I've spent my weekend swimming with the hipsters.

I was at this lovely little festival at a traditional folkpark, which had loads of things going for it, not least the fact that it's tried to keep the local folk park alive and up to date. Slightly more troubling was the fact that the local presence was negligible - instead they'd bussed up oodles of hipsters from the big cities, mostly Stockholm, who did hip performance art, ate hip food and listened to hip bands. Quite fun nonetheless.

Two of the artists performing at the festival should strike a familiar note to some readers here: Leif and Rye Rye. Both make music that can be vaguely (though questionably accurately) described as a (re-)americanisation of British grime, filtered through bmore and through the hip dance clubs of New York. Rye Rye, at least, does it very well too. But what I find interesting about these two is that what they do is almost the music of mainstream African-Americans - yet it is the little difference that makes it acceptable to hipsters.

Because hipsters love almost the real thing.

The hipster category of almost has a huge history with wildly veering styles and qualities. It'd include people like Scott Joplin. Paul Whiteman. The early Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin. The entire genre of Jazz-Funk. Bob Marley and the Wailers as produced and marketed by Island Records. The eighties had bands like Was (Not Was) and Pigbag. Today? Well, Bonde De Role, just to take an example.

And before we start pulling up theories about race and minstrelsy here, this certainly doesn't just apply to black acts adopting traits of the hip, white upper-middle-class or vice versa. The festival I was at had a band that was almost rockabilly. (Rockabilly is a strong working-class marker here.) Screamadelica was almost house. And what is the entire genre of alt. country if not almost country?

What's going on here? Obviously hipsters prefer acts that are able to speak their language, act the right way and wear the right clothes to get to them. Was (Not Was) may play fairly conventional electric boogie on that record, but they present the image of a hip post-punk rock band which makes them appealing to hipsters. Leif maybe couldn't rap very well, but he certainly knew how to dress snappily! Quality markers vary greatly from group to group, so obviously hitting the right ones works.

Still, that invisible wall between the acceptable and the unhip can sometimes be very thin indeed. Look at poor MC Gringo, who has earnestly tried to fit in into the Rio baile funk scene - suddenly he's whisked away to hipster pop festivals all over Europe. Yet his music is not amazingly different from that of dozens of acts - it's merely his whiteness that, in hipster eyes, makes him almost baile funk. Meanwhile, his contemporaries without the hipster access are left in the favela, since they really are baile funk, no almost about it.

I can't help but wonder why this is the case. If the reason hipsters are brushing up to black/third world/working class music is because it's thrilling, why don't they go all the way and book proper hip-hop acts to their little festivals? And if they think that music is actually naff and the people who make it square, why do they keep flirting with it so much? Anyone got a theory for me?

I guess the reasons are not a million miles away from why the hipsters from Stockholm placed their little festival in a folkpark in a little rural village without ever actually meeting the villagers...


Gavin said...

If they booked actual rap acts they might get too many black people in the audience, then those hipsters might get all self-conscious about throwing ironic gang signs and shit.

The MC Gringo thing, this happens all the time, no matter the intentions of the artist. It's much easier for a white Euro traveller type to get booked in Europe by European promoters than for those promoters to track down dudes in the favelas who have maybe never left Rio, have rap sheets, only speak Portuguese, and in short are potentially TOO DANGEROUS for most promoters who tend to be extremely conservative as suits their profit motive.

Same thing with cumbia, I have been asking around where cumbia bands play (there are a million Mexicans in my city, and cumbia is definitely the hot sound of the summer) -- no one knows, the girl at the spanish CD shop didn't think the sonidero bands came to Chicago. But of course I can see some digi/almost-cumbia on the Zizek tour. Which is fine, I like some of that stuff, but I wish I had the option to see both.

Birdseed said...

Yeah, I feel that aspect of it too. Some of the bigger acts from, say, Tanzania, make it here and play sets of bongo flava or whatever, but always in diasporadic venues far from my admittedly fairly hipsterish circles. And it's damn hard to find out about it!

quan said...

Maybe hipsters want only to see the slums as a fantasy world without facing the reality of it. So if they hear it in the music, that's cool. But they don't want to see someone who actually lives the life in poverty lest they feel guilty.

The "almost" concept is really interesting. Great post.

Anonymous said...