Was Animal Collective Really the Hipster?


Making the rounds this week is a New York Magazine article entitled “What Was the Hipster?” Written by n+1‘s Mark Greif, the piece is meant as a critical history of an era pegged to have lasted just 10 years, from 1999 to 2009. The moment supposedly began with the move of Vice magazine from Montreal to New York and the founding of the sneaker store A-Life (?!), and came to end sometime last year, with the advent of the book Look at This Fucking Hipster and Dov Charney’s repudiation, earlier this year, of the word “hipster” itself. These wobbly bookends contain, in Grief’s history, two periods of the hipster: one he deems the “White Hipster”–trucker hats, PBR, racism, mustaches–and one called the “Hipster Primitive,” that familiar figure in recent memory, a man with a beard and a McSweeney’s subscription and a penchant for listening to Animal Collective. (Also: a woman in Wellington boots.) You will be as shocked as we were to learn that both Pitchfork, led by the cheerful Midwesterner Ryan Schreiber, and Fleet Foxes, a band that looks and sounds like this, were some of the more prominent avatars of The Hipster’s second and more current wave.

The piece is a little vague in spots. (The great Alex Pappademas: “The assumption, in NYMag hipster piece, that Vice’s audience=McEggers’ audience is a huge fallacy. Didn’t know they made brushes that broad.”) And if we’re being honest, our predisposition is to more or less agree with an idea Greif dismisses about halfway through, which is if you care at all about “the hipster,” whoever he or she is, you probably are one. “Baby-boomers and preteens tend to look at everyone between them and say: Isn’t this hipsterism just youth culture?” writes Greif. To which we say yeah, pretty much, unless you’re one of those people who uses it as a pejorative–still more evidence that you are a hipster (since civilians don’t care about this category of persons, who ever they may be), but let’s move on.

The piece leans heavily on music to define its cultural categories, in particular when Greif makes it to a kind of 2004 transformation he wants to describe. E.g.:

In culture, the Hipster Primitive moment recovered the sound and symbols of pastoral innocence with an irony so fused into the artworks it was no longer visible. Music led the artistry of this phase, and the period’s flagship publication, the record-review website and tastemaker Pitchfork, picked up as Vice declined. Here are the names of some significant bands, post-2004: Grizzly Bear, Neon Indian, Deerhunter, Fleet Foxes, Department of Eagles, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, and, most centrally, Animal Collective. (On the electronic-primitive side, LCD Soundsystem.) Listeners heard animal sounds and lovely Beach Boys-style harmonies; lyrics and videos pointed to rural redoubts, on wild beaches and in forests; life transpired in some more loving, spacious, and manageable future, possibly of a Day-Glo or hallucinatory brightness. It was not unheard of to find band members wearing masks or plush animal suits.

Chillwave presumably would belong here too, if the hipster hadn’t somehow ceased to become a phenomenon at some point last year. Other signs of this kind of new model hipster: vinyl-collecting; bike riding; a penchant for “narcissistic handicrafts”; locavore food. Greif even uses an Animal Collective lyric for his there’s-hope-for-the-future kicker:

In recent hipster art, Animal Collective’s best-known lyric is this: “I don’t mean to seem like I / Care about material things, like our social stats / I just want four walls and / Adobe slats for my girls.” The band members masked their faces to avoid showing themselves to the culture of idolators. If a hundred thousand Americans discovered that they, too, hated the compromised culture, they might not look entirely unlike the Hipster Primitive. Just no longer hip.

But were Animal Collective, of all horrendously nerdy, badly dressed, poorly spoken, unsexed recent bands, ever actually hipster artists? This is a genuine question. Ditto for the legions of farmers that appear to make up all the other new-primitive animal bands: Neon Indian, Fleet Foxes, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, etc. What, in this formulation, is hip?

To be clear, we are talking about a group of people who make deeply unfashionable, incredibly adolescent art and hail from places that are often anything but major urban centers. In turn, their music was hailed and brought to prominence by…Pitchfork, a music recommendation website staffed mostly, especially in its 2005-2006-ish pinnacle of influence, by record nerds and/or 21-year-old boys (this writer very much included). This was a cultural movement that was an assault on the A.R.E. Weapons-listening, coke-hoovering, Vice-reading White Hipsters described at the top of Greif’s piece. Exclusivity was out; inclusive, badly dressed, hippie-inspired free love was in. It was revenge of the nerds, the revenge of the internet, revenge of the people who couldn’t even get into the Fashion Week parties to which bands like the Strokes were increasingly confining themselves. One thing Animal Collective definitely was not and is not was hipper than thou. They are hipper than pretty much no one.

Why does this distinction matter? Because, the piece, in the words of a smart critic, Eric Harvey, “suffers from the same surface-skipping cultural ignorance as it accuses hipsters of.” Greif is writing the perception, not the reality. There is a tradition of hipster music, going back the surly Bob Dylan of the ’60s, ’80s-era Beastie Boys (who wore the skinny jeans Greif can’t place in his New York Magazine piece, and had an unpalatably proto-Vice title for their first record), and the rap-addled downtown New York ’90s of Kids and the Wu-Tang Clan, all of which came way before 1999. All the while, of course, there were also young people into Peter Paul and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Duran Duran, and Stone Temple Pilots. You either call the entirety of young musical culture “hipster,” as Greif seems to have just done, or you start making distinctions, as we just did, or you recognize that, by lumping together subcultures as disparate as cocaine-addled Williamsburg, circa 2002, and the orderly spectacle of Pitchfork’s annual music festival in Chicago, circa right now, you essentially make the word meaningless.

Which is fine. (And Greif will surely be the first to tell you that even though he can’t always keep his outward cultural signifiers straight, the relevant thing to him about the hipster “is his relationship to consumption,” which sure, though I still don’t know how you distinguish between that guy and the boomers who are still, in 2010, having rebellion marketed to them via Rolling Stones-soundtracked Viagra ads and the like.) The hipster was either something concrete and thus not both the nerds and the people who define themselves by excluding them, or the empty pejorative of the Onion headline Greif approvingly quotes: “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster.'” We think it’s the latter, mostly, but either way, next time don’t tell us that these guys have anything to do with it:

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