Hipster culture is having a senior moment
The average age of the American hipster has just gone up, way up.
Samuel Halpern, the 74-year-old subject of a Twitter feed based on his profane observations (currently being developed into a TV show, tentatively named “Stuff My Dad Says,” starring William Shatner) has 1.3 million fans who eagerly await his every uncensored utterance. Halpern is not the only senior citizen rocking the Internet: DJ Ruth Flowers, a.k.a. Mamy Rock, is a seventysomething former singer-turned-jet-setting dance music DJ with a penchant for sparkly headphones and track suits, who became a YouTube sensation this year, nabbing hundreds of thousands of hits after going viral on Twitter.
And Hollywood’s latest It Girl is none other than platinum-haired, 88-year-old Betty White. After starring in a Snickers Super Bowl ad, the former “Golden Girls” actress became the center of a Facebook campaign lobbying for White to host “Saturday Night Live.” Half a million people can’t be wrong — she was scheduled to host the show Saturday.
Suddenly, at least in parts of the blogosphere, it’s hip to be old — a paradoxical twist for a youth-obsessed nation that injects, pulls and carves away any semblance of age. The “olds” (as sites like Gawker.com dub those old enough to remember rotary phones) are the subject of Facebook fan pages, YouTube shows, Twitter feeds and even fashion blogs.
Why is our youth-obsessed society suddenly so fascinated with the 65-plus set. For one thing, they are almost exotic creatures in our fractured modern lives, glimpsed only on major holidays.
“There’s been a fragmentation of the family, and older people seemed to be left behind — put them in a home and put them away,” Flowers said by phone from Paris, where she was getting her hair twisted into platinum white spikes. “My grandmother was my life!” said Flowers, noting ruefully that she lives more than 100 miles away from her grandson.
Not surprisingly, this interest in the elderly is also somewhat narcissistic. It’s not like young hipsters are gleaning bits of history from these grandparental figures, as Ruth Flowers did when she was young, learning about the Titanic and other world events.
No, they’re interested in one subject above all else: themselves.
“Enough about me, tell me more about me.” That conceit fuels “Breakfast at Sulimay’s,” a YouTube show featuring three senior citizen hosts ranging from 65 to 85 years old, who assess hip contemporary music. Hearing what they say about Animal Collective and MGMT is apparently more interesting than hearing them discuss Frank Sinatra.
For the self-aware, self-obsessed members of the X, Y and Z generations, the constant presence of social media reinforces a myopic worldview, allowing them to surround themselves with like-minded people. That makes the virtual eruption of elderly voices both novel and bracing.
So maybe we do need a little wisdom from Samuel Halpern, who (profanely) compares modern haircuts to squirrels’ nests. Or Jersey grandmother” Florence Lazar, who gives a brutally funny assessment of MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” in a College Humor clip that’s part of a series on NJLady.tv.
“I think it’s disgusting,” she says, watching Snooki dance on-screen. “Look, they’re having sex on the dance floor. What — do you think that’s nice?”
And maybe we also need Bill Able, a 75-year-old former boxer and one of “Sulimay’s” hosts, to tell us that a new Radiohead song is not, in fact, genius. “I think they could use this as a deterrent to crime,” he says, grimacing. “Play this the last week in jail and never come back.”
Christopher Noxon, whose book “Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up” looked at how the aging population struggles to retain a semblance of youth by holding onto fixtures from childhood, noted, “For people in their 20s and 30s who are really plugged in and really immersed in new media and social networking, the only place you can really go for perspective on what it’s like not to be plugged in is to old people. I mean, talk about fish out of water.”
Justin Halpern, 29, who runs the Twitter account about what dad Samuel says, recalled that as a teen, “I didn’t yet find the humor in what he was saying.” Time allowed him to appreciate his dad’s “aggressive honesty.”
“He says things that [other people] are thinking but they don’t say because there are consequences for saying things like that,” said Halpern. “You stand the chance of alienating several family members. My dad, he’s earned the right to say that.”
Though the senior citizen set’s blunt assessments can often be uncomfortably politically incorrect, they offer insights infused with humor and wisdom. That’s the crux of “Sulimay’s” appeal. “Most critics write for other critics, but they just kind of speak from the heart,” said Marc Brodzik of his elderly reviewers.
“In the most basic sense, it’s, ‘Kids say the darndest things,’ except that it’s not kids,” said Halpern. “You love somebody who says exactly what they think.”
Noxon sees the online fascination with the elderly as double-edged, however. “It’s not like we’re taking their advice. We laugh at their advice,” he said. “That’s what I find a little bit condescending and snarky: Look how clueless and yet how also true it is. It’s that ironic hipster pose we’re all so accustomed to.”
That hipster attitude is apparent in the website Abevigoda.com, designed to offer status updates on the status of the old actor’s mortality. Its minimal design features a photo of the 89-year-old actor and the words " Abe Vigoda is Alive” — the word “alive” apparently ready to be swapped for “dead” at any moment. (Vigoda is such an elderly icon that an L.A.-based indie band actually uses his name as a moniker.) A more bizarre salute to an icon of bygone days is Beaarthurmountainspizza.tumblr.com, featuring deceased “Golden Girl” Bea Arthur in bizarre photo collages with, yep, mountains and pizza.
Even Betty White’s celebrated Super Bowl Snickers ad, which features a football team berating a teammate for playing like “Betty White” (i.e. an old, weak woman) is rooted in a bit of mean-spirited humor.
Justin Halpern insists that Betty White is in on the joke — “part of the reason it’s enjoyable is that you know that they get it too.” But Noxon likens the treatment of Betty White, Bea Arthur and other seniors to that of “stuffed animals,” turning our fear of aging into a cutesy joke.
In many of these recent depictions, though, there’s also some reassurance that one can age not just gracefully but fabulously. After all, these olds are hip to the newest music (“Sulimay’s”), they dress much like we do (Flowers), and they exhibit endless youthful energy (White).
“I get e-mails, 30 a day from girls who are 12 to 15 who are like, ‘I live in the Midwest, I don’t see this here, so now I’m not afraid to be old,’ ” said Ari Cohen, a 28-year-old blogger behind Advanced Style, an earnest fashion blog chronicling the stylish senior citizens of New York City.
Indeed, Cohen started his blog because he noticed fashion connections between hipsters and the elderly. “Kids are dressing in vintage clothing — you have to realize where your influences come from. You see that lady on Madison Avenue doing it way better than the 22-year-old,” said Cohen.
The recent premiere of “Sunset Daze” — a reality show on the WE network set in a retirement home where sixtysomethings go wild — coupled with White’s appearance on “SNL” hints that mainstream Americans might be ready to embrace the elderly as more than just an Internet meme.
The Fountain of Youth may not exist in the physical world, but on the Internet everyone can be forever young. As Noxon said, “It’s a way of reassuring us that as we get older, we are not gonna be dour and out of touch.”
At her red carpet debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Ruth Flowers said she was the belle of the ball, with autograph and photograph seekers galore. “They say, ‘I want to be like you.’ And I say, ‘No, you want to be like yourself,’ ” she said. “But you know, if I can show them something, if they like the crazy things I do, that’s all for the good.”