Like many ‘mental illnesses’, hipsterism is not a definable fact, rather a constellation of indications which individuals more or less exhibit. The classic hipster symptoms are now quite well known (and therefore now passé);
- male fashion / attitude check shirts, facial hair, braces, gondolier t-shirts, espadrilles, mild-mannered asexuality, etc.
- female fashion / attitude tassel hat, drawn on moustache in dating profile, affectation of nerdyness and tomboyishness, eighties-fifties-blend dress, etc.
- accoutrements generally hi tech—magical thermos flasks, performance rucksacks, iphones, etc—but with an increasing tendency towards low or zero tech, such as vinyl, print literature, bicycles, 8-bit and so on.
- interior design exposed brickwork, hardwood floors, nineteen thirties fonts, iron
- taste ironic affectation of working-class fashions, beliefs, interests, etc, visceral horror of sexism, racism, etc (i.e. more outrage at offensive speech than offensive class relations, offensive social inequality, etc), nostalgia, cleanliness and purity or, for younger hipsters, kitsch
- class although hipsterism is an intensely middle class phenomenon, it is also, in some ways, a cross-cultural coalescence of cultural forms which sees footballers wearing ‘flow and comb’ hairstyles and manageresses caring about the fortunes of premier league football teams… That said, you’re unlikely to see too many hipsters in the job centre.
And so on and so forth. The hipster is only too well known. Not so widely understood is the reason for his or her existence; history has ended.
Hipsterism is not a movement or a genre; it’s a symptom that culture is dead.
Culture began to die towards the end of the 1980s. By the year 2000 there were no more new genres and hardly anything of originality or interest in pop form. It is impossible to measure quality, but side effects (as it were) of quality in, for example, music — subtlety, range, intricacy and so on — have been demonstrably declining for fifty years. This is largely because quality-in-genre is a result of (and culture in this sense is more or less a synonym of) what Father Eno calls ‘Scenius’, or collective genius, which — long ruled out in most parts of the world by enclosure, colonialism and the corporate racket — was extinguished in the privileged west during the 90s. In the 60s, 70s and 80s it was possible for people (mostly, but not exclusively, working class people) to congregate in places like New York, Kingston, London and Berlin and to live together, and make music and art together, in a way they cannot today.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the cost of living, largely due to massively inflated land prices (itself due to property speculation taking over from productive investment) has priced out the free time required to make great art. Secondly, just as gentrification has forced up rents in the physical world, so the ‘gentrification of the arts’ has forced out poorer people from public broadcasting and easy access to the means of artistic production, which, thirdly, due to privatisation of the media, is now more ‘risk averse’—meaning more reliant on politically, economically and psychically dependable reboots, biographies, Dickens adaptations and the anodyne creations of elite graduates; which in turn is connected to the fourth reason for the death of scenius—very little by way of genuine culture is now fed into those most in need of it, the poorer classes, who are overwhelmed by mass produced pap which, in lieu of reality (meaning unmediated social, artistic or natural experience) they tend to reproduce in their own shoddy and superficial artistic output. The fifth reason, also connected to the foregoing, is that omnipresent pornography has deadened the souls of a great many young men who would otherwise have been sanely wanking their guitars. If you add to all this the fact that the wilderness, transcendence and selfless sexuality from which genuine inspiration (or what we call ‘genius’) arise are now more suppressed or difficult to experience now than ever, and you are left with the wasteland we call culture.
The usual response to this kind of reasoning is ‘you’re just getting old Darren! People in their forties have always complained that “music isn’t what it used to be”’, which is true enough, they have, just as middle-aged men have always complained that the youth these days have no respect. But apart from the fact that some middle-aged men, like John Peel*, don’t lose touch, and apart from the fact that there are some great individual artistic creations around (although pushed well into the margins), and apart from the fact that I grew up in the 1990s (by which time, I’m saying, culture was already dead) and apart from the fact that the youth these days have far too much respect… well, apart from all that… it’s a matter of taste, innit? You can’t prove such things, thank God — if you could you’d have businessmen writing decent love songs. If it’s not true for you that, for example, the independent movies of pre-Star Wars Hollywood were vastly superior to those of the blockbuster era that followed, if it’s not true for you that Benedict Cucumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne are not actors but impersonators, if it’s not true for you that nobody makes outstanding film soundtracks anymore, if it’s not true for you that literature is dead**, if it’s not true for you that, with a handful of scattered exceptions, today’s music scene is devoid of timeless quality and if it’s not true for you that, as a whole, artistic and cultural output, since 2000, has been tasteless, formless, pap… well, God help you, but no discussion is likely to bring us closer to agreement.
Getting back to Hipsters though. They’re the best evidence that culture has died. The only identifiable youth movement around now is made up of individuals who consciously identify with the music, fashion and literature of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t it awful? Nothing of the like has been seen before. Certainly there have always been—from the Roman empire, maybe before, up to the Pre-Raphaelites—cultural movements that looked backwards for inspiration, but they took the past and transformed it into something of and for the present. Didn’t they? I dunno; I’m just not convinced that gourmet biscuit bars, tapered slacks and Grizzly Bear — much less the ‘ministry of nostalgia’ that makes up the ideological wing of Hipsterism — quite count as culture.
All this is pretty depressing — the psychological effect it has had on children who have known nothing else is horrifying — what’s more, it’s even possible that it will give way to something even more barren (probably a combination of the nightmare vector-world of Her and some kind of ultra-garish hate-pop). But the hipster thing is still not completely negative. Partly because it’s interesting—the phenomenon that is, which is far more interesting than anything it actually produces (which is why nobody proudly declares themselves to be a hipster) — but mainly because there is, within the creative impotence of society, a recognition of what has been lost. Hipsterism can be a sane rejection of current culture; and, in many young people, a combustible frustration that is, like the cultural sterility of the 50s or of the European enlightenment, just waiting for a crack in the pavement to leak out, and a naked flame to catch a fire.
In the depths of winter it is hard to imagine that spring could ever come. But it will.
Postscript: A few readers have expressed their optimism for the internet, and its power to bring people together. Obviously the internet can be reasonably useful (albeit vastly overrated; it doesn’t actually do anything we couldn’t do before perfectly well) but all communication through the internet is bodiless (and heavily surveilled), and culture ultimately comes from place, and from physical, lived experience; which the internet does nothing to improve. Quite the opposite.
* check out this example Peel playlist from one week in 1980. It’s mostly British ska, nu-wave, proto Indy and early punk of course, but I do wonder what he’d be putting on now. The closest thing we’ve got to John Peel is probably Jarvis Cocker on BBC6 and the contemporary stuff he plays is well bum.
** of course there’s bound to be a genuine masterpiece or two out there that I’m not aware of. I gave up looking five or six years ago, but I plan to start again soon, so if anyone can recommend a book from the last twenty years that is equal to, say, Factotum, The Rainbow or Crime and Punishment, please do.