Hipsters, of course, are one of the most pathetic niche groups currently around, most fundamentally because their style and attitude is informed (more harshly, dictated) by a nostalgia for the more authentic niche groups of their childhood -- ranging, roughly, from the late '70s and early '80s grease-grunge icons of the Iroc-Z and the Motor City Five up to the kitsch of early-era Nintendo (the Power Pad, the 1-UP green extra life mushroom from Super Mario Brothers, etc.). The hipster act has as its touchstones and lodestars Manhattan and the San Fernando Valley at their most failed and drugsexed, a time located somewhere near that when Mick Jagger and John Lennon cut their hair and Dirk Diggler wrapped his second or third flick. The hipster locales making simulacra of these addled times are across-the-water Williamsburg, Brooklyn and across-the hills Silver Lake and Echo Park. Heroin dominates in both spots -- giving the authority of authenticity to the failed good-looking and the undergrounders who can reach them sexually courtesy of the pleasure scene -- but on the west coast meth is there, too, and in any case Craigslist, like MySpace, still serves best the communities it served first: fashionable victims on the not altogether voluntary take for sex, drugs, and, in all too ancillary fashion, rock 'n' roll.
Ancillary, I say, because indie rock has been plagued since its inception with a basic problem: the little dudes who made that music wanted very badly to have girls who wouldn't have them, and who damaged them psychologically once they would. Back in the mid-90s, when surfer dudes and skater punks and hater/poser rap-rockers had their moment, a younger crop of awkward but artistic and sensitive boys were coming up in high schools in California and New York and Florida and Austin, Texas and Omaha, Nebraska and even Alabama. They shopped at thrift stores and fell so hard for Radiohead because 1997's OK Computer was an emo record, and "Let Down" is the biggest (in both meanings of the word) emo song of all time. But the bands that dominated were Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral and The Promise Ring and Cursive, and anyone who wants to trace the roots of the hipster movement must understand the way that emo kids became hipsters. That psychological arc, in a crucial way, was influenced by profound yearnings for an identity of social and emotional desire that received an offer of contingent and jaded satisfaction in that slovenly chic of atavistic mashups that is the hipster ethic, such as it is.
The harbinger of the whole mess -- by which I mean the turn from sexually questing and rather innocent kids to sexually questing and increasingly tarnished and wounded and perverted kids -- is quite clearly Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video, which is absolutely image-identical with the American Apparel brand identity and ad style, and for absolutely identical reasons. The shag carpet, the videocamera, the underage swinger's party, the feet-on-the-neck scene in the bathtub, the scrawny chic (again, product itself of an emotional arrestment by scarring at age 15-17), the heavy undertones of drug-party recovery time -- all the hallmarks of hipsterdom when it gets naked are there.
And when it gets dressed, hipsterdom dresses in itself, because hipsterdom is the putting on of self-conscious self. This is true about a lot of niche identities and perhaps even all, but the refractive neediness of the hipster is superlative because it is grounded in so many competing and complementary rationales for ultraself-consciousness: irony, lust, rebellion, rootlessness, and several others that all stem from ruined and pointless families. A cultural anthropologist with an ounce of courage might explore these themes and accumulate their data while I am busy doing political theory.
Until then, there is "The Brand Underground," for which Rob Walker of The New York Times should be commended. I must not be understood as writing off all hipsters as sullied nimrods; as Walker observes:
thousands and thousands of young people who are turned off by the world of shopping malls and Wal-Marts and who can’t bear the thought of a 9-to-5 job are pursuing a path similar to A-Ron’s. Some design furniture and housewares or leverage do-it-yourself-craft skills into businesses or simply convert their consumer taste into blog-enabled trend-spotting careers. Some make toys, paint sneakers or open gallerylike boutiques that specialize in the offerings of product-artists. Many of them clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.
Now, of course this is a blog, and my Chuck Taylors are personally customized, and I, too, have painted paintings and accumulated vintage vests and filmed half a video in Glen Ballard's Hollywood studio. I am told Ms. Apple once heard and enjoyed my demo. This call to seriousness is not a call to Wal-Mart, for heaven's sake, or to corporate fealty. But it is a gripe -- a particularly passionate gripe -- against the commodification of identity and emotion that is the centerpiece of everything real and fake about hipsterdom, which is the hegemonic white culture in America. (One of the things that makes it so is its multiracial and multicultural identity, part of its comprehensive openness to smashing slashes, particularly of the physical kind.) Should Walker's piece merit it, further thoughts will appear here later this week.