Last Saturday I dropped a friend off at the Oakland airport. Oakland is the home of Harold Camping, the guy who came up with the great idea of freaking out trusting children everywhere by telling them that the Rapture was coming on May 21st. That day turned out to be such a pleasant day, and when I was pulling out of the airport I saw one of those billboards promoting Judgment Day, and noticed the little gold starburst on the side where the ad people would normally place copy like, "Contains Real Fruit!" except in this case it of course said, "The Bible Guarantees It!" Okay, maybe there wasn't an exclamation point after the phrase, but that was the only bit of restraint the billboard-makers showed.
With much less didacticism than that, Willamette Week music editor Casey Jarman sent out a mass email to his writers last week, telling them certain words that he didn't want to see anybody use again in their writing. Understandably, for a Portland-based paper, one of those words was "hipster".
Before I stop using that word entirely, let me just use it several dozen times in this column. Let's first accept that hipsterism is a movement of adults trying to reclaim aspects of their childhood that they are sentimental about, but which they had to abandon at a critical point in their life in order to fit in socially. That can include significant possessions that belonged to your parents or older siblings which you accepted as cool or at least normal, and which changing trends at some point told you were actually lame and unacceptable. So: your father's mustache, your own puffy orange vest, the Dukes of Hazard lunchbox, your older brother's mesh hat all become critical paraphernalia that the hipster as an adult can choose to reclaim and intentionally populate his aesthetic with items that he used to take a bunch of shit for. When you're a pre-teen and you're first inundated with middle-school judgment (a scarier Day of Judgment than the Rapture could ever be), you have no real choice but to abandon the artifacts that were so important to you, but which now make you feel like a stupid kid. Once you're fully grown and in a comfortable city of like-minded people, it's easier to re-embrace these things. You can put on the truckers hat and carry around the lunch box and effectively say "Fuck you" to the imposing groups of kids at school who coerced you to dress like them.
This is an important distinction, I believe, only in that I think hipsterism is mostly misunderstood by outside people. It's generally seen just as a sarcastic appropriation of things that are not cool, as if hipsters are arbitrarily selecting cultural artifacts that they can find cheaply at thrift stores and imbue them with a new kind of hip-ness. This assigns an unrealistic motive to a group of people that would never try for something so ambitious. We should recognize the hipster movement as a bunch of emotionally-damaged and socially-deficient people who are reclaiming their childhood as the last time they felt confident in choosing their own aesthetic, before it was physically or socially beaten out of them. Places like Portland and Brooklyn are centers for people to gather and feel acceptance in these decisions. When the show Portlandia famously pegged the city of Portland as a place where young people go to retire, it was funny, but struck me as a bit backwards. It's a city where young people can go to never really grow up. Retirement is different from adolescence in that with retirement you've accomplished some capital through a life of work and have earned your permanent vacation until death. Adolescence is the period where you don't have real responsibilities and are not challenged with all the complexities of the real world, and therefore develop an unrealistic vision of how life works.
I played a show in Seattle last fall and shared a drink afterwards with a young couple. They used to live in Portland and had recently moved to Seattle. They both worked in the social services industry, and their primary complaint about Portland was its lack of diversity. Laugh if you will about the wisdom of traveling further north from Portland to look for more diversity, but at the very least Seattle is a bigger town than Portland, and has more real city amenities, including more minorities, if not per capita than at least in total. (I'm attempting no research here. It's beside the point anyway.) I've lived in Portland for ten years, and it always bothered me when visitors would complain about the lack of diversity. For a while it seemed to me to just be plain wrong, as I lived in a part of Northeast Portland that had roughly the same amount of black people as lived in the neighborhood of New Orleans that I lived in just before. But spending time in other neighborhoods I realized that it is true that Portland has a definite lack of diversity. While you can acknowledge that there are certain pockets of the city that have minorities, living as a white progressive twenty to thirty-something-year old in Portland and playing music means that you encounter white progressive twenty-to-thirty-something-year-olds almost exclusively. At first I thought that complaining about this was just an aesthetic issue: that, in being progressive, you realized the need for diversity, and desired more of that just to ease your mind. Like in the way that you want to plant different flowers in your garden so that they're not all just tulips. Sure tulips are beautiful, but you want to see different flowers sometimes. As a strictly aesthetic argument, it seemed to fall short. When I met this couple in Seattle, I asked them to explain what exactly it was about Portland's lack of diversity that was such a problem to them.
They said that the problem with always being around people who look and act and believe just like you is that you can easily get lulled into the false belief that race isn't a problem anymore. You start to think that all the struggles you hear about in the world are just minor skirmishes, that living in a predominately white city means that you don't have to worry about that stuff anymore. Like we've evolved past race. But if you life in a city like Detroit or New Orleans, it is very apparent every single day that race is an important factor in every aspect of life, and while we might have come a long way with it, there are so many institutionalized and personalized forms of racism still in place. This couple argued that in places like Portland this discussion is not even happening. There is just no talk about it because there is no agitation to spark it. Unfortunately, such conversations usually are only brought up when something horrible happens, when someone is unjustly treated in a grotesque and public way that brings the conversation to everyone's mind. At those points, the whole city is at least aware that there is a problem. When that doesn't happen, it just doesn't get talked about.
The discussion of race in contrast to the hipster community has a purpose. I count myself among the many people who have come to Portland because of childhood awkwardness and social unacceptance. If I haven't chosen to wear truckers hats and grow a mustache, it's not because I'm any better or wiser. I would be a hipster if I changed the part of my hair and wore the kind of jacket I wore when I was twelve. But the uniform is not what defines a hipster. As with any often derisively-used term, people are not eager to jump up and claim that they belong to the group. The way you can look at fog and see it as just over there, but never right here in your hand, hipsters always seem to be the group of people at the next table, not the ones you are talking to. This definition speaks more to fear and the constant human condition of always thinking that the problem is out there, when all the real problems start within. If you are damaged inside and insecure, everything feels like an attack. I came to Portland too because I felt awkward and not accepted in most places. It's a very comforting city if you are of a certain demeanor.
Spending a few months in New York City this year, I realized the value of diversity. Walking in Brooklyn from Greenpoint to Clinton Hill, you cross through a part of town that is heavily populated by Hasidic Jews. As you're walking, you see the men dressed up in the heavy coats and imposing hats. Their heads are shaved and they have curls of hair falling down their faces. The little boys even have shaved heads, and the little girls wear dresses that go down to their ankles. You can't help but think as you walk past them, "What's it like to live like that? Does it make them happy? Do the kids wish they could live a different way? Does their sense of community mean more than communities I've been a part of?" And just that spark of questioning is the first real benefit of diversity, the realization that just because you're intelligent and enlightened doesn't mean that you've determined the best and only real way to live in the world. There are different people out there, all walking to different clocks striking the hour with different tones.
The power of a police beating or hate crime to start these conversations is many times greater than the ability of a small music column read by a few dozen people. But a conversation has to start somewhere, and sometimes it starts small.