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March 19, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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THE CONFORMiTY OF COOL

hip-ster – \hip-stur (s)\n. “One who possesses tastes, social attitudes, and opinions deemed cool by the cool. The Hipster walks among the masses in daily life but is not a part of them and shuns or reduces to kitsch anything held dear by the mainstream. A Hipster ideally possesses no more than 2% body fat.” Robert Lanham, The Hipster Handbook

As a group, Hipsters are socially sophisticated, trendy and fashion-conscious. In an investigation of whether coolness is just another form of conformity, Nick Archer asks whether a lot of Hipsters may actually be more conformist than the mainstream culture they are trying to avoid.

In Wellington – like everywhere else – Hipsters abound. The Wellington Hipster culture is centered around Cuba Street. Common examples of Wellington-specific clichés include: Radio Active, Dub music, Loop Recordings, drinking at Matterhorn, buying your black clothes exclusively from Rex Royale or Hunters And Collectors, looking forward to the next Fly My Pretties tour and sipping coffee in the outdoor area at Fidel’s Café.When I asked Media Studies Lecturer Dr. Tony Schirato why most Hipsters look the same, he pointed out some of the paradoxes of fashion and individuality.

“The [Hipster ideal] is to try and find something which is designating you as being fashionable, which makes you look as distinctive as possible,” says Schirato.

“All Hipsters choose a personal style for themselves that helps them to stand apart from the masses. Why so many Hipsters tend to look like each other is a subject for another discussion.” The Hipster Handbook

“A lot of people end up basically going down the same path because everybody tries to find different ways to differentiate themselves but they tend to come up with the same things. There’s a fine line between looking original or falling into another clichéd social nomenclature.”

Cool Vs. Uncool

The drive for social differentiation – especially that of Hipsters escaping mainstream cultural influences – is nothing new according to Schirato. He says that all social identity is primarily based upon what he terms a “negativity” – defining oneself against one’s opposite.

For example, the Hurricanes are not the Blues and the Nazis were not the Jews. Schirato says “every group and community identity is based on two things. This is what we are but most importantly this is not what we are. For instance, take punk: ‘We are not the fucking music business!’”

Pop sociology book 8 Tribes: The Hidden Classes Of New Zealand illustrates Schirato’s point, using what authors Jill Caldwell and Christopher Brown call ‘The Cuba Street Tribe.’

“In the Cuba Street tribe, the biggest entry criteria are what you are not. Not straight, square, normal or average. This tribe despises any thought of conformity – damnation in Cuba Street is a nice house in the suburbs, a good job, lawnmowers on the weekend, and 2.2 perfect children with a dog.”

This tendency for groups to define themselves against what they are not – negativity – can have darker consequences (think of the Nazis defining themselves against the “lesser races”). Deputy Head of Psychology at Vic, Dr Marc Wilson, reinforces this concept, stating that social cliques can be developed almost accidentally by groups of individuals defining themselves against whatever the dominant group is.

“Ultimately, whether or not that becomes what you could say is fascist depends on what that dominant group embodies. For example, if you define yourself as an anti-capitalist, I don’t think you are ever going to end up embodying a fascist element, because that’s just inconsistent.”

While fascism might be an extreme label, Wilson says that Hipsters nevertheless exhibit other forms of exclusivity: “I believe very strongly that extremism in any form can breed lots of essentially the same bad things, they might have different labels. So you might not be a fascist but you might have something quite different and that can be just as negative.”

Schirato also worries about the hierarchical tendencies of subgroups that are opposed to the mainstream: “[They] can be inflexible about what’s allowed and what isn’t. What you’ve got are so-called counter cultures, alternative cultures, in a sense this is an attempt to escape fashion and the temptress, to actually designate yourself as having some kind of distinction… Some will say everybody listens to X but only those with taste listen to Y.”

But what if your gut instinct was to disagree with those who you think have the best taste, who you look up to as being cool – what happens then? Will you risk saying that Y is actually crap as well as X, or will you instead conform? This is familiar territory for social psychologists, as Wilson pointed out: “When you put people in situations where they feel that if they don’t conform with other people it will reflect negatively on them, then you’re much more likely to conform.”

How Hipsters define what coolness is (and thus what to exclude) is difficult to determine. That’s because the word cool has varied, subjective and changing connotations.

A History of Cool

According to Wikipedia, cool is an aesthetic of attitude, behaviour, comportment, appearance, style and zeitgeist. It is associated with composure and self-control, and used as an expression of admiration or approval.

The notion of cool can be traced back to the Ethics of Aristotle. Back in his day, cool was an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs (such as slaves, prisoners, and political dissidents), for whom open rebellion invited punishment. They hid their defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing themselves from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.

The concept of coolness exploded in the 1960s when the mechanisms of cultural exchange – television, radio, air transport – became more effective and intrusive. Yet the roots of this first wave of cool lie in the bohemian beat scene of the fifties.

In his 1957 essay, The White Negro, Norman Mailer described the Hipster as a heroic but potentially violent figure whose essential being contradicted everything Mailer saw as the dull pieties of social adjustment fashionable in the years of Eisenhower’s presidency.

Kiwi Cool

Local music reviewer Colin Morris first noticed the notion of coolness taking hold in Wellington in the late ’60s, almost a decade after its appearance in the USA.

“Wellington in those days was a dull and boring place. There was this culture where you finished your work at 5 o’clock, you went to the pub and got pissed by 6 o’clock and went home and had your meat and three veg afterwards and you washed the car and did the lawn on Saturday. There was nowhere else to go.”

Wellington – and especially Cuba Street – became a mecca for social change as a new scene began to develop in the ’70s. “The two big clubs were downtown, but then all these little clubs started to appear in Cuba Street in the mid ’70s. They were basically holes in the wall. A lot of sophistication started happening in the late ’70s with better licensing laws,” says Morris.

There have been even more changes in recent years to the Cuba Street scene: “it has become very fashionable and very trendy,” Morris says.

Radio Active station manager Dave Gibbons says a recent wave of cool arrived five or six years ago. “That’s I think when the big swing happened; when New Zealand music got more and more embracive. At the same time, there were cultures attached to that in art, film, and fashion.”

Escape… with Cool

Mailer described coolness as a way out of the mechanisms of cliché that featured in the 9 to 5 routines of ’50s working culture. More prevalent nowadays are the breakdown of communities and an increasing “me” attitude throughout society. Today, white collar workers need to escape the emotional and spiritual vacuum caused by a materialistic society. Such an escape is often facilitated by purchasing the latest media-driven cool – the latest copy of Rip It Up or the latest Fat Freddy’s Drop album – during their lunch break.

Wilson says that such existential fears can lead to social and political conservatism. Similarly, Schirato notes that such fears drive people to seek out social acceptance, and that advertisers are only too aware of this: “Just remember that this is all tied up with capitalism anyway. [Coolness] is being sold to people.” Schirato adds that “to be on your own is remarkably difficult to cope with.” Therefore, cool identity becomes an extraordinarily strong selling point.

Schirato also likens us to blank slates, ready for the media to manipulate: “In media studies there is an analysis of interactions between people and the media… Quite clearly one of the ways people use the media is in making sense of their own identities, producing themselves as texts… The media is a template for doing that.”

Cool Fascismo

Given the ways coolness allows people to produce themselves, it can easily be exploited as a manufactured and empty idea imposed on culture at large. This has led to the “Merchants of Cool”: rich pseudo-Hipsters hired by companies to target the Hipster market. Since an artificial cycle of “cooling” and “uncooling” creates false needs in consumers and stimulates the economy, cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism in recent years.

This whole phenomenon is described in such books as Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Aissa Quart’s Branded, and the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, which criticise what they term “Cool Fascismo.”

Ironically, literature that is critical of the ways that advertising controls individuals is now studied for the purposes of further influencing consumer behaviour.

The concept of cool was used in this way to market menthol cigarettes to African Americans in the 1960s. In 2004, over 70% of African American smokers preferred menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of white smokers. This unique social phenomenon was principally occasioned by the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the burgeoning black, urban, segregated, consumer market in cities at that time.

Some large companies have even started out-sourcing cool: they pay other smaller, closer-to-the-ground companies to help them keep up with customers’ rapidly-changing tastes and demands.PR companies are key to this: as part of their social manipulation, they have even created new words with the intention of selling us a new vocabulary that gives us what they call a “brand experience.” This was successfully done last year in New Zealand when Pead PR created a new word, “starkish,” to sell a brand of vodka called Stark. Local media Hipsters like C4 presenter and Campbell Live reporter Jacqui Brown were roped in to give the word authentic street-level appeal. Schirato noted this phenomenon of the commodification of cool by large advertising and PR firms: “What happens is they become fashionable and then they become tied into operations of capital and commodification. So punk becomes a t-shirt, becomes having to buy so many records; it becomes a particular dress sense.”

The Welli Massive

A prime local example of such business-driven coolness is Radio Active’s dealings with LOOP Recordings Aot(ear)oa. Gibbons says that he and Mikey from LOOP “captured a slice of what people in Wellington were doing, that kind of cool shit I suppose.”

One of the key elements of this scene has been Active’s star band The Black Seeds, which began in the Radio Active office, as Gibbons explains: “It was through a thing called The Marmalade Jam, which was a production party up in our offices for all the agencies, where we wanted to try and sort of say ‘hey, we’re Active, look at us, you know, we’ve got a band.’”

“From that, it turned into what was The Black Seeds. They used to rehearse in our offices and stuff… So it’s kind of the culture: you support your own culture and the culture will support you.”

Gibbons stated that, despite his involvement, The Black Seeds are not a manufactured “cool” band: “It wasn’t really an Active band. I mean just because the guys happened to be in the office doing their job doesn’t mean… I just think Active is a vehicle which can help push people in the direction they need to go: musically, on air, interviews, or just getting known.”

Considering the dominance of dub on Active playlists in recent years, is Radio Active the reason why so many people (especially Hipsters) listen to dub in Wellington?

“I think we’ve helped push it, but I suppose a lot of the bands that did come through did become successful. You can’t help it if people like dub. Why do people smoke dope?”

The Conformity of Cool

So is there such a thing as the conformity of cool? It’s evident that there are indeed cool people, whether you call them Hipsters or simply cool people.

There are also clearly social and psychological factors governing social groupings and self-identity. Coolness is about being seen as socially-exclusive by the majority, or at least by those who think themselves cool. Some Hipsters like to think of themselves as cool, but the irony of looking like other Hipsters is often lost on them.

The fact that they want to be distinctive, yet quite often end up looking the same and acting the same, suggests the existence of classic conformity behaviour. It’s not a crime to be cool, or even to try to be cool, but it is certainly something that can be socially intimidating for some people and this in turn can drive some to try even harder to be cool.

A vicious circle can develop where we lose touch with the really important things in life, like real friendships, family, relationships, and our own acceptance of who we really are.

Schirato offers an interesting footnote: “People are simply dressing or taking on different attributes that are seen as fashionable, but the other side of that is in a sense cool is about not being overtly fashionable. Cool is about having that little space where you show that you are distinctive, that you are special, and you are not one of the sheep.”

He did happen to laugh when I pointed out that the problem you get then is that before long you can sometimes get a whole other paddock crowded with black sheep!

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Comments (4)

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  1. Chris says:

    i can’t beleive there are any comments yet

  2. Nick, what a fabulous article. I still think the hipsters who actually read it will agree with it while not comprehending it. The contemporary hipster is basically an unconscious fascist anyway. Good boy.

  3. John says:

    I’m glad their tight jeans will render them infertile. Their inability to reproduce will enrich the human gene pool.

  4. Kristina says:

    Never mind a street, in NYC, whole neighborhoods have been deemed ‘cool’ enough to be inhabited by the hipsters. The end result though is that it just makes them a group, no cooler or different, from the Hassidic neighborhood, or the polish neighborhood, or canal street in Chinatown, etc. The continuous redefining of selves as against other simply brings the circle to point zero…I cant wait to see who the next hipsters will be…

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