23 September 2008

A La Mode: The economics of cool

As much as I'd like to take credit for this photo, I found it on some Football site, while trying to find a classic photo of a young British hooligan telling us all to get fucked.

The cover story to the latest Adbusters Magazine is titled "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization." Wow, was I excited to read this. Finally, an analysis of the crisis of contemporary youth culture. Or so I thought. Well, it was a big let down. Almost as big a let-down as their story about how Nike infiltrated skateboarding. It is another vaguely leftist, surface-level critique without any useful or thorough analysis or historical perspective. 

Youth subcults, fashion and music have always been intricately entwined. The post-war malcontent of working class youth and the boredom of middle class youth in western industrialized nations, sparked countless cultures and sub-cultures that fed off of and spawned countless more. From Rock and Rollers to bikers, surfers, beats, mods and hippies to punks, skateboarders, skinheads, Goths, New Romantics, hip-hoppers and ravers, not to mention the various sub-sects and cross-overs amongst them all. Arguably, until the post-Sept 11th era, each youth subculture has been relatively easily identifiable and compartmentalized by its chosen pastime, fashion, soundtrack or political viewpoint. Yet, no one is able to truly define what the modern day-hipster is or about. 

From what I have seen, neither ‘hipsters’ themselves nor critics of the hipster have been able to come up with a consistent summation of this culture. There is a video circulating on Youtube where the filmmakers posit that a hipster will never admit to being one. They prove their point by interview dozens of twenty-something around ‘hip’ areas of Los Angeles. Of course, no one admits to being a hipster. The filmmakers prove their point easily. Yet, what struck me was the shear diversity of the interviewees. After viewing it, the only conclusion I could draw was the filmmakers have no idea what a hipster is either. Maybe it is lazy journalism. Maybe, it is a genuine triumph for this generation. Or maybe, this generation/ sub culture really is as empty, shallow and meaningless as some claim to argue. 

As much as people like to spit venom at the ever-undefinable 'hipster,' the real crisis lies in the co-option of youth culture. Youth culture has been commodified since day one. From Elvis’ first single, the capitalist machine has been scheming for ways in which to steal young people’s culture, neutralize it and then sell it back to them for an outrageous profit. Historically, the youth catch on to or create something new and vital to subvert the establishment. The commercialization prospects eventually reveal themselves to the establishment. The sub-cult is then cop-opted and the youth are left scrambling to reclaim their identities thus diving deeper postmodern confusion by seeking or creating a new sub-sect and continuing the circle. It is a part of what I like to call cultural imperialism and it is an ongoing war. The problem is, the advances of communication and technology and ever-driving need to ‘build’ the economy have made this battle increasingly brutal. To put it bluntly, the time from which a culture is created to the day it is recognized and seized by the establishment is ever decreasing. We now have the establishment and corporate scum trying to direct and even create culture itself and direct it to us. They aren’t even waiting to seize an existing culture anymore. 

Furthermore, the ease of global communication has lessened the diversity of cultures as we are leaping ever-quicker to one dross-like global monoculture that is controlled from the top down by the record companies, sneaker companies, soft-drink manufacturers and technology pushers. This is why the modern day hipster looks so vacant and shallow. They don’t even have a fucking chance. Why bother? May as well just get coked up and ride out the storm.

Capitalism is simply incapable of keeping a check on its self. It is self-defeating. The goal of the modern western economy is to focus more and more power and wealth into the hands of a smaller and smaller minority. Of course it gets to a point where it is not just unsustainable but incredibly unstable. We are now entering what some theorists have termed 'late-capitalism.' Things are so top-heavy that the previously sneaky forces of culture commodification are now blatantly obvious. And, perhaps this is where hope lies for youth-culture. 

We need  diverse youth cultures now more than ever, to ensure a healthy and stimulating culture in general and more importantly to challenge our sickening complacency. We can only hope that the overt-commercialization and co-option of youth culture is so blatant that once again, rebellious youngsters will get angry enough about the shit they are force fed and totally reject this artificial culture that has little relevance to their pitiful lives and start creating ‘culture’ for themselves, by themselves, in the streets, not for profit but for survival. Meanwhile the establishment is left draining the so called 'hipster's' wraith-like corpse of its last few drops of blood.