Pop Culture
Oct 09, 2008, 05:50AM

All Irony, No Ideals

The word "indie" has no meaning anymore, so we're back to calling subcultural types "hipsters." With that kind of vague, ideal-free title, a mass-market company like American Apparel has no problem taking over.

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Photo by Lewisha1990.

About five years ago, when I opened a checking account and started thinking about which businesses I should throw my money at, the main subculture was still called “indie.” I dabbled in indie-ness; I read blogs and downloaded remixes of Animal Collective songs, and I didn’t find it particularly shameful. I had grown up listening to the Beatles with my mom in her minivan, so I had a legitimate interest in finding music that satisfied the taste instilled by my hippie parents. After a year or two of this, iTunes was able to inform me that my favorite genre was freak/alt*/folk, and I was okay with that.

What bothered me was that the term “indie” also referred to aspects of culture other than media. Sure, liking films produced in Podunk Studios meant you liked “independently produced” media, but behaviors like using Pop Tart flavored lip balm from Target and buying posters of Edgar Allan Poe for your dorm room started to be labeled “indie” too. Stretching the word “indie”’ to mean “not mainstream” seemed sloppy, like our generation was too busy walking an extra mile to Lund’s for organic sushi to even give a sensible name to our subculture.

But there’s been a simultaneous resurgence of the nearly ancient word “hipster,” which is now used as generic shorthand everywhere from The Onion to The Colbert Report to innumerable blogs and viral videos.

We had apparently used “indie” out of emergency, sort of like a makeshift Y2K shelter in case the new Millennium brought us our own, unique cultural movement. For all we knew, we’d be decorating ourselves exclusively in actual “indie” clothes produced down the road by a band of innovate free spirits with sewing machines, and eating baked goods with different fillings from suburb to suburb. But over the summer, it seems, as the strict economic definition of “indie” became diluted to the point of meaninglessness, we’ve consented to stick with the more mutable term “hip.”

So what was the crux of this change? I believe the answer is fairly simple: American Apparel. The store has been in Minneapolis’ quaint and increasingly corporate Uptown area for only one year, and now my university’s campus—one where soft-tummied, tea-wielding hippies were once the subcultural norm—has turned into a land of skinny-limbed, jumpsuit-wearing neonophiles.

Subculture 101: the only element of a subculture that can rival the music and the ideas imbued in that music is fashion. Fashion carries the whole system of semiology that allows us to communicate who we are to people sitting in our lecture hall. Just like dreads used to mean you liked the Grateful Dead, oversize fake glasses now mean that you enjoy Cut Copy and you have a tongue-in-cheek but powerful love of Gossip Girl.

Problem is, the American Apparel ethos stands in direct opposition to the ideal that we should consume independently produced culture. American Apparel’s name alone is broad and geographical, and their bags carry a list of metropolitan areas all over the world where their code of bright colors and androgynous, overtly sexual angles direct fashion. It’s just as marketing-centric as any mainstream corporate brand, but they fool you by peddling “hipness.”

Young Minneapolitans were left with a choice: become fussy and intolerable in our consumer habits by choosing to shop at only independent-friendly stores, or give up that ideal and join the fleets of the hip and ironic. Considering that the music that has come to dominate the indie blogosphere is increasingly ironic (i.e. The Teenagers and Hot Chip), our choice of the latter option makes perfect sense. Rather than characterize ourselves by the means of production of our cultural artifacts, we went with ideal-free irony, which is practically a synonym for hip.

So what’s the appeal of irony? Ironic hipsters have been accused of appropriating every other culture’s aesthetic elements and abandoning any actual ideals, a criticism that will make your collection of tiny Buddhas and your short stint as a metrosexual seem slightly more cringe-worthy. But irony’s got to have some kind of compensation. My theory is that our addiction to irony came somewhere along with our addiction to antidepressants. Put on that seafoam green jumper, baby, and be shiny on the outside! As Harry “the hipster” Gibson sang in 1947, “Keep cool fool, like a fish in the pool/That's the golden rule at the Hipster school.”

*Except for the “alt” part, which seemed like a meaningless term recycled by business execs who didn’t realize the days of radio dominance were over for those over 12.

  • All good points! I think if you are defining yourself according to what you consume, you are neither hip nor indie but a perfect commercial target.There's nothing wrong with that, but what I loathe is the foolish arrogance accompanying hipster buying. Unless you made it, you are not original or more creative for choosing the whole of a company's marketing scheme to fall for. I don't suggest buying with shame, but nor should your AA hoodie stand as a trophy of your independent spirit. I think K-mart sells hipster clothes too.

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  • Iris, I agree with you, but I would go so far to say "even if you made it" because the whole DIY culture cropping up is just another icky instance of reified consumerism. Interesting (by which i mean "not interesting") how at those indie craft fairs there is a ton of screen-printed American Apparel junk and fancy boutique yarn--oh, and everything looks the same.

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  • I'm wondering what all these AA-buying indie or hipster kids will do when the company goes bankrupt in the next year and they have no money to spend on new clothes anyway. Too bad GoodWill doesn't issue stock.

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  • Also the idea of hipsters being the perfect consumers reminded me of this pretty good article that was in adbusters a while ago: http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html

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  • American Apparel is just as much an evil corporation as Wal Mart, they just cater to a different niche of people. Besides, their unisex jeans are women's jeans, and I wish they would just admit it. Way too fucking tight for me.

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  • I totally agree, there is nothing that separates American Apparel from any big box chain, the only difference is store size and price. A tee shirt costs like 50 bucks!

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  • And hoodies are something like seventy bucks right? Absolutely ridiculous. I could buy a similar article of clothing for about fifteen bucks at Walgreens. But I guess I'll go to AmAp for my thermochromatic and striped shirt necessities.

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  • Blah, blah, blah. And your point is?

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  • I never bought the whole "indie" thing. And I hate American Apparel. As a teenager the whole Seattle sound erupted, and as a New Yorker I guess we were just a tiny bit behind, although once Spin magazine (which was great in the late 80s and early 90s) put Nirvana on the cover everything changed. I still think younger people (and that includes my generation), pine for the 60s when everything seemed so much more exciting and vibrant.

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  • You know, I'm starting to get really sick of all the articles denouncing American Apparel and hipsters, like that Time Out New York cover a while back that roared THE HIPSTER MUST DIE. Whether people like or not, and whether it's got substance or not, there will always be some sort of subculture, and eventually that subculture will wiggle its way into the mainstream. I get the point that American is commodifying "hipness" or "hipsterdom" to the peeps with no real identity. And I get the argument that hipsters are not really all that unique because they're all "the same." Hell, I was just at a cafe on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg yesterday and everybody was "ironic" or "whatever." But you know what? Leave these people alone!!!!! Their irony, however unironic it really is, doesn't have anything to do with anybody else. Just let them BE. And as for American Apparel, there are few other places I can go to get skinny jeans that are skinny enough, or a v-neck t-shirt that's small enough. Being skinny is tough.

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