Friday, February 15, 2013

Hipsters, Steampunk, and Economic Nostalgia

Everyone, it seems, has become irritated by hipsters, the urban youth subculture whose members so desperately insist on distinguishing themselves from anything and everything popular or mainstream that they refuse even to lay claim to their own name. "I don't have a job, and I don't want one," says hipster style. "I will not be exploited!"

Steampunk would seem to be a world away from hipsters, combining in its style images from the Victorian age of industrialism with those of an apocalyptic future to depict a fundamental attitude about the present. "I have a job, and look how shitty it is," says steampunk style. "We are all exploited!"

And so it would seem that hipsters and steampunk have exactly nothing in common--except perhaps to the extent that steampunk is the repressed hipster unconscious, the grim reality of every barista and bicycle messenger who does have a crappy, exploitative job (which would make hipsters either hopelessly optimistic, or impossibly self-deluded, versions of steampunkers).

But it has recently occurred to me that hipsters and steampunk may be fundamentally alike, at least in their shared attitude toward the 21st-century economy. In this sense, their only real difference is that steampunk reaches back to the 19th century to critique the production side of this economy (keep your new iPhone and laptop, give me the gears and levers of the factory--and I'll show you the labor conditions in which digital toys are produced), while hipsters reach for the mid-20th century to critique the consumption side of this economy (keep your new Rihanna and Coldplay tours, give me old garage band records--and I'll show you the marketing spectacle that sells you fantasies of consumer choice).

Consider a hipster's preferred adornments: plain t-shirts, black plastic-rimmed glasses, single-gear bicycles, Converse sneakers. You can find any number of analyses that critique hipsters for nostalgically imitating the bygone counter-cultural styles of the hippy, punk, or grunge movements without committing to any of their political substance. But talk to someone who bought t-shirts, glasses, bicycles, or sneakers before the late 1960s and you'll realize that hipsters are sporting what were once the only available versions of these commodities. Today's marketplace is so overflowing with consumer options and designer brands that it's easy to forget an era when there were no such choices. Hipster style may not just be nostalgia for the past in the face of an empty present, but a rejection of the marketplace of designer branding that floods us with the illusion of consumer freedom.

Before the late 60s, t-shirts were always plain; there was no such thing as a t-shirt with words or images on it. And if you were unfortunate enough in this era to need glasses, you wore chunky black plastic frames because that was your only option (which is why it remains so easy to visually stereotype a nerd). Sneakers were all canvas, and were only available in white or black Converse, or white or blue Keds. Bicycles were Schwinns and the word "single-gear" did not exist because bicycles by definition only had one gear. Chances are, the kids on your street in this era wore a plain t-shirt, converse sneakers, and rode a single-speed Schwinn. Today's hipster, in other words, looks a lot like yesterday's paperboy.

It wasn't until the late 1960s that kiosks sprang up in malls across America selling polyester-blend t-shirts with iron-on logos. The most iconic of these may have been the smiley face, but the really defining feature of this arrival was the dizzying array of decal and t-shirt options that quickly followed (from "Keep on Truckin'" slogans to the image of Farrah Fawcett). Plain t-shirts became unthinkably boring at about the same time as those "one-speed" bicycles were getting replaced by the new "ten-speed" models that came with curved racing handlebars in a multitude of colors. The market explosions in post-sneaker running shoes and designer glasses frames weren't too far behind. It took even longer for the era of one million micro-breweries to emerge. But the hipster beer of choice is Pabst Blue Ribbon, which your grandfather drank only because that's about what was available.

It's fun to dump on hipsters, if only because no one will admit to being one. And there's no denying that the subculture's search for authenticity is bedeviled by its inevitable implication in mass consumerism. But it's nonetheless the case that hipsters are stylistically acting out a long-gone model of consumption, expressing a desire for a kind of proto-consumer society in which buying did not entail shopping, if only because there were no real choices to make.

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