THE BIRTH OF THE VANILLA TOURIST AND THE DEATH OF COUNTERCULTURE

In his long-read essay for online tech magazine The Verge, freelance writer Kyle Chayka quoted the term ‘vanilla tourist’. It stems from a former Airbnb ‘Superhost’ who had given up the game as a result of over-gentrification within the shared economy platform; and it is a fine a summary as you will find of what these next 1,500 words are about.

Culture throughout the 21st century — more so its second decade — has perhaps been defined by one protagonist: the hipster. Coined during the jazz age of the 1920s, it was solidified in the ‘40s before dropping off the contemporary lexicon somewhere around the time Chuck Berry lewdly thrashed his electric guitar roughly a decade later. Then came The Beatles and psychedelia, and then prog rock and hard rock and punk rock and disco and new wave and the new romantics and so on… By the time I was a spotty teen in the 1990s, grunge had gripped youth culture and I would spend half a decade looking like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, before finding rave and spending the second half of the decade wearing satin and dancing until the following lunchtime.

Out of all of the countless names I was called, hipster was never one. Hipness and hipsterdom, and hipsterism and hipsters had, as far as I was concerned, fallen off the face of the earth — at least until someone on their way home from an Oliver Twist casting stumbled upon a café serving up flat whites, at which point contemporary culture would change irreversibly. Mumford and Sons; waistcoats; twirly moustaches; steampunk; artisan anything and everything; an unhealthy preoccupation with Victoriana; a fixation with the leftfield elements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s portfolio; mixology; microbreweries; fixed gear bicycles… A cultural shift that coincided with the rise of social media, going for a coffee would never be the same again.

Now the reason I dredge up my days as a confused, long-haired raver with a Kurt Cobain obsession are thus: with the lack of social media came the lack of social normalisation. Some of my friends were ravers, some skaters, some goths, moshers, or indie kids. Some were what we called ‘tidies’. And they were the worst of all. We had to go in search of culture, it was not going to find us; at least not in a long-forgotten seaside town. Which brings me back to Marcus Mumford and his regrettable companions — could they have headlined Glastonbury in the 1990s, without the advent of cultural normalisation?

Fast-forward to 2017, and Kyle Chayka’s essay is an invaluable read. If you don’t have the time, I’ve put together a handy abstraction in the form of our favourite contemporary benchmark, the hashtag:

#coffee #airbnb #instagram #kinfolk #edisonbulbs #reclaimedwood #foundmaterials #industrial #gentrification #globalisation

Now, the wound filament bulbs popularised by Edison Electric Light Company at the turn of the 1990s are given a bad rap, as are salvaged materials. Beards are spared, but we all know that’s for not wanting to come across as hackneyed. Whatever the hipster cliché, the message is the same: wherever you are in the world (London, Melbourne, Seoul, Beijing, Manchester), the rise of the internet and social media means that we are living in an age of global homogenisation. The rise and rise of millennial travel only serves to heighten this soaring threat to individualism.

It goes like this: arrive in a new city, seek out the ‘hood deemed hippest, head for a coffee, craft beer, 136-hour cooked wood chip-smoked pulled pork sandwich, or spend a few hours browsing ‘concept stores’. Anything feel vaguely familiar? Every venue you step into has been designed by a committee of millions: Pinterest. You’re there because Foursquare recommended it to you. You like it. You Instagram it. You share it to Twitter and Facebook; and the online world has another flat-white-on-indie-magazine to cast its likes upon.

Urban Outfitters prop up a corner on every recently-gentrified high street; the independent stores are influenced by the desires of local bloggers and Instagrammers (who are influenced by the trends of international bloggers and Instagrammers); the local big name retailers play catch up with the whole cycle; then everyone sleeps, eats, repeats…

And hoteliers know you need somewhere familiar to get your head down — which is why there are countless new brands being cooked up in the marketing departments of hotel giants the world over. What started with brands like Ace, The Standard, and Thompson in the States, citizenM and Generator Hostels in Europe, has snowballed in recent years. Where every marketer and their assistant had aped Ian Schrager movements in New York throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, it’s the laid-back cultural hub that’s now in their sights.

Hilton has Canopy, and Tru for good measure. Marriott has Moxy; Hyatt has Centric; Radisson has Red; and even Best Western are getting in on the act – say hello to Vib, everybody. Who makes up these names, I do not know; but what I do know is that – whether its Moxy or Centric, Canopy or Red – I’ll be able to make a good guess at the phraseology being employed in their marketing materials: “connected traveller”, “local connections”, “cultural programme”, “artisan coffee”, “urban”… Need I go on?

Hotel brands, of course, need to adapt. Airbnb has changed the city accommodation landscape, and the independent brands that pioneered the march for millennials have grown into serious competition. But like the cafés who have looked to Pinterest for their Antipodean aesthetics, and the Instagrammer whose Kinfolk and flat white combo will be the same in Stockholm, Nashville or Beirut, there is grave danger in normalising counterculture. That’s if counterculture even exists any longer.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Brian makes an impassioned plea to his followers: “You’ve got to think for yourselves!” He calls out. “You’re all individuals!” The response? In unison: “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Indeed, where have all the individuals gone?

We live in what marketers refer to as the ‘global village’, and it’s nothing new — the theories of McDonaldisation and Disneyfication (“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”, muses French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation”) have been bandied about for decades; since MTV beamed into our living rooms, since Nickelodeon and Disney Channel raised a new breed of cookie-cutter TV-/film-/pop-stars who would make Spice Girls look like Sex Pistols… What is new, though, is our lack of resistance.

Which brings me back to the ‘vanilla tourist’, with their 600 shades of beige, and our friend Kurt Cobain, so vocal of corporate influence in music and youth culture. In the early 1990s, shouting about normalisation was the trend, now the normalisation is the trend. Social media has vanilla-washed counterculture. The ‘vanilla tourist’ is merely a side-effect of what is happening the world over: the ‘hipster fonts’ so popular in Brooklyn’s rise from ghetto to Pabst Blue Ribbon-supping playground for ‘mobile workers’ can be found in the smallest of towns in the smallest of countries, and X Factor contestants look the spitting image of your favourite barista. In fact, are we living in an age where a teen would rather grow up to be an award-winning coffee bartender than a rock star?

So it makes perfect sense that Hilton’s Canopy and Marriott’s Moxy join the vanilla revolution. They won’t be short of MacBook-wielding fans of Stumptown Coffee attracted by their high-speed WiFi and millennial marketing, but how long before cultural programme becomes the new Corby Trouser Press, and hotel brands are left with a tonne of hotels that are distinguishable only by (silly) name?

Can’t we dream to be different?

Oddsson
Oddsson

Luckily, and as Brian pleaded for, some individuals remain. In Reykjavík, design ho(s)tel ODDSSON is stuffed with rare design classics and a sunrise-coloured electronic drum-kit.It has a karaoke booth in the middle of its restaurant. Kitsch and antiques and conceptual art roam freely in Paris’s Grand Amour Hotel; and in Canberra, Hotel Hotel is a guiding light for enthusiasts of cutting-edge art and design. Over in Hong Kong, Tuve’s exterior looks like a disused (for decades) car garage, or an art installation. I can’t decide.

In fact, the more you look, the more individuals are at work. Why aren’t we taking inspiration from Grayson Perry, whose astonishing livable artwork A House for Essex is so unconventional it should be locked up for discordancy? Why aren’t we embracing Hotel Not Hotel’s two-fingered salute to the concept of rooms and space?

Gladly, there’s a growing appetite for contradiction, too. Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis movement has enjoyed a welcome renaissance of late, the deliberate obtuseness of Postmodernism happily jarring against those pesky Edison lightbulbs, as has opulence and overt maximalism. Is the ‘vanilla tourist’ ready for a change? Perhaps they’re not. But that’s a good thing. Individuality is a dish best served with a side helping of surprise. You know exactly what you’re going to get from your Instagram-ready café — your coffee tastes the same from Barcelona to Beijing — in the same way that you know what you’re going to get from a Holiday Inn, or Best Western. Maybe sometimes a little dissonance wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Monster Salon and Dining Room at Hotel Hotel
Monster Salon and Dining Room at Hotel Hotel – photo by Ross Honeysett

 

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.