Russell Smith

Die Hipster Scum

Presented on stage by Russell Smith at Ryeberg Live Toronto 2010.

Lady Gaga, “Telephone” (2010)

Well, I am sick of preaching to the converted. So what I’m about to do you might call biting the hand that feeds me: I am bringing my condemnation of hipster culture right here into the belly of the beast, into hipster ground zero.

Bear in mind in your no doubt angry response that I am outnumbered here; I am performing this act as a kind of self-sacrifice, a self-immolation for the sake of art.

My first exhibit, my best example so far of the emptiness and self-indulgence of hipster culture, is this music video.

Pomplamoose, “Lady Gaga Telephone” (2010)

You may recognize this song as the dance hit by the pop star Lady Gaga, whose multimillion dollar video of the same song was playing as we all filed in here. (You may also know that Lady Gaga’s videos have been much discussed on Ryeberg, after a brilliant disquisition on them by Mary Gaitskill, which is partly why I thought I would prolong this particularly Ryebergian fixation this evening). And this performance of it – as all you bearded and spectacle-wearing types no doubt already know — is by a California-based group Pomplamoose.

And yes, even the humour in their name annoys me. Why grapefruit? Is that funny in itself? What’s the pun? What’s the point? Does everything have to be silly and meaningless? But anyway, that is but a small reason to despise them when there are so many other more powerful reasons, which I would hardly need to enumerate to a non-hipster audience but I will try to do as quickly as I can here.

Hipster1First, who are they? Pomplamoose is a popular and expertly contemporary group; they have hit on a brilliant way of selling their music in the digital age. They record music in their own house, and they do it dressed in the fanatically comfortable clothes of the hipster – the clothes that must all look like pyjamas – not that this is at all important to my judgement — and they post videos of the performances on YouTube and then sell their songs from MySpace as MP3s. No CDs, no distributor, no middle-man, iPod ready.

In what way, besides that, are they perfectly representative of hipster culture? Well, it’s not just their clothes. They do compose and record their own music, which is sort of cute and quirky folk-jazz-twee-pop that sounds very much like this, and they did have one big original YouTube hit (it’s called “Hail Mary”). It’s a very nice song, and if you’re a nice person you’ll probably like it. It belongs to a genre I suppose one could fairly call Vegetarian Rock. You can smell the fair-trade coffee from the screen). But that’s not actually what they are best known for, not actually why you all probably found the first YouTube link in your inboxes with the attached note: “Check these guys out! Hilarious!”

They are best known for doing these covers of pop songs, particularly by big stadium mainstream performers. Their most popular compilation is called “Tribute To Famous People.” What they do is they take a massive dance tune – something by Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Michael Jackson – and they wimpify it; they bring it down in scale till it’s a plaintive, wispy little sing-along.

Here’s another example: Here’s possibly the most pretentious version of “Beat It” ever recorded.

Pomplamoose, “Michael Jackson Beat It” (2010)

There is pervasive irony here: they are taking the most mainstream (i.e., uncool) of music and translating it into another aesthetic, one that privileges the small over the big, the homey over the polished, the gentle over the aggressive. What they are doing musically is stripping out all the elements that made these pop songs fun and popular: they have removed the buzzy, booming, abrasive aggressiveness that made them sexy.

RussellSmith-RyebergLiveTorontoAre they mocking those songs then? I don’t think so – I think they honestly think they’re improving them. There is a smugness about this that is a reflection of hubris. And of course they’re benefitting too, even while being superior, from the massive popularity of these uncool songs. Jack Conte, the guy with the beard, has made superior comments in interviews about countering “fake” music culture, and reviews have praised them for being grassroots and the opposite of slick. So of course they carefully cultivate the unaffected, in a massively affected way.

The singer, Nataly Dawn, has perfected that wide-eyed surprised naïf look that you may have noticed she puts on every two seconds that’s about as natural as Lady Gaga herself. And then they add, in the most nauseating touch of all, outtakes that show the two of them joking together, or, here, at the end of this video, eating.

Pomplamoose, “Hail Mary” (2009)

So down to earth! So adorable!

Okay, but seriously it’s not just their clothes and their posturing that annoys me. On an artistic level, they are perfectly representative of hipsterdom because of their fixation with other people’s music – with the idea of a cover, a remix — that’s significant. This is what is so contemporary.

And they have to be well aware that their rendition of the “Telephone” song comes to the YouTube viewer as part of a torrent of other personal remixes and private performances of that same song, most of them humorous or ironic in nature. We have all at this point probably seen the far more entertaining US army in Afghanistan version.

malibumelcher, “Telephone Remake” (2010)

The army video is at least understandable as purely ironic, even sarcastic. And for that reason it’s strangely more pleasurable that the brilliantly musical interpretation of those two talented but sadly artistically dull serious musicians. It doesn’t have any archness, it doesn’t inhabit the grey zone of semi-irony of hipsterdom.

Why does Pomplamoose continue to focus so on covers of mainstream pop songs? Well, this is pretty much the definition of a certain kind of postmodernism: The idea that there is nothing original in art, that everything is a reference. And that every perception is filtered through a haze of mass culture, the omnipresent noise, so all art might as well be about, in some way, Beyoncé and MacDonalds. And that there is no difference between a parody and an homage, that one laughs at everything one admires anyway, that irony is so unavoidable that it is impossible to differentiate from seriousness.

There is something defeatist and basically not brave about hipster post-modernism – and this goes for the domains of visual art and literature too. If you claim to believe that there is no possibility of original art in an age of reference, you are cleverly avoiding the nauseating stress of being original. It’s too easy. And you shouldn’t believe it, either, because it’s not true.

Artists in every era have faced the terrifying pressure of what has already been done, and every age has had its revolutionaries. An artistic culture so focussed on pastiche as our own can start to look nihilistic.

This, then, is my plea, my injunction, my exhortation: Come on, hipsters. I really don’t care what you wear, honestly I don’t. And I don’t really want you to die. But I want you to get brave, artistically.

Get out of your living rooms.

- Russell Smith

  • Mary Gaitskill

    Russell, I don’t think anyone will be angry at you for this. I never heard of these Pompalmousses, but yeah, they are really awful. Things like this have always been around (I am old enough to remember the song-crushing Flying Lizards from the 80s), and I don’t think they are worth reacting to, even if it seems like they are taking over.

    But what I really want to disagree with you about is the soldier’s video of Telephone; I don’t think its ironic or sarcastic at all. I love it because it makes me feel the the song much more than the song on its own; do you really think that adorable pelvis jerk that the slender guy makes right at the start to get his loved one’s attention is ironic? Whether they mean to or not, these guys are expressing something about desire and the happy spurning of it that is luscious and poignant–they make me realize, despite the prancing singer, if nobody wants to talk or think, no song!

    Also, it is the final video among many that make me think Lady Gaga is doing something right. People seem naturally inspired by her to do these great videos and covers that are more joyous and wonderful than she herself does–to me, that has to say something good about her spirit.

  • sukrat baber

    Good stuff man. I was looking for some well articulated criticism of this band, particularly one that pointed to the wide-eyed innnocence of the female–god bless her soul, and found it here.

  • Morris Chamberlain

    I generally find hipsters of this ilk to be unfriendly. What’s worse than that?

  • Anonymous

    Why does everything have to have some meaning behind it? Why can’t they do what they want and enjoy it without people like you and your dumb analytical elitist criticism. You write, and you publish it on a public forum (such as this one) but they can’t post their music on Youtube? Sit down, and enjoy something once in your life. They make music, and they just HAVE to be hipsters. And your hate on their band name is so overrated. Why can’t they choose Pomplamoose? Why does it have to have some inner meaning? Tell me- does The Beatles have some obscure meaning you’re making up? Does The Cure or The Rolling Stones or Queen have some crazy ass meaning behind their band names. You look into things too much. Take a break. Eventually you’re going to exhaust yourself.

    • Ryeberg

      Dear Anonymous, points taken, though Ryeberg does encourage looking into things “too much” because everything really does have some meaning behind it.

      You might like Carl Wilson’s well-argued defense of hipsters. He shares your evident wariness about this kind of hipster bashing. He says for example, “The hipster serves as a locus for fears of lost control, of social disconnection. Yet it’s a hysteria to focus that anxiety on these kids personally rather than on, say, the system of cool and cultural capital, and what’s more the genuine lack of control you have over hypercapitalism, of which their look uncomfortably reminds you. The hipster-monster is the face of a cultural death wish, along the vector of a snarling circle jerk hurtling towards social atomization and collapse.” And so on. Here’s the link if you want to read it:

      Seen this commercial? How many hipsters can you fit into a Honda Jazz?

      The Pomplamoose pair would fit right in. They are hipsters by the way. Undeniably.

  • jennifer

    They would, and DO fit right in…’s their car commercial…

  • Rachel

    Yup. It’s not just unoriginal it’s really, really boring, which makes it uncool if you ask me

  • lady gaga

    Hi, I like your website, I am a little monster and I think Lady Gaga is the best.

  • Marcus

    I’m a fan of Pomplamoose. Why? Because their music is pleasing to my ear. I think everyone has their own opinions and preferences when it comes to music, and no preference is correct or incorrect. If you dislike Pomplamoose, that’s great. If you like Pomplamoose, that’s also great.

    • etiennes

      No, if you like them you’re probably just a drop in the bucket but feel like you’re special so you’re not honest with yourself.

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Russell Smith's novels include "Girl Crazy," published by HarperCollins Canada, and “Muriella Pent” — named best fiction pick of its year by, and nominated for the Rogers Fiction Prize and the Impac Dublin Prize. He lives in Toronto.
Author photo by Jowita Bydlowska.