Unbranding and the hipster backlash

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

I have an awkward but passionate relationship with academic discussions of popular culture. Expansion: I’ve always found popular culture more interesting as an observer than as a participant, but I think the line between those two states is becoming thinner and fuzzier (if, indeed, it ever existed at all beyond my own desperate, continuous and largely futile attempts to see myself as separate from any form of cultural majority in my current social environment*).

You see, I had a minor revelation on the way to Tesco the other evening, in which I realised that part of the difficulty with, say, writing reviews of books or music in a networked world, is that you can’t isolate any one cultural artefact from the world in which it exists, or from its creator (not entirely), or from its consumers and detractors. To review effectively – to critique – is an act of comparative cultural anthropology, performed in a room lit only by a Maglite velcroed to one’s own forehead. Context is everything. The character and intellectual history of the critic is crucial to your understanding their understanding of the subject of their critique. The critic’s greatest insights (and, by the same token, greatest blindspots) are necessarily invisible to her. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the critic can’t see her biases for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

And so much for rambling pseudophilosophical cultural discourse. (Hey, it was a fun paragraph to write. I may even have meant most of it.) But back to the point: culture, fashion, trends, memes. Cyclic shifts. The mainstream’s need to reappropriate marginal culture (because, based as it is on a pattern of consumerism, it cannot create, only refine and reiterate); marginal culture’s parasitic defiance, goading and mockery/pastiche/satire of the mainstream’s current obsessions (because the urge to create is almost indistinguishable from the urge to destroy).

What am I going on about?

Like, hipsters, y’know? Right. Wired UK piece, academics and psychology types talking about the pivot point where a self-identified outsider culture reaches a critical mass and becomes a self-parody, attacks its own body-politic like cancer or some sort of immune system failure; Pop Will Eat Itself (dos dedos, mis amigos). Swarms of Johnny-come-latelys displace the boys and girls from back-in-the-day to the sound of chorused mutterings of “sell-outs and cash-ins”,  “we-were-here-first”, “the-early-albums-were-waaaaay-better”. In-group identifiers become terms of disparagement outside the group; inside the group, further divisions of nomenclature attempt to reposition the speaker in relation to the recent immigrant influx invading their cultural space (“he’s no hipster, he’s a scenester; sooooo bogus”). Meanwhile, businesses spring up and rot away in parallel with the swells and breakers of cultures rising and falling, happy remoras (remorae?) on the big dumb whale-shark of Youth. (RIP, American Apparel; couldn’t happen to a more horrifying homogeniser of urban try-hards.)

Whoa, check myself – still waffling b*llocks! Cut to the chase with academic concision:

In order to distance themselves from the hipster caricature, true indie consumers** use a number of techniques.

The first is “aesthetic discrimination”, whereby you tell those who accuse you of being hipsters as uninformed outsiders who don’t have sophisticated enough tastes to be able to discriminate between the hipster caricature and the authentic indie consumer.

The second technique is “symbolic demarcation”. Those indie consumers who engage in aesthetic discrimination tend to have an intellectual command of indie culture and are socially recognised as people who are in the know. Because of this status, they can afford to dismiss any resemblances to the hipster icon as irrelevant.

They might also rename the hipster caricature as something else, eg “scenester”, thus placing the worst traits associated with a “hipster” into a new, distinct definition. Creating a new category helps solidify the contrast between legitimate indie consumers and those who simply want to be part of a fashionable scene.

The third technique is “proclaiming (mythologised) consumer sovereignty”. This sees the person consciously reframe their interests in the indie field to show their autonomy from the dictates of fashion.

“Our findings suggest how backlash against identity categories such as hipster or metrosexual could generate complex and nuanced identity strategies that enable consumers to retain their tastes and interests while protecting these tastes from trivializing mythologies,” the authors conclude.

(Before you feel too smug, we all do this. Granted, most of us reading this site don’t do it while wearing ironic Rayban knockoffs or penny loafers under rolled-up drainpipe jeans, but we all do it. Genre fandom especially is full of this stuff, though it moves more slowly. Hell, even the transhumanists do it, though they use even bigger words than anyone else in the process. Othering is a hard-wired human thing, goes way back to pre-speech phases of socialisation. Them-and-us; hard habit to quit.)

But so what? Well, say you’re a marketer for fashion brands (or for a new author, or an advocate for a new school of transcendent philosophy). Making your own brand/author/philosophy look good is incredibly hard to achieve reliably… even more so nowadays, with the memetic flux swirling so fast. Yesterday’s viral sensation is today’s lingering and sniffly common cold. So what to do? Instead of giving your brand to cultural icons that reflect the aspirations of your target subculture, you give your rival brands to cultural icons who embody the opposite of those aspirations [via BoingBoing]. Couture-marketing psy-ops. Sounds ridiculous, a possible indicator of the end of civilisation (wring hands, mutter about the Romans, miss point entirely). But with clarity born of hindsight, this morning’s revelation, triggered by the two articles linked above and prompting the rapid-fire unedited writing of this little screed:

William Gibson’s been writing this stuff for years.

How does he keep doing that?

Related: Slate “interviews” Kanye West by slicing up his Twitter output. The Village Voice claims this as the chiselled headstone of the music magazine: who needs the middleman to broadcast their personal brand, if all they’ll do is distort it? The Village Voice fails to recognise that pop culture consumers are like fuzz-rock guitarists: distortion always sounds better than clean signal. Boutique stomp-boxes all round!

[ * So, yes, science fiction fandom was a pretty inevitable landing-spot, I suppose. But which came first, the estrangement or my enjoyment of the literature thereof?*** Answers on the back of an Urban Outfitters till receipt… ]

[ ** Not entirely sure about these notional “true indie consumers”. Neophiliacs would probably be a fairer word, albeit an arguably less flattering one. ]

[ *** And so much for pathos. ]

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