I Was a Hipster for the New York Times

2013 May 4
by Ando Arike

Time Out's death sentence, May 2007

Somebody needs to get a message through to the Times that Williamsburg long ago lost its cachet as the epicenter of what marketers call “cool,” and that the “hipster” as a cultural icon is dead—that, in fact, the hipster was already embalmed and buried six years ago when Time Out New York pronounced his death sentence (see left). Then, perhaps, the Times would spare us—we who actually live in Williamsburg and must pay the rents this newspaper helped inflate—spare us yet another cutesy/snarky trend-piece like Henry Alford’s “How I Became a Hipster” (Weds., 5/1/13). Hasn’t the Times done enough to ruin this neighborhood? Must it rub salt in our wounds? And can’t its writers even get the facts straight anymore—or was the Judith Miller WMD fiasco its truth-Rubicon? (Ooops! A million dead Iraqis? So sorry—our bad!)

The hot story, according to Alford, is that “Brooklyn” is now “a byword for cool from Paris to Sweden to the Middle East.” So readers can expect that if the Style section sends him to Williamsburg to spend “a long weekend trying to educate himself, canvassing Kings County’s artisan-loving, kale-devouring epicenter” to fathom the secrets of “cool”—that, well, this will involve a lot of shopping. Because shopping, apparently, is the only language Times readers can understand.

Of course, it turns out that becoming a hipster for the New York Times is pretty fucking expensive, something close to $2000 for a three-day weekend—so hipster wanna-bes are forewarned. First, coolness required Alford to spend three nights at the Wythe Hotel—which he describes as “a beehive of instrument-bearing musicians, nose-pierced locals and twentysomethings who use the word ‘ridiculous’ in nonpejorative contexts”— and which likely cost upwards of $1500. Then there were the appropriate hipster accoutrements, for instance, “a $225 short-sleeve, plaid, navy jacquard shirt” from H. W. Carter and Sons—a shop “full of flannel and cardigans and work boots for the younger set.” Then the food and beverages, the bike rental, the visit to a barber, and for some reason (perhaps to ridicule “artisanal” food), a “three-hour, $69 class called Knife Skills, taught at 3rd Ward, a continuing-education center in Bushwick that is heavy on classes like chicken raising and rooftop gardening and cardboard furniture-making.”

“O, bohemia!” moans reporter/humorist Alford, oozing yet more irony into an article already awash in the stuff. And herein lies the essential problem: how does one signal irony in an era where irony is as thick as Brooklyn air in late July? How to avoid the “infinite regress” problem of heaping irony on top of irony on top of irony? How to mock outmoded cultural stereotypes—hipsters, boho Williamsburg—when these are already buried under mountains of sarcasm and cynicism? Doesn’t the project become like fracking, pumping poison into the ground to eke out every last bit of fossilized energy? Don’t diminishing returns begin to set in as irony gets cheaper and increasingly pointless?

“O, late capitalist strip-miners of culture!” we moan in response, must everything be monetized and for sale?

Hipster Zombies and the Bohemian Undead

Six years ago, writing in Time Out, Christian Lorentzen got the story right with his diagnosis of the parasitic nature of the postmodern economics of “cool”:

Yes, the assassins of cool still walk our streets: Any night of the week finds the East Village, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg teeming with youth—a pageant of the bohemian undead. These hipster zombies—now more likely to be brokers or lawyers than art-school dropouts—are the idols of the style pages, the darlings of viral marketers and the marks of predatory real-estate agents. And they must be buried for cool to be reborn. [emphasis mine.]

And in the passage that follows below, it’s as if Lorentzen—like one of the “Pre-cogs” in Minority Report—has had a pre-vision of Henry Alford’s “How I Became a Hipster”:

Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.

Of course, hipsterism being originally, and still mostly, the province of whites (the pastiest of whites), its acolytes raid the cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity in the pot. Similarly, they devour gay style: Witness the cultural burp known as metrosexuality. As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.

All isms seek dominance of human affairs, and in this, hipsterism in New York City has proved more virulent than any of its forebears. (Punk, after all, never really broke—except in the form of hipsterism.) At last there was nothing left for hipsters to do but to convert the squares, take them to the bar and let them pick up the tab. Secrets were shared. The hipster hooked up with the common consumer; he woke up a zombie.

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