The New Counterrevolutionaries and the Specter of “the Hipster”

– “They seem wild but they are so tame” (Arcade Fire, “Rococo,” The Suburbs)

It’s been more than 15 years since Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun.  When I was in high school, this was seen, more or less, as a world-historical event.  The local “alternative” radio station had running live coverage from Seattle.  Our high school offered kids grief-counseling services.  There were even discussions about collective guilt – “it’s all of our faults he did it – we needed too much from him” and that sort of thing.

Now I don’t cite that historical remembrance (no doubt romanticized in my own mind) as evidence of the “good old days.”  But I do think it’s worth reflecting that that event was basically a generation ago.  A lot of the people who were teenagers then have kids now – they’re not teenagers yet, but some of them are on their way.  So I mention this not just to critique today’s teenagers (though of course that’s coming), but also to draw somewhat of a generational contrast.

If Lady Gaga killed herself today, today’s counterrevolutionaries would watch the video on YouTube.

They would rate the performance – many would even “like” it on facebook.  And then they would move along to the next “viral moment” – perhaps of a kitten waterskiing while seemingly reenacting Lady Gaga’s final moments.  The latter video would recieve more “buzz” than the former.  They’d all agree why – because the second video was “just, like, more entertaining, you know?” They would turn TMZ back on.

Maybe the foregoing is a little harsh, but you have to admit, it’s hard to imagine anything like Cobain’s suicide today – something that might actually get a lot of people’s attention at the same time, and might actually make a large group of people sincerely sad.  And obviously, my generation’s own emotional reactions to Cobain’s death were emotionally overblown and self-involved – sic semper teenageris – but what I’m more interested in is what today’s teens choose to be emotionally overblown and self-involved about.  I’m here to report from the field and say, perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s largely a bunch of crap.

The New Militant Conformism

Q: “How many hipsters does it take to change  light bulb?”

A: “It’s a really obscure number, you probably haven’t heard of it.”

A certain clique of my students enjoys telling “hipster jokes.”  They’re all about as good as the one just quoted (though, I have to admit, upon hearing it for the first time, I did sincerely chuckle).  All the jokes rely on more or less the same premise – that obscurantism is some sort of sin, on for which you must repent and atone for immediately, or else be excluded.  Again – I’m pretty sure drawing attention to the conformism of outwardly nonconformists is not new.  It’s a cultural meme that will always persist, and I’ll also be the first to admit that there are certain forms of denerate hipster-ism and scenester-ism worthy of derision.  But the reflexive dismissal implied in the tone of voice with which these jokes are told seems to point to something bigger.

What I’m surprised by is the level of aggression and militancy that accompanies such hipster jokes.  Another joke:

Joke-Teller: “Have you heard of the band Super-Sad-Kittens?”

Respondent: “No.”

Joke-Teller: “Oh, I didn’t think so, they’re pretty obscure.  Have you heard of the Rolling Stones?”

Respondent: “Yes.”

Joke-Teller: “Yeah, they’re like, too mainstream.  I don’t really like them.”

I felt a sort of momentary pressure to correct this joke.  It’s not that funny – obviously, but I also think, even on its own terms, it’s failed.  The idea that “Super Sad Kittens” would be a band name suggests to me a total lack of imagination on the part of would-be hipster-criticizers.  It also suggests that the only reason someone would create such a band, or like it, is because they’re terminally depressed and self-excluding.  Similarly, the invocation of the Rolling Stones as an example of a band a hipster would criticize sounds tone-deaf in its own way.  I’m not really sure, but it’s my impression that a lot of people who deserve to be called “hipsters” would probably express some sort of allegiance for at least part of the Stones’ oeuvre, even if not towards their latter-day endless world tours and hundred-plus dollar ticket prices.

Today’s new counterrevolutionaries are militant defenders of something they love to call “pop.”  this includes the post-ironic embrace of things like American Idol winners, the harboring of delusions like  that Lady Gaga is empowering because she claims to read the newspaper and pay lip-service to warmed-over gay subcultural cliches, and, in what can only be described as slow-motion cultural genocide, they like Glee.

In short, they exist in a world totally devoid of critical instincts about mass culture.  They cling to it like drowning animals.  And should you try to object, say, on the grounds that most of their professed objects of desire are just the “youth-friendly” arms of multinational conglomerates designed to suck the money out of their bank accounts and develop their “brand loyalties” before they get old enough to think about these things critically, you will be mercilessly ridiculed  as a sixties-style radical, or perhaps – gasp – a hipster!

This seems bad, if for no other reason than that Glee and American Idol and their ilk are cultural dead-ends.  They’re not the new face of the future, the the last dying gasp of network television in their attempt to maintain ratings-based hegemony.  With respect to Lady Gaga – there might be something more there, but if she’s the “next Madonna”, let’s ask ourselves honestly, what did Madonna ever do for us?  She felt important at one point I suppose, but really, I don’t think there’s all that many people (other than the usual set of E! True Hollywood Story and VH1 sycophants such as Anthony Michael Hall) who would even bother to defend her as culturally significant or interesting.

There are some interesting trends in hip-hop that, in all fairness, a lot of these teens would embrace, but it’s also probably fair to say that a lot of what they like in that is the same, mutatis mutandis, as what they think they don’t like about “hipsterism.”  What’s particularly distressing to me is that I’m not describing teenagers who are unintelligent.  In fact, these are some of my students whose opinions and intellect I think are generally well-developed.  They’re members of the debate team even.

I place the blame for all of this squarely on the “new media” revolution, brought about by the advancement of late-state capitalism and the formation of the modern “media corporation.”  It’s been a widely noted observation of late that social networking and overwhelming amounts of choice tend not to allow new voices into a conversation, but instead cause a retreat to conformity.  To cite one example – in spite of the much, much larger number of books available to today’s readers, and the much greater number of ways to read those books, the best-seller lists are more homogeneous than ever before.  And before you start talking about Herman Melville and all that – I’m not saying that the problem is one of low vs. high culture – I’m saying James Patterson is, even in the low-brow terms of genre-based best sellers, dominant in a way that even John Grisham never was twenty years ago.

So – today’s teenagers face a dizzying array of cultural choices.  They take refuge in the mass market; what’s more, they’re scared of what’s not that.  They’re all on facebook, and they shun those of their peers who are not.  Inside jokes and references are spread so fast that, whereas when we were teenagers, it would be overstatement to say “everybody knows about that“, today it’s literally true.

And so, the zero-point of this cultural holocaust – “the hipster.”  The person in their midst who dares to contest the hegemony of Glee.  Since “hipsterism” at least in some forms, contests the dominance of their preferred cultural memes and narratives, they must deny such a person any voice.  Hence, the only way today’s counterrevolutionary can understand the hipster is as the kind of person who selects a marketing niche (i.e, the same thing they’ve done).  A hipster is defined by their clothing choices, the kinds of glasses they wear, and the insistent belief that such people only select “obscure” cultural preferences because they want to conform to something else.

There is no space for a person who sincerely likes an obscure band more than they like Lady Gaga.  Such a person’s motives will be questioned immediately.  They must be embracing this to be contrary.  They must be seeking attention.  But they can’t possibly really believe (much less be correct) in their belief that Lady Gaga is bad.  To even consider whether that last statement might be true is anathema.

In most online social networking situations, you have two choices: “like” something, or ignore it.  There is rarely a “don’t like” button, certainly not on facebook, the most popular of all those services.  Either you swear your loyalty to what everyone else likes, or you do not enter the conversation.  Saying no is not an option – “no and here’s why” – that’s worthy of shunning.  Stephen Dedalus’s “non serviam” is, in the words of Monty Python’s, right out.

I’ll close this angry broadside with a story.  Last summer, I was driving a group of kids back from the National Forensic League National Tournament, from Kansas City to Chicago.  In what (in retrospect) was obviously intended as provocation, my assistant coach and I put the Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light White Heat onto the car’s stereo system.  There was no real comment for most of the first five songs.  But after we got about 10 minutes through the closing and oft-mentioned-in-this-space “Sister Ray,” something annoying started happening – they started texting each other, most likely about how bad this music was – or even, how it isn’t even actually music.

After a few minutes of their giggling and texting, however, we actually started having a conversation about music, one that lasted more than an hour, and got us most of the way across eastern Missouri in the car.  The starting-point of all four kids was the same – “this isn’t music; music is meant to entertain and this isn’t doing that.”  What was interesting to me was a) how sure they were of this, and b) how offended they seemed to be even to contemplate the falsity of either the major premise (“music must entertain”) or the minor premise (“this isn’t entertaining”).

Something else striking about this conversation was the role reversal it seemed to represent, to me anyway.  When I was younger, had I put similar music on in the car (say, In Utero or Surfer Rosa), it would have been my parents telling me about how it was discordant, weird and inappropriate it was.  But here I was, a 33-year-old, being told by a bunch of teenagers, that my music was loud and obnoxious.  This seems intuitively sad.

Nevertheless – we did get somewhere in that conversation – they were willing to discuss, revise their opinions, and so on – though I suspect that’s something that’s pretty tough to do if the primary way you interact with others is through texts and facebook, through unexplained “likes” and (unspoken) dislikes.

And so the Arcade Fire quotation with which I began – today’s counterrevolutionaries are so tame.  They seem totally uninterested in differentiating themselves from their parents or from each other – but there in the corner, still, thankfully, is the object of their scorn – behold the hipster.  In almost all of my classes, there is still at least one kid who routinely shows up wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.  Nihilism (and therefore hope) remains.

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8 Responses to The New Counterrevolutionaries and the Specter of “the Hipster”

  1. Margaret says:

    two things-

    a hipster isnt simply someone that goes against the grain. thats just fine. a hipster is someone that goes out of their way to not like what others like. the joke about asking what music people like was based on that the “hipster” did in fact like the rolling stones, they just pretended they didnt because others enjoyed it. a “hipster” pretends that they are poor to look as if they live life in a “struggle”. a “hipster” loves to smoke weed but wont eat fast food because it isnt healthy. a hipster isnt counter culture; they are the embarrassment to all things counter culture because they are nothing but a poser.

    and i will stand by my defense that velvet underground is terrible. any music that causes physical pain can not be good.

    other than that, you probably got us youngins. facebook is the devil.

  2. Jake says:

    so where is the like button?

  3. juan says:

    Madonna had a great impact on western society because a lot of the things she did were controversial and scandalous.she was aiming to shock and draw attention to things that people didn’t usually mention in the media or in music videos and so on.
    It is because of artists like Madonna that Katie Perry (I don’t know if i got the spelling right and i don’t care to check) can sing about kissing a girl and liking it.Difference is nobody is scandalized today about that.You can do and say whatever,the only reaction you will get is mild surprise at best or indifference.it is very hard to shock these days.
    i like a lot of Madonna’s stuff.

  4. Josh says:

    Sorry – I typed this yesterday and apparently didn’t post it.

    That song is not by Katie Perry, it’s by Jill Sobiel, who released it at least 15 years ago – this would seem to prove my point, that the counterculture does things, and then people like Madonna cash in on it, at best. Madonna then, and Lady Gaga now, are just warmed-over versions of actually controversial cultural content. Most of the “pop” world thinks it’s much more cutting-edge than it is, because the people who swear their allegiance to it refuse to delve deeper and understand the derivative status of most of what they think is original.

    I know the foregoing is an unoriginal indictment of pop culture – but I really thought your example was an amusing example.

    • juan says:

      i stand corrected.however, the point is that even if Madonna was not original,she brought a lot of that controversial stuff in the public eye.so she at least turned that countercultural content into mainstream.maybe she just capitalized on that like you said,but that’s ok.nobody said she invented all she sang about.so long as she didn’t steal her songs from anyone i think she’s ok.i mean,sooner or later counterculture is bound to get integrated into mainstream,and i don’t see why the person who achieves that is to be treated with scorn as somebody merely cashing in on some unknown genius’ ideas.
      i wouldn’t be surprised if somebody did similar things to what warhol did before him.are we to say that warhol is a mere popularizer in that case?maybe, but that still wouldn’t be nothing, i think.

      • Josh says:

        Fair enough – I agree that counterculture gets integrated inevitably – I think I’d just suggest that by and large, it also gets homogenized and rendered boring as a result of that integration. But, there are popularizers and there are popularizers. It feels like both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were popularizers in some sense, but at a very intuitive level their acts of popularization feel more worthwhile than Madonna’s. I’m not 100% sure why, but I think it goes beyond my simple taste preferences.

  5. Peter says:

    Glad to see this blog is back up…I shared this particular post on Facebook 🙂

    I’m reading a book called ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’ right now and some of the things the author says remind me of what you wrote about the teenagers complaining about your music being loud and obnoxious, and suggest that this is a bad sign. The author says that “what is noise to the old order is harmony to the new” and argues that music can ‘prophecy’ social change because “it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.” I currently find his argument baffling and can’t really comment in detail on it yet, but it does make some intuitive sense if you think about the musical differences between recent generations.

    • Josh says:

      Peter – Interesting ideas. “What is noise to the older order is harmony to the new” can have two meanings. The one that seems to generally have been true is that what the older generation regards as mere noise, the younger generation sees as revolutionary and therefore harmonious.

      But in the instance I was describing, here was something that sounds like music to me but “mere noise” to them. This is distressing as it seems to represent backwards, counterrevolutionary tendencies.

      On the other (more optimistic) hand maybe this is just a case of kids not wanting to try that hard about something. Actual coffee, for example, is generally a taste acquired a bit later in life; a mocha Frappucino is probably preferred by most teenagers. The hope is that as they get older they figure out how to set aside such tastes in favor of more complex, subtle ones. I just worry there are so many Frappuinco salesmen of all sorts that no one will get to the coffee anymore.

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