In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
When I was 17, in 2003, I landed a summer job working on the third floor of Mondo Kim’s on Saint Marks place. This was back in the day when a massive emporium of film and music like Kim’s was still a profitable business proposition (there were four of them in New York back then—now there’s only one), and when the people at Kim’s had a city-wide reputation for being the snobbiest video and music clerks in the world. Before I started working there, from the age of 14 or 15, I used to try to eat cheaply all week so that I could go in there on Friday with whatever money I had saved up and buy a CD. Part of the Kim’s experience, which myself and thousands of other New Yorkers willfully subjected ourselves too, was trying to get in and out of there without attracting any off-color remarks from the people behind the counter, who were rumored to be so allergic to sub-par music and film that they wouldn’t even help you find something if they didn’t think that it was aesthetically worthwhile. I was afraid of the people who worked at Kim’s, and I never would have become one of them myself if it weren’t for my mother. She straight-up asked them if they would hire me one day while there to inquire about some obscure French corset movie she was looking for. I guess she just thought that it was time that I got a job.
The first summer I worked there I was the only female among six or seven male clerks ranging in age from twenty-one to thirty. All of them were a whole lot more knowledgeable about movies and music than me, and one of the older, senior clerks had a reputation for making every single girl who worked there previously cry by making fun of their taste in movies. I didn’t want to be that girl, so I did my best to keep up with him and everybody else there, staying up as late as I could each night watching movies from the Employee Picks section and memorizing the entire catalogs of auteurs like Chris Marker and Ingmar Bergman (Kim’s filed movies by director). It was my first taste of having to prove myself as an intellectual equal in a male-dominated milieu, and while I now take pity on the teenager in me who wanted so badly to win their approval, I don’t think I’d be doing what I do today if it weren’t for the top-notch cultural education I got at Kim’s. That guy who boasted about making all the girls cry knew so much about French film that someone from the Criterion Collection actually called him up one day to solicit historical information for a Godard film they were looking to rerelease. This deeply impressed me at the time, as there seemed to be something thrillingly subversive in the idea that the personal connoisseurship of somebody who worked at a video rental shop on Saint Marks’ place could hold just as much authoritative weight as that of a university professor or museum curator.
That said, Mondo Kim’s was a pretty gnarly place. It smelled funny, the stairwells were covered in graffiti and soot, and the employee bathroom on the third floor doubled as a storage room for the rental department’s collection of porn. I worked there two summers in a row, and a year after I stopped working there, in 2005, the cops raided the place on the suspicion that there was a video bootlegging operation being run out of some back room. All the employees were ordered to line up with their hands above their heads, and some girl my age ended up being carted away. Like the city itself in some ways, Kim’s was both one of the most intellectually stimulating places I’ve ever experienced and one of the seediest places, and while that seediness made it quite the adventure for a teenager about to shuttle off to liberal arts school in New England, it also made it a potentially depressing place to work long-term. Starting salary, back then, was somewhere around six dollars an hour, and I remember the dudes I worked with taking a kind of melancholy pride in eating a 50-cent icecream sandwich for dinner. Now that I look back on those summers, I think a lot of my coworkers were surly because working at Kim’s was a pretty thankless job, beyond the enormous archive of music and film it put at your fingertips and the cultural distinction of working at Kim’s itself.
Very much in line with the downtown counterculture of that time, many of the people who worked there looked pretty haggard, too—all messy, unwashed hair and moth-eaten thift store t-shirts, with the counterintuive stylishness of people who care too much about books and music and movies to give too many fucks about how they look (or at least appear to be that way). It was around this time that the term “hipster,” which has cycled in and out of the English language under various guises since the 1940s, began to denote something very specific to my 17-year-old soul. It was something pretty different from the groan-worthy “hipster” I think of today whenever I hear people bitching about Williamsburg residents with their fixed gear bikes and their speakeasies and their McCarren Park movies and their quinoa. Back then, in my understanding of the word, being a “hipster” wasn’t about buying into a series of marketing-driven lifestyle choices that make up a person of “good taste.”
Instead, back then, “hipster” referred to an all-encompassing, almost pathological reverence for art and music, often to the exclusion of other, traditional white bourgeois concerns, like educational and professional advancement. It was being part of a small, self-selecting group of people who had a completest attitude to pop culture and its history, an informal network of struggling artists and culture junkies who spent their free time buying old records and studying the minor footnotes of dead musical movements. Often, it seemed to be about things that most people didn’t care about, recognizing beauty in places where other people didn’t see it. In this vein, my coworkers’ collective obsession with one New Jersey truck driver who wrote a bunch of would-be stadium rock anthems in the 1980s was particularly eye-opening for me; Kenneth Higney’s songwriting, not unlike that of the Shaggs, was way too rhythmically and melodically off-kilter to make sense for his idol Bruce Springsteen (to whom he had original hoped to sell them). Still, it had a wayward charm all its own, and liking Kenneth Higney made you part of a group of people who could appreciate the hidden genius of something that could never have been anything other than a commercial flop.
On that note, I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive recently (read Colin Joyce’s review of it here), and Adam, the film’s male protagonist, is in some ways the spitting image of the sort of “hipster” I think of when I look back on my Kim’s Video days. Admittedly, he and his wife Eve are centuries-old vampires, but the film’s core conceit of examining how two people might keep themselves spiritually and psychologically afloat when they’re stuck on this earth for hundreds and hundreds years is fodder for a great deal of existential and sociological meaning-making. Adam, a disaffected bohemian/musician, takes refuge from the evils of an ego-driven, philistine, self-destructive humanity by hiding out from the world in his apartment in Detroit. His only solace is the obscure soul 45s that he buys through a non-vampire friend of his and a solo project he’s been working on, which sounds kind of like a cross between stoner doom metal and the punk lute stylings of Jozef Van Wissem, Jarmusch’s musical partner in crime. A wall in his home is covered with the likenesses of the great composers, authors and artists of Western civilization (I spotted Kafka among them), and although he seems to see himself as “keeping company” with these historical visionaries (including ghost-writing an adagio or two for Schubert back in the day), he does everything he can to ensure that nobody—beyond his wife and single male friend—gets to hear his music.
Consequently, to his great chagrin, he develops something of a Jandek-like following among music lovers in town, who shell out large sums for leaked copies of his music, and appear at his doorstep looking to catch a glimpse at the reclusive genius who produced them. If you have the somewhat unfortunate luck of surviving on this troubled planet for hundreds of years, Jarmusch’s character development seems to suggest, you’ll end up kind of like a record collector hipster: obsessed with cultural artifacts that nobody else seems to care about, wary of the marketplace’s corrupting effects on art and so disaffected with the course of the world that you turn deeply, depressively inward. That said, Adam’s love for music and art is also a very life-affirming thing: as long as you can always surround yourself with culture, the film suggests, then life will always be worth living.
I tend to agree with the latter sentiment, just as I believe that there will always be people who love music more than anything else in this world. Still, I couldn’t help but read Only Lovers Left Alive as a movie belonging to a generation that is no longer setting the tone for the counterculture at large. The last Kim’s Video is closing down this summer, and while I know that talk around it will inevitably pivot around the demise of record stores, and video stores, in general, losing Kim’s also feels symbolic of a greater, spiritual shift. I came of age looking up to the Kim’s Video hipster, but just as the term “hipster” itself has come to mean something quite different over the years, the parameters of cultural connoisseurship have also changed. Growing up with YouTube and torrent sites, musically inclined millennials are probably learning more about death metal, Detroit techno and ‘70s outsider psych records before the end of high school than I probably learned in the first half of my twenties. Knowing everything about all music is no longer the sole province of a self-selecting group of music cognoscenti; it’s just doing what technology has empowered us to do.
And neither is it necessarily a mark of having an aversion to the marketplace—a fact that I experience daily in the sheer number of PR emails I receive on behalf of underground and experimental artists looking to break out to a wider audience. Remaining “unknown”—or beloved by only a passionate, knowing few—no longer feels like a point of pride in the way that it used when I was still a teenager, just as taking pride in knowing about records that other people don’t sounds like a losing proposition in the era of instant and unlimited access. Of course, there’s still plenty of great independent record stores left in this country (along with a thriving collector culture), but Kim’s demise somehow feels of a piece with the decline of obscurity as a positive value in today’s independent music culture, along with the territorialism of taste, or “hipster snootiness,” that Kim’s used to represent in its heyday. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I do think I’ll miss the combination of trepidation and excitement I used to feel walking into Kim’s growing up. Like, if I played my cards right, I might become part of an underground conspiracy ring with a hidden dungeon full of amazing, unheard records.