Running Off "Hipster Runoff"

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A short paper about Hipster Runoff and irony and language. I really like Hipster Runoff, for what it's worth.

May 04

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WTF is HIPSTER RUNOFF?

Carles, its author, calls it “a blog worth blogging about! HRO is intended to be a ‘culturally relevant’ blog.” It’s probably more than that.

It is satirical yet loving, endlessly hypocritical, and bitingly hilarious. Its author is a (semi-)fictional character. It makes fun of everyone, and it’s gaining fans.

It might just be the vanguard of a radical shift in cultural appreciation.

But more on that later. To understand a blog called “Hipster Runoff”, the reader requires a pithy introduction to hipsters.

May 04

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A pithy introduction to hipsters.

The concept of “hipster” can be hard to nail down; the subculture, as one MetaFilter commenter notes, is based on rejecting one’s being part of it: “It’s usually a safe bet that no one actually refers to themselves as a hipster. A hipster is only something someone else is.” Yet there are some attributes that nearly everybody can affix to the label. A 2008 Adbusters article on the subcultural phenomenon notes that “the American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols […] that have been appropriated by hipsterdom.” Later it adds “skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh” to the list. The highest-ranking definition from Urban Dictionary mentions ubiquitious hipster accessories as, variously, tattoos, dyed hair, the publications Black Book, Nylon, and the Styles section of the New York Times. In New York, they live in Williamsburg (except, they probably don’t anymore. So x minutes ago). Ask any young urban dweller to point out the hipsters in a room and they’ll be able to do it. But they likely won’t include themselves. (SOURCE: I am a young person.)

Even given these labels placing the hipsters into any recognizable pattern of taste is a hard one. Though their bread and butter is classic lowbrow, the dredges of working-class nostalgia (flannel, cheap beer, and V-neck t-shirts) would not have screamed “hip” in any other era. But their taste in media fragments could be read as highbrow - a constantly evolving appreciation for cutting-edge, experimental, avant-garde rock and electronic music from different corners of the globe (Sweden! Canada! Sri Lanka!) and, often, a rather intellectual appreciation for foreign and independent film, canonical literature, and modern art. Perhaps they are the advancing guard of John Seabrook’s notion of Nobrow, where any media fragment takes equal status as a “cultural consumable”, and traditional class-based taste structures break down in the face of modern consumer culture. But in this framework, even that doesn’t quite say enough.

So the hipster lifestyle is predicated upon resisting trends, creating new ones from old ones, going against the mass grain, and essentially being deliberately different. The problem, of course, is that it seems everything can be commodified and nothing can be resisted (just ask those Frankfurt Marxists, Adorno and Horkheimer). So hipsters constantly change their focus, fixing their gazes for a fleeting moment on a new obsession. They try to escape becoming an object of advertising by changing their trends at the speed of the internet, and taking pleasure in watching marketers just try to keep up. But the tastemakers at American Apparel, or how designers come and go at Urban Outfitters (Are those still the shops of choice? It’s hard to tell.) seem to have it down. They are, against all odds, a place where hipsters become consumers. Controversial music reviewer Pitchfork Media sells the “hipster music aesthetic” back to them (NOTE: “them” not “us”), essentially creating the trendy taste in music. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Converse shoes have a stranglehold on the group, out of no noticeable work of their own. Hipsters are, like all Americans (don’t know if “hipsters” exist elsewhere, at least by that name) buyers of things, in spite of their dislike of that consumer culture.

The Adbusters article violently and melodramatically decries hipsterdom as “the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” While this description definitely overstates the importance of a somewhat confined subculture, and comes off as aggressively traditional, it points to the crux of the “what is a hipster” question. If they are the end of Western civilization, then they are the first fully postmodern subculture that is aware of the fact. They reappropriate everything, seamlessly blending styles from various eras and classes of fashion, kill traditional descriptors of music to create new overly-hyphenated-genre-defiers, They make idols out of “unoriginalists” like Girl Talk and Poster Boy, which in turn become mass phenomena. Their persons are pastiche and parody, soaked through with ironic glances at themselves and others. The hipsters are, themselves, intertextual, referencing texts so specific you’d have to be reading nonstop to catch them all. They value form over function, and basically anything else. What they care about is precisely being hip, not what is hip. Their style is style itself. They are defined by their taste. And though they may not want to admit it to you, they are endlessly, obsessively self-aware.

Thus, Hipster Runoff.

May 04

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A Quick Sidebar

By the way, here’s an ultimate irony. I could try to make that description more and more exhaustive, but inevitably, even this (yes, this) description of what a hipster is will necessarily fail, as any self-respecting hipster (an oxymoron, that) will quickly point out. They’ve moved on. They’ve always moved on.

May 04

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HRO + language

“Carles can blog about basically anything.”

-Carles, in the sidebar of Hipster Runoff

Hipster Runoff’s author, Carles, is a character. Whoever is behind that character has thus far remained a secret, though journalists are itching to find out who it really is. But regardless of that (old-fashioned? Anti-Barthesian?) yearning for a creator behind this giant project, Carles creates the voice of the blog.

The immediately obvious, hilarious, infuriating part of this character is the language, which is a carefree grammar-free mess of internet-speak circa 1998, misspellings, deliberate misquotes, and occasionally, faux-poetry (fauxetry?):

ugh. h8 fashion.

who am I supposed 2 b?
’sometimes feelin like life is just a circus, yall!’ -brit spearsie

-from a recent post on fashion

Though the immediate reaction is to recoil in horror at the apparent middle-school-girl-ness of the author here, after a few posts maybe you start to “get it”. Carles, as a product of either Generation X, the irony-laden, jaded young masses (perhaps epitomized by Douglas Coupland’s excellent, irony-laden, jaded novel of the same name) or Generation Y, we folks who were brought up entirely on the internet with more information at our fingertips than any previously, has only the expressive means that he has grown up with to express himself. To reappropriate Saussure, Carles’ langue is the unique grammar and structure of the internet, so all his expressed emotions, thoughts, and fears (parole) are filtered, often hilariously, through that skewing filter.

Maybe this is distinctly generational, but there comes a point when Carles’ absurd, negatively essentializing statement that he has only three emotions makes sense, given the material available to him. Internet users constantly collapse complex emotions into brutally less meaningful statements (any form of laughter or finding something funny becomes “lol”; anything done wrong becomes a “fail”; “two”, “to”, and “too” all become “2”).

I just realized something.
I only rlly have 3 emotions. I can only rlly feel 3 ways about something.

I can <3 some1/something.
I can h8 some1/something
I can miss some1/something.

While yall may not respect me cuz I’m not complex, yall need to realize that these simple emotions are the core feelings behind everything.

-from this post

The descriptions he provides for each supposed “emotion” are even less discriminating; each word takes on so many meanings that it starts to seem as if Carles is collapsing such emotions precisely to self-consciously organize language to his own means.

h8 = when u hate something/dislike something/are uncomfortable in a situation/feel inconvenienced/feel like something has wronged u/don’t like what something stands 4.

It sort of works. Taking Saussure’s (and others) contention that all thought is shaped by language to an extreme, Carles is doing the work for himself, consolidating his thoughts into the language he knows how to use to make sense of the world. More on this later.

First, though, notice how Carles destroys the myth of the “accidental” hipster. There is a pervasive attitude in most hipsters that is so vehemently opposed to being called hipsters, or belonging to that subculture, that they seem to be pretending that they just fell in accidentally. As if Pitchfork’s latest favorite band, plaid shirts, skinny headbands, black jeans, workers’ boots, and children’s sunglasses just all seemed “cool” to all the same people on the same day. Carles obsesses over what it is to be “alt”, and whether he’s fulfilling that expectation adequately. A recent post asks:

Is it ‘alt’ to go to the movies to see mainstream summer blockbusters? Feel like people who ‘go to the movies’ and ‘build their weekly schedules around television shows’ make me sad, because they represent how people don’t have any thing 2 do, so we just have 2 waste time watching things 2 keep us from thinking about how sad we all are on the inside.

He wants to place himself in a community so badly, have a place to fit in. He created the idea of the “AltBro” as sort of the ideal intersection of contemporary male masculinity with the “vulnerability” of alternative hipster culture, supposedly summed up by this photograph:

Says the caption:

This is AltBrodom in a single photograph.
This is alternative camaraderie.
This is what it means to pick out your neon accessories with one of your best bros.
This is what it means to follow blogs with your best altBros, and get ‘totally hyphy crunk’ whenever a new track by _____ drops.

He uses the word “bro” more than most; in publicized twitter conversations with (excellent) Brooklyn author Tao Lin or, here, with alt-DJ Diplo, he calls attention to the patent absurdity of the ways that contemporary men (“bros”, natch) relate to one another. A “chill bro who is always down to party” describes most hip(ster) men, after all. He yearns for a more positive masculinity, where men can relate on levels that transcend broisms.

He even reappropriates the peculiar language of the mp3 blogging community into non-mp3-blogging related posts. Traditionally, when bloggers find a new song via another blog, they’ll post the mp3, then [via blog name here]. (An example here). In character, as an obsessive reader (and ostensible producer) of MP3 blogs, Carles seems not to realize that this is a linguistic idiosyncrasy peculiar to blogs. A recent post about Swine Flu is titled:

Looking 4 something that will protect me from Swine Flu [via American Apparel]

The “joke” is one of the most consistent on the site, and seems to be creating a ridiculous assumption that Carles has never not been on the internet. He’s sort of a hyper-version of the ideal hipster. Not to mention, the constant affirming that, yes, his thoughts are “via” something else only further the evidence for the postmodern generation (again, more on this later).

Carles’ internet-langue, when it intersects self-doubt, is hard to understand, sure, but it is purposefully bringing to light the difficulty of being a hip individual when trends change by the minute and all expressions of emotion can be boiled down to a few letters. Though it’s debatable whether he succeeds, he certainly shines an incendiary spotlight onto the question: can we express ourselves on the internet? Are we alt? “Are we human, or are we dancers?

May 04

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HRO’s New Sincerity

More profoundly, possibly, he also obsesses over what it is to be authentic.

In a world fraught with multiple meanings, trends moving at the speed of light, and not enough language to capture it, Carles becomes (understandably) disappointed by irony. But, much like the langue of internet-speak, it’s the only thing he knows.

Not to ass-kiss here (seriously, I just like the quote), but the professor for whom I am writing this wrote once about “turning irony about irony into sincerity, even profundity.” This phenomenon is exactly what Carles is trying to do (in character) and the blog accomplishes as a whole.

Carles, with the armament of postmodern irony and cynicism at his fingertips, having grown up in a world that embraced them fully, writes nothing that is not ironic. He is famous for using ‘scare quotes’, always single, to ‘express’ that something has been ‘said before’. He knows his thoughts ‘aren’t original’. And he knows how to poke fun at that thought:

I think that ‘Record Store’ Day should probably just become a subsidiary of SXSW or something, since it is probably just an excuse to have an ‘in-store concert’, and maybe get an ‘alcohol sponsor.’ I understand that this might just be a gimmicky event for people to ‘meet in-real-life’ so that the can get a thrill out of how they ‘read about something kewl on the internet’ and then ‘ventured into public 2 have a meaningful experience with like-minded people.’ Wonder if RECORD STORE DAY would even exist ‘without the internet.’

-from this post

A lot has been said in various disciplines about the death of irony (notably, in a post-9/11 world and in a post-Obama world), though many admit that it hasn’t, and won’t. More plausible, some say, is the use of irony about irony, in a Dery-esque way, becoming a perverse and wonderful New Sincerity. Radio host Jesse Thorn is one of the forefronts of this; since 2006 he has espoused his New Sincerity movement, which he describes as “irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more.” Armchair philosophy, maybe, but the thoughts have some wide-reaching implications. Fed up with the postmodern cynicism (which hipsters themselves may be the epitome of), people are looking for a new way to sincerely assert feelings. The hard thing is that the language and means for that don’t exist today.

Which is what Carles does, in spades. Along with the “via” joke and the “alt” motif, his ruminations over what is “authentic” are the most consistent on the entire site (and indeed, his entire online identity – tumblr, twitter, and myspace included). It sounds like a joke (“Searching 4 the most authentic photograph in the world”) but that’s because “joke” is all he knows. Yes, it is sort of meant to be funny (‘funnie’) but that’s all he can do. He means it, too.  Carles is reaching desperately for some truth. He always writes about “just wanting to” do something that is impossible in the postmodern age: find an original thought, or do something new. Something authentic.

I just want to go to a music festival
And let the world know that I am down with almost every relevant band
and chill and ‘be myself’

-from this post

To say nothing of the fact that his version of “authenticity” seems to come from advertisements and marketers aimed at his generation, at least he’s striving for something and not being content with the jaded cynicism of “traditional” hipster culture. He can’t escape those ‘ironiquotes’, though, because there isn’t anything new to be said. And so he’ll keep trying to reach authenticity, ever reaching for something just out of reach until the cultural language shifts at a basic level.

May 04

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So, what?

Maybe it’s blatantly obvious to end with that traditional “last section” of a story or essay, here, but what does it matter? What does Carles mean for us ‘as a society’?

This author is excited by the fact that hipsters, the reappropriated generation, the intertextual-without-meaning subculture, can make fun of themselves and reappropriate their own image again for a new use. They’re coming to some use! Carles is, whether his character or the “actual author” realizes it, changing the dialogue in the country. Though his writing lacks originality and in its use of running jokes and “style” limits language even more, he’s helping jaded hipsters realize there is something more to aspire to in appreciation. There is non-ironic appreciation. There is an attempt at authenticity. The world can be open instead of closed.

And hell, Justice can design a Coke bottle. If alt culture goes mainstream, it is alt anymore? Does it matter? Taste cultures are breaking down, Nobrow style, if sincerity takes over once again. Hipsterism can be a positive thing, after all!

As to whether the blog isworking, I’ll take the risk of being a bit flip here and tip my hand:

Carles says Hipster Runoff is a “blog worth blogging about”. I just blogged about it. You’re welcome, Carles. (Also, thank you).

May 04

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END NOTES and SELF-PROMOTION

Hipster Runoff is on:

the web

myspace

tumblr

twitter

email

Steve Spillman (this article’s author) is on:

twitter

facebook

tumblr

email

Comments are welcome, via any of the above means.

May 04

“Quote”

“This is the inaugural paper on Hipster Runoff studies.”

May 04

“Quote”

“hey”

— Carles (via hipsterrunoff)

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