Here’s an article I wrote a while back for Thought Catalog. It was a response to a critical New York Times piece on The Irony Generation, whatever that is.
I guess I’m part of the irony generation.
That feels weird to say. I’ve never admitted that I was a hipster before. So many other hipsters are so much more ‘hipster’ than I am. They’re the ones described in news articles — with the mustaches, and the ill-fitting shorts, the home-brewing, trombone playing, annoying uber Williamsburg attitudes. I’m not like those hipsters (those hipsters are actually quite rare), but I am a hipster. And until recently I didn’t even realize that I was one, or wanted to be one.
But I am. And I think — sarcasm aside — I might be proud.
My hipsterism is what you might consider mild. Yes, I do teach improv comedy and comment on the internet for a living. No, I don’t buy Applewood Smoked Bacon over Oscar Mayer bacon. But only because I’m poor. I have a pretty good idea that locally raised Applewood Smoked Bacon might actually kick the ass of Oscar Mayer Bacon every single day of the week. But, like I said, I’m poor. So Oscar Mayer it is! Did I say Oscar Mayer? I meant off-brand supermarket bacon! Actually any cheap protein, I’ll take. Did I mention I was poor?
Shit. I’m off topic, and getting ironic. Fucking hipsters. Okay, so:
I keep a narcissistic blog where I harvest my own awkwardness. I do not write for the New York Times, a publication that jumped on the lets-kick-hipsters-in-the-nuts bandwagon about 10 days ago. I wish I wrote for them, but I don’t. The world isn’t clamoring for my opinion, so I turn inward for inspiration. I have found that if I speak to my own self-consciousness on my blog I gain readers. I also gain attention and gain opportunity. Those are important things for a fledgling writer. It’s a powerful moment for me to realize that I can build my own audience.
But I am also a hipster, I suppose. And that’s where the problem is, right?
People are annoyed with hipsters. Because we’re so inauthentic? Ironic? Disaffected? I disagree, but you’re entitled to your outsider’s opinion. I mean, hate sells papers, or gets internet traffic, after all.
But I will say this: Deal with it.
I’m not saying this to be glib, or to ironically detach from the social phenomenon. Quite the opposite, actually. I just mean that you have to deal with it. It’s a part of a society you helped create. You can write articles about how it’s annoying for a while, and they’ll sell (whatever that means in the digital age), but eventually you’re going to have to deal with it — in a real, sincere, unironic way. Hipsters aren’t going anywhere. So, you can write hipster-hating blog entries, newspaper articles, tumblr posts all you want. We’re a social phenomenon. A very weak, very flabby, very nerd-atrophied social phenomenon. And we’re not going anywhere.
But hey –
What if it’s better to examine the cause, than naively complain about the symptom?
What if… just follow me on this for a sec — I’m stoned — What if we actually dared to ask the pertinent question? What caused the Irony Generation in the first place? I think I know the precocious, adorable, twee answer to that question: The 90’s. The 80’s. The 70’s. And every social movement before that.
It’s been heavily debated whether irony is the disease, or the symptom. I think it’s neither, but if we’re going to classify an entire generation into such a simple this-or-that metaphor, I’d have to go with symptom. I think that’s an important distinction, too. Irony isn’t the infection. The digital age is the infection. Globalization is the infection. Outsourcing of American jobs is the infection. Hipster irony is the symptom of those things, manifested in the fabric of pop culture. If you’re going to hate on something for making the world ironic, hate on NAFTA, or Facebook, or the Bravo channel. Hipsters are just a sign of the times. The youth movement is just a reflection of generations before it.
And that’s the thing. Hipsterism is just a reaction to political and economic phenomenons that predated it. The internet, a terrible economy, a culture obsessed with pseudo-reality. Everyone’s expected to run PR on their own lives. It’s easy to point the finger at the manifestation of that — an irony clad 22-year-old on an old-fashioned bike, on his way to marching band practice — but by and large it’s my guess that it’s not that generation pulling the strings. What’s responsible for this?
A few things that I can think of.
A bad economy, for one. It seems we all agreed that globalizing was the best idea for the world in the 90’s. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and we were all going to run dot coms instead of working at factories. That was fine for about seven to twelve years, until people realized that getting a lot of attention online doesn’t mean an income stream, and that even getting that attention was difficult. Meanwhile, the idea of a union job, or even a corporate one where you could work 20 years then retire has all but dried up.
The hipster generation was financially screwed by the generation that preceded it — our parents’ generation — the same generation that left us home alone after school, and taught us that if we want dinner, we better research good food and make it ourselves. God forbid, though, we respond to a terrible economy in a resourceful way! Don’t start an Etsy, or a locavore butcher shop, or teach improv comedy for a living. Society will call you a hipster! Well, what if I’m just making a living? Is it then okay for me to wear a Diff’rent Strokes T-shirt? Or does that mean I’ve glibly checked out of society?
Social media has made everyone feel both hyperconnected and desperate that they’re missing something. That’s stressful, especially for those who grew up with rotary phones. Could your hatred of hipsters just be a manifestation of you yourself feeling out of touch? Or, perhaps you’re just hating what people have always hated in any social movement? Perhaps you just hate posers. Even that is misguided, though.
Every social movement has posers. In fact, the bulk of any social movement is a bunch of posers. I’m thinking of the people who participated in the Summer of Love, who then became disco dancers seven years later. The people who did cocaine in the 80s and were the first wave of yuppies to hit the urban landscape. I’m thinking of my parents’ generation, and how they changed with the times. Thank goodness they were posers, too. Can you imagine what would have happened if they’d all joined communes? If they never got over doing Angel Dust? Awful. But they changed with the times, as we all are forced to do.
Every social movement also has an older generation, or even members of the same generation looking on and scratching their heads — saying to themselves, kids today. From the beatniks to the American Apparel kids, the hipster types have always been hated. But that’s okay — because part of the mantle of being a hipster is to be hated by some. What is putting on a beret, or a pair of bell-bottom jeans, or a trucker hat, if not a statement of one’s own individuality? To me, it’s an announcement to the world that you’re willing to try being a free-thinker. That you realize you’ve inherited a broken society, but that you’re looking for creative ways to help fix it, or at least fix yourself in the context of that society. Does that make you a parasite? I don’t think it does. Does it make you sarcastic? Again, I don’t think so.
Am I missing something important, here? To say that we should ‘learn to live without irony’ is glib. It’s sarcastic. And it’s unrealistic. It’s a phenomenon created by the older generation. We didn’t create the internet, or reality television, or the economic crisis caused by globalization. We’re just trying to navigate the mess you created. Sorry if my thick glasses frames are annoying you in the process. I thought they were cute when I bought them and I can’t afford new ones. Did I mention that I’m poor? Seriously. Feed me.
And amidst all the muck being slung against the irony generation one important thing is being forgotten. They’re not doing too shabby. I’m thinking of relevant artists, like Wes Anderson, Sufjan Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling. These guys are all sincere, and they’re all linked with the term ‘hipster’ quite easily on a Google search. Or let’s look at the more sarcastic side of things — Andy Samberg , Donald Glover, Kristen Schaal, Aubrey Plaza. Are these not brilliant voices that are helping to shape the ethos of a generation? Can you not see the authenticity underneath their adorable fashion choices?
Irony is neither good nor bad. Just as sincerity is neither good nor bad. It’s just a mode of communication. Neither is more effective. It is extremely rare for people to be fully ironic, just as it’s extremely rare for people to be fully sincere. Irony is merely a symptom of a generation that I happen to be a part of. And no. I won’t apologize for that. Why should I? This is human evolution, and every generation has it’s growing pains. And most importantly — every generation is shaped by the one that came before it. Deal with it.
Yes. Irony is the ethos of the current generation. But rather than teach people how to live without it, I say you’re smarter to teach people how to live with it. It’s not going anywhere. To categorically complain about irony is myopic. It misses the point. There are different types of irony. There’s sarcasm, and then there’s the simple beauty of something being surprising or funny for the opposite reason it’s supposed to be. Have we become so annoyed at society at large that we actually get angry when people without pants start getting on the subway car? Can we look at the authentic emotional intent behind what a flashmob is? Must we run to our ivory tower and type out an article criticizing a movement that simply tried to put a smile on our faces?
Yes, there’s an ugly side to irony. Think of the significance of a 37-year-old man wearing a Diff’rent Strokes t-shirt. Consider — Diff’rent Strokes was supposed to be groundbreaking, in that it was supposed to show us that whites and blacks can all live together as a family. Consider where we are now. Half the country can’t stand the idea of a black president. There’s an irony there, but it’s not an irony my generation created, by any means.
I say, lets enjoy our subway ride. If people start walking on with no pants, we can get through it. Maybe they’re not making fun of us. Perhaps they’re just orchestrating a poetic moment? This generation isn’t without its problems, but every so often it surprises me. Every so often I think, hey, these kids are on to something. Every so often I even get inspired to be part of it. And that’s not ironic. That’s sincere.
Did I mention I’m poor?