The mass mentality of total conformity

The term “hipster” is undoubtedly one of the greatest conundrums of the 21st century. Having undergone several permutations and having associated itself with varied connotations over the years, being branded a “hipster” is more of a derogatory jibe than a badge of pride these days.  Originally used to denote a particular subculture of society, it has now evolved into a barometer of mass conformity and unfounded grandiosity—bordering on the lines of blatant cockiness with deep undertones of an underplayed bourgeois way of life.

Once considered the vanguard of alternative, boundary-pushing individuals, the term “hipster” is no longer the embodiment of the resilient underdog— those naturally drawn to paths less trodden, daring to dream different.

Instead, it has become a conglomeration of urban lifestyle clichés: a free-range grass-fed burger in a mildly toasted brioche bun served atop a grungy chunk of reclaimed railway sleeper; pre-loved sixties eyewear that offer nothing more than the onset of early cataracts because of its non-existent UV protection; vintage continental, steel-framed bike that Charlie Chaplain would approve of; imported selvedge denim spun on a Japanese loom; an unquenchable thirst for decadent cocktails and craft beers—the more atypical the tipple, the better and of course, a penchant for side-fading pompadours.

The gentrification of what it means be to be truly “indie” is certainly not a local pandemic unique to Singapore. The long, unscrupulous arms of gentrification have struck indie enclaves around the world, its list of victims vast and multifarious. From East London to Portland to South Pigalle and Berlin, the onset of gentrification has diluted the lifeblood of these once-thriving bastions of actual indie culture.

But the underlying reason behind Singapore’s obsession with gentrification is more of a cultural evolution than anything else. Life in Singapore moves at a frenetic pace with landscapes changing dramatically and mercilessly in the pursuit of modernity. As a result, what you have is a generation of people who are unable to associate their thoughts with a place, feeling or memory without fear of it being taken away one day—because nothing is permanent in Singapore except change. This fear of association in turn creates a longing for something that isn’t there. The Portuguese term coined for this is called “Saudade” which translates into a “deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone, real or even imagined.” This might just explain our incessant longing for nostalgia and all things alternative—a protest of sorts against the mind numbing modernity of Singapore.

In 2016, for the third consecutive year running, Singapore was named world’s most expensive city by the Economist. Skyrocketing property prices translate into cutthroat rentals, which is the main reason why you end up paying $8 for a cup of coffee that would probably cost you nothing more than $2 at the  kopitiam. Even the idea of a “Farmer’s Market” takes on an entirely different meaning in Singapore. Usually a meeting place for local farmers who are willing to sell extra fresh produce at reasonable prices, “Farmer’s Markets” in Singapore stock up on goods from far afield, charging in almost double what you might pay at the supermarket for a similar product all in the guise of marketing vocabulary like “artisanal”, “craft” and “trade-free.” No doubt that the produce might be authentic and painstakingly harvested, but the hefty price tags mean these markets are essentially catering exclusively to the upper echelons of society while leaving the rest in the dark—a complete irony seeing how the idea of “indie” has always been an ode to the working class.

Another trend weaving its way into the local hipster scene is the “struggling artist syndrome”. Aside from true blue dreamers who are actually struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their craft, a large chunk of cafe, fashion and business start-ups tend to be financed by large coffers (usually Daddy’s or Mummy’s). Despite the fact that they might already have well-to-do families to back them up in the event the business folds, they tend to play the “I fought the good fight” card just to  ironically earning them instant hipster street cred, while actual entrepreneurs who begin with nothing and sacrifice everything tend to keep a low profile, focusing on their craft–but often failing at the ostentatious, image-driven side of marketing the business.

In the famous opening words of hipster anthem Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?” Is indie today all a facade? Well, you decide.

Written by Prabhu Silvam; original content published in Campus magazine issue 46. Grab your free copy or read online.