What is a Hipster anyway? Part 1

Prelude – One Hipster’s Story

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In my final year at college I helped start a music magazine that briefly went nationwide. For a little while we covered a brutally hip range of ‘indie’ and electronica acts: Interviewing, smooching, listening to a lot of great new music and occasionally finding time to publish some decent writing.

Then, about a year ago, exactly twelve months after we’d started the magazine, and just before the release of our sixth issue and third nationwide release, trouble hit paradise like a leaky tanker with a drunken captain. After a dip in my involvement while I finished my undergraduate thesis, I’d developed three features for the magazine- one of which was the piece below, a tongue in cheek consideration of what makes music good.

yes these are bruises from girl talkA couple of weeks before we were due to go to print I received an ominous email from the editor… My ‘Pop Music Sucks’ article, though ‘there is an irony involved in the way you’ve written it’ was ‘overtly arrogant and pretentious’, and worse the magazine was not ‘established enough to print such a strongly worded discussion between two writers in disagreement’. It felt like the doe eyed puppy I’d lovingly raised had chewed my face off while I slept. The eighty thousand words of features, blog posts, and interviews I’d written for the magazine were as nothing, the numerous pieces I’d worked on as assistant editor, the friendships and collaboration which had seemed to lie at the heart of the project didn’t matter- there was to be no discussion as ‘my decision as Editor… is final.’ It was just another piece getting rejected from a magazine, just another power play that mattered not a whit, but to me it was my whole world falling down. We’d recently begun producing a national radio show spin off, and I’d written and co-presented one episode, and produced and recorded two. I could see some sort of future as a professional writer folded up and put in a pocket, a childish fancy.

The magazine carried on for another couple of issues, before the advertising blood bath got the better of it. For a long time I stopped listening to music. Eventually I cancelled my pity party and decided to be even more of an obstreperous little shit than before. From now on I’d only put my creative effort into my own projects. If I failed at them, I’d have no one else to blame. Like a chocoholic thirty something office girl whose heart has been broken one to many times, I resolved to stick to chocolate fingered masturbation.

So here’s the article, the point of which dovetailed neatly with it’s consequences. The names have been changed…

Pop Music Sucks

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Two music journalists sit outside a franchise coffee house. Young, urbane and ostentatiously hip, they are arguing. Their discussion, staged in the controversial milieu of a Starbucks decorated to match the Autumnal colours of their Abercrombie togs, is about something vital. As the boy raises a Venti Caramel Frappuccino to his lips, suckling the frothy mass of corporate cream and coffee, the girl berates his immovable pretension. She nurses a tiny herbal tea and readjusts her nautically themed mini as he mocks her trivial preferences. Outside a Starbucks on the Camden Road, these tragic hips are fighting, not about the re-ignition of the cold war, nor the global financial meltdown. Our heroes, writers for a pretentious indie publication both, are arguing about authenticity in music.

A struggle rages high in the battlements of scene. On one side, popsters like Bon Dijonaise and Meadbh Glint protest that the crowd is too exclusive, an elitist misrepresentation of the interests of its core and wannabe’s; snobbishly avoiding popular music in favour of credible indie darlings. Ranged against them are folk like myself, Snedar Vashni, Tove Chumbly, you know the crowd. We see a cultural landscape supersaturated with pop coverage, radio stations payola’d and market researched into little more than store fronts for the latest Timbaland remix, the newest leather jacketed major label ‘indie’ stars, the latest on-screen Abba revival. We are, as we see it, though our individual tastes may differ radically, concerned that our independent musical presses be places original music can be discussed, seriously and frivolously.

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At face value, this argument is trivial, a petty squabble among dilettantes over the etiquette of formal dining. Look a little deeper and it resonates with a crisis of cultural capital, an argument about the validity and future of Western culture itself. Last year, Adbusters magazine, a publication which hopped up on Chomsky, Baudrillard and Naomi Klein, attempts to use the glamour of industrial capitalism (fashion shoots, photoshop, ironic distance) to subvert its consumerist message, wrote a sterling attack on hipsterism. This latest global subculture, the magazine argued, represents a departure from youth movements of the past, from the hippies and the punks, a departure even from the hedonistic valueless underground raves of the 90’s, in that it is wholly constructed, marketed and cool hunted; meaning nothing, representing nothing, remixing historical motifs into ironic outfits and flickering kinetoscopes of fringe interest. Dan Hancox, writing in the Guardian, dismissed Adbusters critique. Hipsterism, Hancox wrote, is nothing more than “fashion people, doing what fashion people have always done.”

Hipsters, dressed ironically as hipsters

At a time when the culture is more self-conscious, more aware of its history and artifice than ever before, a crisis of confidence has descended. A variety of dichotomies; authenticity versus inauthenticity, sincerity by contrast to ironic distance, original cut into remix, taste as distinct from fashion, symptomise the implosion of the counterculture, the final digestion of a pill designed to be too difficult to swallow. In 2006, iconic lower East Side club CBGB’s closed its doors. Large men with hammers moved in, cracking away graffiti encrusted walls, where once Poly Styrene made love to the audience like a Viet Cong Millie Small. The plan was to move the place, lock stock and branded barrel to Las Vegas. Fortunately the rock gods intervened, fatally popping owner Hilly Kristal’s cash lined clogs. It seemed like any vestiges of punk, once the epitome of the rejection of sanitised, monetized pop, officially died with him.

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What we now term the counter-culture arose spontaneously, a modern version of ancient processes of cultural evolution. It stands in stark contrast to the fictive mainstream tele-visual culture, constructed and marketed from watered down replications of the past. Adbusters’ argue that the desire for authenticity, prizing the real and innovative over derivative artifice, has grown so large in the contemporary capitalist dystopia that, commercialised sans radical intent, it becomes just another currency, traded for street cred by vacuous hipster fuckitalls.

Perhaps both hipsterism’s ironic recycling of pop culture, and its contradictory obsession with the underground, are really both reactions to a contradiction which has always existed at the heart of the counter-culture; the illusion of authenticity. Whether it be white academic musicologists scouring the Mississippi delta in the 1930’s for the ‘pure’ black roots of blues (and ‘discovering’ Led Belly), hippies in hemp smocks writing protest songs in a reconstructed ‘folk’ idiom, or hell contemporary gaelgoir hips ordering Guinness in a dead language in Dublin’s Conradh, what we assume to be authentic is most often deliberately constructed to serve a social function.

If hipsterism is no less organic than the most cynically moulded Louis Walsh pop hit, then why regard it as intrinsically better?

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Authenticity, in relation to music, is often used synonymously with sincerity, and it is in this sense (according to Webster’s “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”) that pop music can never be considered authentic. As a medium of mimicry, chart music has no intrinsic character beyond stylist buffed billboard illusion. At the same time, whether fusion (think Simon Bookish), remix (Pittsburgh copyfighter Girl Talk) or revival (Appalachian flavoured indie darling Joanna Newsom), ‘independent’ music is by definition sincere – no matter how commodified.

This distinction is epitomised in the parallel careers of two of the twentieth century’s biggest stars. David Robert Jones, known to us all as David Bowie, and Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie, most often referred to simply as ‘the hag’. Both are multi-decade internationally platinum selling musicians, purveyors of the latest cultural trend, instantly recognisable icons whose celebrity transcends familiarity with their work. Yet it’s hard to think of two musicians more differently regarded. Bowie, despite his gradual drift into irrelevance, produced some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary hipness of the last five decades. His work as a writer, singer and producer across glam rock, new romantic, krautrock and disco, inspires some of today’s most important acts. His many and varied persona leave whole subcultures in their wake.

Bowie1From one perspective there is nothing honest about David Bowie. The man’s whole shtick is illusion. His characters are mythological archetypes: Nietzschean supermen, imaginary rock stars, mimes and white bluesmen. Yet it would be impossible to term Bowie inauthentic. Whether manifesting the destiny of a doomed rocker or a cocaine fuelled fascist, Bowie was ever the artist, producing rich, often accessible but consistently multi-layered work which sprang from his interests in literature, the occult and history; his explorations of persona, of celebrity, of sanity, rather than a slavish addiction to prevailing tastes or market research.

In stark contrast, witness Madonna. Similarly commercially successful, possibly even more famous, she is an iconic personification of liberated libidinous femininity. Madonna too has explored varied musical styles and riffed lyrically and through her cinematic roles on her own iconic status. Madonna like Bowie, has collaborated with a host of musicians and producers, from Timbaland to William Orbit. However, while both artists have produced commercially successful anthems, Bowie’s music is considered hip, while critical opinion of Madonna’s oeuvre has at best lauded her inarguable cultural significant, and at worse labelled her a crass slag.

classic-madonnaWhat distinguishes these two musicians? In part, it’s the machine. Madonna’s talent has never been music, but rather the ability to affix herself to the mast of the good ship pop, pitching this way and that to catch the gusts of fashionista taste. By contrast, Bowie has often worked closer to the coal seam, whether it be the cutting edge of glitter rock, Berlin minimalism or electronica. While never creating a wholly original genre, his four decades of boundless creative energy produced celebrated work in a multiplicity of voices. Bowie’s hip was always artificial- up till 2003’s Reality LP, characters and narratives were not intended as literal representations of his personality. Yet his art remained authentic, because it was so rarely insincere.

There are two primary meta-theories of artistic interpretation. To the social constructionist, taste is encultured (and thus entirely relative); by contrast the evolutionary perspective, while acknowledging a multiplicity of preferences, posits that taste (and hence critical evaluation) is at least in part routed in innate critical faculties, adaptive human universals. To the relativist, the only value of a work of art is its situation in the contextual system of the western canon. By contrast, if we acknowledge that it is not merely our physiology, but our neurophysiology that we inherit, that commonalities of cognitive function facilitate mutual comprehension (including the acquisition of language and yes music); then one work of art can be viewed as objectively better than another. One artist can be accurately be described as a genius, another a fraud. Bowie’s music managed to articulate the fears and hopes of two generations, while Madonna’s is consumed as chewing gum. Sweet, disposable and yet grotesquely indelible chewing gum.

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For this is the function of pop music, the very reason behind its omnipresence. Pop is the aural representation of a culture that celebrates banality in the guise of ingenuity, conformity disguised as individualism, and the accrual of wealth as talent. ‘Pop music’, chart music, is by definition that which is neither necessarily good nor original, but merely purchased often. Setting aside the rigged and managed measurement of sales; the implicit assumption of the whole game is that which sells most is best. At least until next week. Perhaps this is the reason for hipsterism’s clichés, its thrift store fashions, its ironic distance and blog-inspired fixations. The desire to seek out quality despite commerce, to approve through consumption only briefly, to move on before such approval is appropriated, nullified and codified in next seasons diesel jeans, in Holy Fuck’s new remix.

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As I sip my iced coffee, I tell Meadbh of my visceral reaction to pop, to vocodered power ballads and over-produced country songs, to saccharine R&B and big-me-up hiphop. It’s the same instant headache, the sulphur burp twinge you feel seeing a spandex micro mini or a concrete underpass – functional mass production minus aesthetic considerations. It isn’t elitism, it’s taste. Thankfully Andreas Pavel invented the stereobelt (though the Sony Corporation stole the idea, rechristening it the Walkman), making it possible to travel on public transfort, enter a clothing store or shopping mall, or pick up a cinema ticket without collapsing into a speaker-vandalising, Duffy-assassinating rage. That’s the problem with pop, it fills every crevice with at best inane, and at worst perversely nonsensical lyrics, and tired vaudevillian melodies. Pop bursts, over-compressed and without warning, from taxis, hospital lobbies and the leaky headsets of the perpetually bewildered. It seeps and jangles, depositing earworms like September flu. Hits that chew through your brain and leave you jibbering for days.

52036.MIA04-216x300There are inarguably exceptions. Popular songs that are none the less classics, indie classics that are, despite all the odds, popular. These are diamonds in the dustbin, poppies in the sewage pipe. Almost universally, pop music acts to dull the sensibilities and nullify the critical faculties, lulling the listener into temporary senility. Its message is equipotency, uniformity, apoliticism, hypersexualised infantilism, and the illusion of choice. That’s the whole point. Pop music is designed to appear controversial, whilst saying nothing truly dangerous. It’s not merely bad, it’s insidious. Who will Britney kiss next? Which part of Janet Jackson’s greased up anatomy will slip ‘accidentally’ into the public eye? When will the Bay City Rollers reform? Who the fuck cares? Pop music sucks.

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Dublin Duck Dispensary – Luanqibazao

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The latest album from savage one man lo-fi outfit ‘Dublin Duck Dispensary‘ is out today for free, from the bands netlabel Rack and Ruin. The band recently made their live debut with an ultra brief but fantastic set at the poorly organised Hard Working Class Heroes festival. The album is called Luanqibazao (pronounced Loo – an – zi – ba – zow), from a Chinese word meaning ‘a complete mess’. Haven’t had a chance to listen to the rest of the LP yet, but the first ‘single’, (i.e.: the first track with a video) is embedded above. Look out for an interview with DDD in the next issue of Analogue.

Download Luanqibazao.

Music at the Dublin Fringe

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Dublin’s fringe festival has rolled round again, and a variety of musicians are appearing in the Spiegeltent, which has been hoisted in Iveagh Gardens. Now while this is a disgraceful appropriation of public resources for the private use of privileged cunts – a harbinger of US style neoliberal fuck the commonmanism (kind of like the LUAS) – there are some interesting gigs available, including..

Cathy Davey – Monday 9.30pm, €20

The Fall – Tuesday 9.30, €29.50
(Appropriately circus like post punk legends)

Duke Special – Wednesday 9.30pm, €20

An Introduction to Dubstep – Friday 9.30pm, €20
Feat Skream, Plastician & Safety Boy
(Recommended for hipster wannabes)

Sugarhill Gang – Sunday (14th), €25
(Invented hiphop)

Tickets are available from the Dublin Fringe Festival website, which has links to music from all the acts listed here. There’s other shit on there too.

State fails to find a paying market

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Ireland’s other new national music magazine has announced it is to take a months break from active production, relaunching as a freesheet. Before I get to an analysis of the change, I’d like to point out a little something from States’s press release (reprinted in full below), which sticks in my craw.

The phrase is “It is set to become the first Quality National Music Monthly available completely free of charge!”. Lets parse that shall we, ‘first’ means original or only, ‘quality’ as in indicative of worth or high value, ‘national’ as in nationwide, ‘music’ as in covering or concerned with music and ‘monthly’, as in printed on a monthly basis. Four out of these five words combine into a factual claim, easily falsifiable. The fifth, the adjective ‘quality’ changes the meaning of the sentence from a statement of fact to one of opinion. Clearly State is not the ‘first national music monthly available completely free of charge’ (however dubiously you choose to capitalise it), that’s an empirically verifiable fact. Connected was (to the best of our knowledge) the first free magazine, focused on music, available throughout the Republic of Ireland. Analogue’s recent relaunch as a nationwide magazine makes it the second. The addition of the term ‘quality’ has a clear implication, and that is that neither Analogue nor Connected are quality pieces of work. The comment area below this article would be the ideal venue for an apology.

On to State’s future as a new national music freesheet. This isn’t as much of a change to the Irish market as it at first appears. The country plays host to a wide variety of regional and national advertising supported publications, many of which include music coverage. Whether magazine readership is a zero sum game, or whether by contrast the Irish audience has room to grow, is a question open to debate. The fact is that State, which already included advertising, is merely entering more fully into an increasingly competitive market for advertising supported music and culture publications – titles including ‘GCN’, ‘AU’, and ‘Totally Dublin’; rather than representing a novel direct threat to Analogue, Connected – or any other magazine.

Personally I hope State succeeds, both in finding an audience for it’s new format, and in continuing to pay its writers. As a paying market for writing about music it provides both an avenue for the development of new journalistic careers, and for readers an alternative to other music publications on the market, from ‘Hotpress‘ to ‘The Ticket‘. As a website, playing host to some of the most interesting music writers in the country (and now, likely, as Analogue has always done, reproducing for free the content of it’s printed cousin) State.ie provides another essential destination for Irish music fans; and enhanced community features can only add to that. The magazine is not to my personal taste, but that’s what great about magazines – no matter what your preference there’s likely one to suit, whether it be in the form of a printed publication, a web based outfit, or a PDF mag. As a comment on the state (no pun intended) of the for pay magazine, the change is telling. Combined with the closure of left wing political outlet ‘The Village’ (a move some of that magazine’s writers found out about only through a report in the Irish times), State’s going free questions the viability of paid niche magazines in the contemporary Irish market place. It’s one gradual step in a wider cultural change – people are less willing than ever to pay for things they can get (legally or otherwise) for free.

PRESS RELEASE

State Magazine
Ireland’s Quality National Monthly Is Free!

After a month of rumours and speculation State Magazine is ready to announce its plans for the future. It is set to become the first Quality National Music Monthly available completely free of charge!

After only 6 issues the monthly magazine has already established its credentials as a vibrant and incisive publication with attention to detail, a design that is second to none and impeccable production values. In addition its sister website (www.state.ie) has proved itself constantly on top of its game with breaking news, interviews and reviews that keep it bang up to the moment and ahead of the pack.

With their publication now a recognised brand the minds behind State Magazine are determined to move things forwards, onwards and upwards.

Their first step will be the launch of a newly strengthened and emboldened website hosted at their usual address.

Meanwhile the published magazine will take a one-month break to restructure its production and distribution returning with a November issue at the beginning of October which will be distributed nationally and available free of charge!

“We have produced 6 issues the old fashioned way,” explains publisher Roger Woolman, “and we feel it’s time to make a change and communicate more directly with our current readers as well as making our journalism and photography available to an even wider audience.

“We will still be producing a magazine of the highest quality filled with impeccable journalism, exclusive photography and top-end design but we don’t want to restrict ourselves and our readers by relying on traditional methods of distribution and sales, so we’re going to try something new: a top quality music magazine for free!”

The magazine will initially be instantly available in Ireland’s main towns and cities but will also be available by post for no more than the real price of postage and packing to anyone who subscribes. And in an unprecedented move this subscription service will be available right around the world!

“The fact that our magazine is Irish doesn’t mean that only people living in Ireland want to read it,” Woolman commented. “Our readership will be as big and broad as we allow it to be and we want it to be worldwide!”

Note: This article (like all Analogue articles) represents only the opinions of its writer.

DJ for your friends with Blip.fm

bliptv1New music sharing service Blip.fm bills itself as Twitter for music. Really it’s not. Like twitter it allows brief posts to be quickly shared between friends. Unlike twitter the service doesn’t provide for posting (or receiving posts) via SMS. That’s sort of immaterial, because what Blip does do is freaking awesome. Once you’ve created an account on the service, you carry out a search for the artist or song of your choice (so far almost everything I’ve looked for has been found – and you can upload your own music if a track’s missing), hit ‘blip’, add a brief text message and click ‘ok’. Instantly, not only are you listening to the song you’ve chosen, but you’re also acting as a time shifted DJ for anyone who adds you as a friend. Sure the service will likely face the chop, from a terrified, backward and thankfully dying music industry – like the much loved muxtape, but right now it acts as the slickest, fastest and most fun way ever to be an online DJ. Most of the time you don’t have to upload anything – you can play music for your friends anywhere in the world with a wee search, a little comment and a click.

But that’s not all folks, as blip.fm also connects with your last.fm account – allowing you to share all the songs you scrobble with a click. The site will also syndicate your played songs on twitter and a variety of other services should you choose to do so (not recommended).

Join Blip.fm now.

The Composer Seduced into Carpentry

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cccu9O-zhPA]

Outsider composer Harry Partch abandoned a university musical education, lived as a hobo for ten years in depression era America, and wrote an opera based on Yeat’s translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. At an early age Partch forsook the ‘dead, white, middle class musical tradition’ and the Western system of musical notation; developing new scales (including a 43 tone scale, with 43 notes per octave rather than 12!), inventing new methods of musical transcription, and constructing instruments which could ‘capture the melodic contours of dramatic speech’.

Above is a youtube playlist featuring a fascinating BBC documentary on the composers life, music and influence. To quote the documentary ‘[Barstow] created an obscure, strange, difficult but always fascinating musical universe in an attempt to exist apart from the modern world’. Radicalised by his homosexuality, Partch remained apart for much of his life from even the radical fringes of the classical establishment, obsessively studying the musical notation and instrumentation of ancient civilisations, building his instruments and composing pieces to express their radical capacities.

Partch’s influence can be seen today in a variety of contemporary experimental composers, in radical outsider musicians like Jandek who record and perform using microtonal tunings, and in the continued construction of custom instrumentation to achieve previously impossible ranges of sound. You can read more about Partch and one of his most accessible works, ‘Barstow‘ appropriately enough on another anablog – this one written by the Analog Ensemble. You can also hear clips of a variety of versions of Barstow, on Corporeal.com.

8 Easy Pieces

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The pitched fork has pronged another prize with the fantastic documentary, Reformat the Planet on the emerging Chiptune scene. Chiptune (as distinct from 8bit music per say) has been around for about a decade, and is finally garnering some critical acclaim. Not content with inventing punk music, Malcolm McLaren hopped on the bandwagon early, writing an hilarious piece for Wired in 2003 claiming the birth of a new scene, ‘Chipmusic’. In the article McLaren is escorted my mysterious French underground electronic musicians to a dingy factory where credibility and curry powder mix in malodorous clouds, and odd young hips with blackened teeth play unironic retro-future music on outdated consoles and computers. Since those halcyon days chiptune has conspicuously failed to set the world alight – though it has had an ‘influence’ on mainstream hiphop and indie acts, on underground scenes like nerdcore and laterly on art and fashion [1] [2]; ultimately achieving the honour of being featured in the latest issue of Analogue. Reformat the Planet is only available for four more days, so check it out!

Update: For an Irish take on 8bit, check out the hyperkinetic 0010100, who mercifully avoid the europop chinz of much euro chiptune.

Update 2: If you’re in the UK or can get your clogs on and hop on a ferry, there’s a Chiptune Alliance tour on right now in Scotland and England, featuring some of the artists featured in Reformat the Planet including Anamanaguchi, Sabrepulse, and Random.