These days, it’s hip to be cliché

How Brooklyn-dwelling hipsters became part of the mainstream culture they originally spurned

Popular culture often gets intertwined with the concept of cliché.
Popular culture often gets intertwined with the concept of cliché.

Living in New York this summer and traveling from the depths of Manhattan into the centre of hipster culture—Williamsburg, NY—popular culture has reinstated its roots in a coy yet surprisingly vibrant niche. Walking down Bedford St. past a row of vintage stores and a 20-something with a typewriter and a mounted sign reading “Poetry While U Wait,” I couldn’t help but grin at the cliché of starving idealistic poets and prairie-dressed girls wearing large sunglasses.

Williamsburg, started out as a rent-controlled studio space for starving artists who needed low-cost-low-maintenance habitats. Now it’s teeming with people who claim to be the antithesis of popular culture.

These Williamsburg artists—the same ones who couldn’t afford an apartment in an expensive borough like Manhattan—also couldn’t afford to shop in the overpriced stock of Manhattan’s luxurious avenues. So they bought used, worn, marked down clothes. When Bohemia began to reinvent itself, this too gained a name: grunge gained a positive connotation and a sought-after vintage style.

Mary Armstrong, ArtSci ’11 and an Urban Outfitters employee in Kingston, said the underground hipster scene has made its way to more mainstream culture.

“The hipster look was an underground scene and now many places like Urban Outfitters are chanelling

that culture in a more mainstream way,” she said.

“Urban Outfitters sets a vibe for itself­­—and hence its customers—through the music it plays and the sets you see. It’s not like other stores, there are no clean lines; instead, it plugs into the notion of individuality, a one of a kind fashion and many people are attracted to that,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said a unisex look channels the laid-back attitude the hipster look is generally associated with.

“When people are shopping for clothes they feel like they can communicate their unique style, their individuality, kind of like taking on a different persona, rather than a clean and obviously commercial look.” Many counter movements thrive on popular culture; from Andy Warhol’s commentary on the superfluity of popular culture to Gabriel Marcel’s disdain for mass culture. Popular culture has developed a close relationship to the notion of cliché. Like most clichés, it has created several strong counter movements.

Even these counter movements, however, are often seen as part of popular culture. They are part of a fad that refuses to characterize itself as such, growing into a phenomenon on the premise that it’s not.

Since the term “pop culture” was invented in the early 1960s, it has channeled itself through both unlikely prophets—such as the president of the United States—as well as the kitsch of plastic sandals with holes and Perez Hilton alike.

Sidney Eve Matrix, a professor in the film and media department, said pop culture is about commodification.

“Intellectuals look down at popular culture because it’s entertainment, commerce, commodification,” she said. “It’s about selling a thing, it’s a diversion, in a sense, rather than art. Popular culture is seen as a cliché because it is pitched to a mass audience, on a level of the least common denominator—it suggests that this culture that is being pitched is not a culture of intellectuals, but rather, a culture for anyone who is willing to tune in.”

This is easy to see through social networking webs such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace—all communities for sharing common interests. Matrix calls this “water cooler culture,” where strangers bond by small talk that provides little room for dissent. “[These new ways to communicate] are a great thing.,” Matrix said. “They changed because we’ve become a lot more globally aware, which enables conversation between people who live far away while giving us a better sense of diversity.”

Twitter allows anyone to follow any person or organization of his or her choosing—provided the user creates an account. What you’re doing has become a sort of headline, a witty comment about your cat’s latest illness. Twitter does for people what a blank canvas did for Warhol—that is, it gives them an outlet. It enticed them through the premise that their belittled everyday tasks can be turned into headlines and ultimately, news. It’s also the network of fame: celebrities thrive on it, keeping fans always up to date and allowing them the feeling of utmost intimacy.

According to Matrix, though, this feeling of intimacy is false.

“We are also, however, getting a greater sense of the fact that we live our lives in public. Media coverage of privacy issues has soared and people are always talking about terms like security and confidentiality.”

Pop culture has another side-effect: it has changed the way people communicate with each other. When people use Twitter or Facebook, they may not be aware that their correspondence isn’t with one individual, but with thousands of other users potentially reading, re-interpreting and judging their comments.

“We are essentially teaching each other,” Matrix said. “That is what pop culture is—peer to peer education,” she said. “It’s about sharing and creativity—it inspires you to be more creative and explore different abilities, take more pictures or be more creative with the ones you take.”

Pop culture also played a major part in the election of the first black president in the history of the United States. Barack Obama used popular media like YouTube and Facebook to his advantage. Along with celebrity endorsements and a myriad of other tactics, Obama created the biggest and most influential campaign in the history of the United States. He connected with millions by creating a mass phenomenon. According to Matrix, pop culture has always been intertwined with youth culture.

“Obama’s factor of success is that he mobilized the youth vote. Pop culture and, by extension, Obama’s campaign, is cutting edge and plugged into social media—popular technology— sending viewers a message that says, ‘We are where you are. We get you’,”

she said.

With a strong platform and a strong connectivity to popular youth culture, Obama managed to plug into something called consumer citizenship.

“Branding, both for his campaign and any other pop culture marketing strategy, is very important.

We use those brands to communicate us as people. Whether it’s the brand of jeans you’re wearing or the candidate you’re voting for, it’s a brand nonetheless, and it communicates something about you as an individual, but also as part of a society,” Matrix said. Obama may have also changed the future of campaigning in general. “A lot of popular media is misfit media—that is, it looks easy to duplicate but in fact is very difficult to execute,” Matrix said.

“You need knowledgeable people to direct your media campaign and so many unique things that retracing Obama’s steps isn’t a guarantee for success. It’s not a recipe, but there are definitely ingredients.” Obama had much more to him than his connection with popular culture, and this unique mix has clearly worked for him.

“That is the essence of popular culture; somebody does something original and suddenly it’s commodified,” Matrix said. “And once it’s commodified it has lost its edge, of course. It’s a cycle which re-appears as pop culture continues to re-invent itself. It’s a paradox integral to pop culture—the appropriation and commodification of an idea.” Just like the trendy look of skinny jeans and Steve Erkel’s glasses, pop culture yearns to bring something new in each of

its re-incarnations.

“The hipster look is applicable to every generation. For there is always a movement—be it punk or hippie or hipster—which links itself to the past and so communicates something about nostalgia. And it’s astounding how the internet plugs into that notion; it’s enabling people to discover things about the past that we could never have found before, “ Matrix said.

Cliché is a term worth dwelling on. It means that we have come to be exposed to artists like Andy Warhol, presidents like JFK or household items like iPods. It means we sync into a state of agreement but we give it a name and we come to hate it. A cliché is just the final stage of the pop culture cycle, compelling a force of creativity to bring in a word that we have come to roll our eyes at: change.

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