Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hipsters then and now

[This is a speciall cross-promotion post with my other blog Olman's Fifty (where I track and review the books I read), since it was the reading of A Fine Ending by Louis Rastelli that spurred me to write about Mile End hipsters. You can read my full review of the book over there.]

I just finished reading Louis Rastelli's A Fine Ending. It's a great chronicle of Montreal back when rents really were cheap and hipsters were actual poor artists who were mostly making art for the art and being a freak was cool. I apologize for dropping a negative post during this season of cheer, but reading about the 90s really helped crystallize why today's hipsters are so fucking annoying.

Every young, white, educated, first-world cultural movement is annoying in some way (and often many ways), from the hippies onward. Fundamentally what is annoying is that these scenes have a lot of righteousness and political rhetoric, but they are ultimately in existence because of society's wealth and the fortune of the particpants of being born to a certain class. You can't have these movements without leisure time and you can't have leisure time without material success. You can't afford to be poor if there is real poverty in a society. So these poor artists, squatting in their lofts and dumpster-diving can only afford to do so because of the wealth of society around them.

Despite that cynical foundation, there is still a difference between scenes. This difference often gets defined by authenticity, which then devolves into useless arguments of taste and experience (and the "when I was a kid" old guy argument). I'm probably edging dangerously close to that argument here, but since I was also just as critical and contemptuous of my own hipster age (in slacktastic Portland with its lame "grunge" scene and Oakland with annoying post-punks and scruffy white rappers and finally for the worst hipster hell of all which should be just fucking nuked, Williamsburg), I figure I'll have some credibility.

Reading Rastelli's account of the 90s and now having lived in that same neighbourhood the last 6 years, the main difference I see between his scene and today's are three things: the wealth, the conformity and the self-awareness.

The wealth is obvious. The kids in the hipster scene here in Mile End clearly have a lot of disposable income. The two big factors are most likely because they are working in the software industry (Ubisoft is the main engine driving Mile End's gentrification) and because they come from wealthy families. Back in Rastelli's day, there must have been a few trust fund kids, but the world (and urban north america in particular) is a much wealthier place today, thanks to the Clinton boom years. The kids back then seemed to often be drop-outs, whereas today they are post-McGill kids who stick around or other post-university graduates who are drawn to the coolness of Montreal. Logically, given the end of the cheap rents and the greater cost of living, they just have to be wealthier to live here.

With that wealth, which is based on a consumer culture, comes conformity. Today, youth cultures define themselves by what products they buy, what clothes they wear. Back in Louis' day, clothes and goods were less relevant. I passed two guys talking to each other on Laurier who were literally wearing exactly the same outfit. It was clear that they had just ran into each other. They had brown faux old-time logger leather boots, narrow jeans with wide cuffs above the boots, zipped hoodies under plaid jackets, big rounded bushy bears and black elf-toques on the back of their head. I really wanted to take a picture. Oh yeah, they each had store-branded shopping bags of newly purchased stuff (okay, possibly xmas shopping, so I could maybe give them a pass on that, but it just all fit in so perfectly). It looked like a parody of hipsterness.

[One other element of this conformity that is interesting is that it is also a manifestation of the growing feminization of males. Young men are encouraged to enslave themselves to fashion, where it is acceptable even for creative types to dress like everyone else as long as it is in the latest style, which then encourages a higher rate of consumption in order to keep up.]

Well who cares if they all dress the same, you may well ask. The problem with their conformity is that they define themselves as creative types. But they are all operating out of the same pre-defined rule books. Companies hire "cool-hunters" who then codify styles, brand them and sell them to these hipsters. And this is where the self-awareness comes in. These people are actively aware of being part of a scene. They all learn you have to have a track bike and wear a rollerderby shirt because that's what they are doing in New York. They actively create their own little marketing and publicity campaigns and make those things happen here. The existence of the internet is probably the one main reason for this change. When you go to a music show today, it's not to actually experience, but to be able to record it with your digital camera or cellphone (both of which are owned by most hipsters, if not also a videocamera; remember when Sting said "Too many cameras, not enough food) and then put it up on your Facebook page. That is the perfect example of consumerism (the camera) + the internet = what hipsters today consider cultural production.

The one positive outcome of this new rich, conformist and self-aware hipster scene is that they have gotten into actually creating real things, with a push for a more locally-based economy. This is an outgrowth of the more spontaneous musical and cultural events back in the '90s (and the Expozine is a great example of people doing a lot of cool stuff; you'll see a pretty interesting mix of hipster generations there). There is also a nice environmental element to that as well, with local cultural groups pushing for doing good things with green space, setting up composting service and so on.

Other than that, though, it's a pretty depressingly empty scene. Today's hipsters are basically wealthy consumers with a lot of leisure time. Their non-labour energies are almost entirely dedicated to increasing cultural consumption. There is very little political will or social consciousness, besides reflexive lip service. Even the punks are apolitical today and the squeegee kids are more conformist than anyone. I know the hippies were super-annoying and basically a giant sausage-fest, but at least they were yelling for some fucking change. Punk Rock back in the day was about smashing shit up. Today it is about getting a record deal or properly managing your twitter account. Today's hipsters is fundamentally conservative (note the new emphasis on traditional women's domestic labour still being done by women, with hipster chicks baking, knitting and sewing, but now it is "crafting" and sold at a higher price point than the mass-produced equivalents).

They are nice kids on the individual level, these hipsters, I'm sure. But you can't help but want to punch them in the face when you see them. Here's why: it's that they think they are actually doing something positive and different. They believe the lies that go along with the products they sell to each other, as we all do. But their lies make them think they are actually part of a cultural movement, as opposed to being just another marketing demographic. When you see a dufus in an SUV with a trunk full of Ikea products, you can lament his wasteful lifestyle and be resentful of his wealth, but he's not trying to be somehow culturally superior. Same with the gelled guidos waiting in line at the club.

This is all inevitable. I find it hard to believe that Mile End could ever be a truly swanky neighbourhood, but it happened in SOHO (though that took decades) and happened almost right before my eyes in Williamsburg. The U.S. is much, much richer than Canada, so I don't know if we've already got the super-expensive chocolate boutiques on Fairmount, the high-end baby stores, condos going up everywhere and the rising property values and rents. Today's hipsters may well integrate themselves successfully into this evolution and become a new wealthy cultural elite. The big wild card is the language thing, which limits the amount of hipsters who can move here (and thank fucking god and the PQ for that despite some of the annoying side effects). That is one thing that keeps Montreal different. There is also the decline of America as a world empire, but I suspect we'll still see several generations of economic growth before it finally really comes down. And we still have decades of natural resources to plunder before the planet as a whole truly starts to suffer. In the meantime, we can watch Mile End become more and more fancy and the hipsters become more and more insufferable until it finally becomes, gasp, Park Slope.


Christian Jarry said...

I don't live in the Mile End but I can't help to feel it's really a matter of perception. I'm sorry to say it sounds like things were so better in your generation.

It makes my generation (I do consider myself in the generation of those you critisize) feel like everything has already been done and it's been done better by previous generations. It reminds me of a quote that I heard from Socrates who complained that young people who basically useless and lazy.

I think part of our coming of age is lamenting on how the following generation is not better than we are.

Were you see hipsters driving SUVs full of Ikea, I see Gen X (I'm Gen Y myself ;) or babyboomers denying global warming because it would change their way of life. I see them having no qualms cutting the social benefits of the youngsters if it means they can have their golden parachutes for their retirement (Babyboomers mainly there).

So what if the clothes are all the same? Ubisoft for example has show that there is lots of creativity and expertise in Montreal which in turn brought EA, Eidos and others. Sure what the governement give them is part of the reason why they did but if there was absolutely no talent, then I doubt they would come rushing in.

And that's only one example. Have you heard how the indie music scene is really strong in Montréal with groups such as Arcade Fire, The Stills, Stars, Wolf Parade and so many others. Where is it located? In the Mile End.

As for the music shows, I've been to over 50 shows in the last 10 years and people don't really record show for anything else than just having memories of a show. I did it a few times but what I'd mostly want to do is shot pics though you can't with my kind of camera (it really sucks too). To me it's a gratuitous comment. Most people I know don't care what happens in NY or LA or anywhere else. The ones who do (the hipsters) have always existed and always will. They aren't just located in the Mile End. I saw plenty when I lived in Verdun and I'm seeing them where I live now too. We call them Peteux de broue in french and they can be found in every generation.

One part I will agree with you is that my generation in general has no interest in politics and it's a real shame. I won't put all the blame on our present government but they haven't helped. But again, this isn't the case with everyone in the generation so I'm not very keen on lugging in everyone in the same basket.

Anyways, that's my two cents and I won't pretend that my arguments are any better than yours ;)

Arnold Kim said...

Bohemia: the most expensive lifestyle in the world, but not a bad brew if you are in a pinch.

claire said...

both of you have interesting and legitimate arguments.
every generation had their own dresscode and style,
remember pics of our parents all dressed up in flared and bell bottoms pants.
i studied fashion in paris, i've been living in LA and just relocated to montreal, all these experiences make me believe than fashion wise, one can only be creative up to a certain point.
because we're bound to the same influences, codes, ideas,
so we can only do so much..
identifying as "creative types" doesnt necesseraly means that one wants to dress up completely out of the codes..
and as far a men/women issues,
its going to take generations and generations to change
on the one side, we're blaming men for feminizing their style and on the other side we blame women for subscribing to traditional activities such as cooking and baking..
deep inside, we all know its far from perfect and something has to change but its in our core,
human beings are animals of habits,
and change is demanding and time consuming...

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for your comments! Sicnaxyz, let me just say that while you are correct in identifying my argument as falling under the "back in my days..." attitude, please understand that I am just as critical (and possibly more so) of my own generation, which pulled off one of the worst sellouts in North American history. I am a curmudgeon and misanthrope in general, as you well know! I think what I was trying to identify is areas where the two trends differ and I think it is true that brand consciousness and trend awareness is much more prevalent today, and cuts across more social groups, than it was twenty years ago. This is a function of the increased reach of global consumerism.

Claire, I think you boil it down to its essence quite nicely. We are certainly creatures of habit! Not as far removed from animals as we like to think...

angelica said...

this article is pretty great. i started commenting, but my comment grew into this monster:

to sum up quickly, i agree with you, pretty much, but i think what hipsters are prone to is what affects us all - the steamrolling of consumption in the place of meaning. i went into more detail on the whole DIY aspect, but i won't get into that here.

Mile-Ender said...

I can identify having moved into the Mile-End neighborhood recently. Young hipster consumers abound. I think hipster is just the new term of choice. Sometimes I feel so disconnected. In the 80s we called them posers or a billion other words.

But of course, like any sub-species sub-section of our corners of the world it's best to look for those who are both real, down to earth and don't put up a front.

I came across this article while searching for various keywords from mile-end to hipster to even trust-fund! I've done so many searches on my new home. Always do in a new country or city.

Loving the mile-end though. Mix of all sorts of cultures and folks. Inspiring. I just ignore the hipsters while on my way to cheskies to get a cookie.

I subscribed to your blog. Looking forward to reading more. Cheers!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Hey, thanks, Mile-Ender! Glad to have you on board. Sounds like we are of similar generations.

I've been a bit sparse of late in my posting. I blame the pre-spring anticipation blahs. I have accumulated a decent amount of practical knowledge about the neighbourhood, so let me know if you have any questions, services you are looking for, good restos, etc. Might also give me a good subject to blog about.

And yes, despite my curmudgeonliness, this is one of the best neighbourhoods in North America to live in, I would argue. And once the weather gets warm and Montreal puts on her mini-jupe. Yowza!