Style in the Stereo

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September 5, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

Let’s start with a rather obvious and non-earth shattering statement: This so-called “hipster” subculture isn’t the first youth subcultural movement and it certainly won’t be the last.

Perfect. Still with me? Good, because now we’re shifting elsewhere. See, this whole subculture, as ordinary as its development may seem, is unlike any group to come before it. Mostly because it isn’t exactly a “group” at all, but we’ll get to that later.

The United States has seen its share of youths band together, forming their quasi-rebellious allegiances. We had the whole Beats thing in the 50s, which gave way to the more mellow, “peace and love” Beats 2.0 in the form of the Hippies. We’ve had the Punks too, and some Rave-junkies sprinkled in. And of course there’s always been the presence of us geeks and pop culture nerds around somewhere.

Which brings us to today, where walking down a Brooklyn street corner is likely to bring you face to face with some girl wearing various mismatched patterns on either her pants or her sweater, along with giant non-prescription black glasses, and Native American gear thrown in somewhere. It’s a stereotype, sure, but it does its job.

There’s plenty of these people, guys and girls alike, and not just in Brooklyn anymore.[1] They’re all across the country. And their look has even seeped into the attires of large athletic supermen like Lebron James and Russell Westbrook.[2]

But that’s all it seems to be: A look. There’s plenty of young people dressing similarly now, and more and more stores are opening to cater to it. The ironic t-shirts, the throwback Starter jackets, the tighter jeans. But nothing else seems to unify them, which is perhaps why their constituents get so angry when being called what they are: a hipster. If you haven’t done so, feel free to go out and give it a try. Hipsters hate being called hipsters.

Because there’s nothing that exists to separate one hipster from another. No political ideology, no moral outlook. And their choice of using clothing to make themselves stand out only makes them blend in further to their peers. They are what they wear, and that’s their issue.

Therein lies the beauty of the movement though, if it can even be considered such. The rise of this whole subculture came about as a response to the mainstream culture around it. Like any previous subculture, the youth looked around at their television screens and turned on their radios, and then, unhappy with what they heard, shut them off in rebellion. The Mods of the 1960s are probably the most similar historical example.  The Mods were sheen, sleek, art-school style. With their pill-popping and scooter-riding, they responded to the pressures of 60s British society by creating a style to push against it. To look straight-laced and clean-cut like the elders wanted, but only as a smokescreen, making their excesses that much more ironic.

There was still an ideology though. Based in style, but with a purpose too. A Mod “code”, which one felt obliged to live by. There sure as hell isn’t a hipster code. Because the hipsters aren’t rebelling against an ideology at all. It’s simply style against style.

Since my generation has come of age, we’ve seen a huge dumbing-down of pop music.  Lyrics have begun to fade away in favor of Justin Bieber speaking monotonously about some baby, and the beats of pop hits and rap singles have become so interchangeable, it sometimes feels like they’re just one giant mega-song that a random record exec keeps churning out unwanted sequels to.

This is the state of modern music. But something happened not too long ago. The youth responded. The And1 gear and baggy clothes that colored my childhood, that had been tied to the music of the 90s, like Puff Daddy or Mr. Wild Wild West himself, Will Smith, all started to lose their edge. Kids got older and started to become disillusioned with the state of the mainstream media, and responded accordingly. They dressed in the opposite direction: The tight jeans, the thrift store/hand-me-down duds, the t-shirts with obscure lines and logos from movies, ones that only “real” fans would understand. It was an attempt to try to create a sense of authenticity in an increasingly inauthentic world.

Now I don’t know how many hipsters consciously feel this way, since again, there isn’t exactly a code everyone follows. But there is that shared desire for authenticity. The style, a response to the increasingly superficial modern culture, in essence creates an authentic substance.

Culture – Substance x Style = Substance

Or something like that. A style borne of style brings about a kind of substance of its own. It still means something, still represents an ideology of some kind.

And as with all youth groups, the music and the style of a subculture are heavily linked. For this reason, few artists embody the proliferation of style as substance as perfectly as up-and-comer Nick Waterhouse.

He doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page, and his biggest single has about 120,000 views, so he isn’t exactly a focal point of discussion at the hottest Williamsburg hangout. But the mere fact that he exists shows a lot about where we’ve arrived as a culture.

Nick Waterhouse plays very good, if not rather generic, 50s to 60s R&B/soul music. Except he’s white, looks like a Buddy Holly impersonator, and snaps his fingers like the best of The Ronettes.

He is the new era. Music reflecting on music itself. With pop moving further towards the computerized and the autotuned, Waterhouse is the response. In playing throwback R&B, even if the lyrics are ordinary and ultimately mean very little, he creates meaning simply by the style of his music. He’s moving backwards in time, staying static in his musical space, while everything else moves forward. That’s rebellion, and that’s exactly what the hipsters are doing.

Everyone’s feeling disillusioned with the way things are, so they’ve created a new world rooted in the style of the way they used to be.

Now it’s finally started to seep into the mainstream culture too.  The underground musical subcultures that at one time responded through taking a page out of the 1980s synthesizer playbook are now finding themselves with major pop hits. Just look at how acclaimed the soundtrack to Drive was last year, with its homage to 80s hooks and grooves. Or M83, who’s 80s-inpired “Midnight City” made it to Number 5 on the U.S. Alternative chart and was certified gold. Their highest charting hit before this was seven years earlier and was ranked 86 on the U.K. charts.

That leaves us where we are now. The youth created a new subculture not quite like anything that had been done before, and now, exactly like all of those before it, faces the same end: The inevitable prospect of being commercialized and absorbed by the mainstream. It happened to the Punks, and then it happened to Grunge even more recently. There’s already an iPhone app called “Pocket Hipster”.

But something tells me the impact of it all won’t be lost on us that soon. If nothing else, we’ve seen that style can mean something, and that our previous styles needed to change. It’s what the youth has always been best at. Though it’s difficult to measure the full influence when its originators hate the idea of being labeled in a group with others, while simultaneously scoffing at those who do like the label. We’re moving towards something though, and it seems to be in the right direction.

At the very least, sleep well knowing we haven’t yet seen the proliferation of identical hipster bands by the record labels. Once we start seeing the hipster-equivalent of Nickelback, we’ll know the game is lost.


[1] I can’t say for sure whether Brooklyn was truly Hipster ground zero, but it definitely gets the brunt of any hipster hate. So let’s just go with it.

[2] I love living in an era where the most intimidating athletes can feasibly get their fashion advice from the same sources as prissy, upper-middle class white girls.

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