Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy II: It Came From Within!

This is a continuation of post The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, which can be found below.

Of course I was just funnin’ ya with that Ramones video, because there has been no force more powerful in the appropriation and reselling of youth culture than MTV. Thanks to its far-reaching, Vans-shod tentacles, kids here can see exactly how their counter-parts in the West are dressing; and H & M, plus any number of fly-by-night mall boutiques, fall all over themselves to cater to those dictates. It is a nifty closed-circuit for sellers: MTV brands the look, the labels that sell the look advertise on MTV. It is win/win for all involved, and has globalized fashion trends (to wit: these people have a lot of Hungarian wiggers to answer for – I hope they sleep well at night). Couple the perpetually replenishing cool-factor of rock (and all its sub-genres) with the visual stimulus of MTV and, as that Vampire Weekend song goes, the kids don’t stand a chance. And countrymen, let’s not fool ourselves that post-bloc youth are aping our style because it is ‘American’, it is because MTV is American.

To call kids who comb the images on MTV for fashion cues ‘fashion victims’ would not be too far off target. But youth everywhere are a marketer’s dream. They come to the game with open minds, and deep identity insecurities. Basically, kids would buy the dirt from under their own fingernails if you could figure out a way to sell it to them. Which is why – in Hungary, at least – hallways and even classrooms of schools are prime advertising space for youth-oriented products, a nefarious little practice that has raised objections in about zero quarters. It is not just the usual suspects like Coke getting in on the action. Because ‘cool’ marketers know, when something takes here, it takes big: Green Day, for example, the only thing that both my second graders and high-schoolers could agree upon. (Green Day themselves were only too happy to benefit from their unlikely success in Eastern Europe – nice fifty dollars a pop ‘punk’ show, boys).

But the youth market sought by MTV and kids who have appropriated hipness are not the same thing. MTV is cool, or at least what passes for cool. Hipness is harder to nail down, and should be harder to market and, thus, to market to. Take Tisza trainers, for example. For those that don’t know, Tisza is the former state-owned brand of athletic training shoe that was sold under socialism. These days, under the guidance of a young entrepreneur, they are hundred-dollar a pair, high-design sneakers that are so omnipresent on the first generation of youth not to know socialism, that they are almost a cliché. They are not only a great product, Tiszas are cool – but they are not genuinely hip. Should kids start collecting vintage Tiszas, that would be hip. Hipness is all about indirect consumerism: building an identity from consumer artifacts of the past (whether it is your nostalgia you are indulging in, or somebody else’s does not seem relevant). For example: cowboy shirts (plenty of those here, these days), Star Wars figures, Members Only-style windbreakers, cartoon-character lunch boxes, or, say Def Leppard tee shirts. Star Wars figures are nobody’s idea of cool, but if presented in the correct ironic framing, they are very hip.

In the tipping point (an overused buzz word these days, but applicable here) of hip in Budapest, something interesting happened: Csendes Art Bar. Few locals and fewer expats know about Csendes, but it represents the first real home-grown expression of Hungarian hipsterism that I have encountered. What trips me up about Csendes is that it looks like no place in Williamsburg, Silver Lake, or Wicker Park, but you could set it down in any of those locales and it would not be out of place. It is only imitative in its aesthetic, not in its actual style. It is totally Hungarian, but hip to the gills. For starters, there is virtually nothing in Csendes that is new. It is a shrine to ironic comment on childhood. Virtually every decoration (or installation) uses a cartoon character, scavenged doll, or old movie poster, not to mention, a vintage Tisza trainer bag; plus they did something I have never seen a bar or café in Budapest do before – they kept the name and a portion of the old sign of the business preceded it – the Csendes Étterem – and incorporated it into the design. Needless to say, it is also pretty great place to have a beer on a Saturday night.

In the States, way back when, hipsterism began as an organic set of values (of the beat generation), then changed into a lifestyle, then finally evolved into a fashion pose that could be appropriated by media and corporate interests, and sold back to the youth market by the likes of Urban Outfitters, Capital Records, and eBay; whereas the Hungarian hipsterism has worked in the opposite direction, from a mediated style sold to the youth market over the airwaves, to something more organic, and authentic feeling, that is at least attempting to defy being sold to. They do tend to do things in reverse here. Optimistically, there will also be a set of values that will bind this community together other than coveting new/vintage KISS tee-shits, but perhaps that is hoping for too much.

This embrace of consumerism, without buying anything ‘new’ that is the hallmark of hipsterism, must be a conundrum for marketers who had it so easy with Hungarian youth ten, even five, years ago. But they didn’t clock all those credits in Ivy League psych-departments for nothing. One way to get their dollar, at least in Budapest, is to create new ‘vintage-looking’ clothing. There is plenty of that, in used clothing shops and department stores alike. Another way is to brand something as cool so persuasively that you can sell the mere logo, like they do with the Vespa bags. This all leaves me nowhere in terms of my own black bag. What the hell, I might as well chuck it all and buy that black Ramones official diaper-carrier bag – my own checkered soul was sold long ago: some hipster kid is probably cutting it up into Kockás Fülű Nyúl sock puppets by now.

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

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


Adrian said...

"some hipster kid is probably cutting it up into Kockás Fülű Nyúl sock puppets by now."

That was happening in my secondary school four years ago - not cut up - but hanging off school bags, likewise Mazsola and Tadé. I'm waiting for the Mekk Elek revival

Vándorló said...

"It is only imitative in its aesthetic, not in its actual style."

OK, you're going to have to decode the semiotics of the overcoding and undercoding built into this phrase for me. Or is it just sophistry, the result in getting caught up in your own words?

Adrian said...

"It is only imitative in its aesthetic, not in its actual style."

OK, at the risk of a real intellectual kicking (and after a pretty boozy lunch):

aesthestic = concerned with beauty and art and the understanding of beautiful things

style = the particular way in which sth is done:

So, even though the style is innovative, the principles underlying the style are not.

Vándorló, you are hardly in a position to complain about someone using fine distinctions and an informed vocabulary.

Vándorló said...


I'm not complaining, honestly, that's just my normal semi-peeved tone that through sheer laziness I never put the extra effort in to hide. Nothing personal intended. If anything, I'm sure the fact that people are reading this and engaging with it is at least some motivation to invest some time sharing these thoughts. My question is serious, I really do want to know whether this distinction is nugatory or meaningful. Digging out a quote from a notebook (I was going to say chrestomathy, but you'll be back to pointing the finger):
"One of the perennial curses of thought is the making separate of what is only distinguishable."
- L.A.Reid 'Philosophy and Education' p82

Anyway, taking on your observations, then how can one distinguish between the *imitation* of the aesthestic and that of a style? By the manner in which the objects are used or by the choice of those objects? And when the style encompasses things such as typeface is this an aesthestic consideration or a stylistic one?

When you look around the decaying remains of old Budapest, for me the typefaces mark a clear cleavage from modern easthetic/style - no crappy helvetica there!

Mokus said...

Adrian: I love the odd boozy comment! Well spoken, and well deciphered: exactly. And,as I am not really arguing against anybody or anything, there is no need for sophistry of any sort. That said, if I was 'overcoding' it is only because I was perhaps a bit tired of the topic. For clarity sake, I might have used an example to elaborate.

Adrian said...


and cheers, Mokus.

I just knew I should have stuck to picking on Stan; anyway in for a penny, in a pound. I think you answer your own question:

"I really do want to know whether this distinction is nugatory or meaningful"

with your observation

"When you look around the decaying remains of old Budapest, for me the typefaces mark a clear cleavage from modern easthetic/style"

The changes in typefaces (style) presumably street signs following changes in system were intended to display changes in aesthetic. The style of the Csendes is meant to a be an extension of an existing aesthetic.

I need an aspirin.