Trying to Think Beyond the Hipster in the Music of "Girls"

3 comments

A few months ago, a colleague contacted me with an proposal. He's editing a book on HBO's Girls and wanted to see if -- given my blogistry and academic pedigree -- I'd be interested in contributing an article on the music of the show. I hadn't seen an episode before, so I blindly agreed. This post, essentially, is a condensation of that chapter and I'd love any feedback or comments that you gave. I'm not the targeted demographic of the show -- the only guy in his 30s on the show can't even make a virgin happy -- and writing about some of the musical experiences in the show is difficult, for reasons that will become clear below. Most importantly, I'm interested in thinking about this: If Girls represents a comedic but mostly accurate representation of hipster life, then how do we get beyond it? And how do bands navigate the maelstrom of taste-mongering that makes hipsters go? Is it possible to think beyond hipsters or is this way of consuming culture here to stay?

"Hipster" is a difficult term most likely to be taken as an insult even by those who display the outward signs of being a hipster. More than likely, the current incarnation of hipsterdom, began in the late 90s and early 00s as independent culture began to shift and become more closely related to mainstream culture. Two key pillars of hipster identity, irony and self-denial, rose up around this relationship. As authentic indie kids, hipsters had to disavow anything corporate or mainstream. However, even their culture was going mainstream. So, in order to maintain some sense of "authenticity," hipsters began scavenging  from other cultures and developed an ironic stance which buffers them from the potential emotional or cultural shock of corporate co-option. In music such "selling out" became downright everyday by 2005, due to the truncation of media outlets, possibility of big pay days at the end of licensing deals, and a general shift in the relationship to licensing music after the success of Moby and VW Nick Drake commercial spots. By 2007 and 2008, the culture was facing a big backlash. Time Out New York called on them to die, a la "A Modest Proposal," and Adbusters named the hipster the "Dead End of Western Civilization." How, then, did the hipster survive? 

First, that irony and self-denial that I mentioned earlier enabled not only an emotional distancing, but also a virtual carte blanche on cultural taste. Hipster social standing is made up of taste: he who finds the "cool" rises in standing above he who does not. Which is why you tell your friends that you knew about Wolf Parade before they did. However, if you like things ironically then you can listen to anything. Hey, Jim, are you rockin' Katy Perry. Yeah, brah, but I only like it ironically. See how it works? So, at this point with all the irony and cultural co-option kicking around (because here's the kicker about finding something legitimately cool, once you do, then it gets found and marketed back to you) literally anything is fair game. And, that old paradigm of independent vs. mainstream is largely gone. Contemporary consumerism doesn't work like that any more. It's impossible for a band to make a living by being heard on one of the world's last few independent radio stations. Or trying to earn enough off Spotify (mainstream!) streaming. For hipsters, this is the most crucial aspect -- to be cool you have to sell out and to maintain authenticity you have to maintain irony. You can see how it's a bit of a vicious, but effective circle. Hipsterdom has survived because of asserted independence, bolstered by irony, and sustained by rampant consumerism.

What about the music of Girls? Three big realizations I came to while watching the show.

1. The music is ALL OVER THE PLACE. They're just as apt to break out Demi Lovoto as they are Duncan Shiek or Ghostface Killah. There is no musical creed or over-arching taste. This is a show that will license dozens of tracks per episode and it doesn't care where they come from.

2. Girls makes stars. Probably the best example here is Icona Pop's "I Love It." A song that didn't get recognized the year it came out (except by Pitchfork) and once it shows up on Girls as the soundtrack to Hannah and Elijah's coke-fueled, AndrewAndrew DJ'd freakout, the track shoots into the Billboard Hot 100. And this isn't the only example. There's a Girls effect, much like the Colbert Bump.

3. If you're a character on Girls (with the exception of musical artist cameos) and you're making music, you're probably a punch line. 

This last one is the most disturbing for me. None of the characters on the show who make music are ever taken seriously. Adam's weirdo songs for Hannah are "hostile," Marnie's Edie Brickell video is autotuned and laughed at by everyone but her, and Thomas John's "mash ups" are like if Warren Buffet created Dada. There is literally one redeeming musical moment created by a character, and that's with the return of Charlie's band in season one, but even this isn't really seen on camera because what's more important is Marnie's reaction to the band. For a show that can pull from almost every musical style and make stars out of previously niche Swedish duos, why do all the characters who make music get treated like shit on the show?

The answer is pretty simple and it goes back to needing to be cool and the dominance of taste that I mentioned earlier. When we see these characters make music, we see them trying. Trying to make it, trying to connect, or trying to show an emotion, and trying is the opposite of cool. Trying is effort, whereas cool is second nature. Furthermore, when these characters have these moments of obvious effort, they have more on the line because they're openly putting their social standing on the line through a "taste-less" act. Think about it like this. No one cares that Charlie's band rocked a warehouse party, they're all impressed when, out of nowhere, he develops an app. Then he's "grown-up." The mentality that the show has toward music is reflective of hipster culture and deeply disturbing. Whereas indie celebrated the DIY, self and community expression, hipsters celebrate the opposite. What you try for isn't as cool as what's already able to be bought. 

This is essentially where my chapter ends. Obviously, it's a lot longer and with more theory and examples and all that good stuff, but I find myself at the end of it wondering what the end of this line of thought means. And again, I'd love your input here.

1. Will hipsters and hipsterdom go away? It seems to be a remarkably resilient culture that shows like Girls prop up and perpetuate. It would be fallacy to call them a subculture or independent culture at this point, they're more of a consumer group, but it's one where musicians have to hawk their wares. 

2. How can musicians survive in this? I don't think that it's coincidence that many of our best indie musicians, The Antlers, Sharon Van Etten, even more "mainstream" folk like Bon Iver, are crafting really emotionally resonant songs to undercut this ironic hipster stance. It's as if they seem to be challenging their audiences. But, with hipsters being the dominant (or one of the dominant) markets for indie music how are musicians making it?

3. If eclectic listening really is this hallmark of hipster culture, then where the fuck is the "world" music? What kind of a white paradise is this hipsterdom when it moves according to class-stratified, white taste? And, don't tell me that Robyn, Icona Pop, and Pitbull are "world" music. 

This final question seems, to me, to be the ultimate Achilles heel of independent culture today. We've become so focused on ourselves that we seem more and more unwilling to let other cultures in and become a genuinely mixed or poly culture. Rather than stealing from we should be working on new forms and one of the biggest ones is by looking outside our window, our country, and our culture. 


3 comments:

  1. u shud go back to writin school

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad you mention Robyn. I feel like a lot of the musical scenes are the most relatable on the show--dancing to Robyn w/ your BFF, singing RENT karaoke (don't judge!), seeing a friends band and being relieved that they're good. There was an interview w/ Lena Dunham where she said that she LOVES Marnie's voice in real life and wants her to sing all the time, but in the show world they make fun of Marnie's performances. I thought that was interesting--using a genuine feeling and making fun of it for your audience.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Hank,

    Cool article! Posting this shit from work so probably not fully understanding where you're coming from and all but tryna add to the discussion and stuff.

    I don't want to assume that you've not come upon the term post-irony, but in case you haven't it is definitely something worth mentioning in this kind of discussion as it is some kind of attempt to explain how contemporary 'hipsters' can openly enjoy Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga or something like that. The wikipedia article on the term is ok but check out the references at the bottom of the wiki article and also HRO Carles' (RIP, bro) own explanations of the term. Basically the theory, if we can call it that, just states that any real irony with this demographic is over, for the most part, and now it's become something *else*.

    Now here are my personal answers to your questions:

    #1 - Not sure if hipsters will go away. This incarnation of 'hipsters' are at this point just mainstream materialists, really. For the sake of companies that are selling high-priced items and marketing to this demographic, I certainly hope for them that hipsters don't go away as they are making a killing on selling things like $12 organic shampoo and Toms shoes to a person harboring enough emptiness to think these things will add something to their life/void. But I think none of us know about any 'real' movement of hipsters because they would probably actually be too hip for any of us to know about and we won't know about whatever incarnation until around 2017 - when it actually won't be legitimately cool anymore.

    #2 - Songwriters will survive by writing great songs. Ah, wait, let me refine that: *real* songwriters will survive as they always have by writing great songs. 'Hipsters' around US that are bored, have Abelton and a notebook computer and attempting to profit on exploiting/copying whatever sound that they *think* is coming out of Brooklyn (played-out by the time is reaches their ears anyway), well, some of them will catch a little fire perhaps, but most will do nothing since only a fraction of them create any above-average songs. So they, like all imitators of any movement, won't really serve much function beyond giving further legitimacy to real artists.

    #3 - I don't really know anything about world music but it's not a lot of material in the pop format (verses and choruses/hooks, 3.5 min. songs) so that's probably why no one that I know of in the US really listens to it, hipsters or otherwise; just material delivered in a format most of us aren't used to.

    Again, cool article, man.

    ReplyDelete