NY Conversation March 2011

“God, don’t be stupid, you smug, ignorant hipster.”

Such was the verdict from a faceless online quibbler on NY Conversation’s suggestion, in a piece for a US website, that there’s an element that hates on U2 singer Bono for the crime of being mawkish and earnest and actually caring about the world. Now, NY Conversation has been accused of many things in its time, but never until now has it been caught squarely in the knackers by such a low blow. I don’t mind being called stupid, or smug, but a hipster? This will never do.

In all seriousness, though, while I don’t really mind it if bellicose men who look like the comic book guy out of The Simpsons want to vent their existential frustration in the comments section of my work, I do want to address the vitriol contained in A Nonymous’s rant, because it exemplifies a deeper cultural divide that characterises the music scene in the USA, and particularly in New York City.

Over the last ten years or so, there’s been something of a move toward inclusiveness in terms of genre and sound – the arbitrary divide between guitar music and electronic music, for instance, is far less dramatic than it used to be. Back in the ‘90s, you either went to raves, or wore flannel and bought the “Techno Sucks” compilation. These days, you’re free to like all sorts of music – indeed, you’re positively encouraged to do so if you want to have any sort of musical cred. Tribalism along musical lines, then, isn’t really what it used to be – and this, clearly, is a good thing.

But where actual musical polarization has decreased, it’s been replaced by a curious sort of cultural polarization. In NYC, this is geographical as much as anything – the city’s music scene is split right down the middle by the East River, with the trust fund kids of Williamsburg on one side and the old retainers of the punk era on the other. (This, of course, is probably a hugely simplistic view that excludes the things that are happening outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn – but I can only write from experience here.)

And nothing polarizes quite as much as the whole concept of the hipster. In one sense, “hipster” is a word that means nothing – it’s become a catch-all insult to be thrown at people whose musical and/or general cultural viewpoint doesn’t coincide with yours (such as in the case of my online hater, for example). Ask someone to define a hipster, and you’ll probably get a series of characteristics that have to do with fashion or lifestyle – rides fixed-wheel bikes, wears lens-less glasses, sports a moustache… all tropes that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Fitzroy or Newtown.

It’s much harder to define what sort of music they actually like, though. NY Conversation spent an excruciating weekend last year in the company of a textbook hipster who refused to listen to anything except chart pop music at ear-bleeding volumes. Even music that’s meant to go hand-in-hand with hipsterdom is difficult to pin down. Take, for instance, chillwave, the Pitchfork-approved genre that was everywhere last summer. If anything’s hipster music, chillwave probably is. But then what’s chillwave? There’s a couple of names that spring to mind – Washed Out, maybe Memory Tapes, Neon Indian – but beyond that, the genre defies definition. Indeed, most of the bands lumbered with the chillwave label want no part of it.

As it is with chillwave, so it is with hipsters. Everyone agrees they exist; everyone agrees they share certain characteristics; but fundamentally, hipsterdom doesn’t stand for anything – its very superficiality means that it’s largely meaningless as a cultural movement. And still, the situation has a real influence on the state of music in New York City, because the degree of hostility engendered by hipsters, or by the idea of hipsters, is startling. (A friend recently told NY Conversation about visiting a record shop in the East Village that specialised in metal and goth – the proprietor told him that he could be paying half as much rent in Brooklyn, but he couldn’t stand the idea of going there because of the people.)

The result is a whole lot of people who hate something that’s fundamentally indefinable, and a music scene that’s split along non-musical lines, which by anyone’s standards constitutes a weird state of affairs. What does it all mean? Is this where culture stands in 2011? God only knows what someone in, say, India would make of it all.

Can’t we just all get along?

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