Saturday, November 09, 2013

Time to bar the beard

What Would David Bowie Do? has arrived in New York City, which remains – as David Lettermen nightly attests – The Greatest City In The World™.

There is so much to like about New York. And there is much more to it than the borough of Manhattan, that Ritz Cracker of an island with thousands of cocktail sticks poking upwards from its cramped grid of streets. But for the most part, and despite the allure of quaint Staten Island or Brooklyn’s light and shade, the old school seaside charm of Brighton Beach and Coney Island, Manhattan IS New York.

As soon as you arrive via bridge or tunnel you sense its energy. You can smell it, too (to which I oft refer to the late, great Bill Hicks: “‘Bill, you should give up smoking! Give up smoking and you’ll regain your sense of smell!’ ‘Why do I need that? I live in New York!’”).

You immediately get a sense of the enormity of a city accommodating eight million people – a million and a half of those alone in the 23 square miles that constitute Manhattan. Proximity brings its pressures, but there really is nothing more amusing than watching New Yorkers fight over who bagged a taxi first at rush hour on a Friday night. People have fought hard to come to New York, and once there, they’re not going to give up that easily.

So the two-word "M and P" cliché goes, New York is the exemplification of the United States and that ‘land of opportunity’ stuff.  Out there in the middle of its harbour sits the Statue of Liberty, her flaming torch welcoming those seeking freedom and a chance to make it. No wonder almost 40% of New York’s residents can claim to have been born somewhere else. And it is that mad, insane cocktail of just about every nationality known to mankind: Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Fijian, Australian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jews from all over Eastern Europe, Iraqi, Iranian, Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Romanian, Russian, British, Greek, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Salvadoran - clearly not the exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Then throw into the mix the numerous industries of New York – from the mad men (and manettes) of Madison Avenue’s advertising agencies, to the universally popular financial community, the fashion business, publishing, media, tourism and the world’s greatest collection of restaurants, bars and pubs.

I could go on, but I won’t, because there are more pressing matters at hand. Specifically, one particular group of New Yorkers who, by now, might even qualify for ethnic status of their own: hipsters. 

For those not in the know, the hipster is that breed of urban, middle-class (and, it would appear, mainly WASP) twentysomething or thirtysomething who has adopted the 21st century’s equivalent of late 1960s hippyism, by growing beards, eating organically and buying organically, owning a ukulele, and managing to shun consumerism while ensuring they’re wearing the coolest brand of skinny jeans and myriad other trends du jour.

Last August, Caitlin Moran - without doubt the finest newspaper columnist working in the ink industry today - wrote a piece for The Times defending the hipster from the rampant hatred that had been springing up against them.

"I would like to speak out on behalf of one of the most reviled sub-species in the world," she wrote, prompted by the bizarre news that animal sanctuaries in America’s hipster hubs (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, etc) were being “overrun” – and that was the word - by formerly pet chickens that their city dwelling urban cool owners were unable to cope with any more. Yes, chickens.

Friends’ Joey and Chandler may have started this by adopting a duck and a chick as their housepets, but the modern trend has, evidently, not been fueled by aviatic companionship as the intention to set up a rather limited free range egg production line.

Frankly, however, such a painful and agonizingly stupid attempt to appropriate coolness by owning a chicken is nothing compared to the hipster accessory I despise the most: the beard.

For transparency and balance, I should point out that this does, of course, apply to only, and this is a rough estimate, half of the hipster population. But that’s bad enough.

Near the end of WWDBD?’s "epic" drive across America on Route 66 this summer, it entered Los Angeles the Silver Lake neighbourhood. For the brief duration that 66 runs along the Silver Lake end of Sunset Boulevard, there were streams of preposterously-bearded young men heading for organic restaurants.


The irony hit me quite soon: here were hordes of men, in their beards and lumberjack shirts, looking like the very gold miners who turned California into a state of flailing pick axes in the mid-19th century. But instead of searching for nuggets of Earth’s most coveted commodity, they were out in force looking for an exotically-sourced cup of coffee, or a table at that restaurant specializing in ethnic Cambodian fare (which might probably include a French baguette, a legacy of French colonial rule).

I say that the beardos of Silver Lake was an ironic sight, but hipsterism is, I’m told, all about irony. Hipster ownership of bone-shaking, testicle-shrinking Penny Farthing-style bicycles is an ironic statement, and not some comment on affluent middle-class urbanites buying the most expensive road bikes they can find; the wearing of T-shirts bearing the logos of toothpaste brands from the 1960s, once-reviled rock bands from the 1970s, and TV series from the 1980s is purely about irony, making a statement that says: “Yes, I may look a twat in my oversized white-frame WayFarers, and my beard is now so long I actually use it as a doormat, but look at me wearing a Styxx 1975 tour T-shirt – I’m so organically, ethically-contentedly wacky!”.

The reason the United States hasn’t tipped into the sea due to all that hipster beard growth in Los Angeles is that the weight is more than balanced, it would appear, by the hipster population of New York. Since arriving last night I have been traumatized by the length, breadth and all-round volume of the hipster pelt on display on the city’s streets. And that was just in one cab ride from the airport.

Ground Zero for New York’s hipster explosion is the district of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a mass of coffee shops, farmer’s markets, second-hand and 'non-brand' clothing shops, and lots and lots and lots of people cycling around (no hipster owns a car) dressed in a mixture of vintage attire and H&M, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Oh, and even more ironic T-shirts.

I was recently watching an episode of the excellent Blue Bloods, in which Tom Selleck and his entire family are the New York City Police Department, and they were confronted with a terrorist attack on New York in which the bad guys were about to release a weaponised mutation of influenza. Kindergarten teachers will know how virulent this can be. So Tom brought in his flu-as-terrorist-weapon expert who did that thing TV and movie disaster stories do, where they calculate how soon it will be before everyone is affected. The expectation, he said, was that within 72 hours millions would be sick. Without a cure. That, my friends, is how fast hipsterism spun out of control out of Brooklyn.

But beware, oh luxuriously bearded ones. For America does not share your over-zealous trend-setting: according to a report in the Washington Times earlier this year, many Americans don’t like hipsters. A Public Policy Polling survey found that only 16 percent of Americans regarded hipsters favourably, while 42 percent were decidedly unfavorable, although clearly a third of Americans couldn’t be arsed to have an opinion at all.

“We asked voters whether they thought hipsters made a positive cultural contribution to society or whether they just ‘soullessly appropriate cultural tropes from the past for their own ironic amusement,’” the poll’s analysis read, somewhat weightily, adding that “Twenty-three percent of voters said they made positive cultural contributions, while nearly half — 46 percent — went with soulless cultural appropriation.” Of some note, Republicans expressed the strongest opinions of all.

I have no strong opinion in any direction as to whether hipsters add anything to society. The only truck I carry is for that stupid, stupid beard. Extending the chin out like an airliner’s escape slide is not only ridiculous to look at, but impractical. As someone who regularly sports some degree of facial hirsuteness (currently limited to a barber-standard No.4 length, I’ll have you know), I know that any excessive length of hair on the mug will be prone to acting as an unplanned repository for toast crumbs, Cheetos, hummus, toothpaste and mouthwash on a regular basis. Trendier distances of beard must raise high the risk of small woodland animals setting up shop.

It must stop.

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