A pretentious front for big business to deal in depoliticised revolt and subversion; John Kennedy explores the failings of the hipster subculture as a scene and as a movement.
Can you be a fake hipster? Where are the real hipsters? What do they do? What makes them so terribly hip? Is hipster a term of endearment or an insult?
Well, according to urban dictionary – which is for once an appropriate source considering the underground nature of what we’re defining – a hipster is someone who values “independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art, indie-rock [and] creativity”. This somebody doesn’t sound that bad, to be honest. But where did they come from? Did they just leap out of thin air during the nineties or noughties, born in leopard print skinny jeans and a cheeky nyan-cat pullover?
No, the term dates further back, back when cats were groovy and the beat wasn’t dropped but heavily syncopated. According to Dan Fletcher of Time Magazine: “The term was coined during the jazz age, when “hip” emerged as an adjective to describe aficionados of the growing scene. Initially, hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely black jazz musicians they followed.” Simone de Beauvoir wrote of these young white aficionados, saying: “For them, jazz is as necessary as bread; it is their sole diversion from the dreary workday; it is also their only antidote to the American conformism and its boredom”.
Not much has changed. We’re living through an economic crisis that is often compared to that of the 1930s and white middle class men are still looking to African American culture to lift them out of their lives – if even for an hour – so that they can be more than a cog in the machine. Sociologist Naomi Klein has written that, “the history of cool in America is really … a history of African-American culture – from jazz and blues to rock and roll to rap”. This is what brings me to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the American hip hop collective led by the enigmatic Tyler the Creator. The collective are a perfect continuation of this cultural trend. The group consists of predominantly black, male youths. Their fan base however is made up largely of white middle-class youths across the English speaking world and further beyond.
The dynamic between artist and audience has not changed since the twenties. What the artists give to the audience is a sense of escape. Odd Future’s appeal lies in their aura of subversiveness. Just as jazz music excited the twenties man’s desire to rail against the dull, conservative values of his society, Odd Future’s music rubs the age old bone of rebellion that is lodged in most young men and women. Tyler’s song Radicals, from the album Goblin, is quite explicit in placing the collective as outsiders. “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school … I’m motherfuckin’ radical”. Although Tyler makes it clear that this line, which is obviously intended to shock, is not to be taken literally, it serves as a marker nonetheless. The bridge rings out with, ‘Fuck your traditions, fuck your positions. Fuck your religions, fuck your decisions’. Tyler appeals to the disillusionment felt among contemporary youth. The call to individual expression and determination is comically summarised in the line ‘Stand for what the fuck you believe in, and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want. I’m a fucking unicorn and fuck anybody who say I’m not’.
This brazen absurdity and wild sense of rebellion sells like hotcakes to the kids of the suburbs who, to paraphrase Tyler, sit in front of Tumblr bored to the point of insanity. But what are the wolfpack getting back in return? Naomi Klein has written about the fetishisation of black culture by the white youth and of white wealth by the black youth. Tyler continually celebrates his new found wealth through his music, and understandably so. The man’s friends ‘still can’t afford little pizzas from Little Caesars’ while at the same time he has made ‘a quarter million off of socks’ (i.e. a quarter of a million dollars from the sale of his franchise socks alone).
One would assume that Tyler’s success (winner of the MTV Best New Artist, Must Follow Artist and Rookie of the Year in 2011) and wealth would endanger his anti-establishment vibe. He is well aware of this. ‘Hated the popular ones, now I’m the popular one’. Tyler’s attacks on the popular stars of the music industry were crutches he relied heavily upon during his climb to fame. The line ‘I’ll crush that plane that that faggot nigga B.O.B is in and stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn oesophagus’ is infamous. But now with his new found wealth, Tyler might find himself (in some respects and certainly from an economic sense) to be in the same class as Bruno Mars, or B.O.B or any of the other music drones. Some fans might begin to wonder if all Tyler was rapping was “I wanna be a millionaire” after all.
Tyler has been astute in his attempts to turn this situation on its head. Advertising Age reporter Jeff Jensen has made the claim that for today’s young people, “Selling out is not only accepted, it’s considered hip”. Tyler has always played off this fact. ‘Green paper, gold teeth and golden retrievers – all I want. Fuck money, diamonds and bitches don’t need them’. Tyler cannot, or chooses not, to reject consumer culture, instead he chooses to toy with it; this is Tyler’s ironic resistance. There is a strong parallel here with today’s hipsters. They choose not to reject consumer culture but to toy with it instead. Instead of thoroughly rejecting the fashion industry for all its exploitation and other evils, hipsters mess with it. They’ll wear a pair of Nike hightops with their grand-uncle’s golf jacket and a wartime haircut, as if this ironic combination somehow critiques or neutralises the undeniable mainstream-ness of the hightops. Now where there might have been some merit in the origins of this movement – people buying only in second-hand shops, repairing old bicycles, doing things for themselves and generally consuming less – the sad culmination of this subculture has been its total co-option into the system, as chains such as Urban Outfitters now mass produce ‘hipster’ culture.
This brings us back to Tyler. Parallel to the near-destruction of whatever core values the hipster subculture had, Tyler’s outsider image is beginning to fall apart, as is his fanbase. He goes as far as saying that his fans are “almost extinct”. Newer Odd Future releases have not been receiving the same fanatical responses as their earlier works. So what options are left to Tyler? What options are left to the hipster subculture?
Sure, Tyler could milk the scene for all it’s worth and then skulk away. In fact the man of only twenty two years has said in interviews that he is using his money to make sure he doesn’t “have to make music ten years from now”. Tyler could do this but I think, or I want to think, that there’s more to him than that. Both himself and his brother-like collaborator, Earl Sweatshirt, are obviously smart, socially-attuned, young men. Earl’s father was a poet and civil rights activist, his mother a law professor. His social consciousness is clearly illustrated in such lines as “Breaking news: Death’s less important when the Lakers lose”. Tyler has said before in interviews that some of his inspiration comes from being a nineties child, that Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement were a big influence on him and that he feels that what he is doing is to some extent a continuation of that.
In Seattle, the grunge movement championed the underdogs, the downtrodden, those outside of the establishment and forced the world’s attention upon them. But what became of it? Klein offers a blunt summary: “all we got were a few anti-establishment fuck-yous, a handful of overdoses and Kurt Cobain’s suicide”. Nothing changed. Why? “Trapped in the headlights of irony and carrying too much pop-culture baggage, not one of its antiheroes could commit to a single, solid political position”.
The hipster subculture is all form and no substance. The wolf gang are – for the moment – all bark and no bite. The hipster scene is simply draining all the positive energies of revolt and subversiveness from the youth and presenting it to the big business to suck through a straw, spit out, package and sell back to us all safe and shiny. The question is, are we content to pass our youth riding a shallow wave of pretentious and ultimately false resistance, popping mollies and listening to electro-swing, patting each other on the back and keeping our heads in the sand, only to eventually rear them at age twenty-five or so, tired, cynical, ready to emigrate and disintegrate slowly while sneering at the next wave of ‘radical’, ‘alt’ and ‘subversive’ youths who begin the cycle once again?
Or do we want to fundamentally change the system which keeps the poor poor and the middle class soulless? Do we want to spend our youth barking or do we want to start biting?