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April 11th, 2009 - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
April 11th, 2009
Sat, Apr. 11th, 2009 07:22 am

In my latest column for Playground, the "trendy web magazine" from Madrid, I propose modern cool as a latterday version of the chivalric code, and use Cervantes' "ingenious knight of La Mancha" as its foremost forerunner. Mine is a notably more Eurocentric thesis than the one expounded in BBC4's recent TV study Arena: Cool, which looks at "how the American jazz music of the 1940s and 50s gave birth to the notion of 'cool'". There are some overlaps, though -- look at how many of those musicians gave themselves the titles of eccentric European aristocrats, for instance (Count Basie and Duke Ellington amongst American jazzers, Count Ossie and Prince Buster in the Jamaican world of ska and reggae). Perhaps they too are descended from Don Quixote.

Playground column
April 2009

El ingenioso hipster de la Mancha

Playground is a trendy web magazine, don't you think? I think so. It has an elegant design and a tasteful selection of music and culture. It appeals to people in-the-know, people more-than-usually interested in creativity, originality, style. I don't like the word "hipsters", but Playground appeals to people like that, whatever we call them, don't you think?

Whether we use "hipster" or prefer Richard Florida's term "the creative class", we probably mean the kind of people who colonize poor, decaying areas of cities, adding value in the form of art galleries, global fusion restaurants, and fixed-gear bike shops. The kind of people who improve an area, drive the rents up, and have to move to another area. But that's okay, because they're flexible, energetic, resourceful young people without deep roots. They like things to be fresh, challenging, and always changing.

Of course, some people hate hipsters. Usually -- as when Adbusters magazine ran a feature last August called Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization -- it's slightly-less-hip hipsters who hate slightly-more-hip hipsters for snubbing and excluding them. So we can dismiss most of that as jealousy.

If you attack hipsters, you're supposed to attack them from the left rather than from the right, because otherwise you'll just look like a square or a killjoy. So you're supposed to say that they're politically conservative, and should be carrying rocks instead of cameras, and smashing things instead of photographing each other for street style blogs. Or you're supposed to say that hipsters are just a marketing demographic, and that (despite the fact than any group can be marketed to these days) that that makes them invalid, somehow. But despite this attack-from-the-left, you'll still probably come off looking like a conservative. Or a disgruntled ex-hipster whose girlfriend just ran off with a cooler guy.

Will I be opening myself up to attack-from-the-left if I say that I think being trendy is essentially about having that old-fashioned thing, a code of honour? For me, it's chivalric. That's a good word, "chivalric", because it conjures up the image of knights like Don Quixote, but also the idea of the horses they ride (cheval). The chivalric code of honour was essentially an etiquette, a series of Dos and Don'ts for the aristocrat who wanted to cut a dash. The key elements were that you should do brave and virtuous things, be honest, and be good at swordsmanship and riding. There was also a romantic side to the chivalric code: in "courtly love" (amour courtois) a man assumes a woman's independence to choose or reject him. (The system before chivalry had used arranged marriage.) Trying to win his lady's favour, the knight had to be gallant in his efforts to please and praise her. He had to master the arts of poetry and singing.

For me, the nearest contemporary equivalent of the chivalric knight of the 11th and 12th centuries is the trendy hipster. Like the knight, the trendy hipster pays great attention to dressing well and acting according to an etiquette of cool. He masters poetry and music, either by making it himself or selecting and quoting it well (we call this modern serenading "DJing"). He is often a skinny, nerdy fellow who didn't get much attention from girls at school; in his 20s he learns how culture can give him an appeal that nature never did. He starts to get laid, and ends up (thanks to a combination of loose bohemian morals and youthful looks) having much more sex with many more partners than the athletic alpha males who got the girls in high school do. They all settle down quickly to biological reproduction, whereas our trendy hipster is intent on reproducing himself by cultural means. And getting laid.

What's the role of music, for the trendy chivalric knight? Music is very important to him, but not as music per se. His music taste must reveal the hipster's status as a member of some inner circle of the wise and cool -- a clique, a cognoscenti. He must make the correct references, or -- better still -- must be working at what I've called the battlefront of re-evaluation: that magical place (a flea market, perhaps, or junk store, or secondhand record store) where things that have been out of fashion for a decade or so are being reassessed and given new value.

Music, for our young Don Quixote, isn't just music but a Friends Filter, an asset in his strategies of social differentiation, a way to forge the right bonds via social networking software, to accumulate cultural capital. This might sound terrible, but it's okay -- really! Music has never been just about the resonance of sounds. It's always encoded important social functions; that's what makes it socially important.

Of course, those of you who've read Cervantes will say to me, "Your comparison with knights is fine, but Don Quixote wasn't a young trendy hipster, he was an old eccentric." That's true, but, speaking from experience, I'd say the really cool thing is to get older and more eccentric without losing the chivalric virtues of hipsterdom. The saddest thing about being trendy and hip is that people stop doing it after their 30th birthday, or after they get married and have kids. And the second saddest thing about being trendy and hip is that it can become simply an alternative sort of conformity.

So I'd say three things:

1. Don't be ashamed! It's important to be trendy!

2. Don't give up! Stay with it, even as you get older!

3. Don't go straight! Get weirder and more experimental!

The saddest moment in the tale of el ingenioso hidalgo de la Mancha is when the old eccentric loses his faith in chivalry, and becomes sane. Make sure it never happens to you!