CAN YOU KILL A SCENE IF IT'S ALREADY DEAD?
Memories of the Hipster Wars
I got drafted into the hipster wars after a piece I wrote for n+1 made the rounds in late 2004. Some editors called me to write about music or movies or other things that were sort of hipster-adjacent at the time. It was fun to write for BlackBook, say—great editors but they took a while to pay. Eventually in the summer of 2007, I got called by the editors of TimeOut New York, to write a cover story on ‘Why the Hipster Must Die’ because they had this special issue in mind, sort of like clickbait in print. I tried to convince them that a better concept would be ‘Who Killed the Hipsters’ (the answer being: fake hipsters who were really just corporate squares, bankers and lawyers who’d picked up the now mass-marketed style (out of ’90s thrift store combing) that was being sold by Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, and so on). But they insisted on the imperative of killing hipsters. They also insisted I use the word ‘cool’ as a noun. I agreed to do these things because they were paying me $2 a word and had never been paid that much for my writing. Plus I figured I could just say what I wanted to say ironically, which I basically did. Last year I noticed that the piece had disappeared from the TimeOut website, so I am posting it below (I found the text on the Wayback Machine). It was from the last gasp of TimeOut being a magazine with articles, and it was translated into other languages and reprinted by their international affiliates. Keith Gessen brought me home a copy of TimeOut Moscow, in which the headline was translated as ‘What Is a Hipster and Why Would You Want to Be One?”
The hipster eventually died (or at least the word went out of use) because people got exhausted with the concept and moved on to something else. Really it was useless because it had gone from indicating a divide between hipsters and squares to being used to refer to all young people who live in cities. I didn’t pay too much attention because around the same time, 2011, I moved to London. Besides I had already been in on n+1’s panel and book What Was the Hipster? My contribution was an ironic repudiation of the TimeOut piece. We were done with being young. My friends started to have kids, unfortunately. I focused my efforts on writing book reviews.
When I visited from London between 2011 and 2015, it seemed like young people in New York had become more interested in being healthy and in shape and in therapy or doing wellness—all things that don’t interest me. There was normcore, also boring to me. It seemed that uncool music, such as bad popular rock from the 1990s and pop music was now acceptable to play in New York bars, a revolting development. A conflict outlined below between irony and sincerity resolved itself in favor of the sincere. Something about this might have had to do with the election of Obama, whose rallies Joan Didion called ‘the irony-free zone’. The protest movements of the 2010s drew on different energies, revolutionary energies that had been latent in America for decades and suddenly burst forth in the form of Occupy and BLM. These movements have been repressed by cops, by the defeat of Bernie Sanders, or else co-opted by Biden and Pelosi. Somehow they did not see much expression in literature. I can only think of a couple of Occupy novels—Caleb Crain’s Overthrow and Ben Lerner’s 10:04—whereas Trump Lit is still swelling, like the 9/11 novel before it. With BLM it may be too soon to say with the novel, and certainly its resonance in the art world seemed to be immediate, both in artworks and in the workings of art institutions. What did happen was a politicization of culture writing, with politics or at least liberal political pieties serving as a readymade framework to write TV recaps.
Now that style has exhausted itself, except perhaps for new parents who live for television, and we hear of a vibe shift. And of course there is the inevitable backlash to the vibe shift. From the perspective of middle age, I’d say none of this is more than a bit of fun—an expression of boredom with the increasingly predictable corporate monoculture, especially vastly overrated streaming television. None of this is political and hardly any of it matters. It’s your friends and lovers that matter. Read some books and have some laughs before you die. That’s why I’ve taken up acting.
Why the Hipster Must Die
TimeOut New York, summer 2007
Has the hipster killed cool in New York? Did it die the day Wes Anderson proved too precious for his own good, or was it when Chloë Sevigny fellated Vincent Gallo onscreen? Did it vanish along with Kokie’s, International Bar and Tonic? Or when McSweeney’s moved shop to San Francisco and Bright Eyes signed a lease on the Lower East Side? Was it possible to be a hipster once a band that played Northsix one night was heard the next day on NPR’s Weekend Edition? Did it hurt to have American Apparel marketing soft-porn style to young bankers? Was something lost the day Ecstasy made the cover of the Times Magazine? Or was it the day Bloomberg banned smoking in bars? And how many times an hour could one check e-mail and still have an honest, or even ironic, claim on being cool?
Yes, the assassins of cool still walk our streets: Any night of the week finds the East Village, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg teeming with youth—a pageant of the bohemian undead. These hipster zombies—now more likely to be brokers or lawyers than art-school dropouts—are the idols of the style pages, the darlings of viral marketers and the marks of predatory real-estate agents. And they must be buried for cool to be reborn.
It was in the real-estate section of one of the city’s lesser dailies, under the headline luxury seems to be set for the lower east side, that I found an astonishing remark attributed to Michael Desjadon, the director of sales at Massey Knakal: “The profile of the typical renter in the area is changing from the ‘counterculture hipster’ to the ‘more mainstream’ hipster and young professional.”
“I wish I’d thought of this phrase, but we call the Lower East Side ‘the last real neighborhood in New York,’” Desjadon, an amiable fellow and a patron of LES bars, told me when I called him up. “The mainstream hipster,” he explained, “is not an artist or a musician. He has an office job, and wears one hat to work and another at night.” Presumably, the latter is a trucker—or a porkpie—hat.
The mouth of a real-estate agent is rarely the source of truth, but Mr. Desjadon knows his territory (and is no doubt cashing in on this knowledge). He has unwittingly explicated the transformation of the hipster into the “indie yuppie,” an avatar we might imagine as the fusion of Kurt Cobain and Adam Gopnik. The indie yuppie is (literally) the child of the bobo, and just as his father the baby boomer did, he has learned to simulate rebellion while procuring and furnishing a comfortable two-bedroom. His haircut may be asymmetrical, but his dog never misses a walk. And around the corner, sleeping on couches, neophyte slackers dream until they wake up late for their temp jobs. The savvy among them soon grasp that they’ve arrived at the party too late.
Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.
Of course, hipsterism being originally, and still mostly, the province of whites (the pastiest of whites), its acolytes raid the cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity in the pot. Similarly, they devour gay style: Witness the cultural burp known as metrosexuality. As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.
All isms seek dominance of human affairs, and in this, hipsterism in New York City has proved more virulent than any of its forebears. (Punk, after all, never really broke—except in the form of hipsterism.) At last there was nothing left for hipsters to do but to convert the squares, take them to the bar and let them pick up the tab. Secrets were shared. The hipster hooked up with the common consumer; he woke up a zombie.
How can this be undone? I propose that the only hope for a reanimated bohemia, if not a dezombified hipsterdom, is civil war.
Hipsters in their present undead incarnation are essentially people who think of themselves as being cooler than America. But they are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism. The late prophet of our current moment, George W. S. Trow, posited that television had obliterated the context of American life. The only refuges remaining were TV, God and the self. Young people who live in cities notoriously shun God and television to cultivate themselves. Now, as the age of MySpace comes due for a backlash and the former teen idols of our crypto-ironic fascination start to show their age, the time has come for the hipsters in the garden of Union Pool to open their eyes, realize that they are surrounded by jackasses and milquetoasts, and stage their own dive-bar putsch.
The fault lines are clear enough already. We know that there are Sweet hipsters, who practice the sort of irony you can take home to meet the parents, and there are those Vicious hipsters, who practice the form of not-quite-passive aggression called snark.
On the Sweet end of the spectrum, The Believer lavishes its literary and pop-culture idols with a uniform layer of affection that renders it near impossible to distinguish the great from the mediocre. This aesthetic of relativism grants everybody an A for effort and allows anyone projecting the image of an artist to conceive of himself as such. It proliferates as a social plague among hipsters who invite their entire address book to readings, shows and art openings. The e-mails arrive, and though it is known in advance that the art will be nothing much,the trek is made. The avant-garde illusion ultimately sustains itself on free beer.
As the war claims its casualties, the Sweet may discover that behind their aesthetic relativism is an impulse more political than cultural: They are rightfully activists. Their cause has emerged in the form of global warming, and I would not be surprised if the color of cool in their future is green. Along the way they might rediscover a concept hipsters have lately had little use for: love.
Meanwhile, among those who adopt the Vicious pose, a lighthearted scorn perfected by Gawker is roundly applied to the objects of pop celebrity, both talented and (mostly) otherwise. The effect is akin to dipping sushi in wasabi sauce: The flavor is a little less bland, but it’s still mostly rice. The hipster who keeps up with the antics of Hilton, Lohan and Spears does so sneeringly, and her knowingness introduces one degree of difference between herself and the Midwestern housewife who buys Us Weekly at the Wal-Mart checkout line.
When I asked Gawker managing editor Choire Sicha whether it was possible to ignore talentless celebrities, he responded with the remorse of a custodian of cultural decline: “Everyone can, and should, be ignored. We were warned about this situation we find ourselves in by philosophers, and well before it happened. It’s just too bad we weren’t warned by celebrities, or we would have listened to them.”
So the Sweet will turn on the Vicious, and the Vicious will shun the Sweet. The sniping in the blogosphere will escalate, and turf wars will ensue. Power will be consolidated in the frontiers of the outer boroughs as the Vicious tighten their grip on Bushwick and the Sweet flee south to Kensington and Windsor Terrace, or give up and move to Queens (better yet, to their rightful home: the West Coast).
If they can vanquish the Sweet, the path for the Vicious is less obvious. A good first step might entail purging the lawyers and bankers lurking in their company. But on the other hand, those guys are good at footing the bill. Another tactic would require the conversion of snark to self-criticism, and that would necessarily involve ignoring no-talent celebrities, and mean an end to playing it safe. The safest game in town—in fashion and music especially—is retro, and if there is no Ezra Pound in corduroys out there to say, “Make it new,” let me be the one to say, “Stop making it old.”
What distinguishes the zombie hipsters at large today from the “white Negroes” Norman Mailer described in the 1950s is a lack of menace. The original hipster—Mailer had in mind James Dean and the Neal Cassady who inspired On the Road—was a “philosophical psychopath” who might steal your car and drive it to Mexico. The myth of menace survives in the pages of Vice, but the magazine’s signature feature—the “Do’s and Don’t’s”—suggests a safe path to transgression, a notion as oxymoronic as the “mainstream hipster.” Mailer, who traced hipster psychosis to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, would likely point to September 11 as the event that left hordes of twentysomethings whispering, “We would be safe,” to quote the Sweet hipster novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Menace is now lost on anyone older than 20. It is left to those born after 1990 to move to town, frighten the zombies away, destabilize the real-estate market and restore something unsavory to what used to be called hip.