Culture of Cool

Surfers are sheep. Here are the details.

Jay Davies, putting function into fashion. Photo: Bosko
Why are concepts from past decades now relevant, while progress is shunned? Why am I falling for it, like all the rest of the posers I love to hate? It’s more than just nostalgia—particularly when you consider many surfing hipsters are imitating the style of an era prior to their birth. The kids yearn for a time they never knew, when surfing didn’t belong to everyone. It’s the sad lament of a generation that wonders if they missed out on surfing’s authenticity. Sometimes I wonder too. Even for older surfers, it can feel like the only way to move forward is to look back—sift through the ashes of surfing’s history in search of live coals that still burn with some semblance of honest stoke. We look back in search of what is no longer there—those organic moments, lost in the past, when it was not just special to ride waves, it was special to be a surfer.

If there’s a lesson here, I can’t quite put my finger on it. Sigmund Freud wrote of “the narcissism of small differences”—our need to cling to a conceited sense of our uniqueness, in order to mask the simple truth of our underlying sameness. Not many of us are really unique snowflakes, and that hurts. My distrust of surf hipsters might begin and end right there. I see too much of myself in them, and I’d rather be an individual. But I’d like to believe there’s more to it than that. If we follow the DIY trend-vectors to their termination point, we’re left sifting through an army of masked followers—people who look creative, but have created nothing more than a convincingly surfy personal brand. Like most hardcore surfers, I spend my idle moments planning my next session, instead of my next outfit. And I’ve been written off as a kook by surfers who are consciously on-trend, before we even paddled out.

Perhaps that’s what bothers me in the end. Looking cool is one thing—actually doing something cool, actually innovating, that’s something else entirely. It no longer boils down to who can surf and who cannot. It comes down to having that look, and buying the right props. Consumers find authenticity in products, wisdom in taglines. Posers judge hardcore surfers, and feel justified in doing so if a hardcore surfer happens to be still rocking ’90s gear. The ruse used to stop at the water’s edge. Now these posers drift by us in crowded lineups, still convinced that their purchases will float them to superiority when the next set comes. They soulfully get pitched over the falls on wooden quads. They commune with Poseidon and Laird as they struggle to keep rails from digging on elephant guns—in slightly overhead surf. They continue to delude themselves, believing that soul can be bought with a MasterCard, that surf enlightenment is one quirky purchase away.