Saturday, November 20, 2004

The wearisome yet irresistible business of being a hipster. I've said it before - Melbourne really is a village. You go out to the same few places all the time, and see the same people, and people's reputations precede them. Especially hipsters.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently, especially after the increasingly meaningless Pandagate blog spat. It started with this arch column in Beat or Inpress, I forget, which satirised "a week in the life of an Ultra Kid". Basically, this fictitious person's life consisted of obsessive bricolage excursions to Savers, loitering in record stores, reading 'cool' magazines like Vice and Nylon, getting pissed at a different indie club night each night and talking shit, and vainly trolling said club night websites for mentions of him/herself. A particularly damning moment was when s/he was looking for an 80s-style terry-towelling sweatband and found one that said 'Thredbo'. "Cool! Post-traumatic stress chic!" crowed the Ultra Kid.

This column's main implication appeared to be that a lot of twentysomethings live in a hyperreal, mediatised world, and their sole mode of aesthetic and political engagement with that world appears to be ironic detachment. The column described this as 'self-absorption' and 'immaturity' - hence the 'ultra kid'.

Of course, this dovetails with Marxist critics of postmodernity like Jameson, who argue the move from parody to pastiche shuts down any political potential in cultural production. This idea has been echoed in revelations of the conservative politics of some hipster magazines.

I have been thinking about this more recently during the course of researching this conference paper, with its themes of subcultural style, irony, and racial politics. In Hustlers, Beats and Others, Ned Polsky writes that the New York beats in the 1940s and 1950s distinguished between people who were "hip" and "square", but also had a third category, the hipster, who was, (and I'm quoting from memory here) "more mannered or 'show-off' in his hipness".

You see, being a hipster is damn hard work. It's not just about possessing subcultural capital but about constantly performing it: wearing the right clothes, reading the right books and magazines; listening to the right music; hanging out at the right bars and clubs; knowing the right people, like DJs, band members and bar staff. It's about constantly being 'original', but within certain parameters that keep expanding and contracting according to fluctuating fashions. It's about trying to surf a constant swell of cultural memes without getting dumped at their tipping points.

And it's the ambiguity over irony and sincerity that really gets me. As someone on The Spin Starts Here put it (there was snark aplenty over there once Caz worked out that one of the things an Ultra Kid was meant to do was comment on her Australian Idol posts), is something "so lame it's cool or so cool it's lame?" I get mad at the thought that hipster irony might be a kind of cowardice: a refusal to 'genuinely' like something in case it's not 'cool'. But surely not even the most diehard hipster could fool themselves into living a life that they didn't sincerely enjoy? And who could deny the pleasures of accumulating cultural capital, having your knowledge validated by hanging out with like-minded people, and feeling 'cool'?

Even thinking about the business of being a hipster exhausts me. Yet I'm fascinated by it, and I want to unpick its innards and work out how it makes you feel, and why you do it, and piece together the cultural networks and databases of hipsters. Hopefully this conference paper will make a start on that.

Of course, this is also partly in the spirit of self-criticism. When I read about the Ultra Kids, I was ashamed and jolted out of my normal complacency. "I do some of those things!" I said to Stuart as I read the column, horrified, in one of the bars mentioned in the column. And tonight I was tossing up whether to go to the Yo Semite vs Heeb night at Bourgie, or to Emah's Miami Vice-themed warehouse party. And I bought a fluorescent pink t-shirt today that I plan on customising. God help me.

Thinking that I have some degree of self-awareness and self-criticism makes me feel marginally better about being enmired (albeit in a small and unimportant capacity) in Melbourne's claustrophic hipster scene.

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