3 min read
Posted on 03.18.14
  • 3 min read
  • Posted on 03.18.14

 Lindsay Toler, of the Riverfront Times, recently used the rhetorical device of "counterpoint" to illustrate the illusive nature of "Hipster" culture in St. Louis. She was engaging in a familiar exercise: one that has played out for as long as people have been curious about what the kids are up to these days.

"Hipster," as a descriptive term, after all, is itself anachronistic, a throwback to the mid-century cool of bebop jazz and Beat poetry, a time when, if you weren't "hip" you were "square."

Photo Courtesy of Missouri History Museum

Consider the brilliant send-up by Blossom Dearie, one of the era's (and all time) greatest singers, composers, pianists and supper club performers, in her classic, "I'm hip:"

I dig, I'm in step

When it was hip to be hep, I was hep

I don't blow but I'm a fan

Look at me swing, ring a ding ding

I even call my girlfriend 'Man', I'm so hip

Every Saturday night

With my suit buttoned tight and my suedes on

I'm gettin' my kicks

Watchin' Arty French flicks with my shades on

I'm too much I'm a gas

I am anything but middle class

When I hang around the band

Poppin' my thumbs, diggin' the drums

Squares don't seem to understand

Why I flip, they're not hip like I'm hip

Toler used USA Today's perfect right angles and four equal sides to critique its attempt to discern who hipsters are, and what they're up to up to in "the Lou."

The national paper had published a piece on how one might spend a hipster weekend in St. Louis. Its report mainly consisted of districts and establishments that cater to those in search of a Nighthawk ethos and at least a hint of edgy or idiosyncratic style.

You don't have to be hip to imagine yourself having fun at any of the places that made the list -- the art galleries, coffee bars, vintage clothing and curio stores, dram shops, craft breweries, specialty eateries, greasy spoons or tattoo parlors.

Ms. Toler's point was to comment on superficiality of using a tourist map to describe and assign meaning to the current state and evolution of St. Louis' popular avant garde.

"The word 'hipster' is used so often now we're not totally sure what it means anymore," she wrote. "It wasn't St. Louis' hipster appeal that drew the eye of USA Today. Clearly, some editor in a USA Today conference room asked her reporters to write travel stories that made them seem au courant."

So what do we have here, in St. Louis, hipster wise?

As it happens, almost 50 years ago to the day, during the heyday of Gaslight Square, St. Louis' all-time hipster Mecca, when a 21-year old Susan Sontag published in the Partisan Review her enduring 1964 essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" we were offered some real insight:

St. Louis hipster culture seems firmly rooted in Camp, a social phenomenon described by Sontag as a "sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theactricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feelings."

"Camp taste is a kind of love," she wrote, "love for human nature."

"It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of 'character.' ... Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as 'a camp,' they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling."

St. Louis hipsters, in other words, are good-hearted and fun.

They draw from the best traditions of the city, of which they are a part.