The Conquest of Cool – a revisit to Thomas Frank’s account of business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism… (And how American Apparel ruined the Hoodie)

A friend recently tweeted “artsy photo shoot on 98th? Upper UES, new home to hipsters.”

While it may be true that hipsters have made a new home, I have a different theory:  I argue that their new home is really a grounded footing in mainstream popular culture.  Whether it is in the Upper UES or suburban America, the hipster style is now and has been for a while, ubiquitously trendy.   And as I write this, the argument can be made is the Hipster as we’ve known it is (arguably) dead.

Over the past few months, countless articles have documented the demise of the Hipster as we know it.  In October of this year, New York magazine ran an article by Mark Grief under the headline “what was the hipster? [emphasis added].” Offering a historical analysis of the rise and fall (and the rise again and fall again) of the hipster – the article examined how media has absorbed Hipsters into the mainstream of pop culture. If some of you are throwing your tattooed fist into your black Americano, you are not the only one. The article showed up everywhere, a frenzied dialogue ensued. People were tweeting it all about it, posting links across Facebook (the link went viral across all my friends’ status updates).  Publications like the Village Voice reacted swiftly, nit-picking at times Grief’s case studies but really they stressed further that this is really nothing new, for example the 1960s was also a golden era for the Hipster – with musicians like Bob Dylan showing how subcultural movements can progress quickly into the mainstream zeitgeist.

While I don’t want to sit here and bandy back and forth on a topic that has been deliberated to death (I think I might gag if I read another article about Hipsters, and I am also thoroughly disappointed in myself for adding to this debate) – I am still curious to examine what Thomas Frank has called (and also the title of his book) “the conquest of cool.”

Frank describes how a culture industry relies on an anti-establishment ethos to ensure the cycle of commodities. Big Businesses need the Williamsburg hipster backlash against culture to sustain culture. As slogans are uttered against a hegemonic structure, culture industries readily usher them into its ideological framework. The creative revolution propels consumerism.

(As a completely difference topic, but related nonetheless: even media pundits are arguing that Wikileaks is going to save the crisis in journalism – revolution fuels growth).

Recently I gleefully came across another piece (by Grief as well) in the New York Times, using none other that LSE’s sociology department’s preferred theorist (and also NYU’s Rodney Benson’s personal favorite) Pierre Bourdieu to examine how symbols and cultural clues are used to distinguish (and at times, blur) class lines.  Indeed, the Hipster (coming from a mostly white, middle to upper class background) appropriated many icons of American working class culture to define their fauxhemian lifestyle (for example, think PBRs, lumberjack shirts, unicorns, and trucker hats).  Under the umbrella of “irony,” anything goes, and the kitsch ephemera is legitimated across new build condos and rodent ridden lofts in the hipster playgrounds known as Williamsburg and Bushwick.

But as Grief points out, in turn these “ironic” symbols have also become reabsorbed, with many mainstream icons “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear.” Grief uses the time when Paris Hilton sported a trucker hat as an example.

Indeed – for a Hipster, the minute something is perceived and even labeled as cool, it immediately loses it’s cultural capital. (Ahem, yes that was some Bourdieu thrown in there for you – I wouldn’t have it otherwise).  But to continue: cools value is diminished as it achieves an economic surplus (ahem, could that be a hint of Marx in that argument?)

Even Frank argues that hipsters have a “burning consciousness of the present” (p12).  So when pundits declare something as the it think, the now, its immediately is cemented in the past.  What’s en vogue quickly becomes mundane.  Indeeed, think of the blogger Hipster Runoff’s constant chastise of the “lamestream” as Justin Bieber sports an American Apparel hoodie once adored by Williamsburg Hipsters in the summer of 2007/8.  Yes, I can turn around and argue that it American Apparel ruined the hoodie as their aggressive growth across cities worldwide spun them near bankruptcy countless times…

Either way, you begin to see a circuitous, almost tautological loop of referencing..

So message to all the dying Hipsters out there, in sum: your f**ked.

Even channels like the Independent Film Channel and Sundance are far from being the free-spirited, savvy thinkers they claim to be: they’re really just a part of Cablevision.  Even the big cats out there know to keep tabs on those quirky kids (said in a Jack Donaghy voice).

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer – that kinda thing, right?

But this is exactly Franks point: big businesses rely on the quirky, the ironic, the hip, savvy and  rebellious to sustain a cycle of consumption. In the same way fashion houses and publications need the Style Rookies and Sartorialists of this world, businesses are quick to realize that rules need to be broken in order to be made.  Yes, as I write that I realize that probably sounds like something you would see on one of those cheesy No Fear shirts in the 1990s, but point proven: Rebellion sells… The obvious example – just think of the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara.

But as Frank points out, hipsters have always looked uniformly defiant – whether it be through plaid shirts, a carnival of brightly colored sweatshirts, and skinny jeans – a walk down Bedford Avenue is more like a real life runway show of the Urban Outfitters catalogue.  You may scream at me “but it’s vintage!” like that justifies anything – it only proves my point further. Revolt is close friends with Co-opt, and whether your vintage is real or a fake, your subversion is now homogenous.

I’m going to sign off now, and am embracing myself for a deluge of criticism and attacks of hypocrisy, but hey I’ll completely fess up: I probably dress like all those hipster plebeians out there.  And I’m aware of that – cause as it stems from my childhood fear of not fitting in and dude, I gotta tell you – I totally feel those social pressures of conformity when I go out drinking in Billyburg…


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