For a variety of reasons, I am a fond student of irony. From my earliest extant writings, some poems I wrote as an elementary school student growing up in rural Central Florida (despite being a proud Pennsylvanian “Yankee” neighbor), I had a keen sense of irony that had been honed during the savage years of my childhood. An example of this irony is in a (not entirely grammatically correct) limerick I wrote as a fourth grader:
There once was a chicken
Whose face was quite stricken
When he knew it was time
For his master to dine,
For he knew he would taste finger lickin’.
Those who know me well are generally aware of my fondness for eating chicken (especially fried chicken), as well as my love of books and music, interests which frequently inform my blogging as well. But even at the tender age of nine or ten my sense of irony had reached the point where I could joke about my love of eating fried chicken while pondering the perspective of the chicken herself (assuming, of course, that hens are more likely than roosters to be bred for eating for obvious reasons of sociability). Despite the fact that my sympathy for chickens, such as it is, has never led me to stop eating them, it does reflect in general a hostility to cruelty to animals, and in general I view animals in a sympathetic and affectionate way without hostility, in a similar way to the generally sympathetic view I have towards other people, especially when I can see them face to face.
Not too long before moving to Portland, in another one of my life’s immensely ironic moments, I began to reflect on the issue of hipsterdom. Being a person who has always lived on the outskirts and margins and peripheries of areas as a quirky but mostly harmless outsider, I have always viewed my life and the people around me with a sense of ironic distance that was probably developed for reasons of survival in harsh and unfriendly surroundings. While my tastes are not necessarily deliberately obscure when it comes to art and culture, my love of choosing niches that are not well-filled has tended to give me a set of experiences and competencies that is unusual and distinctive and very scattered. My reflection into hipsterdom was prompted by two distinct but related issues–the first was a personal exploration into forgotten music history, and the second was the rather intensive experience of being a generally wide-ranging fan of music who was placed in rather intensive contact with a group of young adults whose music tastes were far cooler and far more indie than mine.
Despite my own existence on the periphery of the indie music scene, both as someone with friends in the scene as well as a one-time college radio DJ during my days in Southern California, experiences which I have blogged about before , my tastes in general are pretty mainstream. The number of musicians or artists I can claim to have “discovered” before they hit it mainstream is very small, and honestly fairly embarrassing to most people. For example, I was a fan of Switchfoot and Need to Breathe before they achieved mainstream success, but those Christian bands I can claim little credit for discovering on my own. It was a college roommate (again, someone whose tastes were much cooler than my own) who introduced me to Switchfoot’s excellent song “Something More (Augustine’s Confession)” and I only heard of Need To Breathe (and purchased their music) because they were the opening act in a Train concert I attended and because I have a natural bias to be fond of the underdog. Likewise, my mother and I were fans of Ricky Martin before he hit it big because of our shared appreciation of Spanish language telenovelas (in particular, “Sin Ti,” which used Ricky Martin’s “Vuelve” as its theme song, and led me to purchase his Spanish-language album before he broke into the English-language mainstream). That’s not exactly the sort of discovery one can comfortably claim credit for too loudly, not least after he came out of the closet and admitted what just about everyone has known for a long time. The same is true for knowing about boy bands fairly early on because of one’s friendship with young ladies who are (not surprisingly) boy band crazy. Most of the other bands I am fond of I know because of my fascination with music charts (as I have kept statistics on them since at least my early teenage years) as well as music videos, American Idol, and the radio. Likewise, a great many of the indie artists I am fond of, where I have not been introduced to them by people who are far more knowledgeable about that scene than I am, were mainstream artists first who I have remained fond of even as their album sales shrank and they were dropped from their major record labels (this would include Edwin McCain, the Counting Crows, and Collective Soul). In general, my taste in music is (like my taste in just about everything else) not necessarily very cool, not has it ever been.
Hipsterdom as a phenomenon is full of ironies, many of which involve my own rather ironic life. For example, Urban Dictionary rather sympathetically defines a hipster as a man or woman whose tastes are conformist with a very progressive and egalitarian left-wing political worldview that strongly mistrusts consumerism and that is viewed with fear and loathing by suburban fratboys concerned about their own loss of cultural dominance in the midst of our own culture war . The word seems to have come from the 1950’s, where our current liberal cultural elites started as enthusiasts as jazz culture, then got other meanings (hippy) added to it in the 1960’s with the countercultural movement, and continued as a more or less permanent urban-based designation of those who were on the cutting end of (mostly negative) social trends as a result of their extreme left-wing political worldview. Of course, residing in the Portland area, I am definitely in one of the epicenters of hipsterdom.
The ironies continue. As far as my demeanor and personality goes, the thrift store fashion tastes I developed as a young man growing up in poverty, the lack of muscle-bound alpha male masculinity present in me (and my hobbies and interests like playing the viola, singing lyrical tenor, reading Jane Austen novels, and the like, which are definitely not a way an insecure young man proves his bona fides for sufficient masculinity in our culture), as well as my generally ironic and critical attitude towards the institutions around me, and my own passionate defense of social justice and the well-being of the oppressed, have probably led many people to claim I am a hipster. However, my general lack of knowledge (or interest) in being a trendsetter, my generally right-wing social politics, and my lack of hostility towards the mainstream and the people in it despite my critical attitude towards consumerism and corruption and my lifelong outsider status means I am (ironically) not conformist enough to be a hipster. Rather than being an outcast who is too cool for the mainstream or someone who is mainstream enough to be cool, I am not sufficiently cool to comfortably belong in either camp because I do not fit in any convenient boxes in our conflict-ridden and label-obsessed society.
This ambivalence reflects deeper cultural issues. The drive to conformity on both the right and the left reflects a larger mobilization of forces for control over society, and the existence of two distinct worldviews which are both hostile to my own well-being and personal dignity. As such, even such apparently superficial concerns as music relate to larger and more troubling social trends and concerns. The irony of hipsterdom is that the cultural power of leftist elites in key institutions leads their ways to be copied, leading those who wish to be trendsetters to engage in ever more extremist and countercultural positions, only to find that their cultural authority leads their example to be rapidly copied by a large group of people whose mainstream status the hipsters hold in derision and contempt. Likewise, despite their hatred of the mainstream, the cultural authority hipsters have as trendsetters leads them to be greatly hated and held in derision by those who hold entirely hostile worldviews and perspectives and who are rivals for control over mainstream society.
Sadly, neither hipsters nor their most hated enemies seem to be particularly interested in genuine concern for those who are real outcasts as a result of being honest and genuine individuals, as genuine and authentic individuality is apparently threatening to both sides as the sign of something sinister and rebellious. As a result, hipsters, despite their claim of being radical individualists, only end up being totalitarian conformists of a traditionally left wing variety, even as they deride the fascist and corporatist conformity of their opponents. Both sides end up being different sides of the same unpleasant coin, without there being a well-developed language to describe the plight of those who fit snugly in neither camp and whose isolated and scattered state has not led them to the cohesion that their oppressors from the left and right possess. Oh, the irony.