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WPTS Column: Hipster Culture

By Dan Willis / WPTS Music Director

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Picture a late 1960’s performance by famed activist and singer Joan Baez. As she stands upon a stage, playing her guitar and singing protest songs to her audience, her words are sincere, and her audience is unified and captivated. Seldom are there self-satisfied chuckles from the back row, and few in the audience are mentally cross-checking her performance against earlier ones and muttering about how much better her earliest works are. There’s a clarity of purpose and lack of cynicism to this performance that often eludes the modern music scene.

In the past few years, there has been a subtle change in the way people discuss music. As subcultures continue to fragment and become less distinct, fading in and out of the social fabric that is the “indie scene,” it’s becoming less and less common to witness sincere and unflinching support for a particular band or style.

When we imagine all the artistically inclined fringe subcultures of the past, we see in them an almost naive sense of wholehearted belief in the music of their respective cultures. The hippies saw rock as an unending spring of psychedelic awakening. The grungers and early emos appeared to believe it was the only possible medium for their angst. The potency of the punk rockers’ political statements was as much the result of conviction as sheer volume. Their musical demonstrations were not half-joking gestures clouded with dual meanings or irony, because they truly believed in the songs that they played.

But now, these communities’ modern equivalent — the self-proclaimed nerds often recognized as “hipsters,” which is a term I will use loosely from here on out to describe the modern music fan — exhibits a different relationship to music. Rather than devote themselves to one particular style or movement, hipsters attempt to engage with a much broader canon. Unfortunately, in this attempt to broaden their taste, they compromise the depth of their responses to the music. The result is a culture of academic listeners who do not trust their own opinions. Instead, they shroud their immediate responses to music with over-analysis. They joke, they hedge their opinions and they describe music only in terms of other music to further cloud their insincere methods of discovering objective quality. 

In brief, hipsters are intellectual to a fault when they talk about music, and I can’t help but think that they have lost the ability to respond viscerally to music, which is what made past movements so engrossing.

Hippies had a remarkably self-consistent belief system reinforced by fashion, fiction and music that rejected the trends of the past in favor of completely new territory. It unified people in a way that modern indie music can’t. And it’s difficult to attribute this to a lack of political identity among hipsters, whose predominantly liberal values regarding gender politics, pacifism, free speech and the role of the artist in society are near universal. It’s also not entirely correct to discredit their cerebral manner of discourse as inconsequential. The Internet and even television have recently become saturated with hipster jokes. If not the music, the icon of the hipster, inextricable from needless intellectualism, is now fully ingrained into the American consciousness. 

So here’s what makes hipsters different. They borrow from as many other cultures as they can, using nostalgia and eclectic tastes to construct derivative ideas; their belief system — if they have one — cannot be reinforced by their erratic and inconsistent musical identity. Thus, when hipsters speak about music, they devote all their energy to finding reference points, assessing cultural importance and gauging inventiveness. They give less thought to how much they like it, or how it makes them feel. In a sense, there are no casual listeners, only finicky critics.

The result of this shift in tone manifests itself most clearly in the way hipsters endorse and describe music. Very rarely will you hear a hipster say an artist is purely “good” and not immediately begin backtracking or defending their taste immediately. You may be familiar with standbys such as “I like their earlier stuff,” “It’s not the most forward-thinking record, but it’s fun, summery music,” or the charmingly humble “I’m not a huge jazz guy, but this is pretty good.” Equally rarely will a hipster recommend an album without also including a lengthy, neutral summary of its sound, often using slippery, problematic terms like “hazy,” “retro” or “vibes.”

It’s as if they see themselves as musical matchmakers, whose incomparable knowledge is a tool for improving other people’s lives, and yet the way they speak about music suggests a lack of passion that undermines their ability to be taken seriously. So the suspicion rightly follows: Are these people truly passionate about music? They certainly talk a lot about it, and very intelligently, but the infectious enthusiasm that would mark passion is replaced by detachment. They’re a very clever people who know a lot about the history, cultural significance and classification of music. But how many of these music experts are truly music lovers?

WPTS Charts this week

1. No Age — An Object — Sub Pop

2. Julianna Barwick — Nepenthe — Dead Oceans

3. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories — Columbia

4. Mallard — Finding Meaning In Deference — Castle Face

5. Big Black Delta — Big Black Delta — Masters Of Bates

6. Majical Cloudz — Impersonator — Matador

7. Speedy Ortiz — Major Arcana — Carpark

8. Hunx And His Punx — Street Punk — Hardly Art

9. Gauntlet Hair — Stills — Dead Oceans

10. Golden Suits — Golden Suits — Yep Roc

11. Lumerians — The High Frontier — Partisan

12. Moderat — II — Mute

13. Braids — Flourish // Perish — Arbutus

14. San Cisco — San Cisco — RCA

15. Smith Westerns — Soft Will — Mom And Pop

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WPTS Column: Hipster Culture