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.