March 19, 2010
or, What Hipster Means to Me
Hipster. Reject the label or embrace it, Sisyphus does not envy you though your path is clear: you like art (check), music (check), design (√), fashion (√), film (√), food (√) and biking around Brooklyn to jam with hipster friends or go to (i.e. be seen at) art happenings and step out for smokes (√√√√√). And you blog about it (√). There is no possibility that you have freely chosen to do these things: the hipster is a sheep, a cartoon, a robot, a target market—anything but a living, breathing human being. The hipster is Sartre’s waiter.*
[It would be too easy to populate this post with photos from LATFH, Vice, Cobrasnake, Last Night's Party, Lookbook.nu, etc. etc., so we're going with photos from Beijing's Ren Hang, via Neocha Edge. Are Chinese hipsters more or less authentic than their Western idols? Is Chinese anything more or less authentic than Western versions of the same? Meta-migraine...]
The New York Times recently ran a blurb on the (decline of the) hipster with a handful of decent and not-too-hateful comments. The piece cites Salon’s recent article on Hipsters+Food Stamps—which itself has elicited the usual anti-Trustafarian screeds and counterarguments in defense of food(ies), etc.—as the latest development in the ongoing culture war between “Young, Creative Urbanites” and regular people. Meanwhile, Adbusters is over it, which is probably for the best.
In any case, it’s worthy enough of an occasion to reflect on What Hipster Means to Me. (Ok so that’s probably an inappropriate, if pithy, exordium for what is intended to be a thoughtful, unironic and somewhat ambitious essay, but it was just too good to pass up.)
In other words, I’m not in denial about my hipster proclivities, so long as I might be granted the possibility of unironically self-identifying as a hipster. Similarly, Idolize Your Killers is (to borrow WordPress’s felicitous phrasing) “Just another hipster blog”—lest we forget that meta-commentary is the trademark of postmodernity and, by extension, hipsterdom and digital culture alike.
Yet “hipster” has been a pejorative term for nearly a decade now—a pigeonhole, a pariah, or worse: a Platonic “idea of Hipster.” This archetype finds infinite variations of empirical manifestations, though it is never fully realized; instead, an individual is reduced to his urban outfit, fixed-gear bike or love of Animal Collective, etc.
A brief overview on the case against hipsters: as the indie nation evolved alongside American Apparel*, so too did pent-up indignation at their smug, unleashed most memorably in Adbusters’ seminal July 2008 cover story “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Time Out is known to dabble in hipster-bashing; Paste did its part last year; Gawker and Gothamist hit the hipster hot button when they want to pander for pageviews. (I’m sure I’ve omitted many a rant; those are just the media that come to mind.) Conversely, the proto-hip tastemakers at Vice have somewhat validated the hipster with VBS’s ongoing alt-journalism efforts, which are now featured on the likes of CNN and Huffington Post.
The hipster is commonly caricaturized with pairs of synonymous adjectives: superficial and materialistic, decadent and hedonistic, pretentious and narcissistic, vapid and empty. It’s more magnetic poetry than mad-lib: we’re young, educated, skinny, moneyed, tattooed, bearded / artists, music-lovers, foodies, fashionistas, cyclists, Brooklynites, etc. ad infinitum.
Which is a lot of words to describe a subculture that is commonly dismissed, if not derided, as the ultimate triumph of style over substance, of style over life. In a word, it is meaningless.
Alternately: no one aspires to be a hipster. You might aspire to look like one, dress like one, listen to hipster music as and like hipster things, but god forbid you become one of Them. Irony is free license to drink PBR in $200 jeans, to wear keffiyehs, and to like Lil Wayne; it’s a cheap thrill that comes at the expense of authenticity, but it’s not a zero-sum game.
However, that only applies to the adjectivial level: plenty of non-hipsters occasionally look hipster or do hipster things—I daresay everyone in my generation has dabbled in hipsterdom—but once you are one, once the dreaded H-word isn’t attached to a noun but is the noun itself, authenticity becomes the only thing that is off-limits. (Q: “Are you now, or have you ever been a hipster?”) To reiterate, it is Bad Faith in the 21st Century.
But now, a possibility of hipster redemption:
…these interests are the low-hanging fruit of a reconnecting citizenship: the first step.
Still new in respects to movements, the hipster is groping in the dark for authenticity. He does not claim to be an activist when he rides his bike, buys used clothes or works as a freelance designer, though he may have labeled himself as such a few decades ago.
–Illie Mitaru, “Reconsidering the Hipster,” Adbusters, December 2009
So is it actually possible to be an unironic / authentic hipster? I genuinely believe that Girl Talk concerts are fun, Shepard Fairey will be remembered (for Obama if nothing else), grass-fed beef tastes better, biking is healthy and enjoyable, and yes, American Apparel makes a decent, reasonably-priced cardigan.
But that’s so 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009… our history is undeniably one of trends, disposable or otherwise, and whether it’s high time for the “Helpster” or a new era of “’Fauxhemian,” we’ve come a long way from the hipster doofus.
Notes: The Williamsburg American Apparel recently fell victim to an act of ‘retail terrorism’—pick your poison: Village Voice, Gothamist, FreeWilliamsburg, or HRO (incidentally, AA advertises in all of the above media outlets)—though it is unclear as to whether the perpetrators were, in fact, hipsters themselves. Meanwhile, American Apparel has forgone the usual softcore porn for an ostensibly more authentic campaign by co-opting the hipster cred of Lookbook.nu for crowdsourced styling.
*I have no [egregiously hipster] illusions that this is an egregiously hipster allusion, but it is perhaps the most valid point in this entire misguided tirade. I studied Sartrean aesthetics (and busted my ass reading Being & Nothingness cover to cover) in college because I happened to find it interesting, not to be ironic, I swear.
Also, called it.