Friday, November 30, 2012

Will the real hipsters please stand up?

Some comments generated by my Bison article on the Straight accuse the band of being hipsters.

To be perfectly honest, the present use of the label "hipster" as a term of abuse confuses the hell out of me. The term as I grew up with it, through the 80's and 90's, was, at least to my understanding, more or less value-neutral, or even positive: a hipster was someone who was aware of what was happening, to be differentiated from, say, jocks and rednecks, conformists and conservatives, or other members of the dreaded "mainstream." Maybe there was a little bit of an implication of "trying" to be cool, but hipsters as I knew them had interesting tastes in the arts, agreeable, progressive politics, a certain sense of style, and aspirations to cultural awareness over-and-above the norm. The definition of hipster one finds at the Urban Dictionary more or less conforms to these ideas, where hipsters are portrayed as cultural pioneers - sensitive, educated, aesthetically sophisticated people with an eye for the new and exciting. In 1998, if a clerk at a CD store flipped through my purchases - stack of Tzadik CDs or something - and said, "you're quite the hipster," I would probably have taken it as a compliment, even if I probably lack the requisite level of fashion sense for the term to really be a good fit.

What I find now, in Vancouver, is that the term seems to have pretty much replaced the old punk pejorative, "poseur." "Poseur" is a term of abuse that I have no problem with, because I can understand there being something wrong with posing, as opposed to being hip. A bit of history becomes necessary here: as a punk in the 'burbs in the early 1980's, I was occasionally laughed at, assaulted, or otherwise abused for having strange haircuts or funny clothes or tastes in music that were somehow deemed socially offensive. Probably the peak expression of that was when I was 16 or 17, walking home from high school with The Exploited playing in a shitty little Realistic tape recorder that I carried around, dressed in military/ prison surplus clothing with a buzzcut, and the longhairs smoking up in the park, with their Led Zep and AC/DC long-sleeved t-shirts, started chucking rocks at me. I felt the first one pelt my calf, saw another couple skittle by me on the road, and turned to see about twenty of these kids lined up en masse. These were people I didn't even know - mostly older kids who went to my high school, and who were throwing rocks on me on principle, because of what I represented, not because I was so unpopular or anything. If they had been driving by me in their muscle cars they would have rolled down the window and yelled "faggot" - I got that now and then, too. I stood there for a minute, glowering at them with my best "you gotta be fucking kidding" stare, as they continued to chuck their pebbles, then turned and walked slowly on my way. After the first one that got me in the calf, not a single rock actually hit me anywhere that hurt, and most missed. It was the thought that counted, and we all knew it; they didn't actually have to try to hit me. Actually, in the end, they did me a favour, in providing me a single clear image to express what being a punk in Maple Ridge in 1985 was like.

That was shortly before the time, though, that things shifted - the crossover between punk and metal started to happen, pop-punkers like Billy Idol and The Clash had been in heavy rotation on Much Music for a few years, and suddenly, in 1986, people started to turn up with funny haircuts at my high school, who had no idea who DOA, the Subhumans, the Dead Kennedys or even the Sex Pistols were, who had very obviously adopted the FASHION of punk without having EARNED it. That chapped my ass a bit. I actually remember chuckling at some kid's sudden tinted fauxhawk fin - not actually that dissimilar from the one I'd sported myself three years previously, when I was 15, except when I did it, I was the only guy in my junior high school with a punk haircut; I was actually listening to punk music; and I was prepared to pay the price for having a different look. I remember confronting this kid shortly after he got the new hairdo; I don't remember the actual words, but I asked him about the music he listened to, which is how I know he had no idea who DOA (etc) were. I was a little indignant, but mostly confused: why do you want to look like a punk when you aren't one? I walked away shaking my head and maybe humming "Dead at Birth" to myself.

...So I have no problem with the term "poseur" - even though that's what I sometimes felt like myself, when passing street punks in the city, say; I was a little too comfortable and suburban to feel entirely secure in my cred, myself. I suppose the term opens its own cans of worms, raises questions of how hardcore someone has to be before they can be secure they're not a poseur in someone else's eyes (there's a Tesco Vee/ GG Allin anecdote of relevance here, where Allin called Vee a poseur, and he replied something to the effect of "compared to you? Guilty as charged!"). How low does a punk have to get before their cred goes unchallenged - and what the hell is that all about, anyhow?

"Hipster" just doesn't work for me, though, since it seems to imply that there is something wrong with being hip. On that basis alone - that of superficial connotation - it seems a fundamentally conservative term, a term by which "mainstream" types, whoever they might be these days, might condemn all counter-cultural sorts. That would already be bad enough, except THAT'S NOT HOW THE TERM IS BEING USED. How it's actually being used is that people who themselves have a counter-cultural orientation are using it to accuse other people with a counter-cultural orientation of not being sincere. I'm sure, for instance, Bison BC have some very definite opinions who the hipsters on the Vancouver scene are - because I've stood with James at a gig by another band (who shall go nameless) as he complained about how good-looking and youthful and happy everyone in the audience looked, saying that it suggested that they were there for the wrong reasons. And while I'm not sure who the guys that wrote the comment on the Straight site about Bison are, they're obviously members of the Vancouver music scene themselves, who think they are COOLER than Bison, more sincere, as opposed to, say, aspiring young accountants from Richmond. The term as it is actually being used seems like a free-floating insult, a way for people within the scene to express their mistrust and disdain for other people in the scene; what the actual term denotes is just vague enough that anyone with non-mainstream tastes can likely apply it to anyone else with non-mainstream tastes, even if they're consuming more or less the same things.

That disturbs me quite a bit, actually. Maybe it's just me, but when I go to a gig, I don't actually spend a lot of time evaluating other people in the room with me, unless they force me to. I get pissed off when people are talking loudly enough that I can hear them over the music - if you're going to talk at any length in a room filled with people who are paying to listen to music, then fer fucksake, go somewhere else; doing otherwise is just ign'ant and shit. I also get pissed off when people mosh too violently or aggressively - the pit at certain metal shows, in particular, has an uncomfortable level of primate stoopidity to it, where the pit stops being a place for group bonding, cathartic, chaotic physicality, the dissolution of identity, and other such forms of wholesome shared fun, and becomes an excuse for two or three angry young men to patrol and control some territory. It's not what it's supposed to be about. So I question the intelligence and tact of both groups of people - the talkers and the thugs. What I don't do is look around me at a gig at how people are dressed and decide on that basis that they're somehow engaged in something inauthentic. It's weirdly shallow, divisive, and seemingly needless behaviour; in fact, it seems like the sort of thing that only someone who feels insecure about their own sincerity might do with any regularity - as if there is no surer badge that someone is a hipster than them spending a lot of time and energy labelling other people as hipsters. Seems to me that people who are actually sincere and secure in their engagement with something don't actually need to spend a whole lot of time or energy casting aspersions on their peers and calling their sincerity into doubt. I mean, Fritz Lang's classic, paranoid thriller M makes an interesting example here: a child murderer is on the loose, and since no one knows who the murderer is, everyone starts accusing everyone else, since doing so is the surest-fire way of throwing people off looking too closely at YOU.

Note: all the above applies even in the case of bands that annoy me - I'm not a big fan of Destroyer or Flaming Lips or a lot of those kinda whiny-sounding, overly precious indy rock bands; and after having seen them live, I've decided I don't really like the whole Animal Collective scene very much, however interesting their recordings may sometimes be. All the same, I assume that the people on the stage and in the audience for such shows are sincere in their engagement with the music; just because I don't care about the same stuff doesn't make me need to insult or label'em. I'm just not interested in what they're doing, and am content to pay no attention to it, thanks. Seems to me the people who truly AREN'T hipsters really just aren't that worried about what other people think or do or listen to - they just go about doing what THEY want to do, listening to what moves them, wearing what they like, without real concern for how they look, versus how everyone else looks. If a hipster is someone who is just the opposite - who really IS worried how they look or concerned about listening to the right music or wearing the correct uniform or whatever - even that doesn't seem that much of a crime to me.  At least they have aspirations: I mean, for all I know, the kid I chuckled at in high school for his tinted fauxhawk fin grew up to be a pretty interesting person. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - well, hell, maybe even posing isn't THAT bad.

There's probably a clever Biblical allusion to be worked in as a punchline, here, about how we should let those who have never sinned cast the first stone, but I can't quite get to it... NOTE: (edited to add - ) none of the above is meant to apply in any direct way to Bison but is basically just my irritation at apparent hipsters who go around calling other people hipsters... And now, if you'll excuse me, the kettle is black, and the pot is calling...

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