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.