I was at my cottage this weekend hanging out with a few younger male relatives and their friends. At one point, one of them jokingly said that I, with my beard and square-framed black glasses and plaid shirt, “kind of looked like a hipster”. They didn’t know that I lived right next to Queen Street in Toronto, one of the most hipstery places in all of Canada.
We talked a bit about what hipsterism was, and why its universally derided as annoying. Standard hipster phrases are “You probably haven’t heard of it.” and “I liked X before it was cool.” Cool, in this case, meaning generally popular, as opposed to well-liked and privately honoured by just a few people.
The thing is, I have liked lots of things before they were popular. I got excited when The Lonely Island started working on SNL and I love introducing people to their pre-SNL stuff. I saw The Room several years ago and its popularity is still building. I heard of Richard Ayoade through his awesome work on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace before he became better known on the UK IT Crowd.
That’s just being excited about new cultural stuff coming out, and passing it around to people you are certain will like it. Few things are more painful than showing people something you are really excited about and them only responding neutrally, so you tend to keep the things you are very excited about closer. I’m geographically central, and tied in to lots of producers of new culture, so I’m way more exposed to this stuff than the average person
The part where loving culture turns bad is when people are devalued for what they like, or finding out about something too late. There has always been the rat race financially, but as the amount of culture out there increased, your cultural taste is treated more and more as your value as a person. Being rich financially is considered bad – you’re either old money, and that means you descend from the line of despots who have hurt the little guy going back millennia, or you’re new money, and you must have acquired it through unethical or superficial means. But if you’re rich in culture, nobody can say shit about you and your richness is somehow “genuine”, as if you’re fully plugged into the human experience. This is hipsterism.
But since being rich in cool is a rat race, and cool-ness is more subjective than money, and you win at the ratrace by being higher-valued than others, the job of racers are to define their position so that it’s better than everyone else’s. As soon as someone mentions a band they like – you mention a similar, more obscure band. As soon as someone shows a novel they are reading, you explain how it is a derivative work of another novel. And so on. The people hurt most by this process are those that are not culturally rich and don’t come from culturally rich families. They either feel bad for not fitting in, or they become enraged at the entire concept of experiencing new culture.
Going through 4+ years of academic training now, I’m now used to thinking in terms of Works Cited. I get interested in the fact that Tolkien was a scholar of Beowulf before he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and if you read Beowulf and then The Lord of the Rings it is really clear. When someone I knew got excited about a piece of culture, I would, in my excitement, tell them what I knew about it, and where it came from. If you aren’t careful, this comes off as insulting hipsterism. Someone expresses that they like something and your response, even if you don’t mean it, devalues their feelings because your familiarity with the piece of culture comes off as deeper, as somehow more “legitimate” than theirs.
Do we really want the culturally rich to get richer while keeping everyone except the lucky ones out? I’m a socialist when it comes to cultural richness. No one should ever feel bad about liking something.
And now, because I can’t help it, I’m giving out other readings:
Nathan Barely (Genius satirical BBC TV show about urban cool hipsterism to the extreme)
The Rebel Sell (A book on how buying “buying for cool/to be different” actually increases corporate power)