What once was a small, makeshift plywood shed in the backyard of a few teenage musicians has been converted, for this one rainy night, into a private nightclub. Hanging on the ceiling are strobe lights and smoke machines. In every corner, PA speakers and monitors are plugged into six-foot-tall amplifiers buzzing in a high-pitched shrill over the chatter of crammed-in kids. The instruments sit patiently and quietly, empty of sound or vibration, like ghosts who have yet to be reanimated. Tonight, the bill is full: three bands and a surprise closer band (whose name has been kept secret). The tiny sweat-drenched room grows tighter, hotter, and darker as more teens fill the cracks in the already dense crowd. Among the "scene kids" reeking of the wet winter air, touching my shoulders and stepping on my feet, I open a beer and light a cigarette to await the show.
Youth is hip
I feel old. I am 22, at least three years older than anyone else, including the kid who invited me here, "Mister Lonely (pseudonym)." Mister Lonely knows everybody and everybody knows him. At the age of 18, he is fashion conscious and well spoken. He wears clean, brand-new skinny jeans and specially-ordered leather shoes. His jacket, light gray and just one or two sizes too small, sticks over his tight-fitting, bone-white dress shirt, just under a brown knitted cardigan. His glasses are black and thick rimmed. His hair is long and disheveled despite his otherwise put-together appearance. "It's hard out here for a pimp," he says while I hand him a cold beer. Mister Lonely plays guitar in a band and solo regularly picking up both venue shows, and “house” shows just like this one. In this local scene, Mister Lonely is the poster boy of a youth culture that, although in existence in some form for the past 70 years, is experiencing an explosion of fashion, interests, and behaviors. Mister Lonely, by any definition, is a hipster.
The history, man
Usage of the term “hipster” began in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1940s, around the time jazz music was gaining popularity. Although its exact origins are disputed, the term quickly transformed into a noun that predominately described white, middle-class youth attempting to emulate black jazz musicians, who were also often referred to as hipsters. The exact literary meaning is also unknown. It may come from the West African word “hipi,” meaning to “open one’s eyes.” Hipsters of the 1940s adopted the characteristics of a jazz musician that included speech, clothing, dance and drug use. To be a hipster then meant to be rebellious in lifestyle and interests, free of inhibition and the oppression of the “square.” In his book, Jazz, Frank Tirro defines the 1940s hipster simply as someone “who is looking for something that transcends all this bullshit and finds it in jazz.” Jazz was about experimenting, letting go and embracing the unfamiliar and unexpected. The genre was the soundtrack to what became for many a transformation of identity. To the youth of the time, jazz symbolized freedom and the chance to be a unique individual. But freedom from what? Only from the tamed world around them and perhaps from themselves. There was a world beyond the white picket fence that surrounded middle-class sensibility that transcended racial prejudice and segregation; beyond mundane concerns like getting a good job or impressing the neighbors with a new car; a world where problems could be forgotten with the strum of a guitar chord and a swing beat.
Without anyone knowing it, the beginning of the hipster was about more than just rebellion against the social status quo. It was also about the rebellion against a fundamental capitalist ideology in respect to one’s income, class, and social status. Where you lived, with whom you socialized , and the places you went accumulated into what the sociologist Michel Foucualt called “social-capital” or “culture-capital.” Being a hipster, at least indirectly, meant the destruction of this capital, but not through mere words, in action that had the potential to dramatically alter one’s lifestyle.
Half a century later, hipsters still exist, perhaps more prominently than at any time before. Once indie bands, Metric and Broken Social Scene—who exhibit hipster fashion and musical styles—are now two of the biggest bands in the world. Movies such as Juno (which won an Aacademy Award for Best New Screenplay) and Garden State have become hipster favorites because of their use of dry sarcasm and neo-folk soundtracks. But since the 1940s, things have changed. Inside this smelly, congested shed, I look around at those who are supposed to be my peers as the first band, Bunnies in Berlin, plays its first song. No one dances, but rather, apathetically and sporadically bob their heads in an off-beat trance. The music being played is not jazz. They don’t use words like “aces” or “square,” and in fact, hardly speak at all. On the surface, contemporary hipsters have their own repertoire of slang, dances and fashion sense. Today, trademark hipsters shop exclusively at thrift stores for vintage slacks and t-shirts with ironic slogans. He or she drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, smokes Parliament or Belmont cigarettes, and is always ready to strike a pose when a camera is nearby. In between mostly incoherent and scattered conversations with words and phrases such as “for sure,” “man,” “k,” and “that’s money,” hipsters will compare each other’s interests in bands or art, as if the more obscure and underground they are, the more “scene cred” they gain. Indie-rock, indie-electro, and indie-punk are the modern hipster’s bread and butter, which is roughly the genre of every band playing tonight. In between songs, I ask a girl complete with black leggings and non-prescription eyeglass frames what she thinks a hipster is. She aptly replies: “A dead fucking end.”
It’s hip to be fake
Instead of embracing their identity in the way punks might have openly embraced anarchy in the late 80s, the wannabe hipster promptly denies it even to the point of belittlement, even though behaving and wearing in the manner and symbols in ways that clearly define them. Ironically, in the attempt to realize one’s own individuality by participating in an underground subculture, the hipster only erodes this individuality. Hipsterism now is no more about rebellion than punk was about conforming.
As another girl shouts during the second band’s set-up, individuality is possible but “you really, really have to not give a damn about the cultures around you….” Individuality in hipsterism is something lost, not found. A culture’s unique identity is not found in its conception but its disintegration. How can one be unique when they are emulating their friends and acting in a standardized form? Impossible. When I look around the room at the naïve, yet well-meaning youth, and the third band, whose members stand lifeless as they play a Joy Divisionrip-off, I suddenly feel pity for a lost generation who are hypocritical and devastatingly ironic. I feel I've been robbed of something special as I look beyond the crowd and into myself.
The youth are not all to blame for the dissolution of the hipster. In the same way Levis sold the jeans the hippies of the ‘60s wore as a symbol for the breakdown of rigid social norms, so too has capitalist industry co-opted the hipster lifestyle and commodified it, only to sell and re-sell it as a product of the “new cool.” Industry has a tendency to suck the life blood out of a culture until it becomes empty of meaning beyond simple trend status. As companies improve marketing data collection through sites like Facebook, MySpace, Google, and YouTube, they become better at determining “the next big thing.” As kids tragically flock to this new world called hipsterdom in a society that everyday becomes less provocative and compelling, the capitalist drive thrusts them into a world of contrived alienation where they become trend-riders who chase the coat-tails of what’s “hot.” In one word: posers.
Not culture, but community
With the dominance of capitalism shadowing individuality with dollars and cents, how can one truly rebel? Can one find solace within the next subculture to come around or in no culture at all? “Just be real…” Mister Lonely says in between a laugh and a swig of Carling beer, “…and stop saying you’re real. Do!” Although a MigMac is probably more orginal than Mister Lonely, especially here, he has a point. After he says this, the secret ten-piece closing band, complete with saxophones and synthesizers, shove through the crowd toward the stage. It’s Library Voices, a label-signed band that over the last 5 years is getting noticed throughout Canada. It turns out they are on tour playing clubs and agreed to play an extra set—here of all places. The music is full of life and heart-throbbing cacophony. Each member moves, shakes, dances, and loudly belts the lyrics into the air. The sweat-soaked lead singer and guitarist push into the packed crowd while still playing, hopping on chairs, amplifiers, and monitors with utter elation in their faces. Before the last song, the singer screams into the microphone: “This is the best show we have ever had in this tiny shed with all you damn kids!”
By now, everyone is smiling and moving about, some in a drunken stupor and some sober, and the word individuality has lost all meaning and connotation. In the pure heat of the music, nobody really cares about the aesthetics of a rad new coat, or the obscurity of some random abstract artist. If we are in fact a lost generation under the hegemony of a capitalist cultural coup d'eta, then we’ll stay lost. As the final song ends, Library Voices’ drummer takes the bass drum in his hands, raises it over his head, and begins to march toward the door as other band members smash the drum in a sustained, primitive-like beat. We march with them in rhythm as we strike the drum or whatever we can around us in syncopation with the 4/4 time signature. We clap and yell and hold hands. We look at each other with wide eyes and empathy as we walk outside into the rain, together.