People always use the term hipster as a derogatory term. The idea of liking things based on popularity or rather inverse popularity is seen as a shallow way of seeing the world. I’m the first to agree that basing one’s opinions entirely on mass popularity alone is an unwise decision and indeed any credibility one may hope to garner by judging things in such a way is fairy gold, it disappears under inspection. However, when I say inspection I mean real inspection, with an understanding of the topic at hand behind it.

What I am objecting to is the way that no longer liking something because it has become popular automatically casts someone as the derogatory “hipster”. It is as if the only people who would stop liking something because it has become popular are those who only showed interest in it originally because of it’s obscurity. This in, turn, comes from the assumption that there are no other reasons to stop liking it when it becomes popular other than this numerical scale of how many people know about and like it. The problem here is that we all know that fame does change a things. Most people agree that when actors become Hollywood stars they (often) become… less healthy. Similarly sequels to films based on box office takings are almost always a detriment to the original film. For similar reasons, musicians are often judged on how much fame affects their music.

Lets take a look at the example that brought me here. I was originally going to write a post called “The Death of Steampunk” but I decided I didn’t want to be the person to declare it dead prematurely, get called a hipster and ultimately miss my mark making my point. When I fell in love with steampunk is was definitely a small, relatively obscure “subculture”, I was by no means an early adopter, but the point is that when I first came across it it was smaller than it is today, and noticeably so (to me at least). Over the last few years I’ve watched it explode with a feeling of hope followed by disappointment. The idea that I fell in love with was one of a world where things were “proper” in a way that matched my colonial sensibilities and where ingenuity reigned supreme. The heroes of this world were always people that I identified with incredibly strongly, their love of machinery, thirst for adventure and the unknown and their social system which sung harmonies to my own social ideals of of a kind of meritocratic elite. I like the tea and pipes and dressing up, it helps add to the feeling of properness of it all, but that stuff is dressing for an idea: Victorian-postmodernism with a twist of engineering.

These days when possible I prefer to use the word “Machine-Punk” to refer to my love of things I previously would have called steampunk for two reasons: Firstly, it acts as an umbrella term to include other, similar things that couldn’t really be called steamunk from davinci-punk through steam-punk and diesel-punk and through to cyber-punk. Secondly, it separates me, a little, from what steampunk has become. As steampunk grew popular it attracted attention and people who were looking for a subculture to help define themselves that was fun instead of depressing took it up. Initially this was a good thing, people would get involved and learn the values of hand crafted, long lasting engineering, good old fashion adventure and that there is a proper way of doing things. However as it grew, the same thing happened to steampunk as happens to anything that grows popular. It got watered down and became irrelevant.

Democracy doesn’t work. Well not if you want a system that is dynamic, strong and achieves goals. What it does is keep the most people from complaining loudly and killing each other as is possible. People are very different and when they come together in large groups it either makes a Jackson Pollock or a grey paste (in this analogy Pollock refers to anarchy while paste refers to democracy). Ultimately the Pollock option doesn’t produce very good outcomes for many people so most tend to try and make grey paste. In fact in the example of movie sequels film executives specifically engineer their product to be grey paste so that the number of people who could potentially enjoy the film is increased. The problem is that the original colours are lost in the grey paste so the actual enjoyment experienced by each individual is dramatically reduced.

Steampunk now seems a parody of itself, as more and more people got on board and were genuinely interested, the core idea at the heart of steampunk got a little muddled and now it’s hard to see at all. The ideas of formal social structure were the first to go, they still get referred to but now they make up part of the novelty “You see my character is a <i>countess</i>!” The engineering has taken a lot of blow as well, a lot of the guys out there doing hardware mods are absolute heroes, but it’s getting more and more forgotten as the steampunk movement wanders towards a more colourful gaslight fantasy. What made me want to declare it dead was seeing the ideal of “properness” also get laid by the wayside in favour of flashy outfits, extravagant nonsensical victorianesque speeches and a penny farthing. I’m not going to watch the Castle episode “punked” because I think if I did, it severely taint my love of Nathan Fillion, the preview was quite enough. <a href=””>You can see it here if you like.</a>

I’m not saying steampunk is now crap, I’m just saying I the bits I enjoyed most have gotten lost in a sea of goggles and tea. I’m sure a lot of people like steampunk more with the abundance of these elements but I can’t help feeling that some people are missing the point.

So I regret having previously prematurely called anyone a hipster in the derogatory sense. I can see how that band you liked when they started or that TV series or that subculture or that restaurant could have sacrificed the elements that were, for you, the most important, in the name of success. Most things can’t be popular and focussed, it just doesn’t work. Hipsterism is a double edged sword, it can be the desperate and pathetic credibility grab that most people see it as, but it can also be the act of placing importance on on the purity and nuance of ideas unsullied by the demands of democracy.

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