Why We Are Too Cool to Care
By Julie Fishkin
Back in high school, writing "riot grrl" across your knuckles and dying your hair pink granted you the "freak" label you righteously wore with your head held high. Years of ripped jeans, pinned fishnets, and band t-shirts meant you were in the "alternative" crowd, a sobriquet you dismissed but secretly took immense pride in. Your four years of a liberal arts education earned you bonus points, and with or without hair-color permutations and alongside an increasingly sophisticated independent music collection, your disdain toward the mainstream solidified your self-anointed individuality and granted you the gold member status in the cool kids club. What happens, however, when all its members inadvertently join forces and populate a neighborhood that boasts more "individuals" per capita than LA boasts fake tits?
This is our neighborhood - the gloriously hip Williamsburg/Greenoint/Bushwick terrain. It's this convergence of every freak show, art fag, loser and weirdo that makes our neighborhood so damn cool. Or does it? POYKPAC, the Bushwick-based comedy troupe behind the popular YouTube video, Hipster Olympics, begs to differ.
Hipster Olympics is not just a pithy stab at the self-caricatures we know much too well; after all, another tongue-in-cheek overview would seem as trite as the repetitive trends it mocks. Having already been viewed over 972,000 times on YouTube at the time this article was written, this video shows that the attribute defining Williamsburg and its culture is also its inherent problem, one that is all too easy to lampoon. POYKPAC's astute personality pokes are funny because they're true.
We met for a coffee in McCarren Park (yes, where else?), and a discussion on the hipster generation and the underlying meaning of "too cool for school" became a conversation about societal shortcomings and the deficiencies that we harbor as a community of aloof, trendy creative types.
The video begins with a group of exceedingly cool kids preparing to race each other via a series of obstacles. The four racers (they start off as five but one is immediately disqualified because his pants don't quite meet the tightness criteria) receive a text message signaling the start of the race. Once they snort some blow (milk powder, actually), the race begins.
The obstacles aptly include picking an "ironic t-shirt,” taking a self-portrait for MySpace, and writing a petition - the only socially conscientious task that the contestants nevertheless can't manage to complete. “A large part of what we are making fun of in Hipster Olympics is that people slap this hipster label on a group of people who are fairly individual, but then that group starts to buy into it [and allows corporations to determine] what they are supposed to wear or listen to. They homogenize, and the counterculture ends up chasing conformity just as much as the mainstream,” says Ryan Hunter, 24, who studied film at the North Carolina School of the Arts and is one of the founding members of the group.
To clarify things, we needed to specify the definition and subsequent implications of the very phenomenon. “Hipsters are this class of people who think they are individuals, meanwhile they are letting American Apparel mass market individualism” notes Hunter [note to readers: to stress his point, Hunter was indeed wearing an American Apparel polo shirt]. Taige Jensen, 29 who is from Sacramento, CA and works as a film editor and does voiceovers, plays the disaffected hipster #1 in the video and the voice of the announcer; he points out that, despite the implied indignation, "these people we call hipsters would take issue with the same things we do in the neighborhood.”
“I like the neighborhood a lot, I like what’s going on here, apart from how expensive things continue to get, which changes the neighborhood drastically, says Jensen. "You start with an artist crowd, and then you get a whole new crowd of people trying to emulate the artists until the artists can no longer afford it.” POYKPAC, an acronym whose meaning the group vehemently refuses to reveal, call their headquarters a basement apartment in the infamous McKibbin Lofts, a building that has come to epitomize the hipster aesthetic, where several of the members live.
Recently a source of gossip fodder due to a large-scale bedbug epidemic, the McKibbin Lofts symbolize a “cool community [increasingly populated with] rich kids [who are] moving in next door, but their parents are paying all their rent," says Jensen. " It's hard to relate to someone who is not going through the same struggle that you are - not to mention the certain street cred inherent to being really poor and being and artist.”
The rest of POYKPAC, which boasts six members all of whom contribute to their skits and films, boasts diverse backgrounds that, like the rest of the neighborhood, converge in the spirit of creativity. They are Maggie Ross, 24, from Alleghan, MI, Johnny Gillette, 26, from Boulder, CO, Jennifer Lyon, 27 from Liberty, NC, all of whom attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with Hunter, and Ryan Hall, 28, from Cleveland, OH, who went to Cleveland State University.
Their building serves to inspire and disappoint the group whose video is a direct response to what they see happening in the community as well as a self-reflecting image to mirror their lives. "The ironic t-shirts are all t-shirts we actually have," admits Hunter. “We have MySpace profiles and Facebook profiles, but we’re making fun of that as well." Jensen, with a nod of self-effacing approval, confirms that “We risk being called hypocrites for making fun of people who have a lifestyle very similar to ours but to us, if you can laugh at yourself and look beyond the superficial, that’s how you can improve yourself - by shining a light on our culture and what we hate about it.”
The underlying themes in their videos are tacitly engaged without forcing an in-your-face moral lesson or a sanctimonious egotism, which for a comedy group that derides the status quo in our society, is quite refreshing. “We do a lot of making fun of the crap that we get fed on a daily basis by the media” in order to convey that they “are not as stupid as the media thinks [they] are,” meaning of course our generation as a whole. Relating it back to Hipster Olymics, Hunter notes that “on the one hand we are all supposed to be individuals who reject corporations, but wait a second: we are being marketed to and exploited by corporations constantly--which is why we crammed in [references to] American Apparel, MySpace, PBR, Vice and so forth."
The probing question POYKPAC poses, a prevailing one for generations of young people invested in a subculture, is “What’s behind the image? Is it my desire to fit in?” Summing up the ultimate irony behind the general disposition of our hipster culture, Hunter says, “everybody is conflicted. Everyone stands out by fitting in or fits in by standing out.”
POYKPAC is not the first to comment on the nature of hipster culture. The Burg (see October Issue of Block Magazine) another local comedy troupe with its own on-line show, does a similar sketch-based program aimed at mocking the proliferation of “cool” in our neighborhood. Dismissing it as a “crappy, hipster Seinfeld,” POYKPAC asserts their propensity at capturing the crux of the ridiculous side of the hipster phenomenon. A series about hipsters just couldn’t amass “enough material,” point out Hunter and Jensen, summing up the overarching premise of Hipster Olympics: “A culture that seeks to be cool ends up being vapid.”
POYKPAC is currently working on new video projects and skits as well as potential television projects. They hope to be the creative masterminds behind other web shows and to write, edit and direct sundry programming while continuing independent projects with their own name.
Watch Hipster Olympics
More of POYKPAC on YouTube
POYKPAC on MySpace