Hipster? Part Two

Thinking about the figure of the hipster makes me think about ‘bad faith’, and of how being a hipster entails a kind of connoisseurship of one’s own bad faith. I’d point once again to how a google image search of, say, ’80s fashion’ does not deliver up a panorama of how people actually dressed in the 80s. It might have done, had the internet been a global thing in the 80s on the scale it is today, instead of a few computer scientists talking to each other. Because google’s search engine delivers results according to popularity — the top result is the one with the most links to itself — looking for ’80s fashion’ gives you a result which displays what people today want to believe was 80s fashion, and want to celebrate about 80s fashion. In short, the ’80s fashion’ google search gives you a shot of 21st century nostalgia.

This is why hipsters tend not to wear certain things that we associate with 80s fashion. One major thread in 80s fashion was nostalgia for the 40s and 50s, as refracted through the design of Blue Note album covers of the period, but you don’t get hipsters wearing sharp suits and snap-brim hats; it’s the opposite of their carefully crafted impression of dishevelment. (What would be the point of trying to ‘ironically’ look like a successful investment banker?)

The curious focus of hipsterism on one small corner of the music industry — indie rock, usually made by white people — belies the fact that within that focus, hipsters must violently disagree about who is good and who isn’t. This brings us back to bad faith. Arcade Fire is an indie rock band that’s made it relatively big, which of course has made them enormously unpopular among hipsters who like their bands small. An example is the pop writer Everett True, for whom the band is something of a bete noire. On the website where he publishes his own stuff, he even gathered together his contemptuous tweets about them:

OK. Enough already. Today is International PLAY NO ARCADE FIRE day. Please RT

C’mon! Play some decent music! Maybe burn a Clegg effigy? Celebrate the fact today is international PLAY NO ARCADE FIRE day. Please RT

What’s more boring than a copy of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs? Two copies of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs

Why did the music fan cross the road? TO GET AWAY FROM THE ARCADE FIRE CONCERT

Rejoice! Be happy! Set light to a Tory! Celebrate your very existence! For today is international PLAY NO ARCADE FIRE day. Please RT

What do you call an Arcade Fire fan who likes music? A masochist.

Q. How many Arcade Fire fans does it take to change a lightbulb? A. That’s just not funny.

(Grits teeth) No. More. Arcade. FIRE!

This is one of those situations in which part of the fun of being a particular kind of music fan is in hating other kinds of music. It was a happy day for me when I at last grew out of this. I used to feel that way about U2, for example; it wasn’t that I just disliked them, I wanted them to stop. I actively wished them ill. U2 and Arcade Fire have been linked, insofar as both bands are notable for tendencies towards earnestness and a particular mood that they foster at their gigs, a kind of drive to make every gig into a celebration of something, if only of being a U2/Arcade Fire fan. I no longer find U2 actively irritating, just a bit boring. The musical questions that they set out to answer no longer obsess me the way they once used to. I didn’t listen to Arcade Fire for a long time, and when I finally did, I didn’t enjoy it much, but it doesn’t bother me that they exist, the way it clearly gets on the tits of Everett True. A certain type of hipster would insist that it matters very much that I’m not bothered by the existence of Arcade Fire, the way somebody else might insist that it matters very much that I’m not against water flouridation, or am not a vegetarian, or am not campaigning on behalf of the Palestinians, to take just three causes ranked in ascending order of (as I see it) seriousness.

It so happens that I’m in favour of water flouridation, think it would be better for us, animals and the environment if we all became vegetarians but enjoy meat too much to give it up, and believe in the cause of Palestinian nationhood but am too lazy to do anything about it. But I think that these are causes worth getting worked up about, whereas the relative merits of one indie-rock band over another is not something that I think is worth getting worked up about, certainly not to the Everett True level of frothing indignation. Which is why I have never cut it as a hipster; I don’t get annoyed that this new album by this supposedly cool band isn’t that much good, because I am well aware of the vast mountain of mediocre-to-crap stuff, the production of which helped to make possible the masterpieces of the past (and when nearly every masterpiece of the past first came out, people had to decide whether or not it really was better or worse than everything else out at the time, and sometimes they got it wrong.) In brief, as long as I know that there is great music out there that I haven’t heard yet, I see no reason to get worked up about today’s less-than-great music.

At my most charitable, I reflect that it must be hard being Everett True. It’s tough to be so aggrieved when the public likes something that you like, if your whole schtick is to define yourself against the majority. According to Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, exactly the same thing happened to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler on the first night of Strauss’s Salome, except that the work that they couldn’t figure why anyone liked it was by one of them.

If you let yourself be defined by your taste, you risk missing out on a lot of great music. Of course, it’s only prosperous folk in the developed world who have the luxury of defining themselves anyway, which is why it’s insulting to everyone else to let yourself do it by something as abstract as the music you listen to.

Hipster? Part Two


The Urban Dictionary defines a hipster as follows:

Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.

Well, I’m all for independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art, creativity, intelligence and witty banter, but I draw the line at “indie-rock”. Don’t make me listen to that shit.

I wouldn’t have quoted this except that the BBC clearly regards the Urban Dictionary as definitive. The definition goes on:

Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers

— because hipsterism is about what you consume, not how you think or what else you do —

and are often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses.

Yikes. The whole definition amounts to a mini-article in itself, and is a hoot, not least because no hipster could possibly subscribe to such a thing.

Back when I was a teenager, the mainstream teenage look for young guys consisted of white or cream baggy jackets, similarly-hued baggy trousers, highlights in the hair, and grey suede pixie boots. If you google ’80s style guys’, you will not find pictures of anyone looking like this, because it looked absurd. However, if you wanted to signify your rejection of the culturally-ignorant attitude of mainstream consumers, you did so by wearing black and bleaching your hair:


I have no idea what that band sounded like. Back in the day, as far as I was concerned, Birdland was a nightclub named after Charlie Parker.


The Muppets and cheap music

This is the second of these posts that hinges on an anecdote about putting my daughter to bed.

My wife and I take it in turns to do what we’ve by default called ‘the snuggle’, which is the rather embarrassing name for a fairly humdrum activity, in which whosever turn it is gets into bed with our seven-year-old daughter and lies there after goodnight for about 20 minutes, just chatting with her quietly about the day but basically doing nothing, the point being to help her wind down and ease into a good night’s sleep while the other parent goes off and prepares dinner/finds something to watch/attends to our newborn son. Tonight, for some reason, Lena made me activate our Kermit the Frog glove puppet. It’s a very typical Kermit puppet, in which you stick your hand inside and you can make Kermit’s mouth move. Lena has had tonsillitis lately and has been watching The Muppets on the sofa, so her love for Kermit is strong right now. I can do a passable imitation of Kermit’s voice, as created by Jim Henson and carried on by Steve Whitmire, so I’m the Kermit operator of choice.

Towards the end of tonight’s . . . damn, the word looks so icky when you type it . . . ‘snuggle’, Lena rolled onto one side, hugged the Kermit glove puppet (with my hand inside it) to herself, and quietly sang to it a few lines of the song “Rainbow Connection”, originally from 1979’s The Muppet Movie but heard by her in the 2011 film:

Some day we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and meeee . . .

I damn near burst out crying when I heard this.

My throat tightened, and I was filled with an immense sense of something or other which impressed me with the transience of this and the fragility of that.

The weird thing is that I was immediately aware of the mediated, second-hand nature of this experience. It was, essentially, a cliché, for a forty-something dad to be moved almost to tears by his daughter singing a silly song to a glove puppet. I mean, even a greeting card company copywriter might be tossing that particular notion into the bin. But I knew that, and as I lay there in the semi-darkened room — because it’s not actually dark at 8.30pm in Edinburgh in May — I tried to identify what exactly was so moving about hearing this.

It was only partly Lena’s voice. Nobody would say that she’s exactly a child prodigy of a singer. Her pitching is extremely erratic, but her rhythm is good. But it wasn’t that she sang it so well that that’s what moved me, the way I would have been moved by a great singer. Her voice has that blurry, unguarded quality that little kids have when they’re untrained singers. She pronounced the word ‘rainbow’ as ‘raimbo’.

It was only partly the song. It’s not a song I have any history with, and I don’t much like the work of Paul Williams, who wrote it (with Kenneth Ascher.)

After a hug and a last goodnight, I had to go out to the supermarket to get some essentials and I put on my coat and headed downstairs and out into the damp, grey Edinburgh twilight. In the supermarket, a song came on from a band that was once my favourite: “Near Wild Heaven”, by R.E.M. “Near Wild Heaven”, for all the sheen of its production and Mike Mills’ obvious sincerity and the guileless homage to the Beach Boys that it is, didn’t move me at all, whereas my daughter’s casual rendition of three lines of a cheesy song by a chronically MOR songwriter had only minutes earlier been one of the most profound musical experiences of my life.

The late Dennis Potter, in more than one interview, said that even the cheapest song has something of the same quality as a Psalm of David, and Potter knew what he was talking about; he became the greatest master of re-contextualising popular song that TV drama has ever known. My experience with Lena and “Rainbow Connection” sealed for me the notion that the context in which a song is presented can account for its impact to a degree which is embarrassing to those of us who take music seriously, and who have spent any time working hard at being good at performing it. Surely it’s only worth putting in all those hours of practice if our performances can transcend mere circumstance.

Ioanna had good old plain common sense on the topic: her view was that I found the song moving because Lena is my daughter. But that’s not an explanation that works for me. When other family members attempt to perform music around me, their familial proximity does not gain precedence over my critical ear, which is a bit shit for them, really, but there you go.

As ever, context is all. The immediate context is that Lena has a three-week-old little brother, Dexter, whose ability to make noises when he wants food or a clean nappy has already soured slightly her early delight in his presence, which is a nice way of putting it. We tell her that Dexter will start smiling soon and will go on to welcome her presence, but in the meantime, she is still waiting for him to respond to her, which being only three weeks old, he has not yet done. Perhaps this is the “rainbow connection”, for her. Or perhaps it’s just that she liked the sound of the song. When I was seven, I didn’t like sappy songs like “Rainbow Connection”. I liked stomping songs, like (to choose another one by Paul Williams) “So You Wanna Be a Boxer”, from Bugsy Malone. But that brings me into my whole notion of the links between music and aggression, of which more later.

The Muppets and cheap music