the unsustainability of the culture became apparent, and the most obvious and obnoxious elements of hipsterism turned truly sour. Vampire Weekend (back to them now) are perhaps the textbook example. The group are all Ivy League graduates, having met at Columbia University. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig, however, is the son of a teacher who was only able to attend college via a scholarship from his father's union. Incidentally, I also have it on good authority that keyboardist and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij was briefly around the anti-war activism on that campus; he is also openly gay and an advocate of LGBT rights.
This diversity has also been on display in Vampire Weekend's music. Their mix of African pop, Latin American rhythms and other sounds from around the world made their self-titled debut, released in January of 2008, one of the year's most praised albums. Two years later, by the time they released their second album, the world economy had been brought to near-meltdown, official unemployment was over ten percent, and Vampire Weekend were cruising for a backlash.
While most other "hipster" groups have embraced backward stereotypes of white workers, Vampire Weekend have gone the opposite route, dressing in nice slacks, patent leather shoes and polo shirts. This, along with their Ivy League origins, has given them the air of, as one critic called it, "the well-traveled sons of well-heeled gentlemen." In other words, they came off as snide, privileged rich boys. Now, their incorporation of globe music seems more like an appropriation, a condescending salve about the "nobility" of the underclasses from kids who have never had to do without. Accusations of "tourism" have been justified. Indeed, back in February of 2010 I wrote an article that made that exact argument. Koenig's haughty response to this criticism was that writers are too eager to be "activists," as if that were a bad thing!
What the backlash against VW represented, though, was how the massive shakeup in the global economy has affected people's cultural perceptions. Though the classlessness lambasted by the hipster aesthetic has never had any real veracity, neither now does the notion of being "above it all." Evictions, unemployment and poverty are an inescapable reality, and condescension toward poor people just doesn't fly like it used to.
The cultural bubble has been popped, and the downward mobility of today's young people can't be ignored, least of all by themselves. The "liminal class," insofar as it ever really existed, is basically on its way to extinction. As it disappears, it takes with it whatever content there was to hipster culture. Those hipsters lucky enough to be financially prosperous are seeing the silliness of the whole thing and trading in their skinny jeans for business suits. The rest are stuck working as baristas and living in tiny apartments with the creeping knowledge that they actually are the people they once parodied.
The corporate-commerce infrastructure that sprung up to take advantage of hipster culture--like, for example, Urban Outfitters--has been left an empty shell. What is also left, however, is the indie outlook, a viewpoint that--once again--has always been much bigger among young folks than the smugness of hipsterism. In fact, that outlook may broadly be called the dominant one among today's young folks. It's an outlook that has already been long distrustful of the corporate world. It's a multicultural view that flatly sees discrimination and bigotry as stupid. Even as all kinds of apolitical contradictions continue to abound, it remains true that young folks were the driving force in electing a Black president in a country built on slavery.
The indie/hipster/millennial generation is also one that, according to several polls from last summer, is most likely to go to a protest or demonstration if asked by a friend. In contrast to what nay-sayers like Ezra Koenig might have to say, today's youth are more likely to wear the label of "activist" as a badge of pride. The events from Cairo to Madison to now Madrid, all of which have seen young workers play a key role, have borne this out on a global scale. What it means to be young and working class is being consciously redefined. Already, this has had a cultural and musical expression, from the participation of rock and punk acts in the Madison protests to the hip-hop that emerged from Cairo during the "Days of Rage." If the hipster is finally dying, then what seems poised to rise from its ashes is a culture with a much more worthwhile purpose.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He has also appeared in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, CounterPunch and New Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.