Dissonant Notes

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hating Hipsters: How The Mainstream Hijacked Authenticity And Made Non-Conformity A Joke

Hipster. As I type the word, I feel a sense of inner defeat. Popular culture is still obsessed with hipsters and is particularly obsessed with using the word hipster as a byword for moron. I myself have already written about hipster being used in the pejorative sense (at this point there’s no other kind of usage), yet here we are; a new essay and still I feel the need to reopen this particular can of worms. Why exactly does the whole world want to distance itself from the term hipster? That’s easy: hipster means trend-follower, somebody who only likes bands that are cool, somebody who ditches bands when they start to become famous (no such person actually exists, but I’m just conjuring up what the term is meant to convey). Ultimately, it implies people so image-conscious that they live in fear of being or doing anything remotely uncool or unhip. There’s a reason why so many people are anxious to be thought of as geeks. Geeks are uncool. Geeks just like what they like and don’t care whether it’s cool or not. Geeks are authentic. When we get right down to it, hating hipsters is a way of declaring your authenticity.

Confused? OK, what is the term authentic meant to convey? Something real, something unaffected. I looked up the word authentic in the dictionary and this is what it says:

au·then·tic  [aw-then-tik]  
1.       not false or copied; genuine; real

Why does hating hipsters make you authentic? Because what people hate most about hipsters is how (supposedly) phony they are, about how much they (supposedly) worry about whether the music they listen to is too mainstream.  When you’re uncool, you just are. You don’t care. Hell, you don’t even know what’s cool or uncool anymore, right? You stopped caring ages ago. If you keep digging, you get to the truth behind hipster-hating which is this:  people who make a big deal about hating hipsters, or who take the time to mention how unhip they are, genuinely believe that everything they enjoy (books, movies, music, visual arts) is based on the fact, and only on the fact, that they like it.  They haven’t been influenced in any way by societal trends, or peer pressure, or advertising, or notions of cool and uncool. In other words, these non-hipster people think that they, and they alone, have risen above all worldly influences and reside in a pure state of unaffectedness.

There’s an irony here because being hip was originally a quest for authenticity, a quest that began by rejecting mainstream society. In his book Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling observed that at one point, in Western society, sincerity was the most praiseworthy personality trait. Sincerity meant honesty, singularity, and freedom from hypocrisy. It implied an earnest and uncluttered approach to life. With sincerity held in such high esteem, however, society also viewed insincerity as the ultimate sin. People were at pains to present a cohesive, consistent personality. This strain led to the idea that presenting yourself as sincere was in itself a falsehood, a disguise that one had to wear in order to be judged worthy by other members of society. Sincerity became inexorably linked with the falseness of bourgeois society, with social masks and etiquette. With bourgeois morals under attack, authenticity soon overtook sincerity as the most worthy personality trait. Authenticity implied a healthy lack of concern over how others perceived you. “Here I am flaws and all, take it or leave it” was the message that resided at the heart of an authentic life. Authenticity therefore meant rejecting societal norms, exploring other avenues, doing whatever one felt like. If you contradicted yourself, so be it! At least you were being authentic and not worrying about the judgment of others or the petty morals of the day.

The shift in attitude from sincerity to authenticity as the preferred personality trait coincided to a large degree with the rise of popular culture. When popular culture exploded in the ‘50s it ran parallel with notions of rejecting mainstream values and mores in order to live an authentic life. The Beats, Teddy Boys, and hippies all consciously rejected societal norms. They looked and frequently acted ridiculous by everyday standards, but this ridiculousness was an attempt to scrub away years of societal repression.  These youth movements sought to rid society of the imposed norms of politeness and decency that up to that point had denied basic notions like sexuality.

Since the ‘50s, popular culture has attempted more and more to align itself to notions of authenticity. This realignment can be observed most dramatically in the world of advertising. Where once advertisers sought to induce brand popularity by implying something was missing from a consumer’s life, more and more we see products being marketed as an obvious extension of a consumer’s way of living. Instead of buying a product to make you somebody different, you buy a product because this product reflects who you already are. In other words, advertisers are savvy to the fact that most people don’t want to feel like they’re being sold something they don’t want. Consumers would rather feel like they were going to buy that product anyway but just hadn’t heard about it. Popular culture and advertising have done such a good job of appropriating authenticity that anyone attempting to criticise popular culture, or reject mainstream values, is looked upon with suspicion and pity. They are viewed as being inauthentic. Yet at the same time, nobody thinks of themselves as slaves to popular culture and shifting tastes. What exactly is going on?

It appears that we are at a point where normalcy has hijacked the notion of authenticity so completely that we think of those who differ from us in any way as insincere. Except in place of the word insincere, we now use hipster or snob. How so? To enjoy mainstream music or movies is supposedly to be unaffected by the judgment of others, it is a grand act of rebellion whereby one shakes off the shackles of cool and simply embraces what one truly enjoys. What happens, though, when you encounter somebody who dislikes something you enjoy? You’ve been grooving to the Gotye album for a few months now when suddenly you hear somebody at your work talk about how much they hate Gotye. Hate Gotye? What is their problem? Well, you realise it isn’t cool to like Gotye, but you don’t care about things like cool. This Gotye hater must be hung-up in some way. They must be a hipster. They’ve foolishly bought into notions of cool and as a result are afraid to enjoy Gotye. You, however, are unafraid. This tendency to attach derogatory labels to those who differ from us, while ignoring ways in which we are the same as the subject of our anger, appears to be one of the main fuels for hipster hatred. It also exposes the staggering falsity behind ideas of authenticity.

In his recent book A Universe From Nothing, physicist Lawrence Krauss talked about a strange phenomenon that results from an expanding universe. Due to the fact that everything is always moving away from everything else, if you make observations at any point in the universe it always looks like you are the centre of the universe. If you were suddenly transported to the other side of the universe, however, it would look the same. You aren’t the centre of the universe; it just looks that way. When it comes to outside influence on our opinions and tastes, it seems like a similar phenomenon is at work. Each person imagines that everyone else is a hipster, that everyone else is being influenced by society, that everyone else is inauthentic. If the music they enjoy happens to be hip, well that’s neither here nor there. They enjoy it because they like it, not because it’s hip. People even imagine that their close friends and loved ones fall under the sway of outside influence. Trust me, right now your friends think you’re only listening to that one album because of Pitchfork, or maybe because everybody at that one indie record store likes it, or perhaps because the cute person you work with likes it too. Everything they like, however, is free from such taints.

Your brain is a wonderful thing. It does tend to play one nasty trick on you, though. It gets influenced by everything around it and then makes you believe that no influence was involved. In fact, it rationalises your decisions to make it seem like you have very sensible reasons for carrying out your actions, when in fact your actions are mostly irrational or based on emotion. Let’s say you’ve started listening to an album that you had previously dismissed and let’s say that your friend’s suspicions are correct and you really have started listening to it because a cute co-worker says it’s their favourite album. What will be going on in your head? Well, your brain will be telling itself that you’ve been meaning to reinvestigate that album for a long time anyway (which may have an element of truth to it) and so in reality there’s no connection between your secret crush and the fact that you’ve started listening to this album. There’s a term for this in psychology. It’s called Introspection Illusion.

Introspection Illusion works like this: we firmly believe that we have access to the mental processes through which we come to decisions but experiments indicate that we don’t. We therefore make up what seem like completely rational reasons for our actions after the fact. Worse than that, we believe that our introspection is more dependable than the introspection of others and, as a result, consider ourselves to be superior when it comes to self-reflection. We imagine that other people are dishonest and untrustworthy in their own self-reflection but that we are truly self-aware. We do this by believing the rationalisations of our own behaviour and by being suspicious of other people’s rationalisations. In other words, everybody is quietly suspicious of everybody else’s behaviour.

In this light it looks like hatred of hipsters is Introspection Illusion run wild with a heavy dose of psychological projection thrown in for good measure. If we can externalise and demonise what we believe are weak-minded traits (conformity, trend-hopping), then that allows us to avoid any unpleasant truths in regards to our own behaviour. We can see this mindset play out in every aspect of society from personal tastes to political opinion. Terms like ‘sheeple’ and ‘brainwashed’ appear on a daily basis all over the internet, with millions of people absolutely convinced that almost everyone else is a walking automaton, incapable of true introspection and intellectual honesty.

Beyond the self-delusion that allows somebody to hate hipsters, there is also an even more unpleasant side to this cultural phenomenon. With mainstream and authenticity now seen as being essentially the same, those who flout culturally endorsed gender roles are viewed with suspicion. The main trait of hipsters that seems to draw the most ire is their fashion sense. This apparent obsession with surface and image is not only seen as pathetic, it is also viewed as feminine and unbecoming for men. (Understand that when I use terms like feminine and masculine, I’m using them in the sense of how certain behaviours are viewed. Our society equates femininity to being a woman and masculinity to being a man. I am not attributing an obsession with image and fashion to being a woman). Through the ages the idea of femininity has become synonymous with certain unpleasant characteristics, namely superficiality, passivity, and weakness. Fashion is considered the realm of outward appearances, shallowness, and a willingness to follow trends on a whim and as such is inexorably linked in the minds of many with femininity. The moment a man steps into the world of fashion he is considered feminine. Indeed, the term “faggy hipster” is almost as popular as “hipster”. Women hipsters generally get an easier time of it than men do, probably because society has no problem with a girl in skinny jeans. Leaving aside big glasses, there’s no overriding trait about hipster women that ruffles society’s feathers. Women just get a harder time of it in a larger sense. 1

Contempt for hipsters reveals not only a nasty disdain for the feminine, it also quietly endorses derision for those who veer away from both traditional gender roles and those who differ from the norm in general. Hipsters are often criticised for all looking the same, yet those doing the criticising look identical to most members of society. The critcisers exist in an approved normality that allows them to rationalise their own conformity but be extra-sensitive to the conformity of those who look different. Normal society, when faced with any subgroup (hippies, punks, hip-hop fans, hipsters, etc) will take great pains to point out how uniform this subgroup is. Thousands upon thousands of people make jokes about the conformity of hipsters, about how hipsters won’t do something because it’s too mainstream, yet never take the time to explore the conformity of the very joke they are making, never mind their own clothes and tastes. Once again we see psychological projection in action as anxiety about our own personal conformity is eased by finger-pointing and laughing at those “others” who conform.2

Seen for what it is, hating hipsters is just another way of society policing itself. From time immemorial those who reject, even in some small way, societal norms are punished with social stigma. Modern society demands that we see ourselves as thinking, free-willed individuals who have somehow arrived at the perfect equilibrium. Each of us in our own way imagines that our attitude to life is the right one and that those who disagree with our attitude are simply being unreasonable or nonsensical. When faced with such unreasonableness it helps if we can attach labels that stigmatise those who think and act differently. If you can label that person who doesn’t like Gotye a hipster and a snob then your individuality can remain intact.

It appears that we have reached a point where people cannot accept that somebody doesn’t like the music of a band that they happen to love. They imagine that this dislike must be the result of some inherent character flaw, a flaw that thankfully they don’t have. These same people seem to imagine that someone else who likes a band that they do not also possesses some inherent character flaw. People who like music that we do not are only feigning enjoyment in order to appear cool, something that we ourselves would never do. God, who has time to worry about such things? Here, however, is the very difficult truth: we are all conformists on some level. Those who truly do not conform are mostly dead, in jail, or are outcasts and pariahs. Clearly hipsters conform, but they also reject certain societal norms (which do you reject?). It appears that even these small rejections are enough to set off firestorms of rage and condemnation. The term ‘hipster’ is a handy put-down for all occasions. So here’s another truth: when you call out hipsters, or use ‘hipster’ as a way to stigmatise somebody else, you’re not only projecting your own fears of conformity onto somebody else, you’re also being an uptight moral guardian. You are keeping everyone in line. You are enforcing strict gender roles. You are enforcing strict dress codes. You are enforcing strict attitudes to taste. You are condemning those who veer, even slightly, away from what your idea of reasonable happens to be. Your friends probably agree with your judgments, so it feels right.

We are at a time when it is almost impossible to be truly rebellious in terms of dress or taste. Everything has a niche. Yet the ever-growing hatred of hipsters reveals a deep fear behind this liberal acceptance of most choices. It reveals a fear that we ourselves are merely well behaved consumers who in almost every sense toe the line. When faced with such gnawing insecurity about our own authenticity, if we can point and laugh elsewhere and attribute motives and ideas to complete strangers, then it helps us retain our own sense of individuality. Much like the right-wing tactic for demonising welfare recipients, almost everyone is able to trot out some story about a ‘hipster’ who possessed the most clich├ęd opinions and then apply this approach to everybody else who looks similar. Even if a person bears only a slight resemblance to our mental picture of a hipster, if they possess opinions about music or movies that differ from ours, then a quick, sneering ‘hipster’ or ‘snob’ remark will ease our troubled minds.

In a modern capitalist society, we are bombarded constantly by product, and it would seem that when confronted with such a bombardment it would be helpful to have a strong sense of taste, to approach each product with discernment. Yet the anti-hipster movement finds authenticity in uncritical acceptance of all correctly marketed products. It demands unyielding conformity and untroubled passivity to all cultural artifacts that pass a certain popular threshold. It also imagines that absolute conformity somehow frees a person from the burden of conforming to what non-conformity looks like. In a wonderful twist of logic, non-conformists are the true conformists; you (the uncool, non-hip conformist) are merely being you, which involves looking the same as the majority. You don’t look like that in order to conform, however, you just dress like that because the look appeals to you. In the past, the label non-conformist was a pejorative term. People suffered social ostracism because they didn’t conform perfectly. These days, because people don’t like to think of themselves as a conformist, a new word or term was clearly needed to deride those who make reasonable, everyday people uncomfortable about their choices. The word had to undermine a person’s whole being, destroying their credibility by implying a pathetic motive for their actions. It had to be able to render a person’s entire existence laughable. Well, now we have it. It’s hipster. Wait, don’t tell me. You just use that word because you genuinely hate hipsters though, don’t you? My mistake.

1. In a patriarchal society, masculinity is considered natural, while femininity is considered unnatural. For this reason, any way a woman dresses is viewed with great scrutiny. Women are placed in a bind in regards to their fashion choices, which goes something like this: if a woman accepts a feminine approach to fashion then she is consciously or unconsciously inviting men to look at her. She is asking for attention. She cannot complain about being objectified because she is objectifying herself by playing up to societal notions of femininity and female sexuality. If she rejects a feminine approach to fashion then she is being contrary. She is probably a ‘feminist’ (all negative connotations implied). She is clearly not doing herself any favours. A criticism often made by men about attractive women is “She’s beautiful but she knows it”, as if women should exist in a state of childlike innocence in regards to their looks and sexuality. The moment a women is aware of the power of her appearance she is conceited and manipulative. Women are scrutinised for signs of hypocrisy, attention-seeking, and superficiality while the way men dress and act is seen as natural and uncomplicated. Unless men make fashion choices that are seen as feminine. At that point they will be viewed with a similar scrutiny to women. Western societies were set up to reward masculine traits while suppressing and dominating feminine ones. Berating hipsters is one small but not unimportant aspect of that.

2. It’s interesting to note that the American alternative music scene that emerged in the early ‘80s was one that enforced strict masculine, puritanical guidelines. Since then any kind of dressing up or gender blurring has been looked at as suspicious and silly. Even though credible artists such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Funkadelic all looked and sounded out of this world, the post-Hardcore American scene seemed to view such antics as distasteful. It was all about the music, such Puritanism being a deliberate stand against the image-conscious pop stars of the 80s, pop stars who were for the most part women, African-Americans, or males who seemed to ignore traditional notions of masculinity. The ruling white, Christian, uptight mindset that permeated every aspect of American society appeared to have its strongest supporters in the alternative American music scene. Glam created gender confusion in the ‘70s, and ‘80’s pop was the real offspring of glam (pop is viewed as feminine and as such is accused of the same ‘crimes’ as femininity itself, while masculine rock is seen as natural and proper). American alternative music fans felt more comfortable in well-defined gender roles and overwhelmingly masculine musical expression and the Riot Grrrl movement was, if anything, an all out attack on the stifling masculinity of this scene. It’s no surprise that Portland (and the Pacific North West in general) is seen as the ultimate home of hipsters.

1 comment:

  1. Prior to its current revival, the word hipster had no traction in the popular parlance for something like 40 years. But back in the 50's there was no pejorative sense to the word at all. People like Norman Mailer and Jean Shepherd were routinely referred to in print as hipsters, and it usually implied, beyond the trend-setting in matters of the arts, a sharp fashion sense and at least a passing interest in bebop.
    Those last two specifics are long-gone even as the term has been resucitated.
    I'm approaching 50 years of age, so pop cultural labels mostly do not apply to me, but the current pejorative nuance to the word still kind of escapes ,me: if I had to describe myself as anything (beyond sales counter automaton) it would be as a Hipster.
    Yet there's a skeptical filter through which I view sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. Not that I don't discover new music through the sites, but there's always an . . . ulterior motive . . . I think, to what is featured and what is not.

    And interesting.to note that for 2013, the world's most popular record, Kanye West's Yeezus, is also the one most championed on the two sites. So the hipsters trying to adapt to the world, or has the world simply acceded in this case?

    Or maybe, just maybe, hipsters like what they like, just like everybody else.

    Also, not sure that women get a pass on the hipster accusation. There is definitely a feminine version of the hipster, and they're laughed at, too. After all, Hipster Kitty's a chick, right?