I’d been back in Sydney for a few days and was sitting in a park in Cronulla, catching up with an old friend. She asked me to describe my life in New York and, wishing to skip over the endless visa paperwork, the paucity of jobs and the recent bedbug infestation, I began by telling her that I was living in Brooklyn.
‘Oh … ’ she immediately interjected, ‘Are you a Brooklyn hipster?’
My first impulse was, of course, to deny it: the last thing I wanted was to be associated with all the pretension and snark of the ‘entitlement generation’. And yet, having spent the past few years moving from one gentrifying enclave to another, gorging on adjective-heavy ‘New American’ diner fare, and drinking my way between newly-opened dive bars, I was coming to terms with the fact that I’d started to act a whole lot like a Brooklyn hipster (also, I was wearing cut-off shorts).
In any case, while Brooklyn (or at least the gentrifying neighbourhoods strung out along the subway lines of north Brooklyn) may be an ancestral hipster heartland, these days it can be pretty hard to tell a Brooklyn hipster from a Sydney hipster. Beards have crept down Sydney’s jowls, and incongruous tattoos – rearing vipers and ‘Day of the Dead’ skulls and fantastic flying machines – have crept up the forearms of our bike mechanics and baristas.
Mary’s in Newtown is a perfect example of just how precisely Sydney has nailed Brooklyn-style hipsterdom.
Hidden behind an unmarked door in a narrow side street, Mary’s combines the sense of being let in on a local secret with the security of numerous positive online write-ups. Jack Daniel’s bottles have been repurposed as both light fixtures and hot sauce receptacles; the only place you won’t find much Jack is among the obscure bourbons and ryes behind the bar. The menu itself is all fancied up American fast food – burgers that shine with grease, deeply fried chicken, and ‘trashcan bacon’ (just to reinforce that, despite the prices, this is a dive).
It’s all an excellent representation of how Sydney thinks Brooklyn thinks somewhere like Nashville might have felt once. And if Brooklyn can offer its own overpriced, stylised version of Americana, why shouldn’t Sydney do the same?
In a recent Overland article, Andrew Self argued (to paraphrase heavily) that such indiscriminate cultural appropriation produces a commercialised, homogenised, decontextualised version of the original, complex culture. There is, however, nothing particularly hipster about such appropriation. Brooklyn hipsterdom stands distinct from Sydney hipsterdom (and other entitled but non-hipster generations), because the cultures that it appropriates are not so very foreign. You don’t even need to cross an ocean to find them.
Brooklyn hipsterdom is a clumsy, superficial, heavily-commodified critique of the promises of urban America. For the many eager young folk that come to New York City desperately hoping to transcend their humble origins, hipsterdom makes it OK to laugh at your own failure and mediocrity. Instead of downing cocktails with models and auteurs at some rooftop bar in Manhattan, the hipster can feel perfectly good about sinking happy hour tinnies in some dive bar. Sure the particular beer might be the same swill that your redneck uncle back in Pennsylvania drinks, but it’s OK because you know that, and therefore you’re drinking it ironically.
Not only does hipsterdom make it OK to drink the cheap, uncool shit, but it makes it OK to fetishise the whole world from which it came. It makes it OK to miss home, and to wonder if life might actually be better back in the hinterland. It doesn’t even have to be the hinterland from whence you came: any place that evokes a sense of frost settling on cabin windows, of boisterous bluegrass bands, of smoky barbeque and biscuits and grits will do. Hipster nostalgia and yearning can be for your own roots or someone else’s.
This yearning for yore, for any-yore-at-all, grows out of a hunger for authenticity. If all the glitter and polish of the city is a big fat lie, then maybe the rough and homespun – or really anything that has had the shiny veneer worn off – might be a better place to find the satisfyingly authentic. This craving after authenticity becomes pretty laughable, of course, when it turns into an indiscriminate treasuring of all that seems old. A few splinters in the furniture and the odd rinsed-out Jack bottle are all it takes to turn a bar into a dive.
A little irony turns such indiscriminate yearning into arcane knowledge – sure this looks like an old, moth-eaten jumper, but do you know why I’m wearing it? As Helen Addison-Smith wrote in her great piece on irony last year, ‘These days, there is a routine inclusion of ironic “looks” and “attitudes” into the previously very serious world of making-money-out-of-selling-useless-shit.’
So while the hipsters of Sydney are jumping on a global trend, and appropriating it in meticulous (albeit even more superficial) detail, something slightly different has been happening in Brooklyn. For once, what is most exotic and fascinating and consumable isn’t some image of a culture from far away. Rather, it is the previously-cringe-inducing backyard, the hinterland, the flyover states that are the subject of so much hipster nostalgia and delight.
What would it mean for Sydney hipsterdom to launch its own awkward critique of metropolitan living, instead of mimicking that from Brooklyn and the US? A good place to start might be with what Barnaby Lewer called ‘Sydney’s #event culture.’ He writes: ‘Who is shining the light on the fact that to pay homage to the decor of an American dive bar while failing to match its notoriety for cheap prices is disingenuous? Am I the only one who thinks there are cultural references beyond New York City?’ Brooklyn isn’t doing much better at matching scuffy dive bar aesthetics with scuffy dive bar prices, but it is at least offering some feeble pushback, some heavily commercialised dissent against the extreme elitism and false promises of New York’s official culture. It might be time for the Sydney hipsters to fix their eyes less on Brooklyn and more on their own backyard.