In late August 2002, “Aimee Plumley” began hipstersareannoying.com, a blog dedicated to “all the absurd and annoying things New York City hipsters do, say, wear, and probably, think.” Plumley was kind enough to expound upon Frankenhipsters, Vice magazine and butterflies via email interview. (Ryan Bigge)
Did you ever imagine you’d receive so much feedback and interest in the forum when you first began it?
I had no idea there would be any feedback at all. I actually had a blog prior to the Forum, just a sort of practice run, and nobody read it. I was completely taken off guard when people started responding to the Forum.
Has any particular email or piece of feedback surprised you? Made you want to quit? Or made you more determined to keep going?
I’m surprised that people are so kind. It’s really beginning to damage my cynical worldview to get all these nice messages from complete strangers. I keep wondering where all the assholes are. In some parallel universe, if I stumbled on my on site, I think I’d probably toss off a nasty email to myself.
There’s no single message I can think of that really surprised me, but I’m continually stunned by people’s sincerity, or possibly naivete, sometimes I can’t tell between them. I get a lot of email from people who’ve read parts of the Forum and are genuinely distressed and confused about what, exactly, “hipsters” are and what kind of role hipsters play in their lives. They say: “I like this that and the other thing: does that make me a hipster?” For a while, I was getting so much of this mail — pleas for advice and counsel — that I started a (very short lived) feature called Hipster Questions Answered. I soon realized, however, that answering questions about hipsters and sculpting down to a strict “hipster” definition is the last thing I want to spend my time doing. Most of all, I like the email that just says, “Hey, I read this story and it made me laugh. Thanks.”
Do you see any problems in defining yourself by what you are not (i.e. not a hipster?) Doesn’t it give the enemy too much power or importance?
Yes, I do see problems with it. But that’s sort of the point too. When I started the Forum — the first couple of entries — I had this driving image that I was a covert turncoat hipster spy, sitting down in a dumpy basement tapping out counterintelligence reports about the hipster cell that I’d infiltrated — giving up the dirt from the inside, that sort of thing. Along that line, even my name — Aimee Plumley — is a pseudonym, in case it wasn’t obvious. So, the conflict of claiming to understand hipsters intimately, yet not actually being a hipster has always been part of the Forum. Without that built-in tension, that inherit conflict, there wouldn’t anything. It sort of spring-loaded the site — it created an implied story behind all the ranting, which has (thankfully, shockingly) sustained it for quite a long time.
I’m not really worried about giving the “enemy” too much importance because there really isn’t anybody out there saying “Hipsters rule!” — there’s really nobody carrying the hipster flag, per se. Vice magazine is probably the closest example, but nobody — not even the stinkiest hipsters — actively identify themselves as hipsters, which is probably a phenomenon particular to hipsters.
How do you feel about the apparent contradiction your site offers; that is, to find your anti-hipster musings funny, you need to be familiar with hipsters, if not be one?
I don’t think you necessarily need to be familiar with hipsters to understand the stories. For instance, even if you aren’t familiar with any of the hipster bands that Billy the Musicologist is name-dropping, you still know what kind of character he is — he’s a smug asshole, plain and simple. And everybody knows a few of those. I would venture to say that everybody has a little bit of that in their personality too. So the hipster aspect helps dress up the plot — to put it in context — but the real skeleton of the story is more universal, I’d like to think.
But you’re right, there is a contradiction. In order to really absorb all of the jokes and the references, you probably need to either be very close with a hipster or be a hipster. But that’s Satire 101, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the basic idea that people can be made to laugh at themselves, that people’s actions can be made to look absurd when viewed in a certain way. Hipsters just happen to look more absurd to me than most other social “groups.”
Also, I was intensely curious to see how hipsters would respond to this kind of ribbing. From the beginning, I’ve contended that hipsters are absolutely humorless and un-reflecting. But if that were strictly true, then the site would have flopped immediately. So I guess it was also a kind of sociological study/survey for me, and my initial hypothesis was not altogether proven. But that’s only true in retrospect. The truth is that I never set out with any particular point when I started the site. I just felt a very visceral revulsion toward hipsters, and I wanted to understand why. I wanted to intellectualize my disgust and try to understand why I felt such rage against hipsters, and by extension, why I felt such rage against my whole generation, myself included.
Are hipsters able to laugh at themselves? Or is a true hipster blind to the more ridiculous and/or annoying aspects of their lifestyle?
In theory, I would say hipsters cannot laugh at themselves. That’s been my contention anyway. But as I’ve worked on the site and gotten all this feedback, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that in everyday life, some hipsters do have a pretty keen sense of humor. It’s a matter of degrees though. And make no mistake, just because they can laugh at themselves, doesn’t mean hipsters don’t subscribe to awful trends, read stupid magazines, engage in asinine conversations and listen to a lot of shitty music.
Have you seen/read/sneered at the Hipster Handbook? Your thoughts on the book?
Yes, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to sneer at the Handbook. Many friends of mine have found high amusement in pointing it out to me at the bookstore counter and saying: ‘Hey Aimee! There’s your book!’ Ha ha. Very funny. I’ve never really read it (does anybody really read a book like that?) It seems more like a conversation piece to me, a gag gift, a novelty, a desk ornament, fire kindling, so I don’t give it much stock. It’s a throwaway bubblegummy, pop-culture-y piece of blah blah as far as I’m concerned. But it has been good for me because when the book was first published and getting some press, I got some press too. I got interviewed by the BBC radio as a direct result of the Handbook, so I am genuinely glad it exists, but only because it has benefited me. Otherwise, I think it’s a piece of shit, and probably something that the hipsters of the future, whatever they’re called — hipsters? Typesters? Frankenhipsters? — will pick up at thrift stores and sell for double the price.
Your postings seem to ask the question: “why are these so-called tastemakers so devoid of taste?” Are you any closer to an answer?
Yes, in a sense, I am closer to an answer now, having written about it and received feedback. There’s no truly unified way to explain bad taste though, because it’s a subjective thing. But the way I see it, hipster taste has always been concerned first and foremost with implication. For instance: the thrift-store t-shirt. It may be ugly and irreverent, it may be too tight-fitting, but all of those concerns — normal aesthetic concerns — are sacrificed for the pure implication that the shirt’s wearer shops at a thrift-store, and thus, leads the cutting edge of pop-cultural ironic intrepidness to find truly one-of-a-kind garments. (I don’t think I need to impress upon you the importance our generation places on obscure historical fashion remnants — see: the rise of vintage.)
To wear the shirt shows that you are an obscure culture-miner, unearthing unique relics of the past — tasteful enough, thoughtful enough, and patient enough to trod through the graveyard of fashion history and dig-up only the coolest and/or most obscure articles for cultural resuscitation. But by coolest/most obscure, I mean of course, the most strikingly distanced contextually from the shirt’s wearer — i.e. ironic, which serves to highlight the implied distance (culturally or geographically, mentally, spiritually, physically, psychically, whatever) that the hipster traveled to get that shirt. So, for example, if you live in Alaska, the SoCal surf shop t-shirt, the Thai tiki-hut shirt, the Arizona cactus sunset, is highly ironic. It’s a game of juxtaposition. The greater the implied distance, the more ironic, the better.
This accounts, I think, for the move toward more blue-collar stuff being co-opted for hipster fashion purposes. Pabst Blue Ribbon, foam trucker hats, gas station attendant shirts, greasy hair, etc. What could be more ironic than a rich white kid from the suburbs wearing a shirt that implies a job at Grease Monkey? The thrift-store shirt also speaks of a certain humility, a subtle working-poor frugality because, after all, hipsters generally don’t actually need to slum it at a thrift store. We’re plumbing the ironic depths here, as you can see. And so far so good — there’s enough used clothing floating around to keep every hipster uniquely satisfied until doomsday — and as long as he actually went to the thrift store and dug up that shirt in the dollar bin, there’s no fundamental dishonesty being committed. You might not be able to escape your class affiliation, but you sure as hell can dress like it!
But at some point the guiding principle — the ironic deliberation, the implication, the joke itself — was quietly, ominously, murdered. The anchor that held the whole concept of ironic detachment together was cut loose, leaving the rest to be pillaged by the idiots in the town square. And when you’re dealing with a trend whose roots are, by and large, intellectual — a trend that places more importance on the implied story than the pure aesthetic — the guiding principle is pretty fucking important. It is, in fact, the only reason for the trend’s existence. But, as has now happened, the aesthetic alone has been embraced by the masses of hipster youth for no other reason than other people are wearing it. So here we are, wearing trucker hats, drinking PBR, looking like gas station attendants — and for what? Because it looks good? Because PBR tastes good? Give me a fucking break.
Call me a snob, but there’s a reason you found it at the thrift store. Eh? What’s that you say? You didn’t find it at a thrift store? You bought it at Urban Outfitters? Oh. And so, there you have it. The so-called tastemakers are tasteless because they’ve lazily inherited an intellectual trend whose head has been ripped off, leaving only a blood-covered Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt. In a way, it’s the oldest story in the pop-culture book. A trend — a “movement” if you like — starts out with some degree of conscious intention, some ‘purity,’ then gets co-opted, corrupted, sullied. Ask any middle-aged punk rocker about that. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe there never was any ironic joke about it. Maybe people genuinely think trucker hats look cool. But, goddamn, that paints a pretty bleak picture.
Do you think ironicannabalism signals a turning point in the hipster world? Will we look back at mass-produced thrift store t-shirts one day and say “that’s where it all started to break down in hipsterland?”
I certainly hope so, because it means I’ll be getting quoted for years to come. No, but seriously, I think it’s significant. I think all of this stuff is very telling — despite the fact that it’s revealed primarily through “fashion” — because it reflects something about the way we live today. It reflects, to some degree, the way we think (or don’t). But to clarify, it’s not the mass-produced “vintage” t-shirt itself, but the acceptanceof the t-shirt that signals a major turning point in the hipster world. It’s like blue ketchup: of course Heinz will do anything it can to sell the stuff. They’re a business, and they want to profit, but if people don’t buy it, then it’s not part of the culture. I haven’t gone so far as to check out how mass-produced “vintage” t-shirts are selling, but, for our purposes, I’ll go ahead and assume they’re selling like hotcakes. So yes, it’s Ironicannibalism — that is to say, it’s the point where irony finally ate itself. It’s the point where the joker — the wearer of the t-shirt — became the jokee, became the joked-upon — the butt — if you will.
For instance: Let’s say you have a t-shirt that says “Meadowglen Shit-Eating Festival ’86.” And let’s also say that 50 such shirts were produced. The shirt itself is the signifier: it refers to the event. The event is, then, the signified. It tells the world that there was in fact a Shit-Eating Festival. Now, at some point these two were related. The organizers of the Shit-Eating Festival actually produced the shirts to promote/immortalize the event. After a number of months, all participants in the Festival died of trichinosis (eating shit is pretty hazardous after all), and the shirts were scattered around in thrift stores by their heirs. Soon, a few hipsters bought the shirts because they’re funny. So there’s the pure irony: people who would (presumably) not eat shit, who were not at the Shit-Eating Festival, are wearing the shirts. The casual passerby sees this shirt and it immediately tells them that there was, at some point in time, a festival where residents of Meadowglen ate shit. They laugh, it’s funny — that gap, that distance, is funny. And the signifier (the shirt) and the signified (the event) are still unified — some thread still remains between them, thus creating the juxtaposition, the irony, the humor.
But, what happens when Urban Outfitters produces 1,000 replicas of that shirt? Or better still, what happens when they produce 1,000 “Streamside Shiteating Festival ’86” t-shirts? It never happened! The thread is broken, and I contend that when that connection between the signified and the signifier is broken, the joke is over, the irony is lost. Then what do you have? You have some jackass wearing a “Streamside Shit-Eating Festival ’86” t-shirt. To the casual passerby it probably makes no difference. The word “shit” is funny by itself. But inherently, it makes a difference. It’s a fraud, and the person wearing the shirt is no longer in control of the joke. Thus, the intended irony has been consumed by the even larger irony that some stupid bastard would shell out $25 to wear a shirt referring to an event that never happened. Once again, I fall back on an oft-repeated phrase: “It’s funny because it’s true.” But, in the case of Ironicannibalism, it’s not true.
God, I hope that makes sense.
Is Vice magazine responsible for some of the hipster creatures you dislike so much? What is their role in the hipster ecosystem?
Yes, Vice is most certainly responsible for perpetuating the headless beast of hipster taste. In fact, they may be the biggest offenders to date. They are the blind propagators of idiocy. For one thing, they’re promoting a “fashion” that’s ugly as hell. But more than that, they have predatorily cast a net of “irony” far beyond its own means. In the Vice way of thinking (if it can be considered “thought”), communication is so twisted and backwards that we can say whatever we want, no matter how irresponsible, no matter how offensive, no matter how inane, because it’s “ironic.” Because it’s a joke, because we don’t really mean it. It’s willful ignorance, plain and simple.
It would be different if Vice had some point, but they’re lightweights. I don’t think they have the capacity to make a point. And sure, language should be turned around and twisted for the purpose of satire, but it need always be weighed against the punch line of the joke. With Vice, there’s no punch line. Or rather, the punch line is: “Hey! Buy our shit! Ha ha!” And I don’t find that very compelling.
Luckily, thanks to the good work of a few journalists at the Village Voice and theNew York Times (respectively) Vice finally got caught in their own net. Somebody finally called them on their bullshit. Unfortunately, the people who really matter in the Vice equation — the readers, the investors — probably don’t read these publications. They probably don’t read much of anything at all, except, of course, Vice.
You said since moving to Morningside Heights that much of your venom has been spent, vis-a-vis hipsters. Is that still the case? How has the site progressed since you started an open call for submissions? Will the site continue and how has it changed?
Yes, that’s true. I’m not surrounded by hipsters anymore, so it’s hard to be pissed off and annoyed by them quite so much. The site has almost completely ground to a halt since I called for submissions. I’ve published one piece by an outside author, but that’s it. I do receive a fair amount of work, but most of it isn’t that great. It’s sort of my fault for asking people to submit work that’s not about hipsters to a site that is allabout hipsters. But it’s not as though the call for submissions has anything to do with the site stopping. It’s primarily just because I haven’t felt like writing about hipsters. There’s only so much I could write about that topic before I started to feel like I was treading water, repeating myself, muddying the puddle, so to speak. I’d like to carry on writing about other stuff eventually on the site. But it’ll have to wait until the book is done. I’m really trying to put all my energy into that right now. Surprisingly though, traffic is still holding steady. The site seems to get tossed around endlessly.
Is it getting easier or more difficult to define a hipster?
It’s always been impossible, but the more I write about it, the more the vast expanse of impossibility is revealed to me. But I think that’s a good thing, a positive thing. It’s the inevitable end of social exploration — questions don’t lead to answers, but to more questions.
Tell me more about Frankenhipster and what the next generation of loft-living trust-fund kids are going to look and act like.
Frankenhipster is an idea I haven’t explored much since I first mentioned it on the site about a year ago. But basically it begins with the idea is that hipsters are a kind of walking, talking, sneering, pop culture morgue brought back to life. They lumber around, moaning, drooling, their arms splayed akimbo, looting the graves of the fashion dead — the thrift store, the yard sale, the nation’s attics and flea markets — feeding on the decomposing flesh of the pop-culturally deceased like a band of roving zombies. But there’s a problem. The pool of bad pop-culture ephemera is finite — there are only so many styles they can dig-up and ravage — and even despite Urban Outfitters new trend of producing imitation vintage — the Ironicannibal phenomenon — the hipster taste for flesh will not be satiated. They must feed! They must feast on mothballs like cocktail onions; they must tear into yellow-pitted t-shirts and skid-marked cords like the finest beef jerky.
And they’re getting closer.
The ’80s are the latest decade to be retro-invaded as the hipsters move forward. In fact, if you put your ear down to the ground, you can actually hear the low rumble of Frankenhipsters approaching in the distance, decked out in the stubborn pastels of Dirty Dancing, and Morning in America, the paint-spattered, bandana-clad Dream A Little Dreamers stomping out the Kid’N Play kick step. But having dumped the brittle carcass of Electroclash on the side of a lonely highway (wind howls through its tortured cavities, tumbleweeds roll by, lizards dart to and fro), they grow hungrier, and more of the converted join the lockstep march to feast upon the next course — Pop Gristle a la 1990s. And, as you pointed out, the New York Times Magazine has pegged the trucker hat as the beginning of a new drift in the hipster sphere — the instantly passe trend. So assuming that hipsters will continue to move forward through history, pillaging in a linear direction, and assuming also that the Times is correct in its assertion that, basically, hipsters are getting hungrier and hungrier, that the time between feedings is decreasing, it would be fair to assume that hipsters are approaching an Event Horizon of sorts, a peculiar time-warp paradox where they begin to actually catch up with themselves in history, where they become trailed by their own shadows — a time where they will be able to see themselves lurking around dark corners waiting to loot themselves for last season’s Adidas.
So the question is: Will the monster eventually meet its maker? I predict yes. And in a strange twist of fate, I think the very fabric of their sustenance will eventually poison them. Because as they begin to gorge themselves on the thick stream of ’90s pop departed, at about 1997, they will run smack dab into a mountain of garbage. The nutritional value will quickly drop to almost nothing, yet the sheer amount of pop ephemera will increase at an exponential rate, and they will soon be crushed under the sugary weight of it all — all the boy bands, the rabid celebrity and pseudo-celebrity worship, the tech boom remnants, the television pap influx, the CGI monstrosities, the advertising jingles, the country music, the cable news talking heads, the reality TV, the rise of the gossips, the infotainment, the throw-away box office “cinema,” the infomercials — the sheer mass of digital data exchange will sweep them away in a thunderous flood of biblical proportions. They will feed until they pop. It will be a self-contained apocalypse. The Frankenhipster may face complete extinction by its own hand. Now that’s irony.
Do you feel like an anthropologist given your hipster snapshots? What can we learn from the strange utterances and actions of the hipster in their natural habitat?
Yes, in a way. I didn’t really think about what I was doing in those terms until I started getting email from people who mentioned it: picturing me in a safari hat with a pair of binoculars, creeping around Williamsburg, notebook in hand, that kind of thing. To me, the snapshots are really just little stories, little snippets of everyday life, albeit, the most absurd parts all smashed together. That actually brings up a good point. Just for the record: the snapshots are primarily fiction. A few of them, the earlier ones, were taken directly from real conversations, but most of them are made-up. I guess that really detracts from my image as “anthropologist.” The main thing is that I love writing dialogue, I feel most natural writing dialogue, so I wanted to find a way to work it into the site on a regular basis.
I’m not really sure what we can learn from the utterances of the hipster. I’m still toying with the conclusion that hipsters are completely devoid of nutritional value. It’s the ‘you are what you eat’ principle. Take butterflies for example: they’ve evolved to display the same colors as the flowers that they feed on. I think this applies equally to human media/culture consumption.
Should we fear the hipster? Are they dangerous? Will they disappear if we ignore them? Would life without the hipster be even worse than one where they exist?
I honestly don’t know. Sometimes, say, when I’m at a hipster party, listening to all the hipsters talk, I genuinely fear for the future of the human species. But then, most people make me feel that way.