Everyone’s afraid of the word “hipster”

My old pal/former roommate/momentary bandmate/knife champion Brady Walker posted a blog recently about, among other things, the way and weight of the critical opinion and its confluence with hipster culture.  I should also note that Cajun Radio is an excellent name for a blog.  Please go read his thoughts before reading mine. (Click Read More below).

I have to say, I agree with a great many of Brady’s points, not chief of which is the weight the critic is afforded.  The easiest, simplest explanation is to appeal to philosophy and say that those with the power decide the truth (Foucault!  Ha!  Looka me!) and that dissenting opinions necessarily carry less weight.  And while that’s certainly true, we should still question whether the empowerd opinion is the correct one.  The difference between Greil Marcus (along with other great critics like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs and, to a lesser extent, Robert Christgau) and, say, Pitchfork and the A/C Club‘s staff is that Marcus, Marsh, Bangs, and Christgau come from an earlier generation, and though some of them may still be writing, their critical identities were forged in a time when being a rock writer lent you no cultural capital.

Not so today.  It’s no small secret that Pitchfork has positioned itself as tastemaker for a generation, and though I raise my voice in protest along with many others, it doesn’t stop my hands from clicking their URL every morning over coffee.  Pitchfork, like Rolling Stone in its heyday, has positioned itself as a cool place, and cool is something that rock critics necessarily cannot be, at least not in their writing.  Here’s why:

Brady asks the question of what makes the opinion of the 32 yr-old critic in his loft carry more weight than the experience of a handful of drunk college students shouting along to Animal Collective‘s (excellent) new record.  The truth, and I think that the majority of my critical peers would agree with me, is that our opinion counts exactly zero percent more than anyone else’s.  The difference between us and the college students, though, is very real.  The kids are caught up in the experience of the music, oftentimes engaging it exactly as the artists themselves intended; it is experiences almost identical to these (a few come to my mind) that led to our becoming critics in the first place.  As critics, one of our myriad goals is to transcribe these experiences, to de-incarnate them into our minds and reincarnate them into a very different form of poetry — but one that I heartily believe has the potential to be poetry.

The problem here is that few critics — few people — allow themselves to do this anymore.  As Brady points out, the critical posture lends itself only to quantifiable, “scientific” proofs of why a record can be considered decent, which of course robs an album of any of its heart and leads to, among other awful things, bands who are more interested in following proven formulas than making interesting and honest music.  (A minor aside here: the honesty and innovation behind the first few tracks of Limp Bizkit’s first album, Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$, makes it almost passable.  Flame away.)  What this means is that any experience that is primarily sensual is automatically discounted in favor of an thought-based response, as if that’s the reason people listen to music to begin with.

I’m getting to my point; I promise.

The reason that Pitchfork — and its followers — feels so brainy but also so dry is because it is obsessed with chasing and cultivating its own coolness.  As author Donald Miller has noted in a quote that I’m fond of repeating, the very word “cool” implies neither hot nor cold — it holds back any form of passion.  And if I’ve learned anything from my myriad, ongoing attempts at being cool, it’s that actually being passionate about anything is far from cool.

So it should be more than slightly ironic (and beautiful) that Animal Collective’s Panda Bear — that diamond in Pitchfork’s stylus — redefines coolness, singing in “Comfy in Nautica,” one of 2007’s best songs, that “coolness is having courage, the courage to do what’s right.”  Animal Collective themselves are perhaps our first post-hipster band; not for nothing did they vacate Williamsburg almost as quickly as they got there.

The answer to Brady’s question, though, can essentially be summed up in coolness.  The problem isn’t that critics hate hipsters, or hipster culture, or whatever.  It’s that critics themselves, in being the anti-hipster, are the ultimate hipster, the pinnacle of hipster.  And while that word may be tossed around and bedevilled more in the rock world than “postmodern” is in the Christian world, its slippery attempts to elude definition make it no less real.  Likewise, no amount of shame discounts the fact that hipsters, do, indeed have feelings, that underneath our Manufactured in Downtown Los Angeles Cool we — yes, I’m including myself under the banner “hipster,” because it’s about damn time someone did — do have hearts that beat, and no amount of our trying to hide them under scarves and headphones is going to change that.  Anyone who’s ever dated a hipster can tell you how hard it is to find these feelings, but they’re there.

And so, rock critics who want to be cool — which is to say, nearly all of us — find themselves at an impasse.  How do we talk about these wild, these intense experiences that music provides without exposing ourselves a bit too much to the elements?  The answer?  Look to those who came before us, to Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, to these critics who weren’t afraid to admit their unabashed adoration of rock ‘n’ roll; these critics who didn’t care how cool they were; these critics who had the courage to do what’s right.

This thing is poetry, or at least it has the potential to be.  We may bury ourselves under piles of records, we may morph into PR men (either for bands or for ourselves), we may strain under the self-imposed pressure of listening to every record ever, but somewhere underneath, there are drinking songs, and there are late nights, and there are girlfriends and there is a spirit in the night that’s well worth taming.  These are barefoot things, things that laugh and bleed and sleep outside.

3 Responses to “Everyone’s afraid of the word “hipster””
  1. Brady says:

    Bravo! A welcome and articulate response. My one little smear of contention, though, is directed at the idea that Pitchfork and hey-day Rolling Stone might only position themselves as tastemakers. The truth is that they are tastemakers and they are for a reason, but not the reason they’d like to believe. The same way Google has been reorganizing the digital world for us, Pitchfork is an island of collusion, pulling in all the news and bullshit together for us, and though they have their obvious darlings, its import lies not in telling us what’s good, but just letting us know what’s out there, because otherwise I’d be on a cross-eyed quest to find those unfindable records that Thurston Moore’s always talking about, thinking that that was the biggest and only thing going on, because it’s easy to trick small towns into being reductionist about the outside cultures they’re residually being exposed to. In other words, their tastemaking doesn’t necessarily mean that their readers’ tastes will reflect their own. Luckily, when someone shows me a Nickelback album, I don’t assume that that is what’s going on, that that is the pinnacle of the scene these days, as though rock were still a single, unified “scene.”
    **Note about Limp Bizkit’s 3 dollar bill: When I got one of my sister’s friends to tape that album for me in 7th grade, I would listen to it on headphones in the morning so the adrenaline rush would wake me up.

  2. mrrrty says:

    A unified scene? Now you’re sounding like a Hold Steady fan. Also, you need to get yourself into Springsteen. Listen to “Thunder Road” in a room alone, with headphones, loudly.

  3. Lena says:

    Wow, what a profound post that is. What you wrote makes perfect sense to me. I spent several years in Chicago (which to me will forever remain home of hipsters, not just Pitchfork). To me this work means the visuals. The way to dress. No, I am not going into the semantics and a meaningless (or at least not so obvious) stream of consciousness. There is something in it, in this culture….something that wants to breathe yet is alien to outside air. Probably all in good faith. And just like any subculture it insists on it being the only possible one. In coolness, that is. I have a twisted relationship with this culture. I never felt enough (yes) emotion coming from it but I wanted to. I don’t want to type a novel in your blog, here is a link that is more of a reference to a feeling than anything else (relevant to hipsters – only if you are interested, of course http://lenamusic.wordpress.com/2008/01/09/32/). Oh, I think I caught it – to me hipsters are defined more by what they despise, not by what they are – it’s an anticulture in essence – in order to be with them, you have to hate the same things, or it’s impossible. Does it makes sense? I am really trying 🙂

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