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Hipster culture is having a senior moment

Betty White, Samuel Halpern, 'Breakfast at Sulimay's,' NJ Lady — what's old is cool.

May 09, 2010|By Tricia Romano, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The average age of the American hipster has just gone up, way up.

Samuel Halpern, the 74-year-old subject of a Twitter feed based on his profane observations (currently being developed into a TV show, tentatively named "Stuff My Dad Says," starring William Shatner) has 1.3 million fans who eagerly await his every uncensored utterance. Halpern is not the only senior citizen rocking the Internet: DJ Ruth Flowers, a.k.a. Mamy Rock, is a seventysomething former singer-turned-jet-setting dance music DJ with a penchant for sparkly headphones and track suits, who became a YouTube sensation this year, nabbing hundreds of thousands of hits after going viral on Twitter.

And Hollywood's latest It Girl is none other than platinum-haired, 88-year-old Betty White. After starring in a Snickers Super Bowl ad, the former "Golden Girls" actress became the center of a Facebook campaign lobbying for White to host "Saturday Night Live." Half a million people can't be wrong — she was scheduled to host the show Saturday.

Suddenly, at least in parts of the blogosphere, it's hip to be old — a paradoxical twist for a youth-obsessed nation that injects, pulls and carves away any semblance of age. The "olds" (as sites like dub those old enough to remember rotary phones) are the subject of Facebook fan pages, YouTube shows, Twitter feeds and even fashion blogs.

Why is our youth-obsessed society suddenly so fascinated with the 65-plus set. For one thing, they are almost exotic creatures in our fractured modern lives, glimpsed only on major holidays.

"There's been a fragmentation of the family, and older people seemed to be left behind — put them in a home and put them away," Flowers said by phone from Paris, where she was getting her hair twisted into platinum white spikes. "My grandmother was my life!" said Flowers, noting ruefully that she lives more than 100 miles away from her grandson.

Not surprisingly, this interest in the elderly is also somewhat narcissistic. It's not like young hipsters are gleaning bits of history from these grandparental figures, as Ruth Flowers did when she was young, learning about the Titanic and other world events.

No, they're interested in one subject above all else: themselves.

"Enough about me, tell me more about me." That conceit fuels "Breakfast at Sulimay's," a YouTube show featuring three senior citizen hosts ranging from 65 to 85 years old, who assess hip contemporary music. Hearing what they say about Animal Collective and MGMT is apparently more interesting than hearing them discuss Frank Sinatra.

For the self-aware, self-obsessed members of the X, Y and Z generations, the constant presence of social media reinforces a myopic worldview, allowing them to surround themselves with like-minded people. That makes the virtual eruption of elderly voices both novel and bracing.

So maybe we do need a little wisdom from Samuel Halpern, who (profanely) compares modern haircuts to squirrels' nests. Or Jersey grandmother" Florence Lazar, who gives a brutally funny assessment of MTV reality show "Jersey Shore" in a College Humor clip that's part of a series on

"I think it's disgusting," she says, watching Snooki dance on-screen. "Look, they're having sex on the dance floor. What — do you think that's nice?"

And maybe we also need Bill Able, a 75-year-old former boxer and one of "Sulimay's" hosts, to tell us that a new Radiohead song is not, in fact, genius. "I think they could use this as a deterrent to crime," he says, grimacing. "Play this the last week in jail and never come back."

Christopher Noxon, whose book "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up" looked at how the aging population struggles to retain a semblance of youth by holding onto fixtures from childhood, noted, "For people in their 20s and 30s who are really plugged in and really immersed in new media and social networking, the only place you can really go for perspective on what it's like not to be plugged in is to old people. I mean, talk about fish out of water."

Justin Halpern, 29, who runs the Twitter account about what dad Samuel says, recalled that as a teen, "I didn't yet find the humor in what he was saying." Time allowed him to appreciate his dad's "aggressive honesty."

"He says things that [other people] are thinking but they don't say because there are consequences for saying things like that," said Halpern. "You stand the chance of alienating several family members. My dad, he's earned the right to say that."

Though the senior citizen set's blunt assessments can often be uncomfortably politically incorrect, they offer insights infused with humor and wisdom. That's the crux of "Sulimay's" appeal. "Most critics write for other critics, but they just kind of speak from the heart," said Marc Brodzik of his elderly reviewers.

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