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russell smith: on culture

My unease with hipster culture grows with every new manifestation. I am currently twitchy about a clever and extremely popular band that only sells and performs their work - O perfect hipster conceit! - online. The band is called Pomplamoose and of course I don't have to watch their quirky, clever, cute, pretty, twee videos if I don't want to. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels visceral dissatisfaction and itching annoyance at hipster artistic values; let me be the spokesman for the grumpy here. And also they are perfectly representative of a perfectly contemporary aesthetic, so they must take the fall for hipsters everywhere.

Pomplamoose consists of two very talented musicians, a boy and a girl, who record music in what looks like their own apartment or house, and they do it dressed in the fanatically comfortable clothes of the hipster - the clothes that must all look like pyjamas - and they post videos of the performances on YouTube and then sell their songs from MySpace as MP3s. They are from California. Most of their songs are not theirs, however: They specialize in covers of pop songs, particularly by big stadium mainstream performers. What they do is take a massive dance tune - something by Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or Michael Jackson - and they wimpify it; they bring it down in scale till it's a plaintive, wispy little sing-along. There is pervasive irony here: They are taking the most mainstream (that is to say, uncool) of music and translating it into another aesthetic, one that privileges the small over the big, the homey over the polished, the gentle over the aggressive.

To do this they use quaint, old-fashioned instruments such as electric organs, and children's toy xylophones, and it's all cute and sweet. The two of them - a couple, Jack and Nataly - are unbearably cute as well. Often at the end of their videos there are outtakes that show the two of them joking together, or (in one particularly nauseating one) eating student food cross-legged among their instruments. "Nataly made macaroni and cheese, with onions and tomatoes" says Jack, like a clever nine-year old who knows his parents are beaming, and she replies, with her mouth full, "Now all we have left is beans." So unaffected! So down to earth! So adorable!

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Of course, I'm the kind of guy who, immersed in such studied unaffectedness, only sees affectation. The pose of naturalness requires a studious adherence to a particular fashion, and a certain amount of mugging for the camera - the singer, Nataly Dawn, has perfected a wide-eyed, surprised-naïf look that she puts on every two seconds that's about as natural as Lady Gaga herself. And there's something about this careful hipster anti-fashion - the careful sexlessness of the girls' short hair, the carefully cultivated beards of the boys, the jammie-wear of both - that seems like a rebuke to the elaborate staging of Gaga or Aerosmith. It's as if they are teaching a lesson to these glammed-up stars about how much sweeter they could be, how much more sensitive, how unaffected. How much cooler. Indeed, Jack Conte has made superior statements to the press about countering "fake" music culture.

But a folk-jazz treatment of high-energy pop will always strip out that which makes the pop so much fun: Take off the brassy, buzzy, abrasive edge and you're left with banality - in this case, a pretentious banality.

It is cruel of me to criticize this pair, because they are not trying to appeal to me - she does have a sweet voice and they make music that many people like - and I know what it is like to have somebody you have never met mock you out of the blue in print (baffling and upsetting), but the point is not really how I personally dislike their music. It's their fixation with other people's music - with the idea of a cover, a remix - that's significant. This is what is so contemporary. It's pretty much the definition of a certain kind of postmodernism: the idea that there is nothing original in art, that everything is a reference. And that every perception is filtered through a haze of mass culture, the omnipresent noise, so all art might as well be about, in some way, Beyoncé and McDonald's. And that there is no difference between a parody and an homage, that one laughs at everything one admires anyway, that irony is so unavoidable that it is impossible to differentiate from seriousness.

There is something defeatist and basically not brave about hipster postmodernism - and this goes for the domains of visual art and literature too. If you claim to believe that there is no possibility of original art in an age of reference, you are cleverly avoiding the nauseating stress of being original. It's too easy. And you shouldn't believe it, either, because it's not true. Artists in every era have faced the terrifying pressure of what has already been done, and every age has had its revolutionaries. An artistic culture so focused on pastiche as our own can start to look nihilistic.