Last week Australia's SBS premiered its brand new series What Is a Hipster? In 2005 this might have been an interesting exploration of the commodification of alternative culture. In 2015 it was a late addition to an extremely tired conversation. Watching a preview centered young bearded guys talk and their obsession with typewriters, I kept wondering, Who is this for? Who is left that wouldn't know what a "hipster" is that actually cares about this stuff? Then I remembered my parents.
My folks are in their mid 60s, educated, intelligent, and largely removed from the contemporary world. Their life together is a blur of low-level suburban adventures and the occasional feud with another eccentric with a low center of gravity. I had to invite them over to watch this show to see what they might learn from it.
Before we pressed play I quizzed them on their idea of "cool." My dad's definition was "cleanliness"—which was surprising for how much food he had on his face at the time. My mum didn't hesitate: "People who don't do drugs" was her reply. I should mention that I'm 27 and have lived away from home for almost a decade. She was happy to have the opportunity to get a clean living message out.
I urged them to think of someone they knew from their youth who stood out as being cool. After a pause my dad recalled a mutual friend who was totally his own person, who lived, dressed, and acted entirely as he pleased with little interest in what people thought. My mum nodded thoughtfully before interjecting, "He always used to walk around with that donkey on a lead."
At this point I was already so exhausted and confused I put on the TV.
My mum seemed eternally confused about what was happening on the screen. We were several minutes in before she understood that I didn't make this show myself and stopped asking if I "took the pictures" and whether or not it was present day. Dad seemed more relaxed, although when I listened back to my recording, it was punctuated with his withering groans.
After a few minutes of watching annoying people buying coffees, my dad cocked his head and said "awakened goth" for no apparent reason. My mum told me everyone on screen looked like me.
Honestly, they weren't immediately engaged. Maybe it wasn't for them after all. As I bristled at typewriter jokes dad looked bored and mum used every scene change as an excuse to complain about her acquaintances' partners.
After a while they began to engage with the show. "Are hipsters greenies?" my mum asked. "Do they put that much effort into what they wear, or are they just wearing what they feel like wearing?" My dad offered that he thought that might have been the point. Don't let the sauce stains fool you, he's a quick study.
By the time the host made it to the Melbourne vintage store Shag they seemed to enjoy trying to unknot this social bow tie. My mum started saying things like "flower power" and I began to suspect she was confusing hippies with hipsters.
As the host was strapped into a pair of suspenders I asked them what they thought of hipster style so far. Very eager to please, my mum looked panicked and said, "Laid back, comfortable?" Dad, sat quietly before offering, "They look like the guys who did ballet."
Near the program's halfway mark I asked again what they were picking up about the hipster social mindset. Mum suggested, "I find your generation very non-critical and nonjudgmental." I asked her if she understood this wasn't a hippie thing. She promised she got that, but insisted, "It's about unconditional love. That's your style." (Full disclosure: I suspected she was stoked I invited her for dinner and didn't want to mess up her chance of another invite.) Dad just said everyone looked like they were "saying 'fuck you' to the whole world." He remained my star pupil.
Things continued quietly though the bit on beards, save for my mum mentioning how nice someone's British accent was. But when we got to tattoos the general vibe of enthusiasm (her) and apathy (him) fell away long enough for them to express actual disdain. Dad warned, "over my lifetime I've seen a lot of attractive girls and then I've seen the tattoo." What about boys, I asked "They're their own idiots." To change the subject I asked where they thought the most hipsters in the world were. Mum said Holland and we all sat in silence for a while.
As the show came to a close we somehow began talking about drugs—it could have been the Holland comment—and I asked if they thought alternative culture went hand-in-hand with drug use.
My mum said she was sure that everyone spoken to in the show smoked weed. (Except she said "dagga" because she's an old South African lady and that's what they call it there.) Then, in what I'd consider the upset of the night, Dad corrected her: "Oh no, all those people are into ice [a.k.a. meth]." Turns out at some point my dad quietly accepted that everyone in Australia smokes ice and considers it a more sophisticated option. When I asked if he was sure he didn't mean coke, he assured me coke was only for yuppies. Then he casually added, "We only took amphetamines to stay awake."
By now it was getting late and I wanted to reclaim the TV to watch Better Call Saul so I asked them for final impressions. Mum said, "To me they're young, happy, I love you, you love me, no judgement." That's when I realized she had largely zoned out for most of the 30-minute show. Dad admitted he found the odd hipster annoying because the "us versus you" attitude was narrow-minded and painted his generation as an enemy.
Never one to end on a negative note, mum countered with, "It's a very special time of your life, to be a hipster, it's when you're carefree, young, experimenting, loving, and open to life." By the time the credits rolled my mum was basically conflating being a hipster to spending a year abroad to learn Italian.
Before they left Dad asked if we could end with a Churchill quote. To tell a white 66-year-old man to not quote Churchill is like telling a bird not to fly, so I said sure. "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain." When I smiled encouragingly, he added, "I pity those who weren't communists in their youths."
I asked them if they would watch episode two and Dad said probably not. Mum assured me she would, but I think she was being polite. Ultimately I doubt they left with an understanding of what a hipster is, but who cares? No one else knows either.
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