A couple of weeks ago, New York’s Yaffa Cafe closed down after three decades. Grungy and camp, with Buddha statues, Elvis prints, damask wallpaper and leopard skin print tables, the East Village haunt was an over-the-top home to equally flamboyant misfits (wherever they’ve gone).
When I first went there, in the late nineties, it was one A.M. The place was packed, not least of all with local drag queens — probably from Stingy Lulu’s, a bar full of drag queen hostesses. It too closed down, over a decade ago.
Replacing New York’s — and, it would seem, much of the Western world’s — edgy, avant-garde, outsider culture is a wave of slick pre-packaged brands, stores, and cafes. In the lower level of the building that appeared on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album is a tea shop called Physical Graffitea. How cute.
Spotless macaroon stores and chi-chi bakeries, selling mini muffins from behind glass cabinets, are moving in. They have the the look of small museums.
Perhaps I’m dating myself here, but coolness used to be what you did, not what you bought. A four dollar macaroon and a five dollar coffee wouldn’t have been a signifier of coolness even a couple of decades ago.
Punk in the UK, Goth, Hip Hop in New York, the working class Skinhead movement (which was inspired by Reggae and Jamaican youth culture originally) were all manifestations of opposition to the powers that be. They dreamed of a different world. But they were also about being creative in the world as it was.
But there was an essential ingredient which sees to be so lacking in contemporary culture: danger. All of the above youth movements — not to mention the great fashion designers, musicians, artists, etc. — have all been outsiders to some degree or other.
Where did we go wrong?
It seems to me that there are a few reasons for this fossilization. First of all, huge corporations have been able to embrace the “outsider”.
Despite being corporate America’s favorite cafe — with one in every large office building, it seems — Starbucks appeals to the (superficially) cool by presenting itself as being somehow against the man, by buying ethical coffee beans, and so on. Buying ethical is good. But it’s not enough. Likewise, Punk, Goth, Hip Hop, etc., can all be watered down, packaged, and sold in mega chain stores.
Secondly, the internet has meant that we’ve ended up “investing”in creating lives (and the perfect image of ourselves) online rather than off. Why dress outrageously if you can upload a sexy image of yourself for your profile pic?
Thirdly, there’s the rise of a deeply moralistic culture. The internet has facilitated this, too. The quickest way to get noticed online is to proclaim that you are offended. Gutter journalism has relied on this for years, exposing sex scandals and other things that journalists themselves get up to, while professing shock. Today, of course, we are bombarded by photos of scantily-clad celebrities, with the justification of morality: Rihanna wears only a bikini shock! Miley wears short skirt shock!
But this prudery has become the bedrock of politics, and, because politics is the primary group identity in the West, it has become the bedrock of society. Take this recent story: Dan Park, an artist in progressive Sweden has been sentenced for six months in jail, after a gallery showed his collages which the state deemed racist. The artworks were also burned.
Park’s artworks are, from what I can see, repellent. They are designed to shock and to get him attention. And they are — and I think this is a crucial criticism — badly done. But the “coolest” of society are bound to side with the state, on moral grounds. Rather than reveling in being an outsider, “outsiders” insist that everyone be included in the mainstream. Every religious and sexual minority, etc., has fought to be accepted as just like everyone else.
Take the recent example of Satanists who campaigned for a statue of Satan (plus adoring children) placed on the grounds of the Oaklahoma Capitol, near the Ten Commandments. Could there be a request more bourgeois and mainstream?
I said earlier that the element of danger was missing. But there’s something else. Listen to Soft Cell — the gay culture, New Wavey, synth duo of the 1980s — and beneath the campiness and superficial happiness there is tragedy and angst. There was, in other words, depth — a little like real life. Now that our craving acceptance is turning us all into prudes — outraged all the time, but never outrageous — we have inoffensive novelty in abundance, like a people on Prozac. But you don’t get places like Yaffa Cafe or Stingy Lulu’s, or movements like early Punk or Hip Hop, without danger, tragedy, and angst.
It’s easy to be outraged that you’re not accepted by the mainstream. But a truly vibrant culture comes from creatives doing the difficult task of being outrageous outside of it.