We’ve talked about black metal before, haven’t we? Let’s recap. I’m attracted to the sound like a moth to a cold flame. I’m repelled by the cod-Lovecraft imagery and look-at-me-being-icky-and-dicky lyrics and artwork. Not, let us be clear, because they strike a chilling blow to the very heart of what it is to be human in an inhospitable universe, but because they are very silly.
But there’s another way. There are a number of bands out there making interesting, creative black metal as open and exploratory as the best post-rock, as bracing as a hydrofluoric acid power shower and, crucially, laying off the schoolboy horror flick schtick. We say ‘hello’ to An Autumn For Crippled Children, Alcest, Botanist, Locrian and Have A Nice Life. Most prominently over the last 12 months, we have San Francisco’s Deafheaven.
This is a band who sound exactly like what they say they are: a black metal outfit who grew up loving Slowdive. Half their songs could be mistaken for a severely beefed up Cocteau Twins, albeit one where Liz Fraser has a really, really bad case of tonsillitis. In a hurricane.
‘Sunbather’ is their second album, and easily the most prominent cross-over metal record of last year. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the ins and outs of the BM scene, but it does seem to have a totally schizophrenic relationship with its artists, one which touches on subcultural xenophobia whenever any of them threaten to escape from the crypt and out into the sunlight or, even worse, to bring outsiders back into the darkness with them. Deafheaven did both last year and, like Liturgy before them, have had to put up with constant examination of their ‘metal’ status as a result. Black Metal: the scene which loves to scream about total physical and spiritual annihilation, but won’t countenance you if you have a pink album cover.
’Sunbather’ is a great rock record. Essentially four long tracks with three, often beautiful, counterpoint interludes, it has searing guitars, pummelling double-kick drums and yes, a guy screaming his lungs sore, although in this mix the vocals are essentially just another caustic sound to throw into the mix. But within the noise there is light and shade, colour and contrast, motion and intense emotion. Deafheaven aren’t afraid to pause, to gaze at their shoes and take their effects pedals for a couple of laps around the stratosphere. It’s a thrilling and, after a while, an apparently entirely natural combination of influences and they pull it off to epic effect. The album is mesmerising and convulsive whilst remaining reverential and even warm in tone for long stretches. The longer you live with it, the more it starts to become a soaring chamber-noise record, a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s dynamics are pure Slowdive, its details full of warmth and touch rather than dread.
If Deafheaven are sneered at by the corpsepaint gloom brigade as being ‘hipster metal’ then fine. If that means people will find them and their ilk via Pitchfork and The Quietus then great, because I read those websites and I want to find new, bold music which takes accepted forms and twists them into new shapes. And which rocks. So, I guess I’d nail my flag to the hipster metal mast. That’s because I like a lot of the music that idiots choose to nail that label to and also largely because a fair proportion of the DNA of the rest of black metal is completely stupid.
Nick listened: I strongly suspect that I am absolutely the kind of bearded, glasses-wearing, cycling, real-ale-drinking, boardgame-playing hipster douchebag that fans of ‘real’ ‘metal’ get upset about for liking this record. But I’ve kind of avoided it, partly for that reason, and partly because, despite the embrace of it by said hipster douchebags, there are still a couple of key sonic ingredients to this record (from the tiny snippets I’d heard before last night) that I absolutely cannot stand – firstly, the screaming vocals, and secondly, the ridiculous, relentless, contourless drumming, both of which seem to be absolutely essential to whatever-it-is that defines ‘metal’ (of the modern variety?) from ‘rock’, or whatever. So I’d picked up Sunbather and thought about buying it on numerous occasions, but never gone the whole way to the counter with it, despite the fact that I adore the graphic design (that font; that colouring – it’s meant to be the colour you see when you face the sun with your eyes closed, Rob tells us) and love the look of the physical object that is this album (obviously the CD is better looking than the LP). But I know it’s going to be full of screaming and ridiculous drumming. The question is ‘how much’?
By the end I was quite enjoying Sunbather, despite, rather than regardless or because of, my misgivings. The screaming and drumming still faintly nauseates me, but the vocals are mixed so that they’re not all that prominent, and the drumming isn’t quite constant. The lighter, airier passages that follow the cacophonies felt like beautiful contrasts – somewhere between shoegaze, postrock, and miserable acousticana – because that’s what they were, and the juxtaposition made them shine. I also suspect it made them seem far more phenomenologically beautiful than they actually are; so ugly are some of the other parts that by comparison almost anything else would feel warm and beatific, even if they’re actually just bog-standard postrock reveries and shoegaze plateaus. But that’s the politics of intimate genre familiarity.
I’d definitely like to listen to this a couple more times and ascertain further what I think and feel about it, because I’m totally not sure thus far. But I’m delighted that Rob blasted it at us.
Tom listened: Hmmm…once again Rob has opened the floodgates of debate, both in the real, and virtual, world…simply by bringing an album that straddles some of those genre boundaries we are so keen to erect. I suppose the boundary surrounding metal is a pretty robust one and it has, to my (admittedly scant) knowledge, rarely been breached. So Sunbather got us all talking and, I for one, find the conversation fascinating.
And it got me thinking more about my relationship to the genre than about the music itself. Why can’t I stand metal? And what binds ‘metal’ as a genre. What does this have in common with Def Leppard and what does that have in common with Anthrax and what does that have in common with Sunn o)))? Because they all have something that produces the same response from me and that’s to run away. In his lengthy response to Rob’s post, Chris states that metal has a strict sonic template…well, can you describe it because, whilst I am sure it exists, I can’t put my finger on what it is? That’s why Deafheaven is so interesting – remove the vocals and (to a lesser extent) the drumming and what’s left would be something that I would enjoy hugely. Listening again since Record Club, even the noisier bits remind me of Red House Painters and I could listen to them until the cows come home. So is it really just a screaming vocal that is putting me off or is there something more subtle at work that I haven’t managed to identify? For now I’ll ponder the answer and wait for that nice Mr Kozalek to do his Deafheaven covers album.
Graham listened: Doubt a numpty like me can add anything to the debate that this has inspired. I’m tempted to explore some more ‘metal’ crossover points, just to see where Tom’s fear and loathing begins and ends though. Back to this for a moment. I began enjoying it, then the drumming got on my nerve endings. I didn’t mind the vocals and started enjoying until yet again until the bloody drumming got my back up. I’ve streamed it a few times since DRC and still feel much the same way. I probably want them to explore the guitar sound further and leave the percussion and vocals behind. They surely won’t, so it will remain troubling. ps I’m no ‘hipster’!
10 thoughts on “Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’: Round 64 – Rob’s choice”
Ah, “hipster metal” vs. “real metal”. Since I loathe both, I’m probably the last person to ask about their respective merits (though I can say, without reservation, that the “Sunbather” album art is banal hipster shit). However, having casually followed this phenomenon for some time now, I can at least offer a sociological perspective. Since its inception, metal has been a genre defined by extreme insularity. From head banging to horn flashing, metal heads have developed a set of conventions that have since been woven into the very essence of the genre. It is no surprise then, that a backlash has ensued now that these customs have been challenged. The reason for this backlash, however, cannot be reduced to pure xenophobia, as I will explain.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that the chin strokers stepped in, though, I would guess the late 90’s, with the rise of Sunn O))) and Zeppelin’s ascendency into the canon (see Pfork’s 1970’s list). Still, it was only a matter of time until the vultures of culture reconfigured metal to suit their tastes. That is “hipster metal” in a nutshell: metal that has been stripped of the “uncool” parts and replaced with hip signifiers. Sunbather’s album art is exhibit A. Notice the strained minimalism, the soft colors, and the cutesy way that the title letters are fragmented. Without knowledge of its contents, one would likely mistake it for a Washed Out album, or some other brand of post-2k10 indie sleaze. Moreover, whereas “real metal” is largely indebted to Sabbath and 80’s thrash, “hipster metal” tends to dabble in such un-metal genres as post-rock, drone, and shoegaze (shoegaze!?). To most metal heads, “Slowdive” is what the frontman does off the stage after having one too many.
However, from what I can gather, this reconfiguration is not what makes the old guard tick, but rather the attitudes of the newcomers. Despite its insularity, metal has always fostered a relatively welcoming community, the only stipulation being a love of metal, long hair, and leather. “Hipster metal”, on the other hand, carries much of the baggage that has plagued indie music in recent years: status-whoring, pretentiousness, intellectual bullying, insincerity, etc. Hipster metal has essentially infiltrated the genre without paying respect to the traditions and bands that made it possible, while having the hubris to imply (if not outright state) that traditional metal is lame.
This is what I can surmise from looking at the surface. Perhaps I am simplifying this phenomenon to the point of absurdity. What do you think?
Thanks for the thoughtful comment Chris. It’s interesting to adopt a sociological perspective on some of this. Certainly I find the supposed tensions between tribes and scenes intriguing even though they seem ultimately merely to add to the sum total of silliness.
I’ve never really identified with the subcultural sorting that nags away at the feet of music, forever trying to pull artists and fans into this box or that box. In fact, it strikes me now almost for the first time that ever since I started to invest a great deal of my sense of self in the music I listened to, I’ve never really felt a sense of belonging to one genre or another. I’m 43. I guess the fact I’ve never described myself as a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ demonstrates a rootlessness which I’ve exhibited for the last 30 years. For rootlessness, read transience, dalliance, lack of commitment, lack of depth.
[An aside: If you’ve read any of the rest of this blog, you’ll realise that it’s at least as much about us trying to understand ourselves as music listeners as it is a surgical dissection and diagnosis of the music we’re listening to. So, back to me…]
So, when it comes to black metal, I am that arriviste of which you speak. I was the same with hip-hop in the late 80s, early 90s when I loved Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Wu Tang Clan. I was the same with post-hardcore, loving Fugazi, Big Black, the Jesus Lizard and a bunch of others in the orbit. I skated around post-rock for a while, losing my heart to Slint, Godspeed, Mogwai. All the while I loved Madness and the Beat, also XTC and Talking Heads and always New Order, The Fall, The Smiths. I’m dabbling now with noisy, abstract techno, but I expect that by the time my attention wavers I’ll have amassed no more than a dozen or two records.
So, whilst I could never, ever be accused of being a hipster (that’s not self-defence, it’s honesty – i’m hip to nothing) I am precisely that guy who wanders into a genre’s clubhouse, takes a few of the most eye-catching artists for a whirl around the dancefloor, and then skips on down the road looking for new thrills.
The downside of this is that I genuinely don’t feel either membership or depth of knowledge and understanding of any of these subcultures/genres, the musics of which have formed a totally central part of my life. Perhaps that’s okay, but it does leave me feeling hollow. Now, thanks to the internet, the chances of me settling on one thing to know and love properly and attentively are pretty much zero. I am forever the dilettante, forever the hopeful kid pressing his face against the clubhouse window, the unhip doofus with the just-slightly-too-mainstream albums under his arm. Yes, that’s me. That’s who I am. It might be okay, it might not.
The upside of this is that I got to spend loads of time with Public Enemy AND Fugazi AND Stevie Wonder AND Happy Mondays AND Lambchop AND Bruce Springsteen AND Melt Banana AND Pavement AND Black Sabbath. Which seems, on reflection, like it might be okay.
So yes, when it comes to metal I have wandered in, found the stuff that has been pitched at cross-over magpies like me and enjoyed it. I have also, as I think I made clear, listened to more than the hipster-bait and found at least some of it to be stupid.
But enough about me, what about the music? I enjoyed your comments, but I disagreed with much. Like these things:
It seems a contradiction to say that metal is both extremely insular and relatively welcoming. Although, to bring it back to me again, I can identify.
I think we have to concede that Zeppelin, tedious though I find them, were in the canon significantly in advance of Pitchfork’s 2004 list of the 70s.
Sunn O))) and Earth certainly did seem to make that crossover in the early 00’s (and yes, you’ll be pleased to see, I am guilty as charged (https://devonrecordclub.com/2011/11/08/sunn-o-black-one-round-17-robs-choice/). Which seems delightfully unlikely to me, and therefore to be applauded. I don’t see either as having cast off the Sabbath influence. Quite the opposite.
Finally, and most significantly, if so-called hipster metal has ‘infiltrated the genre without paying respect to the traditions and bands that made it possible’ then good! Doesn’t much of the most exciting music come from disrespect for conformity and convention, from dragging traditions into untraditional spaces, from crashing the party and declaring it ‘lame’?
For me, the fact that some of these bands have reached out – or in – and connected black metal to drone, shoegaze, post-rock, even pop, seems utterly laudable. I get that for those who are deeply committed to their genre of choice, to have others come in and claim belonging without really understanding or knowing is irritating and annoying. I hold my hands up to scraping the surface and running away with just a superficial sample of this and many other genres. But boy do I get a kick out of some of them and, to be fair, I never manage to stick around long enough to stick my flag into anyone’s territory, much as I would love to.
Thanks again for the comment. I’ve enjoyed replying. I hope you stick around, read more, and take us to task whenever the mood takes you.
Thanks for the reply, Rob. Allow me to clarify a few of my points:
“It seems a contradiction to say that metal is both extremely insular and relatively welcoming. Although, to bring it back to me again, I can identify.”
By “insular”, I was referring to the genre itself, not the community. Metal music (unlike indie music) has a strict sound template and an even stricter ethos. Therefore, what is and isn’t metal is pretty clear-cut to most traditional metal heads. Despite this insularity, metal heads themselves tend to welcome new recruits as long as they respect metal’s history and customs. Innovators are even heralded (see thrash, black metal, and prog metal) as long as the innovators respect the past and carry the ethos. Hipsters, on the other hand, tend to shun newcomers, denouncing them as “lame-stream posers” even if they pay tribute to their sacred idols and customs. The hate that the purists have for hipsters stems from the hipster ethos, not from their outsider status or even their innovations. “Metal” to the hipster, is simply another ingredient to be plundered then tossed into their post-modern cesspool (says the metal head). I even get the sense that the recent hipster fascination with metal stems from little more than ennui. After exhausting most forms of 20th century popular music by the turn of the millennium, hipsters apparently tuned to drop D then shouted, “look what we can do.” These observations come from my personal experience, of course, and references to “hipsters” and “metal heads” carry a moderate dose of stereotype.
“Finally, and most significantly, if so-called hipster metal has ‘infiltrated the genre without paying respect to the traditions and bands that made it possible’ then good! Doesn’t much of the most exciting music come from disrespect for conformity and convention, from dragging traditions into untraditional spaces, from crashing the party and declaring it ‘lame’? ”
I agree 200% with this assertion. I wasn’t necessarily trying to defend metal heads, I was merely trying to understand where their anger was coming from. Regarding the Zep, I don’t know about the Isles, but in America, they were lambasted as dinosaurs well into the 90’s. Grunge sort of softened the indie folks to their sound, but unironic love is a relatively new phenomenon (in America at least). You are probably right about Sabbath’s influence, but I dare you to find one “hipster metal” artist that unironically cites Metallica.
“I’ve never really identified with the subcultural sorting that nags away at the feet of music, forever trying to pull artists and fans into this box or that box. In fact, it strikes me now almost for the first time that ever since I started to invest a great deal of my sense of self in the music I listened to, I’ve never really felt a sense of belonging to one genre or another. I’m 43. I guess the fact I’ve never described myself as a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ demonstrates a rootlessness which I’ve exhibited for the last 30 years. For rootlessness, read transience, dalliance, lack of commitment, lack of depth.”
I also identify as a musical magpie and find inter-genre strife to be both silly and troubling. It is, however, a very real phenomenon and stands as a perverse testament to the power that music holds over our lives.
As a side note, this isn’t the first time metal has had to contend with disrespectful outsiders; there was hair metal in the 80’s and nu metal in the 90’s. Hair metal disregarded the ethos by championing decadence, artifice, and commercialism. Nu metal, while originally sincere, devolved into thuggish violence and frat-boy fatuousness (culminating in the rapes and burnings of Woodstock 99). It’s all macho bravado to me, but I am fascinated by the sociology underlying the genre (or any genre, for that matter).
I see the point about metal music and metal people. Thanks for clarifying.
Seems you’re from U.S. of Stateside, which seems to me to add a little helpful perspective. Over here in rural Southwest England, hipsters are a distant and essentially comic construct. If you were to ask the averagely culturally aware man or woman in the street where hipsters could be found, they’d be most likely to say ‘Hoxton’ or ‘Shoreditch’ or whichever London borough is having its moment with the jazz-spectacled ones right now. Those places are 200 miles from here. Meanwhile, there are barely enough music fans around to form viable subcultures for any would be hipsters to start leeching on. So, as I said, they are fictional characters who we imagine riding around on fixed-wheel bikes, wearing somehow eye-catching trousers, having somehow eye-catching facial hair and paying £4.00 for toast in deliberately unwelcoming coffee shops.
I don’t know where you’re from or where you live, but would be interested to know. Your apparent, I take it real, ire at hipsters seems to burn brightly. That’s fine by me. I can see that they could be annoying even if I can’t genuinely empathise. That would be like me claiming to know how it feels to have my crops ravaged by locusts. Don’t get many of them round these parts either.
I realise that there is but a thin veneer between my self-identification as a dilettante and what others might see as hipsterdom. I guess the difference is that I feel like a curious explorer, keen to hear as much as I can and blindly thrilled by a lot of it. Meanwhile the hipsters you describe are vampiric, draining cultural capital and killing their host before moving on.
Write a book. ‘The Hipster’. You could be our anti-Camus. Or at least take a look at Nathan Barley, which you may not be familiar with. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06AS8SiY3rw It’s 9 years old now, written by two of our best cultural satirists, and although it predates the dawn of the hipster, it nails the inescapable idiocy of some of the pre-hipsters pretty hard. You could be our new Dan Ashcroft…
Anti-Camus? I’m flattered, but many of my observations have been made by other, more eloquent souls. My ire is not directed at hipsters, per se, but rather the affluent (and decadent) new hipsters that have sprung up during the last decade in the US of A—the hipsters of my generation (I’m only 24). They trade in sneers and craft beers, staring you down in bars, waiting to pounce, with surgical snark, on any display of sincerity. While the gen x hipster rebelled against the artifice and narcissism of the 80’s and the apathy and cynicism of the 90’s, the new hipster, ironically, is an amalgam of these traits—both image-obsessed and caustic, while engaging in a perpetual game of one-upsmanship.
“Relevance” is its raison d’être; it clamors for the latest fashions, the latest “approved” bands, with wanton disregard for the past. A stereotype, most certainly, but one that I have frequently seen and felt—studying my mannerisms behind dark frames before twisting its gold-capped grin into the archest of grotesqueries. That hipster smirk, dammit, that hipster smirk! The ability to deny ones’ humanity with the simple curl of the lip! And those elaborate cranial landscapes! If I could only arm my angst with a Shakespeare quote…
The origin of the new hipster ethos is difficult to pinpoint, though some of the blame can be placed on right-wing provocateur Gavin McInnes and his Vice empire(http://www.vice.com/en_us). Established in the mid 90’s, Vice magazine (and its sister website) became something of a hipster manifesto, filled with irreverent humor and various forms of absurd esoterica. While not without its charms, Vice was also a bastion of mean-spiritedness, nihilism, extreme machismo, and vulgarity *. This ethos was exemplified in its fashion section entitled, “Do’s and Don’ts”, which featured pictures of random pedestrians along with disparaging comments concerning their physical appearance and dress (while inviting commenters to pile on). After Vice, acting like a misanthropic tool suddenly became “hip”, and dozens of copycat zines sprung up to amplify the message. While McIinnes was busy penning the battle cry of the gen y hipster, a bevy of technological and economic changes were taking place, helping to spread the subculture to previously untapped demographics.
* To its credit, Vice has since evolved into an outlet of socially conscious journalism, giving a voice to oppressed peoples from around the globe.
I’m compelled to add my 2 cents to this as I decided to buy Sunbather after reading this post. Firstly a disclaimer: I think this is a really good album and I have long been a champion of experimental musicians in metal, however badly those experimental ideas should turn out I think it’s essential that even a regressive genre of music tries new ideas. Mainly because I get bored of ‘sounds’ quickly.
Secondly: Typically focusing on the merits and credentials of whether an album is true or false detracts from the experience of enjoying the music. Except in various certain metal circles where the replicating the minutia of genre convention is heralded as the primary goal (Darkthrone cover bands, Fago bands, Blasphemy/Bestial/War Metal). Homage is precedent in black metal as it’s a spiritual form of music, which sounds floaty given it’s anti-religion/anti-humanity rhetoric, but determined ideologies cling strongly to their principles (just like in religion, in fact it’s often referred to a ‘worship’ in metal circles).
Thirdly: Sunbather is a post-hardcore album. I don’t know who first said this was black metal, but it’s not. I’m guessing a bit but, the BM tag probably comes from a line between post-hardcore and BM that started to blur in the very late nineties with Weakling’s Dead as Dreams, was further scrubbed out by the new wave of USBM in the mid-naughties (Twilight, Leviathan) and finally dissolved by Liturgy and Wolves in the Throne Room a few years ago while American hardcore labels start releasing BM inspired music.
Further evidence: It’s on Deathwish!!!
Evidence: The lyrics chiefly concern human emotions other than hate and nihilism.
Evidence: No apparent links to any BM school or discipline (tongue firmly in cheek).
Evidence: Multiple crescendos.
Evidence: The front cover is pink and is clearly the work of a talented graphic designer and graphic design in BM is absent like a vast, yawning negative void. (Apt).
Given the evidence, you can understand why some dedicated metal fans would be annoyed that this hardcore band is being championed to the wider music community as black metal when in fact it isn’t. As Chris pointed out, this isn’t the first time this has happened (glam, nu, hipster, suicidal, et al), and the inevitable backlash of being misrepresented in the press has probably lead to this impression of the elite-metal-gatekeeper, which is largely a false stereotype. But these bands get attention in the wider music community because they have a commercial style which by definition is in opposition to the aesthetics of BM – you can’t make anti-human music if it conforms to any kind of socially acceptable aesthetic standard.
Deafheaven certainly borrow from BM’s sonic aesthetics (albeit from the school of NWOUSBM), but in terms of it’s roots/discipline/scene/whatever, this is pure Envy/Orchid/Converge worship.
Hey Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Glad you liked the album. I do too.
Wikipedia describes Deafheaven as ‘an American black metal band’ and therefore it absolutely has to be completely true.
I don’t find much to disagree with in your comment (and why should I look for it?) and most of the references are bands I know by name but not my their music. I still think the full-tilt bits of ‘Sunbather’ are closer to USBM than they are to what I would lazily think of as hardcore, e.g. Converge, but as we might both agree, working out where this stuff might fit in the musical map of the sky is both a big part of the intrigue and pleasure and also largely pointless, except as a way to lay breadcrumb trails for others to follow.
The focussing on merits, credentials or true/false, as you put it is also pointless but irresistible. Certainly one of the debating topics we here wrestle with most of all is ‘authenticity’. We struggle even to define terms, and it’s clear that its completely subjective. We know that our subjective, irresolvable debates are meaningless also in that they won’t affect the way we feel about a particular piece of music one jot. Indeed, if we could be objectively argued into liking or not liking music it would be science, not art. But still, we can’t help it.
I have claimed no real experience, deep knowledge, understanding or particular feeling for the traditions of black metal, but it does draw me back, partly, perhaps mainly, because at its margins it seems to me to crystallise a lot of what’s silly about these debates. Also because I love the hilarious dichotomy in a group of musicians and fans becoming so supposedly hate-filled and anti-human and yet complaining when other people do other things they don’t like.
It’s like the Bill Hick’s bit:
‘There’s a new party being born: The People Who Hate People Party. People who hate people, come together! “No!” We’re kind of having trouble getting off the boards, you know. Come to our meeting! “Are you gonna be there?” Yeah. “Then I ain’t fucking coming.” But you’re our strongest member! “Fuck you!” That’s what I’m talking about, you asshole. “Fuck off!” Damn, we almost had a meeting going. It’s so hard to get my people together.’
Also. And I really can’t stress this enough. Lots of the ‘real’ stuff is sonically aggressive and aesthetically challenging whilst being rammed to the hilt with schoolboy gloomster lyrics, laughable song titles and cliched artwork. It’s just a hoot.
And if I find it funny, why should they care? And if other people rip them off, why should they care? They believe we’re all living in the abyss and deserve horrible fates. They may be right. So why the hell should they care? But they do, or so we’re told.
So, my feeling for it are riven with contradiction, hypocrisy, childishness, mis-understanding, naivety, crass over-simplification, doubt and dismay. Exactly like the genre itself. And maybe, ultimately, that’s why i find it hard to leave alone.
P.S. Recommendations for stuff that might tilt me one way or the other are most welcome!
Hipsterism (like more reputable modes of bohemianism) was once a predominately low- income/lower-middle-class phenomenon, providing marginalized youth with a community and a means of social mobility. Hipsters were the busboys, the baristas—thoughtful, working-class kids who swarmed to the indie, DIY aesthetic because of its accessibility and subversiveness. Get off your shit job, go to an indie concert on the cheap, feel like you’re part of something special, etc. These working-class roots were lovingly (if ironically) emblemized in the hipster fashions of that time: trucker hats, plaid, and blue-collar beers such as Pabst and Schlitz (see Beck circa Mellow Gold, Pavement, Guided by Voices, Royal Trux, or most of the grunge bands).
With the advent of affordable, high speed internet and its power of mass dissemination, hipsters (once a marginal subculture) quickly became a globally recognized phenomenon. The sheltered could now plunder Godard’s back catalogue or brush up on the canon—all with the swipe of a mouse. The hipster lifestyle proved especially attractive to the progeny of privilege, providing them with an excuse for escaping their insular, gated communities. And escape they did, to (super exclusive) gentrified urban locales such as Williamsburg, NY. Unfortunately, as well to do (sub)urban youth started swelling the ranks, the lower-income old guard were gradually priced out. This shift is readily apparent in modern hipster fashion and the recent decline of the thrift store—that brick and mortar embodiment of post-modern pastiche. Once a sacred hipster institution, the thrift store offered disaffected youth a near infinite variety of style options, all for a paltry sum. By shopping thrift, gen x hipsters were able to resist the excesses of late capitalism, while distinguishing themselves from their more affluent (and presumably conformist) peers. In essence, the thrift store perfectly represented the triad of democracy, individuality, and rebellion, that underlies the so-called American experiment. While laced with ideology, thrift shopping was equally a matter of convenience and affordability. Thrift stores were cheap and tended to be located near low-income/lower-middle-class areas–the domain of gen x hipsters.
The new hipsters, however, typically hailed from more developed enclaves, with nary a thrift store in sight. This lack of proximity, coupled with lingering racist/classist stereotypes from their parents’ generation (“poor colored folks shop there!”), created a mistrust of the great tradition. To rationalize this uneasiness, thrift merch was dismissed as prole-ish and passé and was gradually supplanted by expensive, designer fashions (largely inspired by the films of Wes Anderson). Before one could say, “foie gras”, chains such as American Apparel (and more exclusive online outlets) sprung up to cater to this new, affluent contingent—these boutique bohemians. Other posh signifiers of the new hipster include: craft beer, gourmet cuisine, exorbitantly priced indie concerts, lofts, apple products, $25 (£14.92) vinyl records, trust funds, and custom, fixed-gear bicycles. Once solely concerned with “taste”, “class” had officially entered the hipster lexicon and the subculture had finally succumbed to the claws of capitalism (How’s that for hipster irony?). Unable to afford the signifiers of the new hipster, low-income individuals were quietly expunged from the ranks.
Artiness + Privilege + Misanthropy + Vapidity + Vanity = The new hipster
Here are two examples:
Vogue’s indie profile: http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/sxsw-bands-music-style-banned-movie-on-tour-bus-spinal-
Little misanthropy on display here, though plenty of the other traits. Pay special attention to the delightfully sophomoric Pizza Underground. When former child star Macaulay Culkin joins your subculture, you know something has to be amiss.
A panoply of self-parody in the guise of documentary: http://www.c-heads.com/2014/04/03/exploring-the-excitement-of-life-and-youth-a-road-movie-goodbye-horses/
In my next post, I’ll explain how capitalist greed and classism has magnified those “vampiric” tendencies that you alluded to. Also, if you don’t find me to be a pedantic bore, I will gladly share my thoughts on the bifurcation of hipster and nerd cultures, the coalescing of hipster and jock cultures, and the “sexiness” that permeates modern indie music and the new hipster culture. Forgive my wall of text; I am in the middle of reading Gravity’s Rainbow and am feeling voluminous (and paranoid).
A few vapid comments and a plea:
1. Fascinating stuff.
2. We think of the UK as one of the most class-riven cultures there is, but your analysis needs some genre-rematching to be applicable over here. Beck, Pavement, GBV and Trux were ‘student’ bands first, which carries a certain class connotation, but the process you describe, of ‘underclass’ fashion and music coalescing in scenes which later get colonised by the bourgeoisie applies essentially to dance music over here, specifically garage, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep and to a lesser extent grime. These have begun as genuine underground movements and quickly been co-opted into the mainstream in now familiar ways. Grime resists to a certain extent as it’s aggressive vocal and lyrical approach mitigates against mainstream adoption. My assumption is that your EDM scene went so big so fast (and we see it from a distance as associated with students and spring-breakers) that it never had time to establish a scene which could then be invaded.
3. How about hip-hop? It owns pop music now, but has it been overtaken by arrivistes, or has it conquered the centre ground? And do the class politics you describe around indie translate into race politics when it comes to rap?
4. £14 for a vinyl record? Jeez, we can only dream. £20 over here if we’re lucky.
5. Gravity’s Rainbow. Dude. I read it when I was your age and it fractured my mind. I hope your next post is delivered in the form of a Slothropian libretto.
6. Here’s the plea: Stop writing this stuff in the comments section of our little blog, and add it to your own. It’s way too interesting and provocative to cast away as footnotes to the ramblings of four middle-aged men in Devonian obscurity. Post it on your own blog, send us the link so we can follow, and remember us when it comes time to write the dedication for your first book.