Photograph by Caroline Culler
Obviously better than Five Guys
I was reading your column from a few weeks ago where you talked about sitting around, drinking beers, and holding down heartfelt conversations about thirty-year-old alternative rock bands. To me, that sounds like a discussion with no end in sight, and no relevance to anything even remotely important. I almost hate to point out the obvious, not to mention doing so in a manner that comes off a little judgmental, but isn’t that exactly the kind of pointless hipster conversation that irritates people to no end?
In antiquity, we’re told, great philosophers gathered in the Athenian marketplace to debate essential questions of aesthetics and morality. During the Enlightenment, brilliant theorists found favor in Europe’s courts, rubbing elbows with dukes and princes by virtue of their wits alone. During the early 21st-century in the United States, overeducated hipsters with philosophy degrees from obscure liberal arts colleges can spend hours trying to answer important questions such whether In-n-Out is better than Five Guys (obviously); if The Velvet Underground is the first punk band (probably not); or whether or not Ben Affleck is in fact our greatest living actor (debatable, because it might be Nick Cage).
Perhaps this is little more than the ironic affectation of a childishly insincere society, a whole cohort born into a cozy bubble of first-world ease where there’s never any need to get real. Maybe if our parents hadn’t given us everything we ever wanted we might have more of an inclination to get “real.”
Or maybe it’s a sign of having one’s priorities lined up straighter than a Mormon librarian eating a plate of dry toast while reading through back issues of The American Philatelist.
There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s ‘90s hipster opus Clerks, in which the two hipster main characters have a long, sincere debate about (a) whether The Empire Strikes Back is better than Return of the Jedi; and (b) whether any government contractors working on the second Death Star at the time of its destruction by Lando Calrissian knew the risks inherent in building a moon-sized, Imperial planet-killer. At the same time the two hipsters are having this particular conversation, one of the hipsters is also obsessing about how his ex-girlfriend is getting married, which forces him into a kind of premature midlife crisis.
The point of the story (or at least, I think the point of the story) is you don’t have to look hard to find something to be deathly serious about, and it can be really important to talk about virtually nothing as a kind of mental escape hatch. Look at us today. We are all living through a news cycle so emotionally oppressive that it’s virtually impossible to escape its influence. I’ve been trying to shop for a halfway decent reissue of The Modern Lovers for the past week, and every time I go anywhere near the internet, I get bombarded by crushingly serious news I’m sick of hearing.
There comes a point where you start to get the sense that every little thing is somehow The Most Important Thing in the World, which is a horrifyingly oxymoronic way to live. Turning that inside out by elevating the trivial to the level of the sublime might well save your sanity.