Let’s start with a joke.
Q: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: It’s this really obscure number, you’ve probably never heard of it.
Now let’s move on to the disclaimer. While I never have and likely never will consider myself a “hipster,” I’m certainly a fan of things such as movies and songs, etc., that aren’t immensely popular, or that are somewhat or largely unknown. I prefer to go to the small-guy-owned music store or video game store, and have paid more than I could have in a few situations to support them. The same goes for certain brands of food and drink (micro-brews, anyone? Am I right?). I’m by no means exclusively “anti-mainstream” with any of this stuff, but I operate out of the understanding that popular does not always equal good. Especially these days. These days, popular means that it’s been marketed a certain way, and said marketing is backed by some deep pockets. Quality is an entirely different issue. Music is the easiest example of this. The acts that sell out arenas today almost always fit into one or more of these three categories:
- They are an act that has been around for at least 25 years and revolutionized popular music in some fashion at some early point in their career;
- Their primary fan base is composed of girls somewhere between the ages of 8-18;
- Their image, songs, and performances boast some kind of faux, extreme sexual identity, drawing on nothing else for artistic inspiration.
Notice that none of those indicate quality. They instead 1) give you what you already know; 2) exploit the impressionable, and/or 3) appeal to the most primal of human urges to keep you from noticing the lack of talent or originality.
Now, let’s move on to my main point. I hope that my reasoning for that was driven home in those few sentences, because that’s all the time I’m spending on this side of the discussion. There are actually hundreds of different ways to approach and discuss this kind of topic, but I want to focus on one specific side of it: when an individual decides that they do not like, want nothing to do with, and will stand against any celebration of something that is popular, based on nothing more that the fact that it is popular. I’m going to call this “Hipster Syndrome,” because I honestly tried to come up with something better but couldn’t. If you’re not sure what a “hipster” is, go back to the beginning of this post and read the joke again. That should give you enough basis to be able to follow my logic, because, honestly, this isn’t specifically about “hipsters” at all.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon for a very long time. I certainly noticed it in myself, but was more amazed at how I saw it in others. (In fact, it might be that I did see it in others that made me become more conscious and averse to it in myself.) A few days ago I read a blog post by someone on the East Coast that told their story of their first, and possibly only, visit to an IKEA store. You can read this post here. Before proceeding, I want to make it clear that I am meaning no disrespect towards, or attack on, the author of that post. But I am using him as my guinea pig.
Most of the commentors seemed to take from the post exactly what the author intended–a humorous and somewhat negative observation of IKEA stores and products. I found something different. Notice that he decided on his personal boycott of the IKEA store based off of nothing other than the fact it got lots of local media attention. He justified it further by hearing other people tell “(stories) of how wonderful the store would be,” and seeing people line up for days in advance leading up to the opening of the store. If that’s not striking you as odd, let me explain to you why it should. Logically, when one sees other people getting excited about something and talking at length about how good it will be, the reaction should be intrigue at the least, if not equal enthusiasm. Certainly not disdain. So why does this guy experience the opposite? Why did I decide I hated any ska bands that made it on MTV when I was in high school? Why did that one guy at that birthday party I was at a few years ago hate video game consoles? I don’t think the IKEA guy hates furniture or Sweden. I loved ska. And believe me, that guy at that birthday party was a GAMER if I ever saw one. So why?
First, I think that, for some or many of us, seeing other people become very excited about something about which we know nothing produces a feeling of isolation and exclusion. (There’s a tangent there that I could go down, but I won’t this time.) We might not immediately identify it as such, but trust me–that’s what it is. So all of these other people like this thing that we’ve not heard of until after everyone else was talking about it; OR what happened was some people talked about it/we noticed it a while ago and we had little or no interest to check it out then, and now it’s really popular but we didn’t join the club early. So we’re at a crossroads. We can get into whatever-it-is, too, but then it might look like we were getting into just because everyone else is. This is 21st century America–we don’t follow, so that’s likely out of the question. We can choose to ignore it, but chances are that if it’s big enough to reach this point, it’s too big to avoid for the forseeable future. Lastly, we can just go ahead and decide that we don’t like it, whether we’ve checked it out or not.
If it ended there, there would be really no discussion. I have no doubt that for some people it does. But the fact is, many put their identities into their opinions. You don’t have to look too hard see this. I had a co-worker who was passionately anti-plastic and pro-organic. I have an old friend who is viciously child-free. I know tons of people from the midwest who base their lives around being pro-life or as creationists. This finds its way into “lighter” subjects, too. Ever meet someone who really doesn’t like Pepsi or Coke, or both (RC rules!)? Try having a conversation with someone who is in their teens or early 20’s that doesn’t like Justin Beiber. An amusing recent one was people who didn’t like Lost. Are you old enough to remember Sega vs. Nintendo, like I am? Oh, and a really valid example within video games is this apparent new school vs. old school gaming rivalry going on today. The list can go on. I even fall into this, unfortunately (I’m working on changing that, though). Talk to me about “emo” music sometime; yeesh. In each of those cases, it’s likely that at least some of their identity, as they see it, is found in those opinions. The litmus test for this is to take the opposing point of view and see how they react. Do they shrug off the fact that you see something differently than them, or do they debate with you? So now they have an opinion about this thing that other people got into that they didn’t, and part of who they think they are is found in what they think about that thing.
What happens next for the full “Hipster Syndrome” effect is that the superiority complex shows up. It says, “Not only do I not like this thing they like, but I am clearly much smarter than them to not have bought into it!” After all, if it was actually worth anything, you’d have been into it, too, right? The interesting thing here is that it doesn’t take weeks or months to reach this point–often, the “Hipster Syndrome” sufferer can end up at this point within a few hours to a few days of the topic in question first coming up. And once you’re here, it’ll take an enormous amount of humility to get past it; especially since so many modern people (as I’ve observed over the last decade or more) are blissfully unaware of their own internal, mental workings (or at least blissfully dishonest about them).
So the IKEA guy knew little to nothing about IKEA when it was announced one was being built in his town. He didn’t get or understand the hype*, so rather than shrug it off and not be worried about it, he found identity in being someone who refused to have anything to do with the place. This was intensified when he finally did make a visit while looking for something he needed and experienced frustration with various aspects of the store, retroactively justifying his dislike for it and likely further solidifying his identity as an IKEA-hater.
I was into ska music right before groups like (early) No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones became popular. When I would mention that I liked ska to someone, they would often ask if that meant that I enjoyed those bands. Since those bands already had a large, mainstream following by that point, I could not lay claim to “knowing the band first.” Rather than seeing if I liked their music on my own, I instead touted my superiority to not only those who thought those bands were better than the bands I did like, but also to those who just liked them in general.
While I can’t confirm this at all, I have my suspicions that the gamer at that birthday party a few years ago loved his Compy back in the 80’s. When the NES and other gaming consoles hit the scene, he either didn’t get around to getting one or his parents said, “You have a computer, that’s enough.” After trying games here and there with a game controller throughout his childhood and adolescence, he became frustrated because he was more used to keyboard-based input, and likely felt left out of the conversations that his peers would have at lunch about the new games that were out, or even watching them swap games to try, or talk about visits to the video store to rent some. By the time the mid- and late-90’s came around, and PC gaming began leading the industry again, he was able to justify his distaste for consoles by quoting the superiority of his prefered method. Now that PC games are arguably even with console games in their capabilities, he’s dug his heels into the ground of his camp and displays distrust and condescension towards anyone who sees things differently.
So, in an attempt to tie all this together, I stated earlier that I don’t operate out of the assumption that popular equals good, as some do. But the other extreme of that is believing that popular equals bad. I don’t know the IKEA guy’s background, but his initial reaction to hype surrounding something he didn’t know led him to an immediate distaste for it. I remember once hearing the band Save Ferris, recognizing them as ska, and then just days later saw that some of the more popular guys at my school liked them–solidifying the fact that I would detest them henceforth. And the gamer? I quote, “I don’t DO consoles . . .” in the middle of a conversation about Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Consoles equal bad games. I would want to suggest that people pay more attention to their motivations, and don’t let “popular or not” influence you one way or the other . . . but I’m not preaching here. I’m thinking. And when I think, I provide no solutions.
*Let us be clear that to have bought into the (possibly excessive) hype surrounding something, and then experiencing it and being let down, is not the same as outright despising something that has hype surrounding it. The author of the IKEA post does end up going to the store and determines that he finds the patrons to be zombie-like, the names of the products to be laughable, and the floor plan to be frustrating. That’s justification in retrospect, and it’s also entirely possible that his experience was as negative as it was because he entered into it with such low expectations.