In this dyspeptic essay, the French critic Stephane Delaunay compares the revulsion he feels toward cupcakes with their human equivalent, the hipster. Superficial, depthlessly ironic, self-consciously countercultural, Delaunay suggests that the hipster movement’s major cultural contribution has been to marketers.
It is difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know what a cupcake is these days, but for those who have somehow escaped this new trend in pastries, let us restate what it is: a small individual cake, rounded in shape, on top of which an exaggerated decoration is often smeared. The excessiveness of the decoration is the only interesting aspect of this pastry, prized more for its appearance than for its supposedly pleasurable taste. You might object that aesthetics has its importance in pastry making; a cake needs to be captivating, it needs to make you salivate, to trigger in your imagination a blend of flavors and textures, to tell a story, to excite the eater’s imagination… But the cupcake has no story to tell, it invents nothing. It is a monkey-cake that imitates an iconic reality, a goofy cake that embodies the shift in customs in the West, a Trojan horse of fast-food culture in the world of pastry: the immediate satisfaction of the buyer, which is imperative, is fully satisfied by the acquisition while utility(flavor) is relegated to a secondary level. Buying must be transformative. And when you buy a cupcake you become funny. Yes: this is the magic of consumption.
As for me, I am a lover of all kinds of pastries, but I am overcome by a peculiar aversion when confronted with cupcakes. Maybe there is a deficit of humor in me, or perhaps the child in me is gone forever. Unimportant. But there is this: while some people feel they put on weight just looking in the window of a pastry shop; I feel a rush of disgust when I happen to encounter these seemingly innocuous little cakes through a window. I had very nearly decided I needed to see a shrink about this overwhelming phobia, but I had a sudden revelation during a recent trip to New York City, more precisely to Brooklyn: cupcakes are a Proustian madeleine for me. They summon up for me what I dislike about hipsters: the way they attract the eye with a surface originality, their conventional and insipid essence.
Curiously, we still don’t talk much about hipsters much in France, despite the fact that they are proliferating in Paris, and even though they appear in advertising as avatars of modernity, with brands like The Kooples using them both as a target audience and as models. On the other side of the Atlantic, articles and videos have been mocking their eccentricity and their inanity for years now.
But who are the hipsters? Defining them accurately is no easy task, the more since Parisian hipsters differ from the original New York patterns-at least on a sociological level. In terms of appearance and attitude the continental differences are a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. There is the faux-scruffy look, the apparently unstructured haircut-letting the hair grow out everywhere in the masculine version-and a sophisticated mix of cheapo and high-end clothing (Marc Jacobs is their model). Generally perched on a fixie bike, the hipster is an Apple fanboy who constructs his identity as if it was an iPod playlist, and keeps a close eye on Time Out New York. Comfortable in these cut-and-paste times, he is a champion of regurgitation. He works in advertising, fashion, production; he is often a graphic designer or artist (he has the tendency to confuse the two). Perhaps he does all of these at once, or attempts to. He reads Wad, Vice, Les Inrocks, Wallpaper; he has jumped on the fanzine bandwagon and emptied it of all of its subversive elements; his Bible is Less Than Zero and Sofia Coppola is his favorite movie director (which is why I cannot help thinking that the orgy of cupcakes in Marie-Antoinette is anything but an accident). I’ll finish the portrait with his typical attitude: he poses and displays a blase expression in “cool” places, which he colonizes with his kind in order to empty them of their authenticity and eventually abandon them because of what he did to them. The tragedy of it all is that he has both flair and taste.
So this is how the hipster sucks the life out of lower classes neighborhoods and finishes the gentrification started by the liberal yuppies who preceded him. In a few years the north of Paris will be a kind of Brooklandia with its ‘Fifties thrift stores, its insanely expensive second-hand clothing stores, its organic and fair trade boutiques, its wifi cafes, and its ethnic brunches.
Four years ago, under siege in the 10th arrondissement, I took refuge in the 19th arrondissement; but here I can already observe the beginnings of the colonization. The advance guard of hipsters will be followed by their mainstream avatars. And real estate developers won’t miss an opportunity-their work is already visible in the dismantling of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the CPCU heater factory – both historic landmarks of the 19th arrondissement- in place of which New York style industrial lofts are being built, advertised by City Hall as ‘respectful of the soul of the neighborhood.’
The trouble with the hipster is the way he appropriates from-or really expropriates-the working classes. There is a rote display of lefty political positions, but this caste, which thinks that it sets the cultural tone for the city, convinced that without it nothing interesting will take place, destroys precisely everything that really does set the tone for a city, namely its diversity. This caste is the first to deplore the death of downtowns and night life, but is the very cause of its own boredom. Because you do not get entertained in the places that hipsters like to frequent; you go out to show yourself. You do not dance, not really, the dance floor being only a podium for evaluation. Punk, disco and hip-hop all gave rise to immersive dances, intimate and energizing, which liberated the dancer from his thoughts. Hipsters, as Adbusters has suggested, merely ironize; they mock the very idea of dancing and distinguish themselves by their inability to express themselves, trapped in their prisons of hyper-self-awareness.
Were he less disdainful, it might be possible to feel sorry for the hipster. But there can be no compassion for one who represents himself as an aristocrat of taste and intellect. The hipster “knows”, “sees”, “feels”, “hears” better than others. He lives in a hyper-fastidious world of his own making; a world that he shares mainly on Facebook or in name-dropping conversations with fellow connoisseurs. Yes, he is indeed a trendsetter; part of that coveted set of ‘early adopters’ so well known to the marketers-who sell them products they think they have discovered for themselves. The hipster’s quicksilver capacity to lose interest in things that have become too main stream makes him an ideal audience for cultural marketing. The culture of the disposable is thus winning over a final bastion: the creatives themselves.
While he believes he is building a counter-culture, the hipster is in fact its gravedigger. He is a cheap non-conformist blinded by his ego who participates in the generalized torpor. This is why even Time Out New York describes him as a “harmless zombie” for the system. Although he likes to display revolutionary symbols and sign online petitions to build up his e-reputation, he is nothing more than an advanced product of decayed capitalism.
He is not the new generation but a dead end. Elitist and cynical, incapable of even thinking about the common good, he cannot even understand that the power of Rimbaud, Kerouac, Burroughs, all authors that he adores, lies in their ability to empathize with the banished, the excluded and other outcasts. When Time magazine this week chose “the protestor” as its ‘person of the year’, it merely underlined what a has-been the hipster already is.
So let’s be optimistic. This “generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it [them]selves,” as Adbusters descried it, has had its day. Somewhere else, a new generation is rising, made up of young people who understood that their future will only be built with new social models and a political struggle to realize their ideals.
29 Mar 2012