Firsticuffs: (n.)


A fight over who originated a certain thought, statement, or opinion.


The other day, while waiting for a barista (sullen, sighing, and beautiful) to put the finishing touches on my Americano (yeah, I know…), I overheard two early 20-somethings debating… something.

I didn’t actually get to hear the subject of the debate. All I could glean was that this thing was “so derivative.” On this opinion they both steadfastly agreed. It was indeed derivative. Totally derivative, actually. When and from what it was derived, who knows? They didn’t say. But boy howdy did they agree in ways numerous and emphatic, that it was not really, “as, ya know… legitimate… ya know?”

I paid for my coffee (four bucks! what?!) and listened for as long as I could, smiling. I remember having conversations like this. I remember how much they mattered.

The first time I heard anyone use that word in such a context was when I was 23 years old. I had just graduated college, and I was putting my English degree to exceptional use at a book store (RIP Borders). I was about as obnoxious as you can imagine. I spent my days condescending to perfectly friendly suburbanites, flirting with my coworkers, and wearing hats indoors. I donned ironic t-shirts and carried novels around with me for everyone to see (Lolita… because I was a romantic) and was basically your bog standard, twenty-something twit cleaving desperately at a borrowed sense of individuality.

One of my coworkers – I’ll call him Randall – was a smokey, Derrida-quoting hipster. Randall was 30 years old… he wore a lot of black. He liked his coffee cold-pressed, his movies Swedish, and his authors unpronounceable. He was preoccupied by the postmodern, and, of course, Randall was working on a screenplay. His second. Everyone at that particular Borders had their own side-projects. We were all writing something. I was pretending I wasn’t pretending to be Kurt Vonnegut. Another guy was writing a scifi epic about aliens, enslaved and harvested by an evil galactic empire in order to open conduits to “blood space” (a magical, transwarp corridor through spacetime, fueled entirely by blood… which in retrospect sounds awesome). Out of all of us, Randall was the least hopeful, the most frustrated, cynical and disengaged, entirely assured of his own obscurity, but pushed forward anyway… because it wasn’t about success… “it was about the work.”

Randall had the least hope, and therefore was the most legitimate.

It’s a common enough image, but this was in 2004. Hipsterism was still in its earlyish phase. We’d yet to reach the comfortable age of the beflanneled, urban lumberjack. There was no Warby Parker, and jeans had yet to constrict to their skinniest. People chatted on Motorola Razors about the article they just read in Adbusters. These were early days. And yet, there was Randall – perched behind the info desk at Borders books as though he’d always been there, running his hands through his hair, and staring down his nose at everything.

He was over it before being over it had even begun. And god, did we love him for it.

I adored Randall. Randall also adored Randall. So upon that rock, we built our friendship.

One night as we were closing up, the CD player (physical media – the dark ages!) chunked its way over to Madeline Peyroux’s debut CD, something I’d chosen because I’ve always been an old mom in my heart, and Peyroux reminded me a lot of Billie Holiday (who I grew up listening to… because of my mom). Within moments of her first throaty ballad, Randall slapped the CD Change button and announced to no one (by way of anyone nearby) that, “I can’t listen to this. It’s just so… derivative.” He punctuated this observation with a haughty snort, and gazed around for reply.

“Ugh,” I fidgeted, “Right? SO derivative!”

Randall nodded at me. The CD player shifted its tray. Interpol’s second album spun to life, and I trundled off to the stacks, a tower of trade paperbacks in my arms.

So, I’d ask why I did this… but we all know why I did this. I didn’t want to appear lame in front of a guy I thought was cool. My question is, why was that one CD uncool (aside from its inherent mommishness, which I do not debate) just because it was similar to another thing? I enjoyed listening to Madeline Peyroux… not in spite of her similarity to Billie Holiday, but BECAUSE of her similarity to Billie Holiday. Because there’s something sweet and romantic to her voice. Because it reminded me of the music my mom listened to in the car, or in her office, when she was trying to work her way through a problem.

Why is novelty so goddamn important? Does it really, honestly, matter that much in the end? Why can’t we be as delighted by the copy of a thing? Or at least appreciate it for the thoroughness of its approximation? Where do we learn to obsess over that one particular neurotic bugbear?

The barista handed me my Americano, and seeing that there were no open tables at the cafe, I headed for the door, past the two twenty-somethings still agreeing to disagree with everything – bouncing around through a jangly, caffeinated debate that I’d had so many times before. We’ve all had that debate. A hundred times. It’s such old hat. It’s so unoriginal. And I’d tell them that… but honestly, where’s the fun in originality?

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