The Scene: Wednesday, 10:13 pm, Drake Hotel, Queen Street West, Toronto
They came ambling into the darkened basement, a sea of plaid collars, skinny jeans, patterned skirts, and large framed glasses. Upstairs, the urban gentry lounged in the Drake Hotel’s faux Hollywood Diner. Downstairs, in the hotel’s sunken concert venue, the group of youngsters milled about: taught beauty, anxious posing, in-joke laughter.
Wednesday night is, for most of us, a quiet affair. At the apex of the working week, most white-collar professionals- lawyers, doctors, consultants, engineers- are either still at the office at this hour or lumbering home from another exhausting stretch of corporate life. There were certainly no power suits in this crowd. Indeed, walk along Queen West at 10 pm on a Wednesday night, or dive into one of the myriad bars along Dundas West or Ossington, and you’ll see a world of plaid-adorned, cigarette-spitted exuberance. Wired to the teeth and deeply anxious, these are the youthful people of our urban core. They will drink till one on a Wednesday, support whatever indie band is rolling through town, and engage you in conversation whose topics are as wide-ranging as the New York Times front page itself: from the politics of urban space to developmental challenges facing the African sub-continent.
This is hipster Toronto: Queen-west, Parkdale, Dundas West, Roncesvalles. And on this Wednesday night these young people did not fail to live up to their reputation. As they waited for the band to come on they drank Mill Street organics, talked about Amsterdam’s vicious loss in the World Cup semi-final, bandied about SoundCloud recommendations, and gazed longingly at one another. The fashion was pitch-perfect: fashionable hip-tight jeans mingling with dark eye lashes and playfully loose tank tops.
The band’s name was Hundred Waters, a down-tempo, synth-heavy indie outfit from Florida. As they began to play from their newest album- The Moon Rang Like a Bell– the young people came to. Super fans in front, idle-chatterers in back, with what seemed like older, more astute music literati amassing on raised balustrades at the far end of the room.
Hundred Waters played a very odd set. While their album cuts have a controlled elegance, tenderly crafted around lead singer Nicole Miglis’s crystalline vocals, their live performance was a chaotic mess. Clashing synth twangs, pangs of computerized zither-static, deep bass riffs, and intrusive drum beats all worked to drown out Miglis’ voice, which was itself distorted by an overdone echo effect. At times, songs meandered while backup performers went full on Medicine Man- riffing on their own in order to produce deep textured nonsense. At one point Miglis whipped out a flute and dazzled the crowd with a long solo, a highlight in what was otherwise a disappointing, unpolished live act. The band did not do justice to the tight-wave sound of their album.
And yet nobody in the crowd seemed to mind. Young people swayed with their partners, joked amongst themselves, bobbed their heads, and tried to catch the groove of the band’s labyrinth soundscape. Curly haired women with purses slung to their sides tried to break out in full on dance circles, though they struggled to find moves that fit Hundred Waters’ Doors-for-the-Internet-Age concert style.
The message amongst the group was clear: in this darkened cave, strung with low-wattage lightbulbs and scalpel-grey neon signs, urban music culture was flourishing. A counter-hegemonic aesthetic was being asserted: we go out to listen to music on a Wednesday, we wear plaid and not silk, we care about sustainability and social justice and the NDP and good Eggs Benedict at our favorite brunch places. We are Canada’s young, creative, independent people, and we embody an ethic of care for ourselves and others.
And yet, despite the counter-cultural aura of the entire event, the joke was (inevitably) on these young hipsters. During the performance many of them reached into their pockets to pull out iphones so they could film the band on stage. In an instant they had posted clips to Facebook, their status updates telling their global network of friends just how cool the act on stage was. I wondered how much data they all used as they constantly texted and updated and spotified: every megabite another dollar in the coffers of Bell and Rogers. I wondered just where their oh so cool plaid shirts and designer shoes were made- I saw images of little hands working away under pulsating needless in overheated, gated factories, dense with sweat and misery.
I wondered how many of these young sophisticates would be going to grad school in the fall- to start in law, urban planning, communications maybe. How many of them would go on to do government relations for Bombardier or Enbridge? How many of them would end up pushing product for Concord or Tridel, helping them peddle poorly built condos to the country’s super elite, further pushing out working class people from our downtown core? Would they make these decisions before or after their parents cut them off financially? Before or after they realized that working in a coffee shop or in retail for ten dollars an hour was ceiling work, a job rather than a career, as they say? Before or after they realized that not every summer can be as leisurely and carefree as this one, where internships and parties and selfies abound, the future a distant horizon beyond the now, a place “you would get to eventually” but were still far, far away from.
As I looked out at the sea of curt, weaving bodies, I pondered even deeper questions: how many of these young people would go on to have a happy life? How many of them would get married, have kids, afford a house, settle down, and submit themselves to the modest joys of bourgeois living? How many of them would get cancer, forced to suffer through institutional care, the loss of control over one’s body, and the encroaching terror of death itself? How much suffering would they endure before their bodies gave way to that eternal nothingness? What would each one of them look back upon as the single happiest experience of their life? Would they love their children? Would they be loved themselves?
You could quickly tabulate the statistics and come up with a straw-poll for the room. What percent of their generation was expected to get ill, to get divorced, to bury their children and at what median age. The immensity of the suffering that awaits these young people is staggering. Everyone in the room, so alive with anxious energy, would get theirs at some point: from divorce to illness to unemployment to simple ash-grey disappointment.
The thought was too terrible for me to even contemplate. I searched desperately around the room, trying to find some image of hopefulness amidst the sea of bodies. Yet the sad truth abounded in my consciousness: life makes victims of us all. And no matter how independent and counter-cultural we seek to be, we are all part of the system. All connected to the rhythms of surplus value and market expansion that dominate our world.
The music played on. The young people held their iphones in the air. They updated their profiles, standing firm in their youthful exuberance.
There they all were, the young music goers of Queen West on a Wednesday night. The future, in all its fantastic glory and aching sadness.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.