By Alexander Billet
Back in the day, I was punk. I wore spiked hair and torn jeans; t-shirts with Dead Kennedys on them and other images that got me suspended; combat boots, chains, leather, and I tried to put silver studs into anything that stood still. There was no doubt about it, I was one punk-rock motherfucker, and my look was down pat! But in those days, the clothes merely reflected an inner state of mind--one of perpetual rebellion, of rejection of the status quo and proving to everyone that it was possible to be something else than what authority said I had to be. For me, punk rock was my introduction to being a radical.
Then Blink-182 came along. Then Good Charlotte. Then New Found Glory. Overnight, punk became "cool," like it had twenty years before. And just like then, it was absorbed into the system. Made safe for consumption. I saw the end was near when Hot Topic locations popped up in every mall and shopping center. All of a sudden the hard work that had gone into my look and my individuality was dashed away. Now, any twelve year old kid could pick up a chain or pair of boots (most likely made in sweatshops halfway around the world). It was still a form of rebellion, yes, but that corporate America had pitched in signified that it was a rebellion they were comfortable with. In the end, it just defeated the purpose.
But god forbid you should ever tell that to a hipster.
There is much in the hipster culture I enjoy. Some of the clothes are clever. I even enjoy much of the music, which sounds so much more like rock n' roll than anything has in a while. But there is something disturbing to me in the hipster scene, and it lurks behind every note the White Stripes play and every stitch of clothing you can buy at Urban Outfitters: It is the most willfullly apathetic subculture I have ever encountered.
I have hung with a lot of different crowds in my time. Dig deep enough and you can find thriving scenes of Rastas and rude boys, punks and skins, mods and street-corner-MCs. And for the longest time I was convinced that there had to be more to this hipster craze. Unfortunately, no.
Before going on, it is worth pointing out that it is getting harder and harder for any subculture to really stand on its own before being co-opted. It shows us something very poignant, and teaches us a lesson about how this system works. Rebellion is cool, and that's true for every generation. It's also very, very dangerous. After all, if working people are to find some kind of dignity outside of the pigeonholes society lays out for you (especially if you are a person of color), then you might start trying to find other ways of doing so. And if you do that, who's to say you won't start questioning every damn value and bit of conventional wisdom we're taught? From marriage to patriotism to capitalism. The beatniks figured it out. So did the 60s counterculture. Beboppers and swing-kids in the 30s knew it, and the punks had it in spades.
Normally, record companies simply find a way to market the new sound and style and then it's back to business as usual. But hipsterism never really posed a threat in the first place. While hippies at least tried to build a new society after they "opted out," hipsters seem to not be so bothered. It is a culture built around the concept of shoegazing. The closest you'll see a hipster come to building anything is bothering to scoop the extra foam off his latte.
It's also worth saying that, to its credit, the movement puts a premium on intelligence. Maybe it's just the large amount of college age hipsters, but there are undeniably many smart and articulate people who would adhere to hipsterism. But it is an intelligence which it academic at best. Stuck in a world of Derrida-inspired ambiguity, the modus operandi of a hipster isn't to shake things up or challenge like so many other cultures of the past, but rather to sit on the outside and comment; to provide ironic insight and snide elitism for any situation. He may read the newspapers every day, probably thinks the war in Iraq is bullshit, but the farthest he'll get is blaming all the "rednecks" who voted for Bush before changing the subject
In many ways, they reflect a paradox, an oxymoronic despair in today's society. They have shown that you don't need to wear a suit to be smart. Like the Ginsbergs and Joplins before them, they have proven that the kid in t-shirt and jeans, which so many more of us can relate to, can be smart without completely selling out. They are smart enough to see that there's something wrong with society, but, like most people, don't really think they can make a difference, and so decide to ride it out.
It's this kind of paradox that can only come out of this kind of time; a time when there is plenty of dissatisfaction with society, but not yet any organized movement to take it on. The beboppers and zoots were part of the fight against Jim Crow and to free the Scottsboro Boys, the hippies and counterculture were stopping a war, and punk came along when the British working class were digging their heels in against recession in poverty. Regardless of how politically conscious any of them were (and many of them were very much so), they were all aware of how much it meant to do what they did. To consciously reject a society that treated you like dogs was an inherently radical act. In other words, they did it to reclaim a sense of self-worth, of dignity and pride in their own uniqueness and creativity. In the absence of a movement, the hipsters embody the only other logical outcome: separation and despair.
Hipsterism, it needs to be said, has that same potential, but is squandering it. It is a rebellion, yes, but a rebellion of defeat and cynicism. It is the ultimate "opt-out": opting out of it all so much that you stop caring. In a way, all that does is let the war mongers, the bigots and the fatcats get away with it. In a time of unending war, racist scapegoating and the lowest wages in forty years, our discontent is high, and has shown brilliant signs of life recently. Building that kind of movement will change the whole face of not just politics, but how we view our own lifestyle and our own power as human beings. And everything we interact with, from our work to our music, will change too.
In other words, when we fight back, the biggest thing we change is ourselves, and our culture will be obliged to follow along.
Even the hipsters...