“There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed
has behaved, in all essential respects, like a small mob.”
Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
It is not often that I feel like a cultural alien. My formative years, which afforded me the priceless opportunity to forge a fine intellect and noble character, were instead spent imbibing cable TV, movies, magazines and every significant album in the rock and rap canons. I therefore know the weight and nuance of the associations borne by words such as ʻNascarʼ and ʻCristalʼ and can deploy them to well calibrated effect. In the past year, however, I have felt myself socially crippled when faced with jokes, insights and analogies that hinged on understanding of the nature and habits of a human type known as ʻThe Hipsterʼ, a type with whom I was only vaguely acquainted. It clearly had something to do with trendiness (ʻhipnessʼ), but trendiness of some impalpably distinctive sort. I had established a fuzzy mental image of a lanky teenaged boy wearing tight trousers and a silly wristband, but I could not hear him speak and see him frolic in his natural habitat with the ease and clarity with which I could imagine an AZN breakdance, or a WASP eat a sensible salad, or an I-Banker tenderly shape a line of cocaine.
“What exactly is a hipster?” I asked my roommate, a man who communicates exclusively in pop-culture allusions (and who, happily enough, is the co-host of WPRBʼs ʻHungry Hungry Hipstersʼ). I was met first with meditative silence and then a string of variously suggestive adjectives and phrases (including ʻtight pantsʼ). This mystical grasping at words let me know that I had, in ʻhipster,ʼ hit upon a concept of subtlety and great symbolic power that resisted easy reduction and might repay careful consideration.
So what is a hipster? The plainest prose sense is ʻOne who identifies with the culture surrounding independent rock music.ʼ Foes and friends alike agree that hipsters are most adequately defined by their distinctive (ʻcool and trendyʼ/ ʻsilly and pretentiousʼ) style of dress, by their musical purism (ʻconnoisseurshipʼ/ʻarch-snobberyʼ), by a taste for low-fi recordings by obscure bands on obscure labels, and, usually, by an implacable hatred for the great run of mainstream pop and rock bands and the attendant ʻpopʼ culture. They relish their frequent, fiery arguments, value knowledge of the obscure and insist on command of voluminous details to stoke their enormous ʻin-groupʼ complex.
I was initially sympathetic to something that seemed so suited to my personality and opinions. Pop, I thought, was scarcely music. Pop songs donʼt usually draw attention to themselves as complex and interesting artifacts which tickle the listenerʼs intellect and invite evaluation, but merely, with certain key tricks, such as pounding baselines, pleasing chord progressions and shouted stock sentiments (ʻI love you/Baby itʼs true/ I do, do, do.ʼ etc.) facilitate play. Pop is mostly theatre, a matter of the moment, the atmosphere, the spectacle; hence the overwhelming importance of a pop ʻmusicianʼsʼ image. As Theodor Adorno notes, in his wicked essay ʻOn The Fetish Character In Musicʼ it is inappropriate to ask a fan of popular music whether
he ʻlikesʼ or ʻdislikesʼ any given song, because there is no sincere evaluative process—for him to recognize a song is generally the same as to ʻlikeʼ it. We can see the truth of this any given weekend on our own Prospect Avenue, where songs function merely to get us to mouth the same words in a sort of depressing mock-liturgy, and to encourage
our bodies, locked in the feverish friction we are pleased to call ʻdancingʼ. Play is of course a basic human good, and so such music will always have its place, but it often appears to be the only common musical culture we have. Saturation in this demotic drivel tends to cripple the critical faculties. To lose the capacity for analysis and judgment is ultimately to diminish the capacity for the deeper pleasures of music.
The hipster, with his elitism and resounding judgments (ʻX sucks!ʼ ʻY is awesome!ʼ) seemed to represent an attempt to reclaim the terms of judgment, a pop modernism, perhaps, that would bring more properly musical criteria to bear on the evaluation of music. I imagined that they, like Eliot, Brooks, Richards and the rest of the modernists and New Critics, attended to the body of the work, rigorously applied standards, preserved art from sentimentality and mass roduction…tended the garden, as it were. Among my modernist heroes there was always fiery in-house debate, bare-boned, resourceful creativity (a concept of which ʻlow-fiʼ may be thought a handy synecdoche), enthusiasm for detail and a passion for quality that sought out those things that the illiterati called ʻobscureʼ and ʻincomprehensible.ʼ Might hipsters be new apostles, the salt of the musical earth?
No, it turned out, they are not. My roommateʼs final attempt at full definition of ʻthe hipsterʼ was: “Somebody into the alternative pop-music scene.” That, I began to see, was just about right. After all, it takes only brief reflection to see the necessary tension in the word ʻhipsterʼ itself between the pretensions to independence and authenticity, between the ʻcoolnessʼ thought to be essential to ʻhipnessʼ, and the external approval and vulnerability to fashion that ʻhipnessʼ needs to sustain itself.
Like the fashion-plagued fans of pop, hipsters are fickle. Certainly, there are big and enduring names, but also a huge host of soon-forgotten cameo players. Part of this is no doubt due to the uncertainty of life as an independent band, but that explanation is partial at best.
The hipster love of trivia, too, is hardly distinguishable from that of the pop-happy adolescent (ʻDid you know Nick was born in Paris? I love croissants!ʼ) and their in-house arguments, one of which I witnessed first hand, are less like Cleanth Brooks taking IA Richards to task for a sloppy reading of Coleridge on the definition of ʻImaginationʼ, than something out of Alice in Wonderland: ʻNo, you idiot, ʻStarsʼ isnʼt their name, itʼs just what theyʼre called!”
Hipster culture is not, whatever some hipsters might claim, ʻall about the musicʼ or even necessarily mostly about the music, but about the full ʻexperience.ʼ Indeed, as I discovered, just as ʻrational soulʼ is the ʻformʼ or animating and defining principle of Man, who must be incarnated and in relationship to truly exist, so ʻThe Hipsterʼ is ultimately the ʻformʼ of ʻThe Scenesterʼ who only truly lives when at a ʻshow.ʼ Hipsters love shows, at least in part because they can see and be seen by other hipsters and lose themselves in the pulsating, disorienting, quite possibly drug-enhanced Moment, like in dark and smoky amniotic fluid. It matters little if the sound quality is unspeakably bad, the lead singer drunk and even more unintelligible than he is on the CD —the demigods (with a cultivated image like that of the conventional rock or pop stars, but maintained much more cheaply) are right there in front of you to be seen and touched, and one of them may at some point bum a cigarette off and/or sacramentally sleep with you. Religious terms like ʻsacramentʼ are apt: hipsters at a show, just like any other fans in other fields of mass culture, like sports, are acting on a semi-religious impulse, exercising the magical power of a group to create a totem out of even the least promising materials… indeed, with an appalling creature like Britney Spears, ex nihilo. Needless to say, shows cost money, so despite their outsider pose, hipsters, just like popsters, tend to be garden-variety sons and daughters of the wildly successful American middle class—this explains the odd preppy element in some hipster clothing styles.
But what, more than anything, confounded my ʻpop modernismʼ thesis was hipstersʼ inarticulateness. I do not mean that they are not talkative and generally clever, for that they certainly are, but, unlike the obsessively closereading literary modernists, most of them cannot readily explain what makes good music good and bad music bad, apart from some vague mumbling about ʻinteresting lyricsʼ and ʻa fresh soundʼ. Rigorous criticism is clearly not what sustains the life of the hipster community, and so they cannot be engaged in anything like the modernist project.
I remained convinced, however, especially because I could appreciate most ʻhipsterʼ music and much preferred it to mainstream pop and rock, that hipsters did represent something interesting, basically respectable, and that, in its conceptual contours, was similar to some wider cultural phenomenon. “What other group of people,” I asked myself, “can be described as a smug herd comprised primarily of the privileged, whose conversational life is constituted by incessant one-upmanship, fierce squabbles conducted in a hermetic idiom, who express impatience and vague pity for people who are too stupid to ʻgetʼ their strange pieties?” Surely, I concluded, the hipster is a pop post-modernist.
Here I obviously tread on thin ice. Hipsters, I said, are generally inarticulate and averse to rigorous critical work, but literary/philosophical post-modernists, whatever you think of them, clearly love nothing so much as agonizingly detailed criticism. To say that hipsters are inarticulate, however, is not to suggest that they have no implicit criteria of judgment. Hipsters do, in fact, evaluate according to mostly subconscious criteria that inspection shows to be quintessentially post-modern.