I'm obsessed with being a hipster

I left my heart in Williamsburg, though I'm secretly a nerd.

Published April 12, 2007 10:02AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am obsessed with hipsterdom. I don't know why, or what to do about it. I am not a hipster. I never have been. But I have always been on the outward edges, knowing what hip is, knowing people who were hip, while remaining nerdy myself.

When I was younger, back in high school, I hung out with the punks and indie rockers, but I myself wore Nikes (instead of Converse) and ran cross-country (instead of skateboarded). At the not-particularly-hip college I attended I dated one of the few indie rockers there, and got a deeper knowledge of rock and punk and post-punk and indie-hip fashion. But I still wore nerdy shoes and laughed too loudly at corny jokes.

After college the indie-rocker and I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (before it exploded of course), and I learned to appreciate grit and dives and PBRs and irony. But still, I was a nerd.

While living there I hated Williamsburg because I always felt judged. I hated walking down the street in my dorky clothes with my dorky gait and my dorky smile. And I had no creative, impressive job to justify my presence there. I didn't meet too many people. I became miserable. Eventually the indie rocker and I broke up and I moved to a less hip part of Brooklyn, a part where people do their own laundry and where the sidewalk is not a fashion parade. In this new neighborhood I don't feel self-conscious when I walk to buy groceries.

The breakup meant the end of a lot of friendships, and I felt like I had to start from scratch. The people I've since made friends with are sweet-natured and forgiving of nerdiness-- that is to say, they are not hipsters. I also have a new job working with some of the kindest people I've ever encountered, and I've been dating a caring and considerate gentleman.

I think that I should be happy to be in more comfortable surroundings, yet I feel so dissatisfied. I go to my job with my wonderful co-workers, and I judge them for listening to Coldplay. I judge my kindhearted friends for not having dark-rimmed glasses and Vans. I judge my neighborhood for not having galleries, or the right ZIP code.

I should be happy, but instead I achingly obsess over Pitchfork reviews and Vice Do's and Don'ts. At work I sit in front of my computer and listen to people talk about Nine West heels and 401Ks and I just want to drink whiskey till I die. I want to read Kerouac and smoke cigarettes until my lungs are black and filthy.

I am so dissatisfied with my unhip life. Leaving Williamsburg and breaking up with the ex seem to have severed every connection to "cool" I ever had. Sometimes I feel like Eliza from "Pygmalion." I wish I had never known what hip was, so I wouldn't have to miss it. I am angry that this discernment exists in me, and that it goes unvalued and unused. I am also disgusted by the creeping feeling of superiority it gives me over my acquaintances.

Yet I can't seem to let it go. And it's pathetic, because I don't have the hipness to back up my tastes and judgment. I am still the same nerdy person I always was. I haven't improved my fashion sense. I don't do art; instead I work a boring job at an accounting firm (does it get any worse than that?). I still don't like calling sarcasm humor, and I still laugh too loudly at corny jokes. Worst of all, I'm getting old, and even the oblivious know that hip has an expiration.

Why do I yearn for this thing that can't and won't bring me satisfaction?

Tragically Unhip

Dear Tragically Unhip,

You yearn for this thing because humans need to be a part of a tribe, or family, or belief system. This need is felt in the heart. It is an old need. Before, when we lived in places, this need could be met by places. But we don't live in places anymore. We live in the electronic wind. We live in twitters and tweaks and snippets. We live in dream sequences and stream of consciousness. We live in downloads and compression. We live at 120 miles an hour. We live in Sensoria, Ill.

We live in synchronicity. As an example, as I am sitting at my desk attempting to respond to your wonderful letter this morning, the cellphone rings. It is a person who wants me to speak at a meeting tonight. This is synchronicity, the mundane magic we live in. It is the milk being delivered by a milkman who knows just what to deliver though I didn't write an order down. The milkman knows. The phone rings.

Then the other phone rings, the land line, wirebound, copper-blooded, primitive. It is my friend, best man, rock journalist. He is making good on his promise to take me to see Iggy Pop April 21 at the Warfield. We will be going backstage.

You must excuse me, I don't usually do this, but, trust me, I read him your letter over the phone because I knew he would get it. I trust the moment. I know he is going to write my column for me this morning.

He says, "I love that letter and totally empathize, but she's looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope."

And then he tells a story about interviewing Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies 20-some-odd years ago and getting the impression that she was married to the bass player and writing a piece for a major daily and then going to see them at the Great American Music Hall and sitting at a table with friends and acquaintances. Timmins stops the show mid-set.

She speaks his name. She says, "He wrote this really great article in the paper, but there's one major fuck-up. I really like my bassist but no way I want to marry him. Man, you screwed up."

He was sitting with a group of friends and a new date. It's easy to imagine how he felt. So he goes backstage after the show and apologizes for his error. The door to the dressing room slams shut. "Sitting next to the door is a young Sean Penn. He says, 'I've got something to say to you.' And everybody got quiet. 'If you ever fucking get your facts wrong again, I'm gonna tie you to a chair without food and water for a week -- just like they say I did with Madonna.' And the whole room burst out laughing."

So, what is the point? What is the message? The message is that there are those who are big-hearted enough to put aside their pretensions and participate in what they love, risking shame and humiliation and heartbreak, but making genuine contributions and genuine connections. And there are those whose act of adoration is emulative, who love the pop cultural artifacts just as intensely as my friend but who remain fans at a distance. However you want to worship is cool. But at the heart of it must be a love of the thing.

You yearn for beauty and the intoxication of cool, the automatic, nonlinear, simultaneous cultural recognition that is an ancient phenomenon of tribalism, or belonging, or religious ecstasy. You feel joy when you see certain fashions and hear certain music. When you feel this joy, it is so intense that it actually makes you want to to be that thing, embody it, give yourself over to it, as though it were sexual ravishment. But you cannot. The thing resists you. There are practical considerations. You cannot be in the van with the thing because the van is full. But you love this thing, the way it makes you feel. It seems to recognize you as who you are. It is exactly the sound of your own heart. So you emulate this thing

Eventually, if you're not careful, you come to feel that you own it. You elevate it above all other things. You do not want anyone else even to touch it.

Fandom can be beautiful and innocent. But it can lose its innocence and become aggressive, exclusive and competitive.

When Oprah Winfrey recently endorsed the writing of Cormac McCarthy, it troubled my friend at first. But he shook it off.

"Hip is communicable," he says. "Cormac McCarthy is not mine. He belongs to anyone who can catch the disease."

Keeping others away from those you love does not put you closer to them. But if you spread your love, it grows. So do not hide what you love. Instead, leave clues on your desk and in your clothing. Let people know. They will find you. They might get turned on to things you love.

And there are more ways than ever today to find what you love. You don't have to live in a small town in Georgia to find Pylon.

My friend is old-school. He goes to record stores and uses telephones. So the other day he's interviewing the lead singer of Love of Diagrams, the band from Melbourne, Australia, and he is curious to know how the band came upon the music of Pylon, the band from Athens, Ga., that was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On the Internet, of course, says the singer. "It said click here if you want to hear Pylon, so I clicked there."

She clicked there. That's how it works.

So click there. If your love is true, click there. If your jones is genuine, click there. You can find a way of working in the world that puts you closer to the things you love. That is the answer to your question, I think. That is the solution to your yearning.

So now your assignment is to rearrange your life so that you participate in what you love. It might mean you become an A&R person or a publicist. It might mean you become a bartender in a club. It might mean that you find a day job that lets you follow the things you love. My friend, for instance, has arranged his life so that he can be a contributor and a participant. He interviews everybody and knows everybody. Is he a hipster? I don't know. He works as a desk clerk in a hotel. He does what he loves.

That's it in a nutshell: This yearning is genuine and ancient. Hear it. Honor it. If you don't, Sean Penn will tie you to a chair without bread and water for a week, just like they say he did with Madonna.

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