Beatniks, Meet Capitalism

(500) Ways to Pretend You're Special

By Jen Gramer

indie illustration by Walker Kampf-Lassin

I have thrice seen (500) Days of Summer, that self-fashioned indie darling of a “new sort of love story”— although the poster claims it’s “not a love story” but “a story about love.” (Take that, Nora Ephron.)

Though I may be demonized by hordes of earnest, vintage dress-wearing Smiths-lovers for saying this, my feelings on the film have evolved from charmed surprise to irritation to exasperation.

It isn’t just Zooey Deschanel’s “unknowing” spaced-out charm and limited career ambitions, or that the movie essentially consists of (500) days of quirk-and-eccentricities-posing-as-a-storyline. The film epitomizes a growing problem I refer to as “pre-fabricated indie culture,” the damnable result when independent taste is subjected to the mass market.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and I know genuine hipsters. I have spent many hours (creepily?) observing “freethinkers” in their natural coffee-infused habitats of Trader Joe’s, hemp markets, and “ironic” film viewing parties of The Room (which proudly markets itself as “the worst movie ever made.”) And I have met bona fide Summer Finns: girls who market their quirk through their blasé attitudes towards ambition, conformity, and “vintage” dresses from Urban Outfitters; girls who seduce Tom Hansens and who wait eagerly in lines at vegan food stands, equipped with their oversized headphones and naïveté.

Unfortunately or fortunately—or perhaps inevitably—indie visual culture has been commercialized. Everyone from sorority girls to my 12-year-old neighbor owns a plethora of plaid flannel shirts, giant reading glasses, and fake-vintage tees. Through the years, the ‘Summers’ with red lips, headbands, and yellow beach cruisers have blurred with the Summers in the pretend-vintage blue dresses carrying around copies of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In the process, mass indie “style” has devoured individualized indie “substance,” and shat the digested result into the toilet bowl of the American market.

Movies from (500) Days of Summer to Youth in Revolt have subjected relationships to the same vapid, “quirky” treatment. Summer/Zooey/insert endearingly-unusual-name-here solidifies her unknowing control over poor Tom/Joseph/insert ironically-old-fashioned-name-here when she drops a few lyrics from “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.”

What else do we know about Summer besides a few random and beguiling facts that likely pepper her Facebook page like exotic spices? Yeah, yeah, her favorite Beatle is Ringo. That’s like saying earwax is your favorite flavor of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans for ironic effect. Gag me.

In the end, no matter how “outside of the mainstream” it pretends to be, style over substance is no substitute for a truly intimate relationship. The shift of prefabricated indie (and now mainstream) culture from worshipping Uggs, John Mayer, and Dane Cook to vintage clothes, classic French songs, and self-aware humor is fine—except when the disciples of this new brand of “unique” pretend that they’re more original than the followers of the old.

But let’s be clear: I’d still do Joseph Gordon-Levitt over Channing Tatum any day, even for 500 days. Yes. That would be just fine with me.

Illustration by Walker Kampf-Lassin