The Agony Antagonist

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wincing her life away

I really love Salon’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. He’s smart, he’s witty, he writes long, detailed responses to people’s questions, and he typically answers letters that are unusual and interesting, and interestingly written. Take this one, from April 12, in which a girl calling herself Tragically Unhip writes in to say that she loves hipster culture but is unhappy because she does not embody teh hip (as the kids say, I think).

It’s a weird letter, for sure. Just to make sure we’ve got all pertinent information before we start making fun of people, let’s look at what TU says about herself.

Reasons TU loves hipster culture/might be considered a hipster
1. She hangs out with indie rockers and punks
2. She dated an indie rocker in college
3. She lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
4. She appreciates grit, dives, PBRs, and irony
5. She judges her new friends for their pedestrian taste in music and fashion
6. She wants to drink whiskey until she dies, read Kerouac, and smoke cigarettes until her lungs are filthy

Reasons TU appears not to be a hipster
A. She calls herself a nerd several times
B. She wears dorky clothes and has a dorky gait and a dorky smile
C. She laughs too loud at corny jokes
D. She no longer lives in Williamsburg and now lives in a neighborhood where she doesn’t feel judged for her inherent dorkiness
E. She works in an accounting firm
F. She feels uncomfortable when judging other people and feeling superior to them for her taste in/knowledge about music and other things hipster

Now, Cary’s answer is pretty wonderful. It reads like a prose poem about how to be a person, and—more to the point—it intentionally plays with hipster-speak. It’s pretty cool, I guess, but does it answer TU’s question? And does she even have a question? Well, let’s look at that first: What does TU want to know? In the last line of the letter, she writes, “Why do I yearn for this thing [being hip] that can’t and won’t bring me satisfaction?” But two paragraphs earlier, she writes, “I am so dissatisfied with my unhip life.” So which is it? Furthermore, throughout the letter, there are tones of “Why can’t I be hip? I really want to be hip! Please tell me I’m hip,” so maybe that’s why she’s writing. She wants Cary to tell her how to unleash her hipness potential, or perhaps simply validate her pretensions by telling her that it certainly sounds like she’d fit right in with all the hip crowds he knows.

Cary’s answer to any or all of these concerns, underneath all the talk about electric wind and dream sequences and copper blood and milkmen, appears to be this: Hip is where you find it. You do not have to live in Williamsburg to be hip, you only have to love, genuinely love, the hip culture and the indie bands and the Pitchfork and the PBRs, and hip will find you, where you are.

Whether or not this is true doesn’t really concern me. My concern primarily is that Cary failed to address TU’s concerns, except in a very roundabout way. Actually, she really doesn’t seem to love the hipster lifestyle after all. She kind of does. She likes the music and the people (kind of—not their judgments of her, though), and she likes feeling like she “gets it,” I think—she says she doesn’t like feeling superior to those who don’t get it, but she definitely knows that there’s a distinction between Coldplay and Grizzly Bear, and which one she prefers. And then there’s #6 on the list of why she likes the hipster life, up there, to which I say: Oh please, child, who doesn’t? (Though I’ve never been a huge Kerouac fan; replace his name with Vollmann and I’m in.) But she doesn’t like being judged, and she’s smart enough to realize that that comes with the territory of hanging with the hip, especially for someone who doesn’t dress or act the part.

At its heart, this is a letter about someone wanting to be something she’s not; there’s a basic dissatisfaction expressed, both regarding the hipster life and regarding the non-hip life. She wants to be hip, and yet she hasn’t yet gone out and bought the hipster outfit that would allow her to walk the streets in her beloved Williamsburg without being sneered at. She wants to be a part of this group, and yet she also wants to be accepted for who she is—although not even she is comfortable with who she is. Additionally, most of the time one has to play along to be accepted. Why hasn’t she played along? Is it possible that she doesn’t love hipster culture as much as she says she does? Frankly, this situation seems to have as its direct parallel the high school student who doesn’t have any friends, so she sits at home every weekend studying up on whatever things she’s gleaned that the popular kids like, in the hope that someday she’ll be in a situation where she can throw out some insightful comment about Veronica Mars (or whatever the kids these days are all hot about—obviously, the Agony Antagonist hasn’t been young in a great many years), and all of a sudden Unpopular Girl will be embraced by the previously unfeeling in-crowd. Which only happens in movies, really. I mean, just so you know.

So, what should TU do? She’s trapped between two worlds—one that she desires but doesn’t feel at home in, and one that has embraced her (she has “sweet-natured” friends, a “caring and considerate” boyfriend) but that she doesn’t love. It’s fun to be in the in-crowd, I suppose (only having seen it from the outside, I really have no idea, but let’s just roll with that premise), but if it’s the hipster music you love, you don’t need an invitation—just the cover charge. And no one’s ever kicked me out of a smoke-filled dive bar for not wearing the right ironic t-shirt. So there’s that. It seems to me that to strive to join the amorphous, ill-defined group of cool kids—sorry, hipsters—when to do so basically means that you’d have to change who you are is nothing more than a fool’s mission. It’s stupid, really. What are you, TU? Twelve? Fifteen? Grow up. Drink your PBR in the nearest dive bar while wearing your Nikes or Reeboks or whatever. Take up painting if you love it, not because you want the artistic cred. Go see Menomena play, and sneer at the other cattle there, with their ironic mustaches and skintight jeans, if that’s what it takes to stop caring about what they think.

Not that you’re better than them, TU. But it seems you have plenty to be happy about, only one of which is that you should feel free, at any time, to give up the dream that being something other than who you are will make you happier.



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