A lot has been written this weekend about the Beastie Boys in light of Adam Yauch's death. After watching a lot of their videos I also realized something else: They were the original hipsters, and in a good way. Long before Paul's Boutique was just another cafe on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets, the Beastie Boys set the mold for every wannabe south of 14th Street. Aesthetically, we've been biting off them for decades and probably didn't even realize it.
We'll Start With The Obvious: The "Sabotage" Video. In 1994, there was no reason to stray from the flannel and grunge trend that pervaded mainstream music. One day I turned on MTV and watched the "Sabotage" video and was amazed to see that a late '70s, Barney Miller ethos could not only be reproduced for entertainment purposes, but that I was fascinated by it. Giant Cutlass Supremes and wide-ties had long gone out of fashion and yet this was the theme they went with with the first single off their Ill Communication album. They managed to make one of the most unfashionable eras in history look cool -- and we all followed.
Next time you see some guy with mutton chops in aviator glasses, you can thank a Beastie Boy. Secretly, you know he wants to be Cochise.
They Were Rocking American Apparel Long Before Dov Charney Even Had The Idea: Just as it would be difficult to lurk around the Lower East Side these days and not see a guy in a colored wife-beater, it is difficult to watch early Beastie Boys videos and not see the same. An enterprising art student realistically could re-shoot several Beastie Boys videos now, especially "Hey Ladies," using only items purchased at American Apparel. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then Dov Charney is worshiping at the altar of the trio, regardless if he even realizes it.
The Beastie Boys were originally a punk band, a genre that was diametrically opposed to the polyester disco of the late '70s. These are the same silhouettes that Charney has made his millions off of, from gold lame disco pants to tube socks for the ladies. To see so many references to it in the Beastie Boys oeuvre seems like a smart and subtle lampooning of the era. Many, though, it seems, have failed to pick up on the joke.
They Made Downtown Manhattan Look Cool -- When It Wasn't: A byproduct of revisiting Beastie Boys videos shot with those fish-eye lenses that they liked so much is that there are some amazing shots of '80s and '90s-era New York City. This is not to be overlooked. The East Village 25 years ago was not the young adult playground that it is now. If it looks gritty in the video that's because it was. That graffiti is real, and not a strategically placed sight gag by a set designer. This is notable because not only were they white rappers in an era when such a thing seemed outrageous, they were doing it in neighborhoods that were not considered cool, or even safe, by conventional standards.
I've always found it curious that the whole hipster aesthetic -- a group that by definition is artistic and theoretically avant garde -- is based on nostalgia. With Yauch's passing, it really is the end of an era. New York City is a very different place than it was when the Beasties were coming up in the game, and music and art can't move forward when the artists themselves are in many ways trying to recreate the past.
Somewhere, in some unfashionable, edgy neighborhood deep in five boroughs, there is another group like the Beastie Boys -- maybe they're even girls -- ready to blow our minds creatively. When our creative community, however, looks and acts like extras from a Carter-era sitcom, it seems only natural to be stuck in it. With all the rhetoric going around about how innovative the Beastie Boys were, let's digest some of that and put it into practice.