UCLA recently hosted a panel to discuss youth culture, and as “one of hipsterdom’s primary architects,” I was asked to come along. I showed up late for the event wearing nothing but a pair of pants and holding a bottle of beer, treating the whole scene like the cafeteria in Animal House, because that’s both fun and funny. The other panelists were mostly bloggers, magazine publishers, and young entrepreneurs employed by the hipster trend. That includes the history professor who used the word “Negrification” with a straight face.
For those of you old fogies still perplexed by the term, a “hipster” is a young person (between the ages of 18-25) with an enthusiasm for contemporary alternative pop culture, primarily music and fashion. They wear oversized glasses with brightly colored frames, tight pants, neon “ironic” T-shirts, and Chuck Taylors. Their musical tastes run the gamut; so do their ethnic and social backgrounds. Oh, yeah, and they read Vice magazine and Street Carnage, both of which came out of my head.
The most common misconception about these kids is they are trust-fund posers who buy what they’re told and shamelessly steal both black and white working-class culture. These patronizing criticisms almost always come from the previous generation who are mad at the world for letting them age and are desperate to prove that today, youth is more wasted on the young than ever before. I’ve been accused of defending hipsters because they made me rich, but the real reason I never turn down an opportunity to speak at these events is I love exposing their transparent gripe for what it is: sour grapes. The kids are all right.
“But what about their legacy?” I was recently asked by New York magazine. “What will they have left behind after it’s all said and done?” This question gets on my nerves. “Music and fashion,” I answered incredulously. Since when are young people responsible for leaving us with anything more? The greasers were about rock ’n’ roll and making out in rumble seats. The beatniks gave us some good books, but they were mostly about shocking their parents by dancing with Negroes. The only thing the mods cared about outside of dancing and getting laid was fighting Elvis fans. Boomers, who are masters at glorifying their past, insist they stopped a war, but we all know it was Kissinger’s relentless bombing that ended it. Hippies were horny stoners. Punks were more preening peacocks with guitars than anarchists smashing the state. Rap evolved from parties in the South Bronx. The list goes on, and it’s always teenagers doing what they do best: partying. They’re beautiful, energetic, and horny. That’s what music and fashion are.
There are two things that make the hipster subculture unique. One: They’re better than their predecessors. Two: Everyone says they’re worse.
“Die Hipster Scum” is a common sticker and T-shirt here in New York. Time Out magazine had a cover story called “Why the Hipster Must Die,” and Gawker has campaigned to end the trend entirely. Last year, a magazine called n+1 held a panel condemning hipsterdom as “white power” because it is somehow inexorably linked to gentrification.
The first question moderator Christian Lorentzen asked the UCLA panel was, “Why do they hate us?” I found this particularly ironic, because he was the one who wrote the Time Out feature. I confronted him about this, and he said he did it for the paycheck and didn’t believe what he wrote. I told him the question should be, “Why do YOU hate us?” but went on to explain what’s really going on.
Now that being a teenager is permissible well into one’s 40s, you have old people within the youth-culture scene bitching about “the kids today.” Imagine Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino if he was still at the club. “This goddamned kid calls himself a DJ?” he’d ask with a PBR in his hand and a trucker hat to hide his bald spot. “He doesn’t even know how to beatmix, for chrissakes. It’s just a pile of MP3s.” The old will always see the young as naive and arrogant—they are. The only difference today is the old person is writing about nightlife for a twentysomething blog instead of worrying about his mortgage and winterizing his lawn (which is coming up soon, guys—I’d recommend at least four bags of lime if you’re around a lot of evergreens).
Everyone else on the panel handled the question similarly, and the consensus seemed to be that hipster-bashing is lame. “It’s like when an old Brooklyn goombah calls someone a ‘pretty boy,’” I said to the crowd. “He’s calling the guy attractive and young. Insults like that say a lot more about the insulter than the insultee.”
There were a lot more laughs than political discourse, but one statement made me blow a gasket. Professor Mary Corey was discussing the history of cool. She had it right for the most part. It began in the mid-50s with movies such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. Marlon Brando put the motorcycle-riding WWII vets on the map, and then James Dean defined teenagers as an independent demographic with its own set of rules. Since then, we’ve had these ten-year blips of subcultures where kids invent new music and fashion and have a great time sowing their wild oats.
The anger began when Corey brought up Normal Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” where he talks about cool culture pre-40s as white people mimicking blacks, but I became enraged when Corey twisted it into a smug attack on the “bourgeoisie” and how youth culture was always about ripping off the poor. I interrupted her by asking if there was anything more bourgeois than being a professor—being paid to pontificate about leisure movements and then taking off every seventh year to go ruminate in Paris. Hearing today’s kids called mindless consumers drives me nuts. They get their clothes at secondhand shops, and the ones they do buy have fewer logos than when I was their age. They don’t buy music. They steal it. They can create their own band out of nothing by mixing samples and genres and new instruments, and they get these songs to their fans without a record label. They’re not stealing anything from blacks. They are black. Mailer’s essay is a half-century old, and today’s incarnation of cool is more inclusive than any before it. We all know how misogynist the hippies really were. The Free Love movement was only a groovy way to take advantage of women. Punk pretended to be open to everyone, but an Afro Mohawk was about as common as a well-respected white rapper. Today’s kids couldn’t care less who’s black, gay, rich, or poor.
“Which brings me to my next point,” I said. “Where did this theory begin that hipsters are all rich posers?” I’ve met thousands of them over the years and have yet to meet a soul who lives off a trust fund. (I’ve met plenty of trust-fund kids, but they’re more into being fabulous in Monaco than going to see a punk band.) They have the same amount of money young people have always had—barely any. They don’t drink Pabst because they’re trying to appropriate working-class culture. They’re drinking it because it’s cheap. They drive track bikes because they don’t get stolen. They listen to iPods because it’s the most musical bang for your buck. When you look into modern youth culture and examine all the criticisms, one truth becomes impossible to ignore: Today’s kids are the best. They are savvier, better connected, more informed, less consumerist, and more capable of everything—including partying—than my generation or yours.
As I keep screaming: We like to pretend things are getting worse and our entire civilization is on the verge of collapse, but the opposite is true. We’ve never been wealthier. Food’s never been cheaper or more abundant. Water’s never been cleaner. The air’s the least polluted it’s been in 100 years. We’ve never lived longer. It only makes sense that cool would follow suit. Instead of griping about it and trying to find ways to rain on their parade, it’s time academics and culture critics stood aside and let the kids have some fun. Being cool has never been cooler, and if you think their shirts are too loud, you’re too old.
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