As our series on hipsters comes to the end, we look at the history of the subculture- it’s past, its present, and its precarious future.Will they continue to dominate long after shutter shades and ironic tees disappear from the mainstream, or fade away in wake of one of the worst economic malaises in modern history?
What do a documentarian, a humorist, a journalist, and a professor have in common?
They’ve all known hipsters, or someone who does. Some have even penned books and lengthy articles about them, many more verbose than any blog post or online missive. And still, no one is close to solving the mystery of The Hipster (or Hipsterette, as it were)- who they are, what they do, how their subculture affects their daily lives, and ours as well.
Over ten years after the first contemporary “hipster” was spotted, there has been a rash of blogs, books, dissertations, and speculation about hipsters, yet no one seems to be in any agreement about them as a group. Everyone has an opinion, and depending on whom you ask, they are either the death of Western civilization or just the latest incarnation of a young adult subculture that has its roots in the peace and prosperity following one of the worst global conflicts of the 20th Century.
One of those people with these opinions is John Leland. The New York Times reporter and pop culture expert has made a second career out of studying hipsters and their spiritual godfathers, the Beats. The result, Hip: the History, is a lengthy chronicle of the counterculture from the 1950’s to today.
In a short email interview, Leland clarifies his hipster thesis.
“Hipsters always had a positive and negative connotation,” he says, “meaning those in the know, and those working hard to look the part.”
While the term traditionally meant the former (think: Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the patron saint of bad boys, William Burroughs), over the past decade it has come to mean something less intrinsic than what the author of On the Road intended. More to the point, it represents a lifestyle choice, rather than a set of beliefs and philosophy, however unconventional they may be.
Whereas the 50’s hipster- the word derives from the west African Wolof tribe, which coined a word hipi to mean “one who opens their eyes”- disdained materialism and embraced spiritual and political enlightenment, to many the 21st Century hipster does the opposite. The hipster ethic of the 1950s culminated in many works of art and literature that challenged the status quo- Naked Lunch, Howl, A Coney Island of the Mind. All of which in turn, inspired the hippie counterculture that gave us the Diggers and White Rabbit, popularized LSD, and made Cheech and Chong rich and famous . The hipsters of today walk around in hoodies, wear porn ‘staches and shutter shades, and listen to Arcade Fire. At least, that’s the stereotype.
But according to one academic, hipsters are more than a football to be kicked. They are, in fact, a distinct subculture, with their own slang, mores, taboos, and yes, musical tastes.
Kaya Oakes is something of an expert on the “indie scene” as it were. She even teaches a course on it from time to time at the University of California at Berkeley (when she isn’t teaching fiction), and she should know what she’s talking about- she used to be a musician, after all.
“The current pejorative take on hipsters has evolved over the last decade or so,” She said in an email interview. “As Generation Y has grown up, they have found themselves in search of a distinct cultural identity, precisely at the same time that the internet has offered them multiple options for finding music, comics, crafts etc that weren’t available before.”
With a glut of bands, authors, and bloggers available to sample, it’s hard to pin down hipsters into a subculture in the Anthropology 101 sense. One man’s Greatest Band in the World is another woman’s gutter trash.
Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics that hipsters all share in common:
• They are exclusively urban, or at least metropolitan. Many congregate in neighborhoods near sources of mass or alternative transportation. Bus lines, subways, etc. In recent years they’ve branched out, embracing the bike culture (see the phenomena surrounding fixed gear bikes, for example). L.A. scenesters are a little different because of the car culture there, but by and large hipsters and scenesters stick to large, urban populations- the chance of one showing up in Hickville U.S.A. is, to put it bluntly, slim.
• They all have liberal arts backgrounds, or are well versed in literature and the arts. The lead singer of Arcade Fire Edwin “Win” Butler studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Michael James Owen Pallett (the lead singer of the group Final Fantasy) received an Honor’s Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto. You get the idea.
• Hipsters have a passing interest in bohemian culture. Admittedly, this is a broad categorization, and ties in to their interest in the arts and the counterculture. Bohemian could mean anything from collecting paintings from Dan Lacy to the late Dash Snow, to the writings of Douglas Coupland, to shows like Bored to Death and Flight of the Concords. Fashion wise, they’re more inclined to embrace subversive clothing, like the Kaffiyehs of the former PLO/Fatah movement.
• They are apolitical. Again, this an educated guess, based on anecdotal evidence from blog postings, media reports, etc. There are probably just as many politically active hipsters as apolitical hipsters, but since few go “on the record” it’s hard to say either way.
Based on such observations, it would be hard to argue that hipsters are a passing fad or a group of annoying teenagers and twenty-somethings stalling for time en route to a career at the bank, university, government job, etc. Besides musical tastes, they have their own slang words (“deck”, “rad”), blogs, even tastes in porn. Yet mocking hipsters still continues to be something of a career for some.
Like Brenna Ehrlich. The formerly anonymous co-blogger (along with friend Andi) behind Stuff Hipsters Hate has successfully poked fun at hipsters for since, well…July, actually. In an email- all correspondence with the principals in this story was primarily by internet- she explains the sometimes ambiguous and confusing nature of hipster related humor.
“Hipsters rarely identify as such and are therefore comfortable rolling their eyes at other hipsters. So the brand of humor is sort of esoteric self-mockery.”
Along with knowing, playful ridicule, there is the other variety as well, exemplified by sites such as Gawker and Look at This Fucking Hipster. The fact that Brenna name checked Gawker is proof of its notoriety within the hipster community.
Leland concurs: “Media valorize and put down hipsters, but mainly media accelerate the pace of hip, especially commercial or sartorial hip, what is fresh or exciting a minute ago is old hat by now.”
As Brenna herself puts it, “when a group finds themselves so prominently in the public eye, it will naturally be ridiculed.” See: Beatniks, and hippies.
Which brings up the question, what is hip? Especially for a subculture steeped in assimilation as hipsters? According to Oakes, it can be anything or nothing at all.
“For every person who thinks buying a spandex bodysuit at American Apparel makes you indie, somebody else is writing a book, making music, making art. So there is a balance, but it’s complicated by gentrification and entitlement.”
While some would take issue with that last part- the stereotype of the hipster as the spoiled, Ivy League brat is one of the more pernicious and perhaps misguided ones- the notion of indie as being amorphous is well documented.
More broadly, the characteristics that many identify with hipsters aren’t even that new. In the Gay Nineties, a rich bohemian community of artists and writers flourished, from roughly the early 1890s up to the eve of WWI. In the main, their overriding philosophy was an embrace of anything that was not part of the mainstream whether it was alternative religions, politics (Marxism), and even alternative expressions of sexuality. The only rule was that they not embrace anything “popular,” or at least, not acknowledge their embrace of it (there is a lovely explanation of this in the old PBS/WGBH show The Western Tradition, if you’re either A) Insomniac or B) patient enough to sit through reruns, if and when they are available).
Then, just as hipsters are now, they were mocked for being fake and unauthentic. But they produced some of the most iconic paintings of their time, including the one on your screen right now. There isn’t anything to suggest the current incarnation of nonconformists won’t repeat that feat.
Whether it is the nonconformists of yesterday or today, the wax and wane of interest surrounding them is pretty consistent across the generations. Leland describes the cycle this way:
“Somebody comes up with something new and fresh. They’re an in-crowd, and they push each other to be different. A larger group of people see this and emulate it. Then another circle. Each circle’s role is less active- less CREATIVE-than the previous one. Finally the people who started it, or who are creative by nature, see what’s cool as a set of rules and they set about inventing something new. Which other people will in turn copy and enjoy.”
Lather, rinse, repeat.
While the hipsters in their skin-tight jeans and shades don’t face the kind of violent upheaval that their forefathers did (unless they volunteer to fight or report the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which case they deserve every accolade that’s coming to them), they aren’t immune to external events. In the wake of recent recession- some say depression- some of the less moneyed among them are scurrying from property-rich neighborhoods such as Williamsburg to less expensive climes.
The sudden appearance of hipsters in Portland and Austin, Texas is just one example of the effects of the economy on an entire subculture. Hipsters have even been spotted in the traditional Southern bastion of Richmond, Virginia, a town not known for attracting the hip and the cool. Granted, they are only a handful, but that only underscores the desperation many feel nowadays.
At the same time, many in the “indie” community are making the painful and not surprising decision to hang up their guitars and putting away their sneakers and glasses in favor of briefcases and suit and ties. As young people sink or swim in a troubled economy (another trend that is not novel), the hipsters are in danger of becoming extinct.
In walks David Roark. The Baylor University alum and former film student stumbled upon the subject of hipsters when a friend, Stephen Jablonski introduced him to a magazine article written by a journalist who went to a party, featuring hipsters. Inspired by a hipster’s retort that “I hate all of these fucking hipsters” they set off to make a film exploring the hipster subculture.
The result, Hipsters, is a short film exploring hipsters, their identity and the cyclical nature of the scene. Roark was so successful recruiting people, one individual not only volunteered to act, he helped scout locations and even laid songs for a soundtrack.
“I wanted to wrestle with the hipsters’ contradiction ‘different like everyone else.” He said. “When one bases their since [sic] of style and their entire culture on being different just for the sake of being different, they are inevitably conforming to a norm.”
Since then, Roark as expanded the film into a full-blown documentary (check out his Facebook group here). While it is unknown if he will reach the same sort of cult status that Richard Linklater did with his film Slacker, Roark is ambitious, and he’s not about to slow down.
But it’s not just about catching a snapshot of a group of people, it’s a snapshot frozen in time—of young people, society, and the country in general. It is also a message to his fans, about the meaning of cool, and the extent people will go to prove their bona fides, no matter how absurd. Girl pants, anyone?
“I believe that films can be one of the most effective forms of social criticism,” he said. “What better time to do a movie about hipsters, than when the social phenomena, is at its peak?”
No one knows when the hipsters will cease to be a primary mover in popular culture, or even if they will cease at all. But when the kids of the current crop of hipsters grow up, the film- as well as blogs, articles and other ephemera- they will at least have a sense of who their parents were as young men and women.
In the meantime, hipsters have succeeded in at least doing one thing: catching the world’s attention. Whether in praise or spite, people can’t stop blogging, texting, writing, and singing about them. After so much energy spent on denigrating this group, it seems that at long last the subculture has managed to rise above the criticisms and vitriol of their opponents.
The evidence is in hotels like the Ace, and the countless indie records stores, movie theatres, and dive bars. And yes, that includes musicians.
Take that, Gawker.
In case anyone is interested in the rest of our series on hipsters, here they are in chronological order:
I want to think all the people who participated, especially Aidan Enns of Geez, the Stupid Personals guy, and everybody else who were kind enough to talk to me (the list is too long to put up here). Especially Racket’s Jonathan Yost, mostly for putting up with me, even when I got on his nerves. If I ever run into you guys, the beer’s on me (that means you, Adora!).
Brenna Ehrlich contributed to this article