On Hipsters

It was only a few years ago that at a local establishment, I was called a ‘hipster.’ They always talked to me about me apparently “trying to be cool” as a reason for every motivation, suggesting I was making efforts to appear perfect, and making excuses as to why I shouldn’t be either social, or outgoing. It was a very specific act of cultivating a falsified ‘poser’ mentality around me, and then using any type of stereotype threat in order to push/pull me any way they wanted to, as well as trying to solicit from me a consented act of putting my own reputation at risk. I was not close to these individuals who identified me as such (take that as a grain of salt), and there have been good reasons why, as according to NPR‘s article, “The Hipsterfication Of America“:

“Hipster culture is omnipresent,” says Peter Furia, a founder of Seedwell Digital Creative Studio in San Francisco. “It dominates fashion, music and lifestyle. It crosses borders of ethnicity, socio-economic status and sexual preference — something that we haven’t seen since the boom of hip-hop culture.”

Furia’s studio is producing a documentary-style Web series,American Hipster — for its nascent YouTube channel — that will debut in April 2012. “What’s funny is that people who aren’t hipsters generally express distaste for them and those who appear to be hipsters hate to be identified as such. Everybody hates hipsters … especially hipsters. And the ironic part is that hipsters’ opposition to pop culture has become pop culture.”

You might think that as hipsterism ripples out, in concentric (and eccentric) circles farther and farther from its big-city epicenters, the ultra-coolitude would lose its authenticity, Furia says, “but the opposite may be true. Cities are known for setting trends; hipsterism is about anti-trends. It sounds funny, but hipsters in Omaha may actually be cooler than hipsters in New York City — everyone knows about New York City.”

American society, Furia says, often thinks of hipsters as “posers who appropriate an image of cool individuality but lack authenticity, but we think there may be real substance beneath it all.”

He points to social waves such as urban farming, the Do It Yourself initiatives and the Occupy movement. “There are lots of hipsters in all of these movements,” he says, “who are authentic in their passions.”

Additionally, according to Time Out New York‘s article, “Why the hipster must die“:

Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.

Of course, hipsterism being originally, and still mostly, the province of whites (the pastiest of whites), its acolytes raid the cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity in the pot. Similarly, they devour gay style: Witness the cultural burp known as metrosexuality. As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.

All isms seek dominance of human affairs, and in this, hipsterism in New York City has proved more virulent than any of its forebears. (Punk, after all, never really broke—except in the form of hipsterism.) At last there was nothing left for hipsters to do but to convert the squares, take them to the bar and let them pick up the tab. Secrets were shared. The hipster hooked up with the common consumer; he woke up a zombie.

How can this be undone? I propose that the only hope for a reanimated bohemia, if not a dezombified hipsterdom, is civil war.

Hipsters in their present undead incarnation are essentially people who think of themselves as being cooler than America. But they are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism. The late prophet of our current moment, George W. S. Trow, posited that television had obliterated the context of American life. The only refuges remaining were TV, God and the self. Young people who live in cities notoriously shun God and television to cultivate themselves. Now, as the age of MySpace comes due for a backlash and the former teen idols of our crypto-ironic fascination start to show their age, the time has come for the hipsters in the garden of Union Pool to open their eyes, realize that they are surrounded by jackasses and milquetoasts, and stage their own dive-bar putsch.

The fault lines are clear enough already. We know that there are Sweet hipsters, who practice the sort of irony you can take home to meet the parents, and there are those Vicious hipsters, who practice the form of not-quite-passive aggression called snark.

On the Sweet end of the spectrum, The Believer lavishes its literary and pop-culture idols with a uniform layer of affection that renders it near impossible to distinguish the great from the mediocre. This aesthetic of relativism grants everybody an A for effort and allows anyone projecting the image of an artist to conceive of himself as such. It proliferates as a social plague among hipsters who invite their entire address book to readings, shows and art openings. The e-mails arrive, and though it is known in advance that the art will be nothing much,the trek is made. The avant-garde illusion ultimately sustains itself on free beer.

As the war claims its casualties, the Sweet may discover that behind their aesthetic relativism is an impulse more political than cultural: They are rightfully activists. Their cause has emerged in the form of global warming, and I would not be surprised if the color of cool in their future is green. Along the way they might rediscover a concept hipsters have lately had little use for: love.

Meanwhile, among those who adopt the Vicious pose, a lighthearted scorn perfected by Gawker is roundly applied to the objects of pop celebrity, both talented and (mostly) otherwise. The effect is akin to dipping sushi in wasabi sauce: The flavor is a little less bland, but it’s still mostly rice. The hipster who keeps up with the antics of Hilton, Lohan and Spears does so sneeringly, and her knowingness introduces one degree of difference between herself and the Midwestern housewife who buys Us Weekly at the Wal-Mart checkout line.

When I asked Gawker managing editor Choire Sicha whether it was possible to ignore talentless celebrities, he responded with the remorse of a custodian of cultural decline: “Everyone can, and should, be ignored. We were warned about this situation we find ourselves in by philosophers, and well before it happened. It’s just too bad we weren’t warned by celebrities, or we would have listened to them.”

So the Sweet will turn on the Vicious, and the Vicious will shun the Sweet. The sniping in the blogosphere will escalate, and turf wars will ensue. Power will be consolidated in the frontiers of the outer boroughs as the Vicious tighten their grip on Bushwick and the Sweet flee south to Kensington and Windsor Terrace, or give up and move to Queens (better yet, to their rightful home: the West Coast).

For some historical context though, The Atlantic‘s article, “Hipster History“:

Brian Frank writes:

Richard Florida points to a familiar article about “blipsters” — “black  hipsters.” Which is funny, now that I think of it, because the  original hipsters were known as “white negroes”.

Well, almost. Norman Mailer’s infamous “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” was originally published in 1957 in Dissent.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 1948, Anatole Broyard, published “A Portrait of the Hipster” in Partisan Review. I can’t find an online version, but here’s how one writer describes it:

Broyard attempted an analysis and a definition of a new type then appearing around Greenwich Village who had, in his view, been welcomed by intellectuals who “ransacking everything for meaning, admiring insurgence… .attributed every heroism to the hipster.,,.”

But Broyard was less enthusiastic about these supposed new rebels … In Broyard’s words: “The hipster promptly became in his own eyes, a poet, a seer, a hero.” And he added that the hipster life-style “grew more rigid than the Institutions it had set out to defy. It became a boring routine. The hipster – once an unregenerate Individualist, an underground poet, a guerrilla – had become a pretentious poet laureate.”

Of course, what Broyard was doing, as well as attacking the hipsters, was criticising his fellow-intellectuals for failing to accept that the hipster rebellion was a sham.

Hmmmmmm …

Not-so-ironic is that upper-class and middle-class hipsters appear to be backing Bernie Sanders campaign, as some examples include: The Guardian‘s “Hipsters for Bernie: supporters party before New York primary – in pictures,MSNBC‘s “Why Bernie resonates with the hipster set,” Newsweek‘s “Bernie Gets Big Applause In Hipster Brooklyn,” CNN‘s “Bernie is cool, Hillary is square,” The Atlantic‘s “Behind Bernie Sanders’ Appeal to the Hipster Christian Vote,” Brooklyn Paper‘s “Hipsters give Sanders rock-star reception in Greenpoint,” The Daily Beast‘s “Bernie-Acs Swarm Bushwick: Deep In Sanders’s Hipster Heartland,” Vice News‘ “‘We Will Not Be Tricked’: Why Millennials Really Love Bernie Sanders,” New York Post‘s “Brooklyn hipsters demanding bar owners show Dem debate,” 9GAG‘s “Hipster Bernie Sanders was hipster before it was cool,” and so on.

Finally, according to The Guardian‘s “Why do people hate hipsters?“:

There was a party going on in London E5; a house party in one of the Victorian terraces that line the streets in this modest area of east London. There had been parties on the street before, only on this particular Friday evening two months ago, guests wore Ray-Bans, deep-cut v-neck T-shirts and skinny jeans. They were also, according to one partisan report, in possession of “a sound system louder than the big bang”. Quite an event, yet not everyone in the street appreciated the loud music and louder fashions.

“I only put ‘hate’ in the title of the blog,” explains annoyed neighbour and anonymous author of Hackney Hipster Hate photo-blog, “because, on the night I wrote it, I was watching floods of hipsters arrive in the early hours at a terrace house and having an Ibiza-style party. It drove me insane.”

The partying, which lasted until 4am on Saturday morning was, in the blogger’s opinion, symptomatic “of new arrivals not really getting the measure of where they were living, having no idea about the community there and deciding to have a festival in a back garden at dawn, while people were trying to sleep, because Hackney’s supposedly the centre of cool for the next five minutes.”

Though it began in a moment of sleep-deprived abhorrence, Hackney Hipster Hate now posts images of fashionable east Londoners accompanied by a scornful commentary. The site has become one of an increasing number dedicated to vilifying fashionable twits who appear to care more about the next big thing than the welfare of their fellow man. Got slimline jeans, tattoos, a headband and a fixed-wheel bike? Then perhaps turn away now.

American comedian Joe Mande began his photo-blog, Look At This Fucking Hipster in April 2009. The site also captions shots of the young and pretentious with lines such as: “Hold on, let me check to see if Topshop sells any iPhone purses.” A paperback collection of the best posts was published in March 2010.

In July 2009 US writers and editors Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz began Stuff Hipsters Hate. They’ve also published a paperback collection of posts.

The Unhappy Hipsters photo-blog was inaugurated in January 2010. It satirises the smug, modernist home-owners often seen in the pages of US interiors magazine Dwell.

Hipster Hitler web comic was launched in August 2010. It re-imagines the führer as a cardigan-wearing know-it-all, fond of bicycles, organic cashews and typewriters. Fans can buy American Apparel T-shirts bearing such slogans as “Eva 4 Eva” and “Death Camp For Cutie”.

Early this September, TheGrandSpectacular posted its debut pop video, Being a Dickhead’s Cool, on YouTube. While lacking that crucial H word, the song brutally teases London’s poseurs and the video animates shots taken from Hackney Hipster Hate and latfh.com, among other sources. Since its upload on 8 September, the original clip has had around 3,275,000 views.

In autumn/winter 2010, if there’s one thing more fashionable than being a hipster, it’s laughing at hipsters.

Of course, ridiculing young poseurs isn’t an especially new thing to do. The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker created the character of Nathan Barley, a vacuous media playboy, back in 1999, around the same time the east London fanzine The Shoreditch Twat began published its first edition. Plenty of the jokes in 80s sitcom The Young Ones, or even the 70s comedy Butterflies were at the expense of similarly youthful pretentions.Though these newer, online baiters pick similar targets, it isn’t clear that the term hipster, in its modern usage, is sharply defined enough for truly cutting satire. While all these sites appear to know what they’re talking about, none of them offers a working definition of a hipster.

The OED isn’t much help; it traces the word back to the 1940s and offers “hepcat” as its rough equivalent. Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay The White Negro was subtitled Superficial Reflections on the Hipster and describes an American existentialist who adopts the jazzier trappings of African-American life to free himself (and it usually is a he) from “the squares”. Yet “hipsters” was also used during the 1960s to describe trousers that flared from the hip. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that in August the New York Times has advised its journalists against using the word, citing doubts over “how precise a meaning it conveys”; meanwhile, a public debate held at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently failed to offer a useful description of this latter-day bogeyman.

Nevertheless, from London to Lima, Sydney to Mexico City, detractors might not know exactly what a hipster is, but they do know what they don’t like: a tiresome sort of trendy, ostentatious in their perceived rebellion, yet strangely conformist; meticulous in their tastes, yet also strangely limited. Squatting somewhere between MGMT, The Inbetweeners and Derek Zoolander, this modern incarnation is all mouth and skinny trousers.

Perhaps the most comprehensive examination of this contemporary manifestation is being published in a traditional print format this week. What Was the Hipster? is a 200-page collection of American essays and discussions, which assesses the significance of these turn-of-the-century poseurs.

Put together by n+1, a twice-yearly Brooklyn journal of politics, literature and culture, the book offers three definitions of the type in question. The first is white, urban, cool dudes in Manhattan’s Lower East Side circa 1999. This summation begins with a string of keywords: “trucker hats; undershirts called ‘wifebeaters’ worn as outerwear; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, fake wood panelling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; ‘porno’ or ‘paedophile’ moustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts for church socials, etc; tube socks; the late albums ofJohnny Cash produced by Rick Rubin; and tattoos.”

The second definition highlights followers of a certain hipster culture, which revels in a childlike naivety; the films of Wes Anderson, the early books of Dave Eggers, and the twee indie pop of Belle and Sebastian are all mentioned.

The third is the “hip consumer”: the smart shopper who understands that some consumer purchases, such as the right vintage T-shirt, might even be regarded as a form of art. They even split the term, drawing a distinction between the trucker-cap-wearing New Yorkers of 1999-2003, and a more recent type of cool kid, keen on such low-tech status symbols as typewriters, fixed-wheel bikes, and the kind of outdated instrumentation used on records by Arcade Fire, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear.

Mark Greif, a New York English professor and one of the book’s chief editors traces this hipster’s recent history back to the post-punk DIY movement of the 80s.

“Back then there was this insistence on something like an alternative to capitalism,” says Greif, “an opposition to major labels and pop; you could make your album on a small unknown label and it would only be sold for cheap. Youth culture had this quite hopeful notion that it was possible to make your own art and distribute it, in order to evade this wider commercial sphere.” By the early 90s, these ideals had foundered; grunge bands signed to major labels and Kurt Cobain had killed himself.

“What is meaningful about the hipster moment, 1999 and after,” says Greif from his office in New York, “is that it seems to be an effort to live a life that retains the coolness in believing that you belong to a counter-culture, where the substance of the rebellion has become pro-commerce.”

Instead of “doing art” the cool kids were now, in Greif’s words “doing products”.

“In the 50s and 60s, there are five people at the centre working very hard, miserably trying to write a book and around them there are 95 people more or less having fun,” Greif explains. “In the hipster culture the people at that centre aren’t necessarily producing art, they’re actually working in advertising, marketing and product placement. These were once embarrassing jobs. Now it’s meaningful in this world to say that you sell sneakers, at a high level.”

The book settles on 1999 as New York’s hipster year zero. This was whenAmerican Apparel opened, the Canadian hipster magazine Vice moved to New York, and the sneaker boutique and branding agency Alife established itself on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“There was this crucial bar, Welcome to the Johnsons,” Greif recalls, “it opened in 1999. It was only the lower east side, but it was made to look as if you were sitting in a living room in Middle America.”

Early hipsters’ adoption of these and other suburban signifiers, such as trucker caps and BMX bikes, as they sauntered around urban areas is significant. The White Negro had fetishised blackness; these newer arrivals glorified lower-middle-class whites. This is partially why Greif and co, in a line that sounds very much like it may stray into Pseuds Corner, see these early hipsters as neoliberal.

“It seemed to revolve around the desire to reproduce as rebellion these things that had formerly been part of the mainstream market,” says Greif, citing the art-gallery porn by the likes of Richard Kern and the conspicuous consumption of meat while in the company of vegetarians as two examples. “There’s this idea that they are the agents of change, the true revolutionaries, where the revolutionary change is to . . . make exclusive the pleasures that had potentially belonged to anyone in the past, to celebrate the upwards redistribution of wealth.”

Not all hipsters arrive in the big cities flush with cash, but they almost always possess some cultural capital, usually a university degree and refined upbringing. They can use this to prevent themselves from ending up on the bottom of the pile, even if their only means of upward mobility are snarky putdowns and a working knowledge of the Smiths.

“It becomes a defence mechanism, if you’re ‘declassed’ in a city, to stop yourself from winding up at the bottom,” Greif argues. “It’s about social positioning, how to mark yourself out as different or exclusive in a democratic society, where it’s quite easy to buy the consumer trappings of success.”

A more withering assessment of youth culture is hard to imagine. And yet, in a neat flourish in the n+1 book, US writer Rob Horing asks whether the hipster hatred doesn’t raise deeper questions in the detractors.

“The hipster,” Horing suggests, “is the bogeyman who keeps us from becoming too settled in our identity, keeps us moving forward into new fashions, keep us consuming more ‘creatively’ and discovering new things that haven’t become lame and hipster. We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to us to be the hipster’s fault, not our own.”

Horing also raises an even less-palatable notion: ‘”If you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyse it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of its ‘taint’.”

Is this view from the heights of Manhattan academia shared on the streets of Hackney? Not entirely.

What does our anonymous blogger think? “The argument of ‘you’re probably just a failing or self-hating hipster’? Heard that one before. I honestly count myself out of that argument on the basis I barely socialise. My skin is translucent from not leaving the house. When I take photos on [London hipster enclave] Broadway Market, I’m not noticed because they take one look at me and look away. My blandness is an insult to their eyes.”

Could Hackney’s hipster-baiter ever concede that east London’s trendies might, in the words of one n+1 contributor, remind us of “youth and daring and style, that we don’t have any more or perhaps never did?”

Apparently not. “There’s nothing daring about wearing Ray-Bans with colourful frames. Every single idiot is doing it.”

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