Great Moments in Straw Man Arguments

A dude named Dave Whitaker wrote a piece for Pop Matters yesterday that got my attention, largely because it addresses that most hated (and nebulously defined) of demographics, the hipsters.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I stopped using that word on Bollocks! a while ago (except in the context of pointing out that we should all just stop fucking using that word) because I’ve found that 1) no one can provide a clear definition of a hipster and 2) people just use it as a pejorative for people who like bands they don’t like and/or haven’t heard of. Maybe also for people who dress in ways you don’t like. You know who dresses in ways I don’t like? Maybe all but twenty people on earth. So enough already.

Whitaker’s article ends kind of okay actually, but it makes some assumptions that I find egregious at best. The first one is that the “hipster nation” issued a collective sigh of despair when the Arcade Fire won their Grammy because “another of its warriors had succumbed to the dark side.” I don’t believe that there is some kind of unified hipster nation that meets every once and a while and decides which bands have and have not succumbed to the dark side, whatever the fuck that even means. Most Arcade Fire fans I know were happy that the band won the Grammy, though most didn’t care because most Arcade Fire fans I know think the Grammys are bullshit. Though one friend of mine posted on Facebook that he thought the Arcade Fire had sold out, this man can hardly be considered a hipster by any of the definitions I’ve seen floating around cyberspace. At the outset, Whitaker – like many internet music writers before him – has created in the “hipster nation” a convenient straw man that he can spend a few paragraphs chiding, only to let them go with a loving swat on the bum and some pseudo-fatherly advice. It’s enough to make people with critical reasoning skills throw up in their mouths a little.

Whitaker’s second big assumption is that the lamentation “I remember when that band belonged to us” is not unique to what he derisively refers to as the “latte-swilling generation,” of which I can safely assume I am a part. Whitaker’s point is that hipsters of every era have lamented the moment their favorite bands broke big, an assertion that is really hard to prove. I would submit to you that there have probably always been people who were excited to see their favorite bands get some mainstream attention. Yeah, some people might have been pissed that U2 got really big when they did – but I bet some others were happy that Bono had finally learned to fucking sing (I’m supposed to joke here about how we’re all waiting for him to learn how to shut up now, but here’s the thing: Bono may be a pompous arse, he may be pretentious, and he may have no fucking idea what times and locations are appropriate for the wearing of sunglasses, but that motherfucker’s done a lot for sick people in Africa and if you’re really capable of opposing that, I hope there’s a telethon for people like you). Of course, I have just as much hard evidence of my belief as Whitaker has of his; that is, none at all.

Just about any band that’s ever had any kind of following is eventually going to run into a fan who thinks they sold out. I mentioned this just the other day when talking about the Mountain Goats, a band that has a small – but dedicated – following, some of whom think John Darnielle is a sellout for not recording straight to his boom box anymore. Are these people hipsters “whose credibility lies in latching on to that to which the general public remains clueless,” as Whitaker suggests? There’s literally no way to know and it’s disingenuous for Whitaker to pretend to know with any certainty what people’s real motives are when it comes to the music they like. I don’t know anyone – not one solitary soul – who looks for bands that no one’s heard of and latches onto them until they become popular, at which point they discard that band like Rush Limbaugh discarding a Big Mac wrapper. But I do know plenty of people who passionately love the music that they love for reasons that can often be very hard to articulate. I, of course, have no problem articulating why I think the Screaming Females are fucking awesome and, though it might surprise Mr. Whitaker, I would be ecstatic if that band was awarded all the money the music industry has left to make lots and lots of albums for the foreseeable future.

Whitaker also assumes that all young hipsters want bands that sell “six albums” instead of going platinum, which bugs the shit out of me for two reasons. First off, he’s feeding the myth that “selling out” means “selling records.” If Ted Leo and the Pharmacists sold a million copies of The Brutalist Bricks, I’m betting their fans wouldn’t call them sellouts. Maybe I’m speaking for myself, but I’d like to think Pharmacists fans would throw the band a fucking party. If Ted Leo, who espouses a certain ethos in his music (with which I tend to agree), started playing the annual CPAC Conference, then his fans might start to cry “sellout.” Whitaker’s not alone in thinking that money is the only thing at issue when people think a band has sold out; it’s become a stock belief of a lot of people who write about music, which should tell you how unimaginative some music writers can be. Second, he’s implying that hipsters somehow don’t want the bands that they love to do well enough to keep doing what they’re doing. And again, I know lots of people, some of whom might be considered by narrow-minded forty-somethings to be hipsters, and none of them feels this way. Every single human being I know who loves even one band wants that band to sell enough records to keep making records.

Probably my biggest beef with Whitaker’s article is its casual ageism. Yes,  he’s self-deprecating about being 44, but he spends a lot of time painting his straw man hipsters as 20-something latte-swillers in a tone that is condescending at best and utterly dismissive at worst. Well, Gramps Whitaker, I like my coffee like I like my blues: hot, strong, and black. If liking Son Fucking House makes me a hipster, I’ll wear that badge like a crown and you and everyone else can kiss my ass.

Grandpa Whitaker (I’m not being mean; he says he’s a “fogie” who is “probably” old enough to be my father. He’s not old enough to be my father, but if he wants to put on airs about being old in his mid-forties, I’m only too happy to oblige the prat) ends the piece by offering advice I generally agree with, namely that you should like what you like and not worry about what other people think. But it’s impossible for me to take him seriously because he presents this advice the way you would explain to a particularly slow child that they shouldn’t stick their wee-wee in the peanut butter.


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