Defending the cool kids
As regular readers know, I’m fascinated by the way that bashing “hipsters” is something that started with actual hipsters, spread out to people just hating on the cool kids, and, inevitably, became another way for right wing dullards to express general envy-turned-to-hate of urban liberals of every stripe, who become “hipsters” by virtue of the suspicion that they know the difference between a Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, and/or that they have any albums purchased in the past 10 years. I rarely hear anyone that’s even remotely hip actually bashing hipsters now; it seems to have gone out of style at the same exact moment the first Republican-voting hatefully formed his mouth around the word. But still, there are defenses. And this one, from Maria Bustillos at The Awl, is quite wonderful.
So today’s bohemians get in a big gang and live together, as they have for over a century at least; almost every city of any size in the Western world has at least one such neighborhood, and the big cities have many, each with its own flavor. In effect, though, all these places are the same place, like Solzhenitsyn’s “archipelago” (except not a prison camp for political dissidents): a series of far-flung islands but really one place, invisibly linked. In this case, residents of the archipelago value inventiveness, intelligence and taste over wealth and conformity; what Lethem is calling “connoisseurship.” There is lots of artwork and music and clothing being made in these places, experiments of all sorts, an atmosphere of discovery. There is generally “more dash than cash.” It is fun to have lunch or buy records there, more fun than having lunch in the rich neighborhood; people from “outside” come along to see the foreign movie, to have coffee. The hipsters live there, and the poseurs who follow them do, too.
She spells out a theory that what people—and by that, she means hipsters who bash “hipsters”—really hate are poseurs, people who try to fit in by hating everything (and usually are flush with the cash that actual hipsters are accused of having but rarely do). Sometimes outsiders get confused, because they catch bona fide hipsters making fun of something that brought down the wrath by being stupid or mediocre, but I think overall, Maria is right. What’s so great about being in one of these communities, full time or part time, is the pleasure of loving. I don’t like going to a lot of shows because I hate it; I do it because I love it. As I’ve noted before, what makes me happy about being around hipsters is that they’re enthusiastic and they actually try. Often—mostly—it’s about non-mainstream things, but so what? The mainstream in America is about elevating the mediocre to maximize profit. That people care about the margins where inventiveness matters is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.
But I do have one quarrel with Maria. “People” don’t bash hipsters because they don’t like poseurs. Hipsters bash “hipsters” because they hate poseurs. But nowadays, the vast majority of people I see bashing hipsters are bashing them because of their best qualities—that they care about music and fashion, that they’re invested in the margins, that they shun the mediocrity of the mainstream, that they hang out with people they actually like, that they’re proud of who they are and what they’re in to. There’s a strong tendency in our culture to shun enthusiasm in all forms. We call it geeky, or we get alarmed if people have too much passion. While I don’t think that was the point of the Rally For Sanity, for instance, there were lots of signs that were shaming people for caring about politics. Within this week, I’ve witnessed in the constant stream of noise on the internet the bashing of people who really like to reference “The Wire”, of people who actually show affection for their pets, and of people who actually think that music matters. (Not aimed at me, but I suppose it could have been.) I don’t like it. Culture exists because people care. Our corporate overlords find culture threatening because it’s hard to commodify the truly inventive. So they want you to mock people who experiment and people who care and people who actually put on their funky clothes and go hit a $10 show from the latest underground band. Don’t give in.
On that tangent, I’d like to link this awesome interview of Sara Marcus conducted by Amanda Hess. Part of it is a discussion of why there isn’t such space as there was for outrage-driven music like Riot Grrrl. I humbly suggest this overall shunning of passion in our culture is part of the reason why.