October 24th, 2007

Global Ghettotech vs. Indie Rock: The Contempo Cartography of Hip

“Hipster hedonism takes many forms,” wrote Ned Polsky in reply to Norman Mailer’s hipster manifesto of 1957. “Some hipster groups,” Polsky continued, “have everything to do with motorcycles, whereas others have nothing to do with them.”

Similarly, but more in the abstract, in his genealogy of the hipster, “Hip and the Long Front of Color” (1989), Andrew Ross notes that “Hip is a mobile taste formation that closely registers shifts in respect/disrespect toward popular taste.”

Ingrid Monson provides a more specific historical view of these various shifts in hipster style in her 1995 essay, “The Problem with White Hipness,” while attempting to find some unifying themes across time&space:

The idea of hipness and African American music as cultural critique has, of course, detached itself over the last fifty years from the particular historical context of bebop, circulated internationally; it has inspired several generations of white liberal youth to adopt both the stylistic markers of hipness, which have shifted in response to changes in African American musical and sartorial style, and the socially conscious attitude that hipness has been presumed to signify.

Each in their own way, and all together, Polsky, Ross, & Monson thus help us to think through the contemporary “problem” (or problematique, as ebog would have it) whereby the ontology of the so-called “hipster” seems to have had its connotations loosed from Mailer’s sense of the term — that is, an existentialist rebel attuned to the Negro’s “Messianic mission,” as contemporary critic Jean Malaquais sniped. At this point, at least for some, the hipster simply mediates novelty. From such a perspective, there’s nothing much wrong, beyond a certain superficiality, with being a “hipster” — and I appreciate the critique that the term itself has become an overused stereotype that may obscure far more than it reveals. (Srsly, for all the folk I know who might fit facile descriptions of hipsterism, I can’t say that I would call any of them a “hipster.” Stylee, sure. Hipster, no.)

Indeed, some “dirty pigeons” (thx, ebog) so clearly reject any significations of negrophilia and embrace cultural notions of whiteness to such an extent that poptimistic music critics feel a need to pull their card. Dirty pigeons look even dirtier when white, it seems.

It is deeply interesting to me that so many commenters on my earlier post seem to feel that hipster has lost its race-y meaning. Clearly the whiter-than-white indie rock hipster formation is part of what gives us this sense of a “deracinated” hipster. But Sasha’s provocative piece on “musical miscegenation” (or a certain lack thereof) reminds us of the dialogic relationship between the hipsters who, on the one hand, embrace the signs of blackness in a way that would seem rather consistent with hipsters of the past and those who, on the other, seem to do the exact opposite, to retreat into whiteness, as I’ve called it in the past (& Sasha also employs the term retreat in his critique, notably).

If we see Sasha’s critique of lily-white indie rock as articulating the two sides of the hipster coin, diverging manners of engaging with (or retreating into) racial stereotypes, then we see the way that even that form of hip which seems to reject the symbols of African-American culture is still, in its own twisted ways, bound up with the romantic, raci(ali)st caricature of black masculinity and sexuality that so seduced Norman Mailer into thinking that middle-class whites using the right slang and seeking “the good orgasm” were existential rebels a half-century ago. Rock’n’roll, right, SF/J?

Against all of this hairsplitting, Mailer’s essay remains illuminating. It’s quite amazing how much some of its sentiments still resound with contemporary hipster discourse, even if, as many commenters here have protested, being a hipster today seems, in many cases, to have very little to do with a “fascination with / appropriation of” black culture. But as far as I’m concerned — that is, in my attempt to clear my good name understand the circulation of nu-whirled music — those issues of fascination and appropriation are still very much in the foreground. As is blackness (as a lens into an engagement with the exotic). And the way that I’m trying to articulate that side of the hipster coin is to pose a question about, as I’m currently calling it, “the postcolonial hipster” and in particular the resonance of what we might conceive as “global ghettotech.”

the face of ghettotech (RIP)

A quick search on MySpace returns 42 pages worth of artists or groups identifying as (at least one third!) “ghettotech.” And while the majority of those drop-down menu picks may be simply cheeky or whimsical, there are certainly a good number among them that attempt to wave the banner of ghettotech in some earnestness. (Contrary to popular discourse about hipsters, I think that “ironic distance” is actually kinda overhyped as a mode of reception.) Even if somekinda earnest, we have to ask, what the hell does ghettotech mean to all these people? Is it the same thing it meant to Disco D, the popularizer of the term (according to this primer)? Is it the same thing it means in Detroit or Chitown or Bmore or elsewhere where the term is less likely to be used than, say, the far less ghettotastic, “club music” or “dance music” or “booty music”? I doubt it.

Although my own coinage, “global ghettotech” as a term seems to identify a certain sphere of circulation and a certain (in this case, actually ironic) celebration of the ghetto therein. The irony in the celebration is not a distanced form of appreciation, but a product of the glaring (material) contradictions between those who are celebrating and those who are celebrated.

In a timely, reflexive reflection on the rise and fall of kuduro (at least in the hype machine), Guillaume comes right out and talks about the “hipster blogosphere” as the site for these exchanges, these representations of “hard ass” music. (He also calls himself a “white nerd,” which is an important part of all of this, no doubt. And there’s no way I can duck that label.) It is telling that a commenter at the low-bee forum Guillaume points to, asks of kuduro: “could this possibly be the next world bass bashment after baile?” And that sort of says it right there, or at least draws the connections quite clearly. Moreover, a lot of the discourse around kuduro on that forum marks the search for “NEW SOUNDS” and “staying ahead of the curve” as crucial to hipness in a constantly differentiating economy (of cool, of hot, of sounds and ideas), hence creating new niches for exchange value, as Nabeel points out. Returning to Ross, we find some resonance in the following characterization: “Hip is the site of a chain reaction of taste, generating minute distinctions which negate and transcend each other at an intuitive rate of fission that is virtually impossible to record.” In this sense we certainly see how the hipster mediates (and seeks out) novelty. But the novelty here is, I contend, not simply about newness. It’s about black newness (or is it new blackness?) — coded, often enough these days, as bass.

So I wonder whether the ghettobassosphere is not in some sense feeling the same as Sasha: let’s leave behind (or chant down) whiteness and all it represents, let’s embrace bass, space, and syncopation and all the things we could be if middle-class white women weren’t our moms (to paraphrase Charles Mingus).

This sort of critical move, which can no doubt be read as progressive in certain respects, also gets us into some tricky turf, at least vis-a-vis the historical hipster’s problem with primitivism. As Monson contends,

Whether conceived as an absence of morality or of bourgeois pretensions, this [hipster] view of blackness [as transgressive], paradoxically, buys into the historical legacy of primitivism and its concomitant exoticism of the “Other.”

Sasha’s conclusion then, a winking reference to the etymology of rock’n’roll and the “risk” that came with it, brings us right back to what Monson calls, in reference to Mailer’s celebratory tract of 1957, “the bald equation of the primitive with sex and sex with the music and body of the black male.” And though I’m not accusing Sasha of perpetuating these stereotypes too blatantly (and indeed, I think we should go easy on Sasha and applaud him for painting in bold, broad strokes), there’s no avoiding the resonance, the lurking essentialism, no matter how explicitly we may decry or attempt to avoid it.

This relationship between the primitive, blackness, and desire gets rather directly to what seems like a major part of the contemporary problematique of white hipness: the internet permits new “engagements” with the “Other” that are so thoroughly mediated (by discourse, by distance, by comcast) that the sense of “risk” which once animated hipsters heading up to Harlem has become really quite virtual, and hence, hardly constitutes a risk, or transgression, at all.

Global ghettotech projects old loci of authenticity outward: foreign black is the new black. And in this sense the lens through which we hear something like kuduro emerges inevitably from the cultural / economic logic that makes African-American music global, as well as, I suspect (unfortunately), the (post/neo)colonialist logic that carries forward some rather old, if perhaps not outmoded, modes of reception — the ways we hear and make sense of such new, whirled music as funk carioca, kuduro, and the next flavor of the month.

Sure, this is about (the insidious distinctions of) connoisseurship and perhaps there is no getting past that (indeed, expressing a taste for Bourdieu itself stands as a form of distinction within an academic economy of ideas and status), but I really would like to think that what I am doing here on this blog, even when I’m boosting an Argentinian mashapero or an African-American DJ, is much more than engaging with the “hipster” economy — that somehow my own (hopefully explicit and reflexive) exercise of taste on this blog, not to mention as a DJ or professor, has more to do with calling attention to critical blindspots and ways of reading (or not reading) contemporary culture than with a kind of unreflective circulation of the new (black) that largely serves to boost my own status. Call me naive, but don’t call me a hipster.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, this is about class (as Carl Wilson notes w/r/t Sasha’s piece), and hence race, and — crucially — about the digital divides of the internet: the paradox of an unprecedented degree of access to the sort of exotic cultural symbols (from baile pics to grainy youtube vids) that some “hipsters” employ as cultural capital, coexisting with an actual, racialized, class-based process of gentrification in which the very objects of affection / fascination / appropriation are being forced out of the same local spaces that now provide wifi connections for hipsters to do some DLing on the DL. As I wrote in a comment to my hipster post:

The coexistence of this celebration and embrace of difference against a social reality in which, for all the signifiers of cosmopolitanism around us (esp in, say, Brooklyn, or London), the forward march of gentrification continues apace, makes for a vexing paradox: in other words, our post-colonial neighbors are cool enough to download at a distance, but we don’t really want to live together (or do other things together, as Sasha would have it).

— or as Ross concludes: “Hip is the first on the block to know what’s going on, but it wouldn’t be seen dead at the block party.”

To close (for now), I have to admit that even if the idea of “race” is (perhaps) receding in importance for newer generations, or if hip today signifies yet some recognition of “the far from ideal conditions and circumstances under which racial integration [is still] beginning to feel its uncharted way” (to revise Ross), given the enduringly racialized lines of class inequality in the US (= the other side of the white privilege coin) — never mind the way things look when we extrapolate from the “West” to the “Global South” — I find that Ned Polsky’s bracing conclusion, responding to Mailer, remains rather relevant for a cultural moment that puts 50 Cent on a pedestal / virtual auction block (whether he gets money or not in the transaction is, I’d wager, fairly inconsequential):

Even in the world of the hipster the Negro remains essentially what Ralph Ellison called him — an invisible man. The white Negro accepts the real Negro not as a human being in his totality, but as the bringer of a highly specified and restricted “cultural dowry,” to use Mailer’s phrase. In so doing he creates an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place.



I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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