Hip to Be Square: The Failure of Pop Irony
Kitsch, as defined by Sam Binkley in his essay, “Kitsch as a Repetitive System: A Problem for the Theory of Taste Hierarchy,” is the result of industrialization and mass production:
“…since the Industrial Revolution, an unprecedented volume of durable goods…glutted urban markets. These chattels were widely disdained as 'kitsch': knock-off imitation luxury products, 'fine art' items crudely and glibly manufactured to resemble the posh, high art objects of the old aristocracy, and soon became the common token of even the lowest wage earner of the industrialized world…. Later forms of 20th century kitsch…came with the consumer boom of the 1920's, and later with the emergence of age of the new prosperous middle classes of the 1950's and 60's. The rise of kitsch has been variously blamed, by critics on both the left and the right, for the erosion of elite 'high culture', for the eclipse of revolutionary consciousness, for the depletion of moral solidarities necessary for a healthy civic culture, and for the uprooting of pre-industrial folk and ethnic traditions.” (Binkley, 2000)
In contrast to Binkley’s approach, which defends kitsch as a “unique aesthetic sensibility” that “spurns creativity” whilst “endorsing a repetition of the familiar,” I will describe the culture of ironic kitsch-love; adoption of kitsch by the young intellectual class as a doomed form of societal rebellion.
In the past, this young, intellectual (and oft-times rebellious) class was the one to dismiss mass-produced objects as “corrosive;” the beatniks of the early half of the century, the hippies in the 60’s, the punks of the 70’s and 80’s, etc. These subcultures shared a scorn for commercialism and a love for “the authentic:” music, poetry or any sort of art produced independently and not for the sake of money. Members of the subcultures would consider themselves capable of discerning the difference between “the commercial” and “the authentic,” unlike general consumers. For the sake of simplification, these subcultures may be grouped under the umbrella term “hipsters.” Hipsters have existed in many forms since the dawn of mass culture. They are always left wing politically (condemned throughout the decades as being communistic), and have an anti-corporate, non-profit agenda. Thus the stereotypical punks, hippies and beatniks qualify as hipsters while the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and many rap groups (while they may be counter-cultural) do not, necessarily.
Before delving any further, we must establish characteristics of subculture in terms of rebellion against accepted societal norms (hegemony). Members of a subculture must share (1) a unified homology, (2) use of bricolage and (3) a system of signifying practices (Barker, 2000). Homology describes way the group relates to “the objects, artifacts, institutions and systematic practices of others which surround it.” (Willis, 1978). Certain “sacred objects” (such as fast cars for 1950’s greasers or “the mic” for rappers) “lie at the heart of a profane culture” and are often symbolic of the group’s form of resistance (Barker, 2000). “It is this continuous play between the group and a particular item which produces specific styles, meanings, contents and forms of consciousness.” (Willis, 1978). Second, a subculture must somehow participate in “bricolage,” defined as “the re-ordering and re-contextualization of objects to communicate fresh meanings.” (Clarke, 1976). For instance, a hippie protesting against the Vietnam War might have worn an Army jacket patched with a peace sign; in that context, the symbolism of the jacket does not involve supporting militarism or being engaged in warfare. Likewise, a punk with a Mohawk haircut wearing spiky bondage gear is not identifying him or herself with Native American culture or sadism; rather, he or she is combining the two styles to generate a new resistant look altogether. Lastly, a subculture must have a perceptible set of signifying practices; a combination of fashion, slang, music and other visible tastes which separate members from mainstream culture (Hebdige, 1979). Similar signifying practices facilitate recognition amongst members of a given group; once another member is identified through his or her successful communication of these outward signs, he or she may be accepted.
Today’s hipster is a high school, college or post-graduate –aged youth who sets himself against the hegemony of prefabricated culture, including other subcultures which he sees as having been absorbed into the mainstream (the cult surrounding “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” pop punk, third-wave ska, Marilyn Manson). Like all hipsters, he displays an immediate disgust for popular modes (popularity is equated with commercialism and lack of authenticity). Instead he favors esotericism and the difficult-to-enjoy. It is important for him to be ahead of trends and to demonstrate knowledge of bands or movies (through wearing T-shirts, pins or patches advertising said bands or movies) before they become widespread or mainstream. He has a sarcastic, cynical sense of humor employed whenever mocking perceived mass culture. He garbs himself in clothes obtained from thrift stores (an example of bricolage): plaid slacks generally worn by old men, black, thick-rimmed glasses formerly associated with bookish types, and retro-looking sneakers. His hair is just a little bit too long, and he might drive a used sedan, as opposed to a bourgeois SUV or a trendy VW Beetle. One may locate him in any city or on almost all college campuses – wherever independent, authentic, intellectual things are to be found. Hobbies of the modern hipster include going to see unknown bands play in clubs, reading existentialist literature, majoring in the liberal arts (intelligence is necessary to renounce the mainstream), and having unfulfilled plans to one day make an independent film or start a new band.
No one word (like punk or beatnik) currently exists to label the modern hipster as described above, give or take a few details. The reason: traditional hipsterness as a whole has become hegemonic in and of itself, and it is socially unnecessary to label such a widespread trend. It is practically assumed that members of the young intellectual class can see through “the artificial lines of mass culture’s framework” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944) and resist it; doing so is no longer enough to qualify for intellectual subculture status. Rebellion through abstaining from consumerism is finally a hackneyed concept--after all, it has been going on for at least a century to little avail. But as the death knells of traditional hipsterdom as resistance resound through the land, a new breed arises from the postmodern ash: that of the ironic hipster.
The ironic hipster is like the traditional hipster in that he thinks of himself as being above mass consumerism and prefabrication; also, he is keenly aware of both current pop culture and that of the past. By contrast, he adopts certain prefab objects (objects meaning any music, movie, slang, decorative item, fashion, etc.) from eras and lifestyles completely outside his own in order to rebel against both the commercial hegemony and the traditional hipster hegemony. Anything the traditional hipster abhors and considers ridiculous, the ironic hipster appears to enjoy; ironic hipsters love kitsch whereas previous generations were defined by their distaste for it. In fact, the farther removed a given object is from current modes of traditional hipsterness, the more enthusiastic an ironic hipster will be. The act of briefly proclaiming fanaticism for certain kitsch is the most important facet of ironic hipsterness. For the kitsch to work in an ironic way, one’s devotion, feigned or otherwise, must be visible to others as a signifier (much in the same way that traditional hipsters wear pins or T-shirts advertising knowledge of the esoteric). It is altogether useless to listen to an ironic band on headphones and never get excited about it in public. A traditional hipster may enjoy commercial kitsch, but he would hide his enjoyment rather than brashly assert it; this is the primary difference between the two.
The first stage of ironic hipsterness (henceforth I.H.) is the taking on of nostalgic kitsch. An ironic hipster will proclaim himself a fan of certain relics from his own childhood including toys, icons and cartoon shows (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the parachute-pantsed MC Hammer, slap bracelets, professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, and outmoded video game systems like Atari). The second stage begins when the hipster moves from liking kitsch of a culture he formerly inhabited to that of a culture he never inhabited, nor will ever. This may involve some appropriation of hipster culture from the 1920’s through 70’s, but the bulk of irony is mired deep within past commercial schlock culture: clumsily-dubbed Godzilla movies, “The A-Team,” metal lunchboxes, board games, lawn gnomes, Styx, death metal, etc. Typical ironic hipster activities would include attending concerts of washed-up musicians like Billy Idol, decorating his or her habitat with macramé items, wearing thrift store T-shirts advertising products no longer available, watching “H.R. Puffnstuff” re-runs and waxing sentimental over the late, lamented, light brown M&M candy piece (insisting that the different M&M colors actually have discernibly distinct flavors). A less culturally aware ironic hipster might list random goods like accordions, cereal, and bubble pipes as interests to consciously construct a slightly eccentric identity. Though knowledge of the esoteric still maintains some importance (an ironic hipster wouldn’t want to like the same campy items as his or her friends), the emphasis is on unpredictability. What would be the silliest object to love?
The social risks associated with I.H. are legion. First of all, though proclamation is quintessential, the wise ironic hipster will not proclaim too ebulliently or for too long a period, otherwise, credibility is threatened once novelty wears thin. Also, kitsch must be relished alongside traditionally hip items (Radiohead, Belle and Sebastian, and Ghost World to name some common examples). The more daring ironic hipsters proclaim love for bands, movies, etc. that are currently (or very recently) popular: these hipsters have attained the third and final stage. They clamor to see the most wretchedly commercial films; they buy Lil’ Kim’s latest over-the-top hip-hop outpouring (never more than one album, of course); they mourn missing an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Generally, a waiting period of about ten years elapses between when a fashion is popular and when one may begin to wear it ironically, but some may choose to be more unpredictable by “jumping the gun,” so to speak.
Safe ironic comment: “I really like yodel music.” (Extremely far removed from current American pop culture; acceptably random)
Risky comment: “I really liked the movie ‘How High.’ Method Man and Red Man are truly remarkable actors.” (Recent cinematic tripe that was less ironically obvious than “Crossroads,” the recent Britney Spears movie)
WRONG: “‘South Park’ rules.” (Attained too much popularity and fell out of favor too recently)
WRONG: “Liberace’s music is absolute drivel.” (Demonstrates lack of ironic perception common amongst traditional hipsters)
What makes I.H. a rebellion at all? It is an attempt to defy stereotype, especially hipster stereotype. Categorizing oneself under a certain label requires taking on a series of pre-defined tastes. The goth vests in black, the prep listens to Dave Mathews Band, the neo-hippie wears hemp necklaces, and so forth. To refuse to have one’s tastes defined by one word involves adopting haphazard, unpredictable styles; co-opting objects considered unacceptable by any subculture--particularly hegemonic hipster culture--is an act of resistance.
The postmodern aspects of this trend are at once evident: the hip is un-hip, and vice-versa. To reject the current hegemony one must accept and bask in consumerism, if only superficially. Deviancy requires partaking of mass culture. Living in society today involves a bombardment of advertising and popular forms; it is perhaps natural to take on chunks of popular idioms and construct an identity based on contradictory bricolage. The move towards irony can be interpreted as an end to claims of authenticity; everyone recognizes the pretense behind every art form and expression of selfhood; if one can purposefully construct an identity based on material objects, nothing is real, so we are obliged to bring silliness to the forefront.
Despite this, I.H. ultimately fails to upset any dominant hegemony. The Internet facilitates becoming an overnight fan of any given band, movie, etc.; information on every subject is readily at hand, and one may easily order T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers and pins to display. Thus, the ranks of the ironic hipsters increase steadily, as overnight fanaticism is a characteristic of the subculture. Acknowledge the dread term, for I.H. has unconsciously become its own trendy subculture, its own stereotype, and a label unto itself (albeit without a proper title until now). It fulfills the three characteristics of subculture status: homology (random kitsch-worship), bricolage (throwing bits of kitsch from varying time periods together to create a new look), and signifying practices (a desire to be “quirky” in terms of music, attire and other tastes; “proclaiming” one’s own quirkiness).
As with any rebellious subculture, once everybody engages in it, it becomes hegemonic and is no longer rebellious. I.H. is unique in that it becomes bereft of meaning once it attains any subcultural status. The ironic hipster syndrome is the dying gasp of resistance in our postmodern society; every wave of hipsters since the Industrial Revolution has disdained kitsch, but the only resistance offered today is through it. It represents the penultimate method of rebellion against commercialism and that rebellion’s utter defeat.
The single means of avoiding the commercialistic bombardment alluded to previously is a topic for another write-up altogether, but I will briefly state it here by way of conclusion. Wherever the ability to consciously construct identity through material objects exists, falseness must abound. Thus, the only way to be unmistakably authentic is to have no contact with (or knowledge of) pop culture.
Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1944) “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Barker, C. (2000) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage Productions.
Binkley, S. (2000) “Kitsch as a Repetitive System: a Problem for the Theory of Taste Hierarchy,” Journal of Material Culture, 5 (2).
Clarke, J. (1976) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Hutchison.
Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London and New York: Routledge.
Willis, P. (1978) Profane Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.