Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy

Anybody who knows me knows I carry a black book bag, basically, at all times I’m clothed, and sometimes when I’m not. They tend to last a year or two before the strap or zippers break, or holes wear through the bottom. Budapest, it is no secret, is about the worst place to be if you need something both specific and basic, such as knee socks, contact lens fluid, or, perhaps, a black shoulder bag. No problem: I know the drill. Hit every Iguana, Alter-Ego, or alt-rock haberdashery until something turns up. Only this time, nothing is turning up. Sure, there are plenty of black bags, but the trend (and there is no bucking trends, not in this city) is for shoulder bags with Converse, Vespa, or Nightmare before Christmas logos. I am making due without until I am next in Vienna.

It must be a great time to be a marketer: getting the cool kids to act as walking billboards for your products, and having them pay for the privilege. Of course, there is more to this whole scenario than just bags and logos. And not all of it is bad. Budapest has experienced, in the past few years, an amping up of youth culture and its youth-culture cool-factor. In other words, Budapest got hip. I had always taken comfort (albeit small) in the existence of Prague and Berlin, both cities magnetically drawing all the American hipsters off course before they could reach our humble town. Budapest has no heat, no buzz, and even less cool. And that is fine with me, and just about everybody I know. But what I didn’t anticipate is that hipster culture would spread like a virus, ignoring all boundaries of border and nationality. Hungarian kids got hip all by themselves. Well, not exactly. There was a ton of help from those who profit from their consumer choices. Local youth are sitting ducks for this kind of ‘cool’ branding, and have swallowed it whole. Their lives simply haven’t been the media blitzkrieg of that of the average American teen. Thus, they either haven’t developed the necessary defenses or haven’t been taught to see through the manipulation. And they tend to move in larger herds, whereas American teens have far more sub-sets of counter-culture to chose from. Hungarian – and youth of all over the post-Soviet era – are far more susceptible to 'cool-branding' than their American counter-parts, if for no other reason than we invented it. Or maybe they just don’t care. For whatever reason, it seems that the entire sub-22-year-old population is hip.

It is no great revelation that marketers love nothing more than a solid counter-culture with its own organically grown aesthetic: the more authentic and rigid the better. It is a brilliant trick, appropriating a sub-culture’s aesthetic, and then selling it back to them. I should learn how to do that. Take, for instance, punk rock. Ever heard of the Vans Warped Tour? When I was a teenager, Vans would have fit exactly nowhere into the equation of punk-plus-tour. Then came the almost overnight uptake of punk by American youth via the (major label, lest we forget) likes of Nirvana and their ilk. Whether kids like me, who helped create this sub-culture (by buying indie-label records, going to shows, reading Maximum Rock and Roll) were buying was irrelevant. Nirvana created a ‘mass sub-culture’, and one that demanded to be out-fitted. Too obvious? Forget Nirvana, let’s look at the Ramones: perhaps the coolest band of all time, and one of the primary forces in actually inventing punk. But that was then, this is now. The Ramones are no longer a band – they have cashed in on all that cool-band cache and have become a brand: and not in the way KISS is a brand: they have become a clothing and accessories brand. Ramones tee? check. Ramones belt buckle? check. Ramones scented candle: smells just like teen spirit! ok, check! Only, ask a hipster Hungarian kid which their favorite Ramones song is, and you will see just how hollow a trend it is. "A Ramones album? You mean, they make music too?" Can I get an ‘I wanna be sedated’? At least the kids know Nirvana was a band, not a fashion label.

But let’s imagine you are totally out of it, or just too young to remember when grunge ruled the radio waves and runways. How about Disney? Yes, even they are going for the hipster's pocketbook with a darker, edgier branding. Now that the kids who have grown out of their Little Mermaid backpacks have grown up, it is time to comment on the passing of that childhood phase with, what else, but more Disney gear. What hipster wouldn’t want a hip-hop-inspired graffiti Mickey Mouse baseball cap? I am this close to wanting one myself.

Hey: bad news for idealistic former punks, great news for the average young Hungarian hipster. Buying quirky things, creating your identity around some ironic pastiches of childhood is fun! You get all these funky anime dolls to collect, you can pierce yourself anywhere you choose, look cool in the eyes of your friends, and more importantly, your parents just don’t get it. And, let’s face it: buying things is fun, period. It might not be authentic individualism, but at least they think it is, at least they are trying, and that is nice to see. It is far more appealing than the drab beige or brown uniform of the Hungarian male circa 2000. Plus, all this has fueled a boom in vintage clothing shops, which has made clothing shopping in Budapest much more affordable and interesting. From a purely selfish angle, this hipster marketing triumph is good for the likes of me, as it increases my own choice as a local consumer. I, too, wear Tisza trainers, and have a Def Leppard tee-shirt, without ever having owned a Def Leppard album. But American and Hungarian hipsterism is different, and in a vital way. How so? Return next week for Part II of The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Hey! Ho! Let’s Go (shopping!).

But, for now, a Ramones video, which I highly recommend not skipping. It will do you a power of good, and, for the time being at least, it is free.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

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