Friday, May 10, 2013

The Nerds, Posters, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part Three: O, the Irony!

Besides posers, "hipsters" are another much-condemned group. My particular observations on the subject were spurred by an article called "How to Live Without Irony," which I felt completely missed the point of just about everything.


The author asks: "Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?" This statement is in itself aburd. It's not either/or. It's possible for something to be absurd, but also for people to really like it, and even to sincerely like something only because it's absurd. She mocks the giving of a plastic Mexican wrestler figurine as a gift, but I would love to get one! To be perfectly honest, much of my affection for the human race is based primarily on its penchant for absurdity.

"What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves." Umm ... everything people can possibly wear is a costume. Have you ever been to a clothing store? Do you have a job? Are you aware that there's such a thing as gender roles, which are both nonsensical and torturous to a good proportion of the population?

This is personal for me, because I've been accused many times of liking things only because they were obscure.

In fact, I learned irony from people who lived during World War II. I learned it far away from any city, in a small town where there was, for much of my childhood, only one television channel. Or is it actually irony at all? My parents, conservative and outwardly "normal" members of society, had a large collection of bizarre and obscure novelty records, which I still listen to with delight. My dad has been laughing at bad B-movies since at least the 1950s. White elephant gift-giving has a long and distinguished history in my family: we still speak with fondness about the heady Christmases when we were attempting to outdo each other with Princess Diana memorabilia. When my young nephews presented me proudly with a Paris Hilton Princess Diary a few years back, I felt very proud that our work was continuing.

My parents, with almost none of the advantages we take for granted today, in a time of binding social constraints and extremely limited access, were nonetheless huge readers, with a great curiosity about the world and a willingness to question and make up their own minds about thing. They had their own individual tastes, and bought the records they liked, because they liked them. That is what they taught me.

People can sincerely enjoy things which are considered by other people to be unusual or obscure. If that happens to be your situation, what do the judgments of other people have to do with your innocent amusements, that are none of their business?

Some basics:

1. Things are trendy. So what? Hobbies, music, pop culture of all kinds: new things come along, and are often inexplicably popular. I don't get why mustaches and fixie bikes are big among "hipsters," but nor did I understand the mainstream Atkins diet craze, or why people are obsessed with talking about their cell phones. It's fun to theorize, but I don't think hipster trends are fundamentally different from any other trends. People need things to occupy their minds, they think things are interesting, and they get carried away. That's perfectly normal.

2. Some trends you'll like, others you'll hate, others will baffle you. Again, this is self-evident. In the '70s I hated Laverne and Shirley; in the '80s I loathed John Hughes. (Well, I still do). These were not hipster trends, but things that were hugely popular in the mainstream of America. But I still wanted to watch TV and go to movies, like every other human being in the country. So I discovered PBS and, later, oddball cult films. Who's that hurting? The current example is that one person watches Dancing With the Stars, and another watches Portlandia. Is one of them right (or normal), and the other wrong (or an annoying hipster)? Maybe they just like different things, and that's okay.

One of the benefits of being a nerd is that it makes you not expect that everyone will have the same taste that you do.

There's also a difference between honest criticism and taste-bashing. I dislike the Twilight phenomenon as an adult for the same reasons I despised the John Hughes movies of my youth: I think they're emotionally dishonest, and send terrible messages to young people. There are, of course, fans of these things who enjoy other aspects of them; people have gotten messages that are actually empowering or helpful to them in some extremely unlikely places. I have nothing against those fans.

A critic has the perfect right to review a band, or a movie, and explain why they don't like it. But that's not the same thing as saying that, because you don't like it, and you don't understand why other people like it, then those people don't really like it either, and are only being cool or ironic.

3. Part of the problem is that irony, and sincerity, are judged by others, who aren't all-seeing and all-knowing. As with the definition of kitsch -- gee, Milan Kundera, it must be nice to read the minds of everyone you meet and know who has honest sentiment and who doesn't. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being has also been annoying me for many years).

4. This point is made in the article, but not strong enough for me: our whole world actively militates against emotional sincerity. It's not as if the kids will stop drinking their craft beers and suddenly our lives will be filled with honest communication. In a world that discourages emotional sincerity, people need outlets to express their individuality.

5. Articles like this are actually are self-defeating. The more you just like what you like, and go with it, the more likely it is that other people are going to judge you. In my case, I actually do sincerely like the things I like. Because of that, I often like things which are novel or unusual to others. Which makes me more likely to be called a hipster, or accused of "only liking things because they're obscure." Because that's worse than liking things that are popular? Anyway, to me, that's completely irrelevant. If I stopped doing things I liked because other people question my motives, wouldn't that make me more insincere?

Similarly, if you're surrounded with things you don't like in the mainstream culture, what are you supposed to do? Insincerely go along with the crowd, lest anyone think you're an insincere hipster?

Conversely, if you like something just because, and it suddenly becomes popular, then what?

Example #1: I've been a Doctor Who fan since 1982, and now that it's enormously crazy big, if I were to not want to be a fan because it's so popular, then that would be the exact stereotype of a hipster: not liking something just because it's popular, because of being invested in its obscurity. However, I liked Doctor Who because I like Doctor Who. Other people are free to assume that I'm being all "I was into this thing before it was popular, so I have more cool points" about it; I can't stop them. It's just the truth, and I have the hand-knitted scarf to prove it. If different people assume that I'm watching Doctor Who because it's so popular (how mainstream!), I can't stop them either. It's all irrelevant.

Example #2: I've been collecting "mental hygiene" and exploitation films for decades. Suddenly, locally at least, this is kind of trendy in the college radio/local art crowd (the sort of people identified as hipsters; there are some goatees on display). If something I already like is identified with hipsters, what do I do then? If I stop liking it because it's popular, that proves I'm a hipster ("I liked it before it was cool!"). If I don't, then people feel free to write newspaper articles about how all of us like this stuff insincerely.

So I say: if people enjoy something and they're not hurting anyone, then mind your own business.

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