PG’s Shawn Hammond on moving beyond groupthink and cyclical fads.
Recently, I saw an article lamenting the spread of homogenized “hipster” interior-design aesthetics to metro businesses and coffee shops around the globe. Y'know, that spartan look that renders a room simultaneously modern looking and old-school through generous use of reclaimed-wood tables, bare Edison light bulbs, broken-in leather chairs, and artsy chalkboards.
As I read the piece I thought, “That’s kinda harsh—it’s not a bad look.” But as the author’s rationale unfolded, I found myself agreeing. It reminded me of a character in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End who described the phenomenon of once-charming pubs being robbed of their unique character as “Starbucking.” My thoughts then turned to similar phenomena in other areas.
When people use the word “hipster,” they’re usually referring to an individual’s preferences in terms of looks, not necessarily interior design. But either way, I’m not inclined toward hipster bashing—it’s a pastime that’s as annoying as the hazily defined group it slams. Even if you’re not explicitly mean, using the H word is just a clandestine way to tear someone down.
I will admit, though, that I find today’s preponderance of dudes across the globe with the same profound zeal for fade haircuts, tattoos, fastidious beard styling, and selvedge denim kind of interesting on an anthropological level. And there are parallels in guitar culture, too—perhaps offset guitars and pristinely spacey reverbs and delays? Don’t get me wrong, though. Like nostalgically minimalist décor and neo-retro personal fashion, there’s nothing bad about these gear choices—they caught on for a reason, after all!
Now, on one level, all these examples are nothing more than cyclical fads of the sort that have swept the world with increasing efficiency and speed since the Industrial Revolution. Only these days they spread much more thoroughly—and in the blink of an eye—thanks to the internet-shrunken planet we now live in.
So, like I said, there’s nothing necessarily bad about these things themselves. Hell, I love Jazzmasters and reverb! But maybe it’s the underlying intellectual patterns and habits we ought to look a little closer at—and in a broader sense, too. Have you ever met someone who’s constantly and vociferously extolling opinions that seem like nothing more than regurgitated conventional wisdom? They’re constantly taking to social media to peck out praise and in-depth analysis of the usual roster of “guitar gods” or “amazing” gear we’ve all read about a gajillion times. It makes me wonder if there’s some sort of guitarist groupthink going on.
“Jeff Beck is the most expressive guitarist ever because blah blah blah.”
“Keith Richards” (or “Keef,” if you want to be annoyingly sycophantic) “is the best rhythm guitarist ever because….”
“A ’59 Les Paul is the ultimate rock guitar because the pickup magnets….”
“Klon Centaurs are worth every one of those 25,000 pennies because of the rare third and fourth resistors, which are NOS….”
Again, it’s not so much that what these dittoheads are saying is inaccurate. Many are quite knowledgeable, even eloquent. It’s just that their recitations of traditional lore feel so isolated and rehearsed—like they were lifted from some dust-covered Encyclopedia Guitarrica, circa 1995, or beaten into them by some fascist prep-school instructor wielding a pristine ’54 Strat neck.
And, sure, these guys may not be the same as fadsters (remember, I refuse to use the H word), but aren’t they really just the other side of the same coin? Both crowds are Starbucking our music with either their lack of capacity (or courage) for thought that diverges from their chosen sect, or their tragic lack of awareness of anything outside their particular monastic musical existence.
The question is not why do we like whichever things we spend so much time, energy, and passion heralding—it’s why do we limit what we like so much? Yes, Pauls, Klons, and offset solidbodies are fantastic. But you do not need rare, boutique, or trendy gear to create music that’s uniquely you. Likewise, Beck and Richards are amazing. But you are both fooling and criminally depriving yourself by limiting your listening or gear aspirations to the usual suspects from any genre or time period.
Never forget: The ratio of individuals with impressive intellect and artistic capacity has been and will continue to be constant throughout the history of humankind. There’s a vast ocean of new and old music to be heard, and if you have to be pointed to a specific artist or medium by which to expand your universe, then, as King Arthur said to the Black Knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail: “You make me sad.”
So be it. Come, Patsy!