As a young L.A. high school teacher, I share a generational moment with my students but often view them as daft friends or little siblings, distortedly mirroring the pursuits of people my own age with less tact and more insecurity.
When the word “indie” began to crop up in overheard lunchtime conversations without reference to independently produced movies or music, I assumed it was synonymous with a word I rarely hear teenagers use: hipster, the controversial term for artsy-cool that emerged in the late nineties, inspired furious debate in the mid-00s and now refers broadly to anyone under 40 with creative ambitions, vintage clothing or obscure musical tastes.
I imagined that in its unquenchable quest for the new new thing and to avoid the shame of having become played out, hipster had molted its letters then set them aflame, emerging from the ashes as indie, gorgeous and dripping and rebranded. But the term actually represents a subtle shift in what it means to be cool.
According to my students, “Indie is sort of like you don't care. You're independent from the society.” Like hipster, indie is frequently assigned to peers who smack of the unconventional, but few self-identify and admit the label describes them. One of my students told me the word triggers defensive posturing from her classmates. “I'll be like, 'Ha, you look indie today,'” she said, and whoever she's addressing will respond, “'I'm not indie. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm just dressing like this. This is how I dress.'”
Hipster began as a way for outsiders to denote those who follow what's new and fashionable but quickly morphed into an insulting meme. Hipsters have been accused of destroying western civilization, New York cool and the homeless paradise of Downtown L.A.. The linguistic problem arose because hipster became associated with trends and not with specific groups of people — it's easier to state categorically that vegetarianism, leggings and Etsy are hipster than it is to prove that my friend Jeff is one.
Someone who is truly indie, on the other hand, subscribes to no trends. Of course there have always been people like this in high school, but individuality has only recently become so coveted by the masses, inverting the traditional relationship between popular and cool. In the past, things that were cool became popular. Now, anything that is popular by definition is uncool.
The concept was often explained to me this past school year in terms of those who are trying but fail to be indie, e.g. almost everyone. To teens, someone who is indie is naturally a little eccentric, while wannabes develop insincere eccentricities, for show. One student told me that a group of girls she knew had purchased identical ugly bracelets “to be more indie, because they don't go with anything. It's intentionally trying to be like you don't care, but you do care, obviously,” she said. “It's like when people spend hours on their hair to make it look messy.”
When I pressed for more details, a student identified a classmate she considered indie, explaining, “She does not care what she wears. She wears what she thinks is intensely awesome.” Um, what? As much logical sense as that made, I came to understand that, with the shift from hipster to indie, cool became not connoisseurship but ignorance. Cool is no longer associated with a look or a band; cool is ignoring a look or a band.
So while indie directly refers to whether or not a person is original, hipster confusingly refers to both those early adopters who determine what will be cool AND those who pick up the same styles at mainstream stores like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel six months later. In an attempt to clarify the word “hipster,” some distinguish between the two bearded boys in skinny jeans and enormous glasses waiting in line for PBR at the Gold Room by saying the true hipster does what he enjoys, while the poseur cares more about being the first to know something than about taking pleasure from the thing itself.
As knowledge about new bands and runway shows became freely available to anyone with Internet access, indie, and not hipster, came to represent the values and desires of high school students. Now that teens spend about three hours a night on Facebook, scrolling through daily dispatches from hundreds of people and knowing that same bored audience will see whatever they post, it's become far more important to jump out from the news feed with an entertaining quip or amazing photograph, to showcase yourself as unique.
But being indie sounds damn near impossible, the Platonic ideal of 21st century living. Indie implies honest-to-god avoidance of anything collectively acknowledged, a nostalgic denial of the Internet's existence. As much as they might pretend otherwise, IRL most teens are hyperaware of trends and actively cultivate their online personas. The paradox of this effortless individuality that my students seem to value so highly is that you need to know what's cool in order to avoid it; in avoiding what's cool you are trying to be different, and in trying you are no longer indie.
It might have been possible to not try before Mark Zuckerberg left the space blank for you to broadcast the narrative you created for yourself to the world, just as it might have been possible to feel truly original before an instantly searchable multimedia compendium of cultural artifacts and explanations became available.
No group has stood up to claim the hipster identity or speak for hipsters, but innumerable young people have anxiously denied participation while debating who was and who wasn't a hipster, just as my students debate who is and who isn't indie and insist that they themselves are neither indie nor wannabe. I'd argue that this discomfort with being identified is the movement, the key to understanding anyone under the age of 30.
Youth culture has backed itself into a corner. Pressured by parents, liberal arts institutions and even corporations to be ourselves, to think for ourselves, to Think Different, we desperately try to be original even as mounting market research undermines our best efforts and makes us feel as though our personalities and preferences have been algorithmically determined. The sniping over wannabes underlies a sense of demographic anxiety in the age of no privacy: the pervasive but unspoken feeling among both my peers and my students that anything we do is immediately documented, dissected and dismissed as trite.
Now how can anyone be indie in a world like that?