Sunday, February 6, 2011

Notes on Hipsterism, Loser Culture, the New Failure Focus, and the Mysteriously Enduring Popularity of the Hardboiled Detective

It turns out I can't make the artificial distinction between pop culture, literature and amateur sociology. But I'll tie it into literature by the end of the post and also, I'm sure, in future posts.

A Loser, Baby

As an idle zeitgeist-watcher, I've developed over the years a theory of how slackers became losers, on the one hand, and hipsters, on the other. You remember "slackers," that censorious boomer term for people in their early 20s, who, it was thought, had no ambition or work ethic. Its introduction to late 20th century pop culture was accomplished, as far as I know, by the 1991 Richard Linklater film Slacker, and the same period, the early 90s, also saw the introduction of the term "loser" into pop culture, with Radiohead's "Creep" ("I'm a creep, I'm a loser / What the hell am I doing here? / I don't belong here") and Beck's "Loser" ("I'm a loser, baby / So why don't you kill me"). Between them, the two songs, ubiquitous on the radio throughout the 90s, heralded, with Nirvana, a new era of depressive, self-deprecating youth, whether you were emo (also known as "what people with no sense of humour thought The Smiths were") or a hipster, two strains of youth culture best characterized by their relationship to irony (total absence or total saturation).

I was in my late teens (sixteen and on) when all of this happened, and I remember being insulted by the term "slacker" even though I wasn't one of the twentysomethings being implicated: it still seemed like the old people were unfairly branding my generation. I don't recall noticing the Radiohead or Beck songs until the late 90s, though, when I was approaching my mid-20s and getting divorced. Maybe it was because they spoke to me then (I was also going through career failure), or maybe it took me so long to notice them because I never listened to pop stations and rarely watched MTV. The sentiments of "Creep" repulsed me, while "Loser" made me laugh. I did, however, like Radiohead's "Just," which was as masochistic as "Creep" but more vigorous. Anger works when humour fails.

Loser TV

The loser appeared on TV a little ahead of his pop music emergence, in the person of George Costanza on Seinfeld. No one had ever seen anything like George before: physically unremarkable (balding, short, tubby), mentally unremarkable, neurotic, browbeaten by his parents, unable to hold down a job. George was a born loser with self-sabotage added for good measure, and no one had seen a TV character like this before, someone you couldn't either identify with as a fantasy or look down on and laugh at. Instead, you looked down on George and identified with him at the same time.

Loser TV flourished in the UK as well, initially with the series Black Books (2000-2004), with the loser mantle taken up by Peep Show (2003-present). Black Books, created by and starring Dylan Moran, centered on the misanthropic, chainsmoking-and-wine drinking Bernard Black, owner of a tiny bookshop, his flunky Manny (the tricky slave to his senex iratus, in Frygian terms: from Fawlty Towers on, British sitcoms like to stay close to the classic template), and their neurotic friend Fran. As if their (unusual) interest in books disqualifies them for reality, not one of the main characters is capable of real work (the bookshop itself doesn't count) or a relationship, and Bernard and Fran constantly engage in the un-p.c. self-destructive behaviours of smoking and drinking. Fran is a Bernard who guiltily tries to better herself, but by the third and last season she has all but given up and accepted that she is just as unfit for normal life as Bernard. In the characterization of her college friends from the climax of her character trajectory, the devastating episode "Elephants and Hens" from season three, Fran is a "crazy spinster" only fit to hang out with the bookshop "freaks."

Whereas Black Books seemed to express the personal vision of its creator (namely, that the modern world wasn't worth living in and it was much better to hole up with a book, cigarettes and wine), Peep Show seems more like a generational commentary. Mark and Jez are odd couple roomies in their thirties: Mark the uptight nerd and Jez the laidback slacker. Despite being opposites, however, they're united in their complete lack of equipment for success by the same old standards of measurement: career, money, relationships, raising a family. Between the two of them, they can just about manage work and sex respectively, though not very well. Mark can hold down a dull office job and takes work seriously enough to want to get ahead in it, but unfortunately he has no talent, and when by a miracle he does start to rise, he naturally screws it up. Jez has nothing but scorn for the "straight" world of work, thinking he's going to make it as a musician, but he, too, is hampered by lack of any talent. Although Mark seems comparatively "mature," in fact both are boys, curiously stunted in the development of their life skills and emotions, and their growing co-dependency (as in Black Books) makes it worse. As the series progresses, viewers watch and wait for time to take its course as the characters get older without getting ahead and grow more desperate all the time.

Peep Show maybe proves that you don't have to be a bohemian with acute mental illness to be desperate. It's enough to be an ordinary person unable to figure out (or, deep down, to care) how a dull life works in a culture obsessed with youth, so that you go from being young and carefree to being a pathetic loser by exhibiting the same behaviours and maintaining the same level of success in your thirties (and forties, and fifties) as in your twenties. Turning thirty (the age of the fictional Jonathan Ames in Bored to Death) seems to be the gunshot that starts the race, after which every second that passes without accomplishment decreases your social status and increases your existential desperation. Like the gunshot of turning twenty for an unmarried Jane Austen heroine.

The Loser and the Recession

The mighty Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring the real George Constanza, debuted the same year as Black Books. Trust the Irish and the Jews to know a thing or two about losing. I have to admit I've never watched more CYE than a few seconds of the first episode, so sick was I of the Seinfeld hype by that time, and also going through a period (my entire twenties) where I "didn't watch TV" (meaning I watched very little, mainly Buffy), until the advent of DVD availability and the HBO and Showtime era seduced me back (so now I watch a little more). Nevertheless, in my casual, totally subjective overview, if the 90s introduced the concept of the loser as a pop culture identification figure, the concept truly flourished in the 2000s, after which it may have gradually fizzled out if it weren't for one thing: the recession.

The global recession of 2007 gave the loser a new lease on life and retroactively justified the slacker attitude. Once, young people rejected their boomer parents' materialism; now, we discovered we would never get ahead if we tried. Once, we refused to mature and become bourgeois; now, we discovered that the social symbols of maturity (house, car, family, career advancement.... leaving your parents' house) would either be unavailable to us or come very late. Once we thought we might like to live like bohemians not only in our twenties (which still gives you time to become bourgeois on schedule) but into our thirties; now we learned that we could be living that way into our forties, or fifties... or permanently.

The Loser and the Hipster

At exactly what point did the defining term for the post-boomer generation change from "slacker" to "hipster"? As notoriously elusive as Sontag's camp, the condition of being a hipster is defined both against mainstream culture (the trash culture celebrated by reality TV) and bourgeois culture (i.e. corporate culture, whose promises of success for the individual are ever-decreasing since the recession).  The hipster was consolidated as a cultural figure by the time of the publication of Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like in book form in early 2008, although Lander participated in a common confusion by making "white people" (i.e., hipsters) refer to both the new, young, post-boomer middle class in their thirties who have disposable income to spend on consumer products geared towards bourgeois bohemians; and what he calls the "poor by choice," namely arts grad students, who will for the rest of their lives exhibit a comical disparity between their overeducated snob tastes and their poverty. But although the media has tried to account for low-income hipsters by pointing to the glutting of urban centres by the sons and daughters of the middle class, you don't, in fact, need either to live in a major urban centre or (contra Lander) have a university education to be a hipster. If you were anywhere between six and forty when indie music crossed over into the mainstream in the early 90s or have passed through adolescence since that event, you, too, had the option of becoming a hipster without ever going anywhere near a university. Really, hipster taste is just urban taste, and in the era of global marketing and the internet, nothing is easier than to acquire urban taste even when you're miles from a major urban centre.

In recessionary pop culture, the hipster and the loser dance around each other without completely coinciding. The recession and its economic fallout have confirmed that post-boomers are losers, and hipsterism is the most recognizable form of post-boomer youth culture, and, like the also urban dandyism of the latter 19th century, can be supported even without any income, because its focus is taste, not property - a superior state of being rather than a superior state of having. But you can also be a hipster without being a loser and a loser without being a hipster. Take the cast of Community: the only hipsters are Jeff and Britta, who are also the only "white people" (under 60) by the show's implicit definition. (In another sociological perceptual filter, Annie, who is Jewish, might be "white" and/or a hipster, but here she is "ethnic" and a preppie nerd.) They're two different, mutually hostile varieties of hipster, too: Jeff is a metrosexual hipster, a narcissistic womanizer; Britta's a hipster's hipster, a white liberal guilt-tripper who scorns Jeff`s metrosexuality as vulgarly retro. Although by the show's definition, which coincides with Lander's hipster definition of hipsters, non-"whites" can't be hipsters, they can be hipper than the hipsters (like Abed) or cooler than the hipsters (like Troy: you're automatically cooler than white people if you're black unless you're Christian, like Shirley, and the white people are implied agnostics or atheists - Community is easily the most overtly secular, or rather specifically anti-Christian, mainstream show I've ever seen, also reflecting trends within the young hipster demographic it seeks). Meanwhile, the show itself is a hipster comedy (due to its self-reflexive pop humour and mixture of liberal inclusiveness and cheeky post-p.c. "edge") about losers (adults and other failures attending community college). The undercurrent of class warfare was most apparent in the episode where Jeff and Britta (who, as white people, are the most sensitive about their social status, since after all they belong to the social group that's losing ground, as Lander records) get involved in a battle with some obnoxious high school kids who mock them for being unsuccessful adults. The hipster-loser viewer can't help but cheer when the show plays to her prejudices in the climactic food fight by providing legends that identify the moronic, infantile teens as future Ivy League graduates and Supreme Court justices.

Bored to Death is likewise a hipster comedy about losers, although the set of reference points is literary-hipster rather than pop-hipster (although the boundary is hazy, since the hardboiled detective character is pop-literary and comic books are both a pop and a print medium). Pre-recession, the loser isn't a failure so much as a fuck-up: there is no conceivable universe in which George Constanza, Bernard Black or Mark and Jez could get ahead. We identify with the loser's inability to navigate ordinary life but recognize that our own incapacities are comically exaggerated in these characters. In recessionary loser comedy, in contrast, the loser has failed not due to obvious, gross incapacities but because "failure" is normal (even if it hurts white people's egos) or the odds are so stacked against him or her. Both Community and Bored to Death are - in their different ways, at moments, in between the comic hijinks that are the main point - about learning how to negotiate failure, which is also re-understanding what success is. A borderline loser in the first season, by the start of the second season "Jonathan Ames" is a confirmed loser: his second novel has been rejected, he's teaching writing (the seal of death for most writers' careers unless they're already famous) at night school, and George can't help him out with assignments because of budget cuts to his magazine. By the anxious standards of the early 21st century, Jonathan is, as he worries out loud, "washed up at 30." Of course as George, in his role as sage, tells Jonathan, that's completely absurd. A thirty-year-old is a child (as the casting of baby-faced, adolescent-voiced Schwartzman emphasizes), and life still holds decades of experiences and surprises. And even if Jonathan is never a success as a writer or anything else, as George tells him in a later episode, how can he be a "failure" when he's a writer and a detective - two pleasurable occupations that make life more interesting?

The Writer and the Detective

Why, anyway, the hardboiled detective - whether you're Jonathan Ames or Roberto Bolano, who teasingly claimed in the last interview before his death that he would rather have been a homicide detective than a writer? If I recall correctly from my early teenage reading, Camus liked the hardboiled detective too, that lone, lonely figure who lived by his own code. In the secular, relativistic early 21st century, only the fantasy of being as cool, iconic and in control as the hardboiled detective can survive the scrutiny of the ironic postmodern/hipster eye (in which regard he is to us as the dandy was to Baudelaire). The fantasy of being a hardboiled detective is, after all, is, like the fantasy of being a writer (however dreary and demoralizing the reality may be), not only a leap of faith that life might, after all, be more interesting than it appears, but a fantasy of oneself being interesting. Like the Quixotism of Emma Bovary or, for that matter, of Quixote. Except that the Quixotism of "Jonathan Ames" is more gently entertained, at least in the show's first two seasons, as though what the late Western capitalist/recessionary/corporate world of the eternal bottom line could use is a little more whimsical fantasy, not less.


  1. But what if you are a bohemian with acute mental illness? What excuse do I have for my desperation now?

    'Really hipster taste is just urban taste.'

    That's very true. But what's so odd about hipsterism is its conflicted denial. The way that outing someone as a hipster - despite everything they say/do/wear screaming out I AM A HIPSTER - is almost always less welcome than a fart in a silver jump suit. Naming it is shaming it.

    Hipsterism has this craven relationship to 'authenticity', even though everything about it is as inauthentic as lens-less plastic glasses.

  2. I really love this blog so far, Elise. It's one of the smartest things I have stumbled across (no Mark Simpson told me about it-I don't stumble across good things very often) recently.

    I wonder if there was any form of personhood though, that resisted Hipster/Loser definitions in the 90s. I was in my early 20s at that time and I felt most drawn to people who were active in queer politics etc and who loved grunge/riot grrl etc. I didn't know that many in Birmingham, UK! But the spirit inspired me.

    I don't see queer activism or Riot Grrl as either Hipster/Loser by definition. Especially when it was aimed at real social change and not just being trendy.

    Am I romanticising my youth?

  3. p.s. And are 'losers' in popular culture always men? who are the archetypal women losers in our consciousness?

    I can't think of any except for Tina Fey but she is not a slacker/economic loser just an emotional loser...

  4. Hi Elly, pleased to meet you!

    The thing about "hipsterism" is, I don't think anyone self-identifies as a hipster, except as a self-deprecating ironic thing. It's more like something you use to catch yourself, or a friend or acquaintance, out. "I wear black skinny jeans... OMG I'm such a hipster!" (I actually do that, you know, even though I'm 35. OMG I REALLY AM A HIPSTER.)

    "Oh God, you like 'The Wire' AND McSweeney's? You total hipster!" It's less a movement to identify with than an identification of "tendencies" that are (in much the way Lander describes) embarrassing because they're supposed to be unique but instead they're widespread.

    As for the loser thing, that's a trend in pop culture (if I'm right), not a movement of any kind. It seems to me that starting in the 90s, it became more and more common in pop culture to portray "losers" and for (young) people (i.e people in their 20s or 30s) to be willing to think of themselves as losers, and that it's become even more common since the recession, now that more and more people can identify with the idea of "failure," and many young people don't have much of a future to look forward to.

    Granted, I know people my age in similar economic and career situations who would never identify with the idea of being a "loser"; who, rather, feel that they've opted for life choices (such as a low income) based on their creativity, and also see creativity as an end in itself and don't mind if they're not hugely successful in that area either. Which I also feel much of the time, but other times it can be fun to go ahead and call yourself a loser. (Just ask Beck. In English or Spanish.)

  5. Re Mark's comment (I'll just repeat what I said in the e-mail, with some edits): Haha Mark, of course your favourite part of the post is the part I stole from you, calling hipster taste urban taste. That is, giving it a basis similar to metrosexuality (by way of the NYT article on hipsterism). Yes, people only use the term to make fun of themselves or others, though. I think that's a combination of Lander's thesis - that hipsters are embarrassed that their "unique" (originally, indie... or does it go farther back?) taste is shared by millions - and the latest variation of the self-loathing that Arnold Hauser characterized as a bizarre defining characteristic of the bourgeoisie. You know the drill: the middle class hates nothing worse than to be told they're middle class.

    Re the gender of losers: Excellent point, Elly. I think I even wrote a post on that topic on an old pseudonymous blog I've since deleted. Fran of 'Black Books' is the only authentic female loser I've noticed in pop culture (other than the losers of various varieties on 'Community,' but they're sort of each losers for specific reasons rather than being "overall losers"... man, exploring pop culture through sociology sure gets hair-splitting, no wonder TV takes the form it does). Actually, I've sometimes wondered if the phenomenon couldn't be tied into the neverending post-feminist "crisis of masculinity," with a fairly extraordinary outburst of male emotional masochism (which Camille Paglia, for instance, would consider "feminizing") in pop culture circa the indie crossover led by Nirvana, which happened at the same time as "slackers," or an attributed lack of ambition - a defining characteristic of the traditional male. Anyway, it seems to be mostly (only?) men creating loser-themed songs and shows, and they seem to have a hard time seeing women as "losers." Personally, I'd love to see more female losers in pop culture!

  6. I suppose losers are narcissists and men occupy the role of narcissist so easily.

    'I'm a loser baby, why don't you kill me' is so very self-regarding. If my boyfriend was a loser I might just leave him rather than bother to kill him.

  7. Have you seen 'the complete history of my sexual failures' the 'documentary' about that English guy who goes and interviews all his ex girlfriends?

    He is Hipster/Loser personified.

  8. I wanted to leave a comment on your 'death of the novel' post but it was closed.

    It reminded me of this piece I wrote recently:
    'Fucking Steinbeck'

    I don't know if the novel is dead but the phrase 'literary fiction' leaves me cold, as do most examples of it. I'll be interested to read more of your observations about 'literature' and the novel.

  9. I read that "Fucking Steinbeck" piece! Very well-written.

    There's definitely something self-regarding about defining yourself as a loser, as though the world revolves around whether or not you've become a success in your own terms (whether that's success as a writer, success as a lover, or anything else). It's understandable to brag about your successes/virtues, but it takes a real egoist to "brag" about your failures/flaws. And I should know.

    Though I'm not on the level of that documentary guy you mention (no, haven't seen it). It's true, if you wallow in what a loser you are enough and push it in enough people's faces, it becomes some kind of hipster prank.

  10. I wondered if it was a genunine hipster prank, and he didn't really invest anything in his history of sexual failures at all- he just wanted to make a silly film.

    I even wondered if he had made-up some of his ex girlfriends. That's the problem with Hipsterville-irony and artifice are what keep it going.