Monthly Archives: September 2007

Notes on Japan


Last week I returned from a fantastic 11 day adventure in Japan–a country I had not previously been to and which I can now say is the most unique nation I’ve ever visited. In some ways Japan is like the U.S. or other hyper-developed nations (i.e. very modern, very tech-happy, very indulgent), but in other ways it is very, very different. My mind is full of interesting observations and tales of cross-cultural confusion from my trip, but rather than re-hash our itinerary (which was rigorous, to say the least), I’ll just randomly pontificate about some of the things I found most interesting.

I. Japanese Hipsters
If you’ve read my blog over the past few weeks, you know how fascinated I am with hipster culture. Thus, a trip to Japan was a dream come true for hipster-watching. If you ever go to Tokyo, a must-stop area is Harajuku (immortalized in the Gwen Stefani song, “Harajuku Girls”). Here, on a bridge near the train station, is the mecca for underground fringe fashion that might be described as anime-infused Mary Poppins-meets-Marilyn Manson milkmaid couture (see pictures). But these kids are more “freak” than hipster; it’s more like a Halloween party in Harajuku than it is a fashion show. Then who are the real hipsters? The answer, as I found out, is 90% of all Japanese kids age 15-25. What is “hip” in America now is the norm for all kids in Japan. The “emo” look is worn by even the most traditional-minded youths in this country. The ragged Kate Moss heroin look is even more ubiquitous. What has happened in this uber-prosperous nation is that “cool” has become the regular, the mundane, the mainstream. Walking down Takeshita street (the under-21 Melrose Avenue of Tokyo), pretty much every kid I passed was way cooler looking than anyone I know in the States. But they probably aren’t REALLY that cool; and they probably wouldn’t say they are any hipper than any other wealthy young Tokyo-ite. How could they be? They look just as hip as everyone else in Tokyo! It’s just the way they dress. It’s just the way it is. Cool is the new mainstream in Japan. Perhaps afashionable nerds will become the next superstars.

1.jpg 2.jpg 3.jpg

II. The Salaryman
When I first got off the subway in Akihabara on my first night in Tokyo, the streets were swarming with black-suited, white-shirted clones with briefcases: better known as “salarymen.” Tokyo, and most of the urban areas in Japan, is obsessed with work. I suspect this country relates more to the whole “live to work” motto as opposed to “work to live.” Thousands of salarymen crowd the streets and subways after work (which they sometimes stay at until very, very late at night). They then “unwind” by putting money in Pachinko machines, or drinking the night away in some bar, or just smoking up a storm in some restaurant (you can smoke and drink ANYWHERE in Tokyo… there are beer and cigarette vending machines on every block). Some salarymen venture to the seedier streets to meet a “companion” for the night, or they just find a “love hotel” (which are ubiquitous in Japan). To finish the night, many go to public baths or “Onsen” (hot spring spas), or just take a soak in the tub back home. All the money they make is strictly controlled by their wife back home (the women handle all money transactions in Japan), who keeps a tight watch over her husband’s gambling habit.

III. Have a nice day!
Lest the above descriptions paint Japan in a negative light, I have to say that first among my impressions of this country is that the people are, by-and-large, the nicest people of any country I’ve ever been to. Whenever I had any inkling of a confused expression on my white face, it wasn’t long before someone appeared out of the blue to ask if I needed help (you can set your watch by it… like most everything in Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to be invited in to a Japanese home for a meal (as I was on two separate occasions), you experience off-the-chart levels of hospitality. They throw unholy portions of food at you during meals, as well as dangerous amounts of sake and Suntory (whiskey), all the while practicing their English on you and looking intensely delighted by everything you say or do (“Oh rearry?” they say, even when they might not completely understand what you’re saying). The effect of the overwhelming displays of hospitality and kindness I experienced in Japan has left me truly embarrassed for my own failings in this area. How odd that I have to go halfway around the globe—to a nation where Christianity is almost as foreign as soap in bathrooms (yeah, they don’t use it)—to see a superior display of “Christian” virtues like charity, humility, and hospitality. If only for that, the trip was well worth it.

Autumnal Art: 20 Tastes

Autumn is my favorite season. Always has been. Sadly, I now live in a climate (southern California) that has only the faintest glimpse of any seasonal changes. Fall in L.A. means the Emmys, a new television season, and USC football. Weatherwise, it might mean a freak thunderstorm and a few random trees changing color. But it is not Autumn in the beautiful Midwestern sense of the word.

The Autumn I know is full of indelible sights, smells, and memories. It is football games in crisp October nights. It is pumpkin patches and hayrides and the smell of wheat harvest and burning leaves. It is wicked cold fronts that bring thunder and sometimes snow, with gusty winds that reduce summer plumage to naked boney limbs. It is hot spice punch, pumpkin pie, fireplace embers, dark nights at the state fair, cold mornings at the bus stop, and toasted salty pumpkin seeds.

In honor of this wonderful season, so happily melancholy in its spirit of change and decay, I’ve decided to experience it vicariously by listing 20 of the best embodiments of autumn in art and literature.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (book) by Washington Irving
Nothing says autumn like Halloween, and no Halloween is complete without this creepy New England goth tale by Washington Irving. The film version by Tim Burton is kinda ridiculous (albeit fun), but the book is a gorgeous autumnal horror story wherein a headless horseman stalks innocent rural villagers with pumpkins! I’ll always associate fall with the crisp, slightly haunted woods of Sleepy Hollow.

Late Autumn (film)
This film by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is less about the physical manifestations of the season as it is about the spiritual essence of Autumn as it relates to our own life-cycles (i.e. growing up, moving on, breaking away from the past). A beautiful and profound meditation on impermanence.

Autumn Landscape (painting), Van Gogh


It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (classic TV special)
I watched this classic Halloween special (which debuted in 1966) every year growing up. What can I say? It’s one of the best animated holiday specials ever. American Halloweens and Autumns have definitely been immortalized (and shaped) by this moment in classic pop culture.

Ohio (album), Over the Rhine
I’m inclined to call this the best album of all time (period.), but for now I’ll just say it’s the best album for Autumn. Over the Rhine’s double disc opus has the heart of a Midwestern folk journey through the apple valleys of Michigan to the wheatfields of Iowa, and of course the meandering backroads of Ohio. It’s all so very pastoral, and yet unsettled—like the low pressure air before a Canadian cold front brings the first snow.
Cold Mountain (book) by Charles Frazier
I’m not sure why this novel feels so quintessentially Autumn-like to me… maybe it’s because seasons and the changing of them are so central to the mood of the book. And harvesting crops on the farm, getting hands dirty, preparing the homestead for winter in the Blue Ridge mountains… All of it evokes the smoky evanescence of this beautiful time of the year.

Autumn Morning (painting), Atkinson Grimshaw


All the Real Girls (film)
This wonderful film by director David Gordon Green embodies Autumn both visually (the film’s color palette is orange, red, brown, and yellow) and thematically. It’s a story about the end of a young romance (like a summer fling), the pains of growing up, and the essential place of decay and renewal in the cycles of life.

“Autumn Day” (poem), Rilke
I’ll just quote it:

Lord: it is time. The summer was so immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials,
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full,
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Hoosiers (film)
Football movies are the logical choice for films about fall, but Hoosiers is a basketball film that I’ve always associated with Autumn. Maybe it’s the wonderful scene with Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey working together in the cold Indiana field at harvest time (you can almost smell that “burning grass/leaves on the plains” smell), or maybe it’s just that fall means the onset of basketball season for those of us with perennial high hopes.
Sea Change (album), Beck
This is the ultimate break-up album, but even if you’ve never gone through a painful transition in love, you’ve surely gone through several in life. We all face sea changes, and it’s hard. Beck captures the moods and melodies of a swiftly changing, turbulent world—and it feels like a perfect companion to a cold November day when wind and ice and falling leaves swirl around outside.

Autumn on the Hudson (painting), Cropsey


“September Song” and “September Baby” (songs), Willie Nelson and Joseph Arthur, respectively
Two songs about the month when summer fades and time claims its memories. From Willie: Oh it’s a long long while from May to December / But the days grow short when you reach September. And from Joseph Arthur: You can feel the falling leaves / Filling up our vacant lives.

Sounds of Silence (album), Simon & Garfunkel
A lovely soundtrack to Autumn. From the first haunting lines of the album (Hello Darkness my old friend…) to the mediation of time that is “Leaves That Are Green” (Time hurries on / And the leaves that are green turn to brown / And they wither with the wind / And they crumble in your hand) everyone can relate to this 1966 classic.
Days of Heaven (film)
Yes, this is a film by Terrence Malick (who most of you know, is my favorite filmmaker). But its inclusion on this list is solely on the merits of it being a great film about fall—specifically, harvest. The photography in this film—the yellow hues and burnt browns of ripe wheat and husking farmers—is simply stunning.

( ) (album), Sigur Ros
This album may be about the fire and ice of Bjork’s homeland (Iceland), but its beauty transcends specificity—evoking the more general majesty that is our dynamic, tumultuous planet.

Autumn Moon (photograph), Ansel Adams


The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (album), Explosions in the Sky
In Autumn, one might be inclined to say that the earth IS a cold dead place, but this is of course absurd since we all know that Spring will come eventually. Fall is a season of transition—and its death is always haunted by new life. Explosions in the Sky capture the raucous dynamics of an earth that is very much alive, even in its most subdued moments.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (album), Wilco
This landmark album from Chicago band Wilco is the ultimate musical embodiment of disintegration. The album tows the line between pristine pop melodies and discordant noisemaking, before eventually descending into an all out breakdown. It’s an album about beauty being changed into something less harmonious, but ultimately just as beautiful.
Friday Night Lights (film and television show)
Both the film and television series (and book, I suppose) are about much more than football. They are mediations on life and its changing seasons—and about the unquenchable desire to live in the proverbial “golden days.” Every time I watch the film I think back to when I was a kid, attending Friday night football games in Jenks, Oklahoma, with the lights and hotdogs and marching bands and crisp autumn air blowing over from the sandy banks of the Arkansas River.

Holy Hedonism!


I was recently introduced to John Piper’s term, “Christian Hedonism,” which I believe he coined in the 1986 classic, Desiring God, but which I came across in reading his recent mini-book, The Dangerous Duty of Delight. It’s a pretty radical concept… and yet it struck me as wonderfully, profoundly true.

Webster defines hedonism as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.” We’ve always been taught the Christian life was exactly counter to this, right? So what is Christian hedonism?

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is the truth that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Therefore, if we are going to glorify God as we ought, the pursuit of joy is not optional—it is essential. We not only may, but ought to pursue our maximum pleasure—in God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the “chief end of man” as “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Piper has suggested that this would be more correct as “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”

Essentially the idea is that the Christian life is not joyful or happy or blessed as a result of our devotion and service and worship of God. Being joyful and happy and blessed is HOW we worship God. It’s not a byproduct of our faith. It is our faith.

Seeking happiness as a “reward” for being a Christian is not something we should be ashamed of—it is precisely the motivation we should be pursuing. Put off all notions of self-pity and self-sacrifice and guilt for feeling discontent or desiring more. Acknowledging the desires of our restless souls is vital to our pleasure in God.

Piper looks to Augustine and Jonathan Edwards as examples of “Christian hedonism,” but perhaps most often he turns to C.S. Lewis, who Piper thinks summarizes the radical (and radically true) concept best in The Weight of Glory:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Here are some of the controversial implications of being wholly devoted to a holy hedonistic lifestyle:

  • It is okay (and right) to do good deeds because it will bring you pleasure. Does that mean our motivation in giving money to the poor or bringing flowers to someone in a hospital should be our happiness first and foremost??? Yes. Piper says “The pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.”
  • We should reject the well-intentioned philosophy that says “For the Christian, happiness is never a goal to be pursued. It is always the unexpected surprise of a life of service.” No, we must do the opposite. Happiness is our service.
  • When we come to a worship at church, we should be there to get, not to give. We should hunger for the joy that God provides us in worship, not concerned with what we could possibly give to Him.
  • We should not pursue the wealth and material pleasures of this world, but we should pursue the greater gains awaiting us in eternal life. In other words, doing things for a crown in heaven is not a bad motivation at all.
  • We should deny ourselves for God’s sake, but not feel sad or self-pitied as a result. We are denying ourselves a lesser good for a greater good; we must not think of sacrifice in terms of self-pity, but in terms of the reward at the end (“whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Mark 8:35). We should live under the credo of slain missionary Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Anyway, I’m sure this is already a familiar concept to most of you, and it’s pretty common sense when you think about it. But it seems like Christianity has been branded as a religion of legalism and self-denial and, well, no fun. Even from the pulpit we get messages that seem to argue for a worship of God that is all about what we can give to Him, or do to make Him happy, etc… How much more radical, then, is Piper’s notion that the chief aim in life should be OUR happiness and OUR pleasure in God? It’s extreme. But if Christianity is, after all, the one and true answer among all others, it should be extreme, right?

Note: The picture above depicts late night frivolity at Oxbridge 2005, a fantastic conference for Christian artists/academics/C.S. Lewis enthusiasts that takes place in Oxford and Cambridge, England, every three years.

Types of Hipsters: Part Three

The final installment (for now…) of my dirty hipster dozen. Thanks for indulging my recently re-awakened fascination with all things hipster (and excuse the momentary breach of my antiblog’s “no irony” policy… I promise that my interest in this stuff is as earnest as hipster scholarship can possibly be!).

9) The Ex-pat brangelina.jpg
Otherwise known as the jet-setting international kid or the hostel-hopping backpacker, the Ex-pat hipsters are those who can’t stay in one place for more than a year. They spend summers in Australia, winters in Chile, and spring breaks in Spain. Their passports are prized possessions, and full or exotic stamps. These hipsters are typically multi-lingual and well versed in international relations. They work hard and spend almost all of their money on traveling, though often they combine work and travel by getting jobs or internships abroad. They are frequently big on humanitarian causes, and often do stints in Africa or other Third World countries. They are wayfaring, Lost in Translation-type existentialists who lack any sense of “home.” Sidenote: this particular brand of hipster is disproportionately high in Christendom, what with the globetrotting, YWAM-esque missions sensibilities and all…

  • Fashion: Backpacker/safari/European. Jeans, hiking boots, all-weather outerwear. L.L. Bean for the preppies in the lot. Thrifty cheapness (H&M) for the others.
  • Music: All about transition and changing moods, and typically more international in scope than other hipsters. European folk, French ambient, etc… Air, Blur, Ray Lamontagne, The Frames, The Jesus and Mary Chain, M83.
  • Movies: Never really in one place long enough to see a lot of movies—more about DVDs-on-laptop-while-riding-trains. Even so, they do have a soft spot for road movies and cinema that ponders things like time and impermanence. Favorite directors; Richard Linklater, Yasujiro Ozu, Sofia Coppola.
  • Celebs of this kind; Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor, Chelsea Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Prince William.

10) The Activistba_war25_181_mac.jpg
Hipsterdom has long been tied to that most expressive rite of democratic passage: protest. In the 60s the cause was clear: the Vietnam War. In the 80s and especially the 90s, the causes became much more diverse and decentralized amid the explosive information age. Today, hipster activism is usually anti-war or anti-globalization, or otherwise economic in nature (fair trade, third-world debt, etc). Activist hipsters make their voice heard in many other social causes as well: urban poverty, education, civil rights, etc. They take pride in being “in solidarity” with the trampled-on and disadvantaged in life, and often live in the midst of them. Though not nearly as violent or lawless as their Vietnam-era forbears, these activists are certainly passionate and feisty, especially during elections, summits, or large political gatherings.

  • Fashion: Che Guevera chic (formerly turtleneck-and-beret mod chic). Sometimes militaristic, lots of army-surplus, t-shirts with hand-written messages or pictures, etc… Varies a lot though, as Activist hipsters come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Music: Political-minded rock vis-à-vis Rage Against the Machine, or some of the more retro, Vietnam-era protest acts. Any music remotely resembling subversive political messaging is welcome. Radiohead, Gorillaz, Bob Dylan, Nirvana.
  • Movies: Pop-expose documentaries are big, as in Michael Moore or anything from Participant Productions. Movies with messages of something to say politically are preferred over neutral entertainment. Favorite directors: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Walter Salles, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach.
  • Celebs of this kind: Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Rosario Dawson, Alec Baldwin, Green Day.

11) The Health Nutmatt_lancerun.jpg
This type of hipster might trace its origins to the hippie communes that dotted the countryside during the 60s rebellion against McDonalds consumerism. The organic, “live off the land,” “we hate preservatives” attitude of these hippies is alive and well in today’s assortment of “tight-abs and Power Bar” health junkies. These are the hipsters who run a lot, frequent stores like GNC and Wild Oats, and participate in the aerobic fitness craze du jour (pilates, yoga, tai-chi, etc). They enjoy the outdoors and shun most television or “couch-potato” behavior. Mostly they just look really tanned and toned all the time, and pair off among themselves when it comes to dating (because who else can live up to those standards?) Places like Boulder (Colorado) and the Pacific Northwest are the breeding grounds for this hip phenom.

  • Fashion: The latest in sportswear and comfortable running/cross-training shoes. Eddie Bauer, North Face, Nike, etc. Lots of fleece and outdoorsy-fabrics. Sunglasses tend toward the wrap-around, ski styles. Beanies and visors are the headgear of choice.
  • Music: Hodge-podge. Tends towards mid-level, harmless alt-pop like Keane, Coldplay, The Shins, with occasional interest in shimmering psychedelia to the tune of The Flaming Lips or Polyphonic Spree. For workout-inspiration, however, lively rap and hard-rock are allowed: Jurassic Five, Linkin Park, Jay-Z, etc.
  • Movies: See Yuppie, with a bit more of a classy sports-movie/inspirational twist. Obscure sports documentaries like Into the Void, Murderball, Spellbound, etc are favorites. Foreign and specialty films are preferred over mindless couch-potato fodder.
  • Celebs of this kind: David Beckham, most young Olympic stars, Lance Armstrong, Matthew McConaughey, Madonna, Neve Campbell.

12) The Emo-Gothrose_mcgowan.jpg
Goths, as we know them today (not as in medieval Eastern European vampires), seem to have emerged sometime in the 70s or 80s. Since then they’ve been a mainstay of “alternative” lifestyle, and have scared scores of parents and church ladies over the years. Goths are pretty easy to pinpoint (their appearance is among the most predictable in hipsterdom), but vary widely in demeanor and background. A lot of the slightly overweight kids from junior high with the “Mean People Suck” buttons become Goths in their later years. Usually indoors types (white skin is a badge of honor) big into computer culture and gaming, they don’t get out much except to nighttime concerts or to another Goth’s dwelling place. The Emo-Goth is easily the most threatening young person to the establishment—and in his/her cigarette-puffing, dramatic-bangs-in-my-eyes swagger, The Emo-Goth is proud of such an abrasive position.

  • Fashion: Obviously, lots of black. Black clothes, black fish-net stockings, black hair (most likely died, with streaks of various sorts), black nails, black eye-liner, etc. Tends toward the freakish, with dungeon/S&M touches here and there (spike bracelets, leather, you know…). Suits and dresses are welcome, though they must be sleek, dark and mysterious. Proper hairdos include the “one eye shrouded” look, which says “the world is too dark and painful to look at with both eyes.”
  • Music: Music is huge for these hipsters. 80s noise bands and goth pioneers are big heroes. Current new-wave throwbacks are goth-friendly as well. All things twisted, urbane, industrial, and “dark eye-shadow”… The Cure, Depeche Mode, NIN, Interpol, David Bowie, Fiona Apple, The Knife.
  • Movies: Hard to pin down. Goths are sometimes science-fiction and fantasy fans, with a penchant for comic-book adaptations, anime, and/or “Matrix-esque” fare. Others prefer concert films or drug fodder (i.e. kids movies and/or 50s sci-fi) Favorite directors: Peter Jackson, Wachowski Brothers, Hayao Miyazaki, Ridley Scott (older stuff), Richard Kelly (the guy who did Donnie Darko).
  • Celebs of this kind: Edward Furlong, Juliette Lewis, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Manson, Rose McGowan.

Types of Hipsters: Part Two

The non-exhaustive review of common hipster types continues with four more for your reading pleasure:

5) The Flower Childgarofalo.jpg
Born of progressive parents or former hippies, these millennials are granola-eating, dreadlocked rich kids who stand in solidarity with the poor and, well everyone except the white bourgeoisie. Aside from those stereotypes, they are actually quite diverse. Some are super socially conscious “no blood for oil!” activists, while others trade politics for pot. Additional concerns range from animal rights to fair trade to various third-world issues. The Flower Child is perhaps best defined by his or her affection for all things natural and organic. They love the outdoors (mountain climbing, biking, ultimate frisbee, etc) and are generally active in earth-saving politics. They enjoy Tofu, oats, and soy, but are not always hardcore vegetarian. Flower Children are generally very mild in temperament and easy to befriend, if you can get past the “take a shower!” stigma.

  • Fashion: Dumpster chic or Third World imports. Cultural patterns and fashions are key here. Low-end thrift stores (Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc) are the go-to, where plain plaid flannel shirts, Dickies and retro graphic tees (Mickey Mouse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) are great finds.
  • Music: Widely varied, but generally non-electronic and mellow. Folk and old-school country are big, as are bluegrass, jam band, and progressive rap. Joni Mitchell, Ani Difranco, Patty Smith, Bill Mallonee, Phish, A Tribe Called Quest.
  • Movies: Latin American cinema is big, as are the more psychedelic American films. Generally open to comedy more than other hipsters, and not prone to the “all indie, all the time” mindset. Favorite directors: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Fernando Meirelles, Terry Gilliam, David Fincher.
  • Celebs of this kind: Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy), Janine Garofalo, Kate Hudson, Ani Difranco.

6) The Detached Ironicadam.jpg
Do you ever watch VH1? You know all those snarky, one-liner-spewing talking heads that make fun of pop culture all the time? Yeah, this is the Detached Ironic. These hipsters are media savvy and tabloid-literate, with a penchant for guilty pleasure entertainment. Typically the “class clown” personality, this hipster has an ever-ready arsenal of witty remarks about everything from O.J. to J-Lo. Extra-curricular interests include watching trashy television with a detached sense of irony (especially things like “The Tyra Banks Show”) and planning parties around cheesy movie marathons or live television events. While popular in large groups and generally mood-lifting people, DIs can be annoyingly distant in close personal relationships due to their pervasive sarcasm and difficulty with serious situations.

  • Fashion: Statement tees are where it’s at—the most original, ironic, and retro the better. Heavy on accessories like sunglasses and trucker hats too. Trendy, self-referential stores like Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic, and Hollister are big with these hipsters.
  • Music: All about the 80s—the more outrageous and cheesy, the better. Hair metal, new wave, drug music… all fun. When not wallowing in anachronistic pop, however, modern nerd-rock or punk are good things. Animotion, Go Gos, Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson, Queen, Weezer, Morrissey.
  • Movies: Comedy all the way: from the brat pack to the frat pack. Little interest in foreign film (except maybe Monty Python) or too-serious cinema, though broadly knowledgeable of movie trivia across all genres. Favorite directors: Christopher Guest, Tim Burton, Alexander Payne, John Hughes.
  • Celebs of this kind: VH1 talking heads, Adam Brody, Tina Fey, Chuck Klosterman, Kathy Griffin.

7) The Yuppiegyllenhall.jpg
This classic term is defined by Webster as “a young, college-educated adult who is employed in a well-paying profession and who lives and works in or near a large city.” In short: a young urban professional. These hipsters are city slickers extraordinaire, toting Apple ibooks in sleek suede book bags as they walk down the steps of their brownstone flat. They are heavily caffeinated, overworked gym rats that let loose only as part of a regimented schedule. For fun they picnic at outdoor concerts, go out to plays, bar hop (one-word bars only!) or attend young society functions or parties. Groceries are exclusively bought at upscale retailers like Whole Foods or Trader Joes, and table wine is served with most every meal. Though not as socially conscious as other hipsters, yuppies do voice opinions loudly and forcefully. They tend toward blue-state ethics with red-state capitalistic verve.

  • Fashion: Lots of catalog and online shopping; no time for scouring store shelves. Dependable upscale department stores are the favorites of yuppies. Generally lots of black attire, suits, and fashionable sunglasses. Even the gym clothes are designer. Overall very attentive to fashion “rules” and perfecting the right look for the right occasion.
  • Music: Very middle-of-the-road alternative. Nothing too risqué or indie, but certainly not straight-up pop. Music isn’t hugely important to them, but yuppies do fill their ipods with good stuff. Favorites include mellow brit-pop, sanitized hip hop, and eclectic rock. Coldplay, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Doves, Kanye West, John Legend, The Arcade Fire.
  • Movies: Tends to veer toward character movies and Oscar bait. Puts large stock in awards and critics’ opinions (Academy Awards parties are annual events). Also enjoys stage-to-screen adaptations of films by reputable theater directors. Favorite directors: Sam Mendes, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese, Neil Labute, Woody Allen.
  • Celebs of this kind: Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

8) The Artistepete.jpg
The geographical origins of hipster—Montmarte, Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury—have one thing in common: they were all enclaves of artists, among other things. Thus, the artist could be considered the original hipster. In modern times, the Artiste is the hipster who lives and works in the bohemian art world. Whether painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, filmmakers, or whatever…these guys have talent and are committed to aesthetic triumph. They love art and have a deep appreciation for it, and transcend most (but not all) trends and marketing whims. The Artiste thrives in urban settings, but can be found anywhere. They usually live with other artists and rarely venture outside of the aesthetically-minded bubble.

  • Fashion: Boho-peasant chic or rocker trash. Lots of jewelry and accessories, lots of color. Natural fabrics and fibers. Sometimes splashes of androgyny (guys in heels or skirts, girls in wife-beaters, worker shirts or ties) become evident. Over all, very unique and innovative.
  • Music: Weird, eccentric, uber-artsy or underground. Foreign music, ambient, and genre fusion is good…basically anything forward-thinking. Obscure 60s music is also big for them. Left Banke, Velvet Underground, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Ravi Shankar, Danielson, Mum, Nick Cave.
  • Movies: Typically very high-brow—to the point that even the average art house is too commercial. French New Wave, Italian neo-realism, and New York art cinema are favorite subgenres. Fairly well-versed in cinematic history and theory, with an eye for exceptional cinematography and art direction. Favorite directors: Federico Fellini, Vincent Gallo, Terrence Malick, Gus Van Sant, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wong Kar-Wai, Miranda July.
  • Celebs of this kind: Chloë Sevigny, Sufjan Stevens, Joseph Arthur, Michael Pitt, Pete Doherty, select contestants on Project Runway.

To be continued… Next time: “The Ex-pat,” “The Activist,” “The Health Nut,” and “The Emo-Goth.”

Types of Hipsters: Part One

If Rule #1 of hipsterdom is that it’s always one step ahead of the mainstream, then Rule #2 is that “hipster” is an extremely broad, diverse classification of people. But it was not always this way. Back in the day of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Warhol, and friends, “hip” folks used to be a very limited, specific entity. Not so in today’s postmodern, blurry world of cross-marketed mayhem. Today, hipster pervades our culture. From the lofts of Brooklyn to the trailers of the Ozarks, “hip” is as American as apple pie. We all want a taste.

Thus, defining types of hipsters is more of a cross-sectional assessment of American culture. You can be a hipster jock, a hipster nerd, a hipster Muslim or a hipster Baptist—sometimes all of these at once (hopefully not…). The point is: there are almost as many types of hipsters as there are types of people.

Because lately I’ve re-discovered my fascination with the theoretical questions surrounding the ontology of cool (see this post), I thought it would be fun to try to articulate some of the more prominent likenesses of hipster in today’s world. Most hipsters will fall into one or several of the following categories, though I’m sure there are some oddball types that I’ve overlooked.

So, without further ado, enter the parade of hip (in three installments):

1) The Naturaldepp-johnny-photo-johnny-depp-6206963.jpg
Insofar as a hipster can be a natural, organically existing entity, this is the closest you get. Seemingly without trying, The Natural attracts legions of horn-rimmed eyes at every soiree he or she walks into. This hipster typically comes from urbane parents or family who have long been attuned to or supported culture and the arts. Education is important, but so is social involvement and active participation in and appreciation of artistic endeavors. Good taste comes naturally for this person, who has every right to be elitist or snobbish, but avoids this whenever possible. They are well rounded, successful, and hard to denigrate. If there is a downside to this kind of hipster, it is that observers tend toward jealousy or fear, and friends are usually in it for status or to learn pointers.

  • Fashion: Impeccable and respectable, daring but not over the top. The consummate trend-setter.
  • Music: Nothing too trendy, hard to peg. Tends to have a nice balance of appreciation across genres and time periods, with lots of influence from parents and growing up amidst good music. Beatles, Dylan, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Jeff Buckley, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chopin.
  • Movies: Has seen most of the AFI Top 100, and favors older, classic Hollywood cinema. Appreciates lots of foreign film too, Warhol shorts, and non-political documentaries. Favorite filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog.
  • Celebs of this kind: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Sienna Miller, Prince Harry.

2) The Newbie dakota-fanning.jpg
This is one of the more intriguing, though surprisingly common, breeds of hipster. The Newbie is fresh off of a former life of less-than status (that is, less than cool, less than stylish, more like the mainstream). The Newbie is found in large numbers in the sophomore classes of colleges, though sometimes freshmen (second semester) at more hip-friendly campuses. The Newbie often comes from a naïve, “everyone likes Dave Matthews and drives SUVs!” high school experience and then finds that in college, respectable uniqueness is the name of the game. Therefore, he/she scurries to find a hip niche, latching on to current fads and working hard to establish an individual style. Frequently they’ll attend a concert or movie that will instantly change them into a lifelong devotee. Very faddish, fickle, passionate, and irksome to many established hipsters.

  • Fashion: Chameleon. Always trying new things, with many more misses than hits. Recycles current wardrobe in various new ways. Can’t afford high fashion, though avoids boring staples like Gap and Old Navy. Tries a lot of statement tees and vintage band shirts, though typically feels uncomfortable in them at first.
  • Music: Very impressionable. Open to recommendations and attends lots of concerts for ideas. Scours old CD collection for salvageable records; usually only finds a few worthy of hipster repute. Johnny Cash, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Devandra Barnhart, The Shins, whatever Pitchfork says is cool…
  • Movies: Takes longer to fashion a personal taste in cinema, but latches on to those “eye-openers” seen on late-night dorm viewings (Requiem for a Dream, Full Metal Jacket, Fight Club). Doesn’t have favorite directors yet.
  • Celebs of this kind: Cameron Diaz, Lauren Conrad, Mandy Moore, Shia Lebouf, Dakota Fanning, any reality star trying to make it big on VH1.

3) The Academic wes-anderson.jpg
Being in to smarts is a broad trait of hipsters (all of them are more or less well-educated), but there is a specific type of hipster whose identity is defined by the bookish quality. This is the guy who came late to philosophy class everyday with tortured, tussled hair, but still blew everyone away in the discussion. This is the girl with thick-rim glasses who drinks red tea and reads Adorno for fun. These guys are way into intelligence and the image that accompanies that persona. They tend to be independent but thrive in academic circles and reading/writing groups. They like art and fun, insofar as they understand the socio-cultural implications of it, of course. You find these hipsters at colleges and in urban environments with a healthy culture and thought life.

  • Fashion: British intelligentsia couture. Glasses (trendy, horn-rimmed most likely), clean earth tones, lots of blazers. Nothing flashy or too youthful. Has the look of Banana Republic or Burberry but often by way of a cheaper, more student-friendly alternative.
  • Music: Not hugely important to the daily life of the Academic hipster, but very much appreciated. Classical and jazz are cool to them, as are more mellow and intelligent singer-songwriters. Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Phillip Glass, Nina Simone, Feist, Brian Eno, Arvo Part.
  • Movies: Heavy on the foreign films and euro-existentialist cinema. Hardly ever goes to the multiplex for a popcorn flick, unless it is a Harry Potter adaptation or some other book-to-movie guilty pleasure. Favorite directors: Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Lars von Trier, Patrice Leconte.
  • Celebs of this kind: Wes Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rivers Cuomo, Natalie Portman, Claire Danes.

4) The Dilettante mary-kate.jpg
Sorry to use a term that “The Academic” might use, but it fits. Dilettante is a word for someone who has a superficial, yet passionate admiration for the arts. In other words, this is the artsy-fartsy hipster who really doesn’t know that much about art, but likes the image. They took art in high school or college and fell in love with the sexiness of it. They love art openings, gallery parties, and all things “fringe” in the world of cinema, music, theater, or whatever. When you quiz them on the difference between rococo and neo-classical, however, they brush you off as pedantic (because they do not know what you’re talking about, but like using words like “pedantic”). Still, they have respectable taste because they associate enough with real artists who tend to have good taste. The Dilettante is a sometimes-artist (mostly failed), but tends toward amateur art-criticism and usually has a job and life completely separate from the weekend art binge.

  • Fashion: Cocktail party chic. The skinny jeans, t-shirt and blazer look is popular for guys; heeled-boots, slinky dress and bohemian Anthopologie jewelry for girls. Lots of unnatural hair color.
  • Music: Heavy on techno and art-rock—music you’d hear at a swank warehouse art party. Moby, The notwist, Four Tet, Squarepusher, Thievery Corporation, The Field.
  • Movies: Art house all the way—the more subversive the better. Favorite directors: Todd Solondz, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, P.T. Anderson.
  • Celebs of this kind: Mary Kate Olson, Mischa Barton, Macaulay Culkin, Seal, Kirsten Dunst, select journalists or MTV VJs.

To be continued… Next time: “The Flower Child,” “The Detached Ironic,” “The Yuppie,” and “The Artiste.”

Los Angeles the Cinematic Muse


To honor my one year anniversary of living in Los Angeles full-time, I thought I would do what I usually do in circumstances like this: compile a top ten film list!

What are the top ten films that capture the strange soul of this city? Los Angeles is certainly a singular municipality, and to live here is both enthralling and frustrating, for many of the same reasons. There is a definite beauty to the geography here (beaches everywhere, mountains, hills, palm trees, exotic flowers, purple trees, unnaturally-colored nighttime skies, etc), and an odd charm to its uncontrollable sprawl. It’s strangely comforting to know that I can drive fifty miles in every direction (except west!) and still be in greater L.A.

Anyway, as the birthplace of the modern cinema (and the entertainment capital of the world), L.A. has probably been the most represented city in film and television. As such, we all have our glamorous visions of this “tinsel” town. But some films have been better than others at capturing the real mood and spirit of Los Angeles—from the glittery sidewalks of Hollywood to the starmap stands in Bel Air, all the way to the homeless mini-city of Skid Row. It’s a complicated, almost unfathomable city, but its multifarious personality certainly makes for some interesting cinema.

The Big Lebowski (1998): The Coen Bros’ ridiculously funny cult film is an ode to the polygot mishmash that is Los Angeles—a city almost comically diverse. The film takes us from Venice to the Valley, Malibu to the Hollywood Star Lanes, and introduces us to a bowling bum slacker (The Dude), an avant-garde artist (Maude Lebowski), a trash-talking Latino named Jesus, a trio of German nihilists, and a porn star/trophy wife (Bunny Lebowski). Just another day in L.A.

Bread and Roses (2000): Though directed by a Brit (Ken Loach), this film about the struggle of non-union janitors (mostly Mexicans) in an L.A. highrise is a sobering, realistic look at two big issues in this town: immigrant labor and socio-economic disparity. The film is based on the 1990 Justice for Janitors strike in Century City (incidentally, the section of L.A. I currently call home).

Chinatown (1974): Roman Polanski’s classic noir drama is a 1930s-set story about greed and corruption in L.A. city government, and the dangerous game of unraveling the scandal that one private eye (Jack Nicholson) undertakes. The dark underbelly of this town is on full display, as one of L.A.’s most persistent problems (water, or lack thereof) proves the catalyst for crime.

Collateral (2004): Michael Mann does L.A. well (see Heat), but his 2004 film Collateral captures the seedy after-dark feel of the City of Angels better than anything I’ve ever seen. From the cinematography (lots of fluorescent light and yellow/grey skies) to small touches like coyotes crossing the street at three in the morning (I’ve seen this happen!), Mann gets it right.

Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder’s adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novella still stands as one of the great classics of film noir. Featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a malevolent blonde temptress, the film features exquisite urban detail in its Hollywood setting, and has been called the “first film in which Los Angeles is a character unto itself.”

Falling Down (1993): Shot during the 1992 L.A. riots, this Joel Schumacher film is the ultimate embodiment of the rage that the City of Angels sometimes conjures up when the traffic, isolation, and hyperdiversity are just too overbearing. Michael Douglas excels at capturing the pent-up anger of a laid-off loner who lashes out during one of the hottest days of the year.

Full Frontal (2002):
Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget “experiment” didn’t go over well with most moviegoers (or critics), but I found it spellbinding and amazingly perceptive of life in the Hollywood film industry. Whether you’re an actor, screenwriter, producer, or director (and who in L.A. isn’t one of these?), the film business is mostly stress, strain, and little reward.

L.A. Confidential (1997): This amazing film by director Curtis Hanson brings to life the novel by James Ellroy (who I’ve randomly bumped into several times at a Beverly Hills café) about a 1950s gangland murder mystery in Los Angeles. The film is a great homage to film noir, blonde dames (Kim Basinger is fantastic), and the LAPD.

Magnolia (1999): What a daring move to make a film about the much-maligned San Fernando Valley! Of course, P.T. Anderson’s film is about more than just “the Valley” (in which Magnolia Blvd is a major thoroughfare), but the isolated characters and overwrought emotional drama of this stylish epic definitely capture something of the experience of living here.

Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch is intrigued by the character of Los Angeles, “the city of dreams.” His latest, Inland Empire, is all about L.A., but not as coherently so as the masterwork, Mulholland Drive, which revels in the surrealist specters of Old Hollywood. I don’t think “Club Silencio” exists, but it captures the moonlit mystique of L.A. in a nutshell.

Conspicuous Consumption


So I was watching this show on MTV last week, called Newport Harbor. Essentially it is Laguna Beach all over again, just 20 miles up the California coast in another ritzy Orange Country beach town. The cast of the show is made up of a handful of ditzy-but-beautiful blonde girls and a few token surfer dudes who each of the girls will date at one point during the season (which follows their senior year of “high school”). Everything on the show is pristine, nicely coifed, tanned, and very, very rich.

Most episodes of the show, like in Laguna, feature the kids shopping at designer stores, eating at Zagat-rated restaurants, or (in the case of the episode I saw) going on weekend trips to Palm Springs. Of course, no seventeen year old really has the money to live this way, but MTV wants us to think that yes, these kids (most kids in Orange Country, actually) do in fact spend their free time surfing, tanning, gossiping, and eating braised lamb while the rest of us do homework and eat Ramen noodles.

At one point in the Palm Springs episode of Newport, “Allie” asks her father (“Art”) whether his American Express card will work for her during the weekend. “But it’s the gold one and not the platinum!” she complains as she opens the door to her friend’s SUV. Art playfully reassures her that his gold AMEX will be more than enough for one weekend, and he smiles and waves as his daughter drives off with his money.

Such scenes, which deceptively portray a fantasy world where it is normal for parents and teenagers to behave like this, seem to be the bread and butter for MTV these days. On any given day there are at least two episodes of an atrocious—but sickeningly addictive—MTV show called My Super Sweet Sixteen. This show features the most outrageous flaunting of wealth I’ve ever seen. Fifteen year old “princesses” routinely spend upwards of $500,000 of their parents’ money to throw themselves a birthday party certain to be the illest the sophomore class has ever seen, or will ever see.

But it’s not just MTV. Everywhere you look on TV and in pop-culture these days, you see this strangely alluring thing that is a sort of a rich people minstrel show: wealth being exploited for the entertainment of the underclass. Shows like Bravo’s new reality offering, Welcome to the Parker (which is all about the Parker hotel in Palm Springs—the most ridiculously posh playground for celebrities in SoCal), emphasize how gloriously snobby rich people are, while shows like The Fabulous Life (VH1) and Cribs (MTV) keep tabs on which rich celebrity has managed to spend their money the most frivolously. Each of these shows contains the playful cha-ching graphic, which keeps tabs of the “bill” during the course of any episode, making light of the fact that some people manage to spend more money in a year than the entire country of Ethiopia has made in a decade.

And lest we forget the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, a “famous for being rich” celebrity who embodies all of the above. People are always asking, “why are we obsessed with Paris Hilton?” But this has a pretty obvious answer: it’s because we’re obsessed with being rich. It’s the same reason we watch Newport Harbor or buy something that Oprah likes. If we can associate ourselves with wealth (even if we’re really poor) by watching or imitating it, we feel more legitimate, desirable, and important.

The Paris Hilton culture is just the latest incarnation of what Thomas Veblen first coined “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Essentially it is the idea that with the onset of expendable income, the new upper and middle classes took to flaunting their “wealth” as a way to demonstrate their social power or significance, whether real or perceived. In other words, people began to buy lots of fancy furniture and art (but chiefly so they could have dinner parties and show it off), and they began to buy expensive clothes and jewelry, mainly to present themselves as more important than they actually were.

Consumerism and the consequent drive to be conspicuous about it is certainly something we all deal with. Living in Los Angeles, a mile away from downtown Beverly Hills, I see it everywhere I look. One time when I was sitting at a bus stop near Rodeo Drive, I played a game in which I counted how many Range Rovers drove by me in the course of a minute (the Range Rover is the current “must-have accessory” in L.A.). I think I counted 6, or maybe 10. Either way, that’s a high volume of grossly over-waxed blingmobiles in the span of a minute. That’s like one every ten seconds.

I’m not sure how many people who drive Range Rovers actually can afford them; but that’s beside the point. Half of the wealth that is flashed in your eyes on any given day isn’t real wealth. It’s all about appearances. Sunglasses are the best way to feign wealth, especially in L.A. (where sunglasses are worn more than socks). Most really good, designer sunglasses are at least $300—which is not that much for the average stockbroker or real estate tycoon. But you can easily find knock-off sunglasses for like ten bucks that look exactly like the massive Prada pair you saw on J.Lo last week. It’s easy to look wealthy and important if you try hard enough.

Nowadays, the measure of someone’s “importance” is often seen in the technological accessory attached to their ear. Whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, or the latest fashion in Bluetooth earpieces (which scream “I’m white collar and too busy and important to use a hand phone!”), people are vying for status via The Sharper Image. It’s all an illusion, though, because no one is so important that “hands free” devices are necessary. Still, it’s the driving illusion of our time.

Christians find themselves in an interesting spot, living in a culture that measures a person’s value or relevance by what model of cell phone they carry. We are followers of a man who once told his disciples that anyone who wanted to follow him must “deny himself” and “take up his cross daily.” Jesus constantly dropped lines such as “what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23, 25). He also insisted that we not worry about things like food and clothes (Matthew 6: 25-34), and offered counterintuitive little quips about how blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Can you imagine an MTV show about nerdy little Christian kids in Irvine who take all of this to heart?

The Christian life is so crazily counter to a life of conspicuous consumption. Ours should be a life of conspicuous rejection of all the bling money can buy. We should be conspicuously consumed with Christ, so much so that we become much more fascinating to watch than Paris Hilton. Instead of a culture that questions their obsession with Paris and Britney, what if the curious questions were about Christians—why are they so utterly, obviously uninterested in what everyone else is living for (self-aggrandizement)? Now that would be a story worthy of reality TV.

Note: This article was first published in the Relevant 850 weekly newsletter.

The Battle of 9/11


Tomorrow our country will remember the horrific events of September 11, 2001—the date (now six years ago) that altered history and changed our country’s direction in ways we know only too well. There will be memorials, cable specials, wall-to-wall coverage on Fox and CNN, and probably some pretty somber moments.

But isn’t it about time we got over 9/11? So goes the argument of many who are tired of 9/11 being invoked in culture to induce emotional acquiescence to political, hegemonic manipulation. Not that this is what Interscope and Roc-A-Fella records had in mind, but they’ve come up with a surefire way to divert pop-culture’s attention away from lamentation and towards their wallets on 9/11: release the two biggest rap albums of the year!

On 9/11, the third albums of both 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson) and Kanye West (aka Kanye West) will be released. The albums are titled Curtis and Graduation, respectively. Much has been made of the rivalry between the two, as they go head to head to prove who is the biggest name in the game (i.e. whose album will sell the most copies in the first week of sales).

The 50/Kanye rivalry goes back at least to 2005, when Kanye uttered his infamous “George Bush hates black people” line during a post-Katrina telethon. 50 soon responded by publicly supporting George W. Bush and his hurricane efforts (even though it isn’t clear whether 50 has or will ever vote in a political election).

Now the rivalry has gone beyond politics, however, with the epic album battle looming. In recent weeks, 50 has even gone so far as to proclaim that if he can’t outsell Kanye, he’ll retire from rap forever, a claim he later retracted (to the sadness of Tipper Gore), but which did the trick it was likely intended for: increasing the hype about the 9/11 showdown. Kanye has since thanked 50 for the absurd publicity, and brushed off any notion that he’s at all worried about competition from 50 Cent.

In fact, Kanye recently told a magazine that his biggest inspiration and rival in the game right now is not 50 Cent, but Justin Timberlake, who he calls “the only other person that gets an across-the-board response and respect” from both white and black radio. In the same interview he compares himself and Timberlake to Michael Jackson and Prince back in the ‘day—versatile competitors who “pushed each other.”

Without having heard either of the two albums yet, it’s hard to tell which one will be better (though it’s a safe bet, if past is any measure, that Kanye will win over the critics even as 50 wins over the charts). Both albums feature amazing guest stars. Kanye collabs with Mos Def, Chris Martin, and Young Jeezy (as well as uber-hipster producer Jon Brion), while Fitty invokes the talents of a bunch of white dudes (Robin Thicke, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake).

It would seem that Kanye and 50 have different fanbases, so I’m not sure why their head-to-head rivalry is so ballyhooed. 50 is really popular among the TRL crowd, and people who appreciate the fact that he’s riddled with bullet holes and actually did deal crack as a 12 year old. Kanye, on the other hand, appeals to yuppie Obama fans and middle class hipster kids, mainly because he raps as if he actually did graduate 12th grade English, and because he samples people like Steely Dan, Daft Punk, and Michael Jackson (on Graduation).

Whoever wins the 9/11 prize, it will likely make little difference. Both of these albums will be huge sellers, probably in the top five of the year. And it should be clear what all of the supposed rivalry controversy is really about: creating buzz and anticipation so as to sell more copies. That’s what every rivalry is about in Hollywood: making more money. Some wise entertainment guru discovered long ago that audiences love conflict, drama, and competition. It’s our culture’s biggest source of entertainment (i.e. sports). Thus, why not create competition and rivalry where there is none? Everything sells better as a fight. This month it’s Kanye v. 50, next September it’s Clinton v. Romney. It’ll be a knock-down, drag-out ratings bonanza.

The Christian Hipster Revisited


Two years ago today, I published an article on entitled “A New Kind of Hipster.” The article (the title of which is a play on Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian) definitely struck a chord—to this day I still meet people who read it, remember discussing it, etc. The article basically examined the phenomenon of “hip Christianity,” a reactionary movement (corollary to, but not the same as “the emerging church”) that has strived to paint Christianity as cool and Christians as hip. Relevant is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend.

In some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—totally original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes people who believe that in order to make a difference or be significant in culture, one must have wicked style. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks. These are the Christians who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

And so, two years later, the question is still on my mind: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

But what is cool? If I had to succinctly define this incredibly complicated word without use of synonyms, it might be something like this: Cool: An attribute that is attractive because it embodies the existential efforts to be supremely independent, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity?

If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the way in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

As I noted at the beginning of this article, there are really two distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. If Christianity is naturally hip, then, well that’s a horse of a different color.

And that is the question we must wrestle with: is Christianity naturally cool? As in—are people attracted to it on it’s own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentation sense? Or perhaps there is a third option—a much more insidious, counter-cultural idea: perhaps Christianity is hopelessly un-hip; maybe even the anti-cool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it has been and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?

What are Christian hipsters, then, except an unnatural, paradoxical embodiment of the faith?