A woman cheers on a team during the Hipster Olympics in Berlin. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over

Our generation is to blame – we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action by the flying columns of capitalism’s blitzkrieg.

July 2014: it’s breakfast time at the Farmer’s Daughter, a boutique motel in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The decor is suggestive of some deconstructed Midwestern idyll, what with old farming implements nailed up against one exterior wall, yards of gingham hanging from assorted rails and plenty of rough-hewn yet varnished wood. The establishment is constructed around an exterior courtyard, and as I take my seat, intent on caffeine and carbohydrate, the soft, fume-tangy morning air is pulverised by the reverberating bassline of Massive Attack’s 1995 single “Karmacoma”. It makes me think of the neon-furred nights I endured that year, when, my synapses misfiring in a slop of MDMA, I’d rear up to look blearily at the dawn.

I rear up and head over to reception for the usual useless parlaying: would they please turn the music down? No, they would not, because they cannot comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to eat their waffles to the accompaniment of loud trip-hop . . . When I reassume my seat, looking frazzled and out of sorts, one of my sons bellows sympathy over the shingly sonic backwash, and I say: “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”

And we are, aren’t we, us fiftysomethings? We’re the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditisation of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action by the flying columns of capitalism’s blitzkrieg; we’re the twats who sat there saying that there was no distinction between high and popular culture, and that adverts should be considered as an art form; we’re the idiots who scrumped the golden apples from the Tree of Jobs until our bellies swelled and we jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes – slurry we claimed was “cultural criticism”.

So all I can do is sit there and reflect on the great world-girdling mass of mindless attitudinising that passes for “hip” in the third millennium since the death of the great sandal-wearing hippie. In 2005 Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s satirical series Nathan Barley aired on British television; in it, they portrayed the nascent scene around Shoreditch and Hoxton in east London as a miserable gallimaufry of web-headed, tiny-bike-riding, moronic poseurs. Watching these programmes again nearly a decade on, I’m struck not only by the uncanny prescience of Brooker and Morris, but, far more disturbingly, by how nothing has changed. Changed, that is, qualitatively – if you walk down Brick Lane nowadays you see the same beards, low-cut T-shirts and fixed-wheel bikes; and if you eavesdrop on conversations you hear the same idiotic twittering about raves and virtual art forms; but quantitatively the picture has been utterly transformed: this quarter of the metropolis is positively haunching with dickheads – but then so is Manchester’s Northern Quarter, or Clifton in Bristol, or the West End of Glasgow. If you venture further afield you will find dickheads the world over – downtown Reykjavik, I discovered to my horror, is a phantasmagoria of frothy-coffee joints and vinyl record shops.

Comrade Stalin once observed that “Quantity has a quality all its own”, and the sheer quantity of dickheads now wandering bemusedly around the world represents, in my view, a big shift in cultural dynamics. In Los Angeles, arguably their Mecca, to be a dickhead is unremarkable; but Portlandia, the US equivalent to Nathan Barley, posits the Oregonian city as a sort of time capsule of all that’s righteously hip. The theme tune is a song featuring the lyric: “The spirit of the Nineties is alive in Portland!” If only that were the only place it was alive – but the truth is that this seisdick shift is global. If you log on to YouTube and key in “Being a Dickhead’s Cool”, you’ll be subjected to two and a half minutes of satiric genius. Reuben Dangoor, who wrote and sings this ditty, doesn’t seem to have done much else with his life, but frankly he doesn’t need to. With lines such as “I remember when the kids at school would call us names/Now we’re taking over their estates” he has so effectively skewered the phenomenon that he can rest eternally on his twisted laurels.

The rousing chorus of the song – “I love my life as a dickhead/All my friends are dickheads too” – suggests to me why the dickhead is at one with the zeitgeist. By providing even the most woefully untalented with an outlet for their “creativity”, the web has massively enlarged the numbers who style themselves as “artistic”, as well as increased the duration of their futile aspiration. In the kidult dickhead milieu, it’s now quite possible to encounter fortysomethings with weird facial hair, wearing shorts and still resolutely believing that their career is about to take off.

And in a way I suppose they’re right, because the totalising capability of dickheads + web = an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavour. Nowadays someone who sticks old agricultural implements on the wall of a Los Angeles motel regards himself as on a par with Michelangelo; moreover, since all their friends are dickheads, too, no one is about to disabuse them. Hell, on Planet Dickhead just turning up the trip-hop can be a work of unalloyed genius. 

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution