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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge