the end of counterculture

While I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, it came to my attention that hipsters had managed to really piss Adbusters off. In his article, Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization,” Dougals Haddow writes:

Take a stroll down the street in any major North American or European city and you’ll be sure to see a speckle of fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh – initially sported by Jewish students and Western protesters to express solidarity with Palestinians, the keffiyeh has become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory.

The American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.

Lovers of apathy and irony, hipsters are connected through a global network of blogs and shops that push forth a global vision of fashion-informed aesthetics. Loosely associated with some form of creative output, they attend art parties, take lo-fi pictures with analog cameras, ride their bikes to night clubs and sweat it up at nouveau disco-coke parties. The hipster tends to religiously blog about their daily exploits, usually while leafing through generation-defining magazines like Vice, Another Magazine and Wallpaper.

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

Haddow’s thesis is that “We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum,” and hipsterdom, “the end product of all prior countercultures,” represents nothing short of “the end of Western civilization.”

In a certain way, he’s right.

In chapter 11 of The Long Tail, titled, “Niche Culture,” Chris Anderson quotes the writing of media analyst Vin Crosbie to help explain the origins of this phenomenon:

Each individual listener, viewer, or reader is, and has always been, a unique mix of generic interests and specific interests. Although many of these individuals might share some generic interest, such as the weather, most, if not all of them, have very different specific interests. And each individual is truly a unique mix of generic and specific interests.

As of 30 years ago, Crosbie writes, with the improvements in offset lithography that led to a boom in specialty magazines (the 1970s saw newsstand offerings explode from a couple dozen magazines to hundreds, and most about specific topics), media technologies began to evolve in ways that could satisfy individuals’ specific interests:

The result of this is that more and more individuals, who had been using only the (generic) mass medium because that’s all they had, have gravitated to specialty publications, channels, or websites. More and more use the mass media less and less. And more and more will soon be most. The individuals haven’t changed; they’ve always been fragmented. What’s changing is their media habits. They’re now simply satisfying the fragmented interests that they’ve always had.

Anderson adds: “The shift from the generic to the specific is a rebalancing of the equation, an evolution from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era. Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.”

What this means then is that “counterculture,” as the construct we, and Adbusters, have known it to be, is disappearing. Maybe gone. If mass and niche culture can meet each other in the middle and make room for both sides, what is there to be “counter” to?

This dead end of “mass culture” seems like a concept Adbusters should have been rejoicing, no? Unless they were confused as to what the end of “mass culture” might look like.

“When mass culture breaks apart,” Anderson writes, “it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.” In this landscape of, as Anderson calls it, “massively parallel culture,” there’s not really a place for “mass rebellion.” Instead, we have specific, niche rebellions.

Haddow writes: “This cursory and stylized lifestyle has made the hipster almost universally loathed.” So much so, in fact, that, “It is rare, if not impossible, to find an individual who will proclaim themself a proud hipster. It’s an odd dance of self-identity – adamantly denying your existence while wearing clearly defined symbols that proclaim it.” Perhaps one of the specific rebellions of niche culture might be against the labels of stereotypical identity definition themselves. No doubt, especially if that definition is being used as a lifestyle slur. In the article, Gavin McInnes, one of the founders of Vice Magazine explains: “I’ve always found that word [“hipster”] is used with such disdain. [It] always smell of an agenda.”

At the end of the Adbusters piece Haddow writes, “If only we carried rocks instead of cameras, we’d look like revolutionaries.” In the conclusion of The Pirate’s Dillema (which presents an exuberant, revolutionary potential for youth culture’s future that is in stark opposition to Adbusters’ depiction of its “dead-end” present by a journalist from, ironically the same publication Adbusters claims defines the doomed hipster generaion, Vice Magazine) Matt Mason writes: “Youth movements become successful when social change is desperately needed. They gain traction if they express society’s collective desire for change.”

Is this something that really applies to the West’s united niche culture so much these days?

On the other hand, as Mason writes:

The source of future youth movements will just as likely be the rage, desperation, and hope transmitted from the medinas, favelas, and shanty cities of the southern hemisphere. According to a 2005 report commissioned by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine on trends affecting youth in developing countries, there are currently 1.5 billion ten- to twenty-four-year-olds on Earth, and 86 percent of them live in a developing country. In many places in Asia and Africa, this generation is the first generation of teenagers their countries have known. As their economic and political power grows, new sounds, movements, and ideas will grow, too.

This is where the new youth cultures will be.


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