I’ll start with the bad news.
If you were born in the 1980s, then congratulations — you are known currently, and for the rest of history, as a ‘Millenial.’ I apologize, but you are trapped, my friend. We do not get to choose which generation we belong to nor what hideous name describes it. If it is any consolation, I am sure that very few of our parents liked the term ‘Baby Boomer’ when they first heard it, or better yet, imagine how the 70s babies felt about being hamstrung by the label ‘Generation X,’ which still sounds so desperately anarchistic that you cannot help but pity its members. At least we didn’t end up being ‘Generation Y’ as originally suggested.
Now it’s time for the really bad news.
Generations, for whatever reason, are remembered for their counterculture. So, for example, when I said Baby Boomers, you thought Hippie (thanks Woodstock!). When I said Generation X, you thought Grunge (thanks Nirvana!). When they (i.e. our kids, historians, me … right now) speak of the Millenials, or rather, what characterized American culture in the early stages of the 21st century, they will have no choice but to imagine the Hipster (thanks Portlandia!).
And like I said, you are trapped, my friend.
The paradox, as I will EXPOUND upon, is that Hipsters are ostensibly everywhere these days, but I cannot find them anywhere. Part of this invisibility is central to their identity; they refuse to be part of a collective, therefore are rarely self-identified. It’s a label someone else gives you. I have called other people ‘Hipsters’ with unabashed contempt, but others have used that slur to describe me with similar vitriol. It is, like all things, relative, and no one wants to be identified by the extremes. Most Republicans want to distance themselves from the Tea Party. Most practicing Muslims want you to know that they are not violent fundamentalists. Alternatively, you may be a Hipster, but there is always someone more Hipster than you.
The term ‘hipster,’ as a lowercase-h adjective, can serve a function. It can describe a bar, a neighborhood, a style, an attitude—it is even one of the ‘Ambience’ options on Yelp. But Hipster, as a capital-H noun, does not work very well, because few people satisfy the entire stereotype. This is what I want to unpack today.
Once upon a time, Hipster just signified a certain fashion aesthetic. It meant embracing offbeat styles that were due to become trendy again (e.g. wearing thick-framed eyeglasses, having unruly facial hair, wearing tight jeans and riding around on bicycles). And if it remained localized to fashion, it would have been harmless, but alas, it is too late. We have extrapolated and conflated the definition so haphazardly that Hipster ideology and Hipster culture has dug its talons into just about every aspect of daily life: eating, drinking, transportation, lifestyle, politics, religion. They even have a mission statement: Be different, and if you can’t manage that, at least just be better than the normal American.
Since the history of Hipsters (no, not once did I consider combining them to make Hipster-y) is largely unknown, and because I took the time to go through decades of microfiches, here is a brief Hipster-y lesson.
The term ‘Hipster’ first appeared in the 40s and 50s with middle-class white kids emulating the style of the black jazz musicians they idolized. The next available documentation comes in the 60s and 70s, courtesy of creative giants like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, who often referenced ‘Hipsters’ in their work– this time, casting a much larger net, referring to people disenfranchised with the Cold War and just wanting to live a wandering, rootless life that had nothing to do with the American Dream.
Fast-forward to Brooklyn, 2003, for the version of the Hipster we will ultimately remember: that unlovable, snobby, PBR-swilling, localvore Hipster who just cannot help but be ironic about everything. Though to be fair, just like the Hipsters of yore, this 21st-century iteration probably also has a lot of Thelonious Monk vinyls and totally sweats The Beat Generation.
What happened in Brooklyn and areas like East Village in New York at the turn of the century is similar to what has happened at various times and places across history, which is a bunch of artistic types begin presenting themselves as Bohemian because the values and expectations of the mainstream became tiresome — I don’t know, maybe they just all saw R.E.N.T. once in the late-90s and surmised that there can be integrity in poverty, provided that you live in a big city and express yourself constantly.
And so, a community developed and new fashion followed, and soon some Brooklyn guy wrote a book in 2003 called The Hipster Handbook, which coined the term and even provided a rough sketch of the stereotype we know today. These were the humble (or more likely, arrogant) beginnings of the Hipster movement. It’s not until 2009 that we have evidence of major publications like TIME magazine referencing the emergence of Hipster communities in places like Brooklyn, but also Portland, Denver, Austin. It was right around this time, 3-4 years ago, that I believe I first came in contact with the term ‘Hipster,’ although to my credit, I always hear about new and obscure labels way before the mainstream does.
Now, in 2013, a decade after The Hipster Handbook, the term ‘Hipster’ seems to be storming the walls of mass consumption; references to, and mostly jokes at the expense of, Hipsters are popping up on the covers of major magazines and on CBS sitcoms and in big summer movies like This Is The End. I am perversely confident that your parents will ask you this Thanksgiving what a Hipster is, and you will sigh deeply just as you did when they asked you about “Gangnam Style” last Christmas.
The indirect consequences of Hipster culture can even be found in current events:
- A Jewish Orthodoxy school (in Brooklyn, of course) banned students from wearing thick frames
- Geographically speaking, which also means politically speaking — the cities with the fastest rate of migration currently are (1) Washington DC (3) Denver (4) Portland (5) Austin (8) Seattle. All are hives swarming with Hipsters. [TANGENT: do Hipsters just flock to these cities or do these cities make people Hipsters?… sorry, it’s just one of the thoughts that keep me up at night]
- Religious institutions, like the Catholic church, try to exploit the Hipster image to increase membership (see below)
Now that we are here, and Hipsters (or at least the idea of) are entering the public’s consciousness, it is a label destined to be misinterpreted. When a new word or term is coined and spread, especially one with a flimsy definition (e.g. ‘trolling’ …. or ‘literally’), the term itself seems to travel through the lexicon on a path parallel to, but definitely separate from, the path that contains what it originally described; language goes where it ends up going.
Whereas a few years ago the definition of Hipster used to be sparse–characterized by just a few features that mostly related to physical appearance–it has been fed more and more defining traits (while never losing any, mind you) until finally becoming, of late, irreversibly obese. And when a stereotype becomes this overstuffed and broad, it becomes a cartoon and characteristics start to overlap one another in unfair, and in some cases, completely contradictory ways.
To prove to myself that I’m not totally insane regarding this issue, I conducted a formal survey of 20 people I know, as preparation for this piece. These 20 people were selected specifically so I could make sure every demographic was represented in some way; equal numbers for male and female, an age range of 24 to 36, various income levels, and living situations both suburban and urban, ranging from Seattle to Miami to North Carolina to Las Vegas to Maryland to Los Angeles. Granted, I’m an amateur, unlicensed sociologist, but I intuitively understand that you have to create your own randomness sometimes.
I asked these 20 people to do the following: Give me 10 characteristics that would best describe Hipsters — these can relate to appearance, or preferences, or interests, or lifestyle, or attitude — no limits, basically. Act like I’m an alien that just got to Earth and you made some quip about Hipsters and I said, ‘what is a Hipster?’ and you had to tell me using 10 bullet points.
Now, as you would expect, I had a lot of fun collating these results. I was recognizing patterns in repeat answers and began creating broad, umbrella categories that I could gather most answers beneath. It was not a perfect system, and I will defend the imperfections as I go through it, but a motherfucka’s gotta make certain choices when a motherfucka wants to make a bar graph, ya dig?
The above graph only shows the results in unreliable brushstrokes, just as a telescope can help you identify a star cluster but belie how much distance is actually between each star. Below are the specific details, which tell the better, imperfect story.
In other words: the forest is good, but it has nothing on the trees.
[anything in quotes is a verbatim answer I received and anything in bold italics is me being a snarky asshole]
1. CALCULATED EFFORT TO ESCHEW THE MAINSTREAM (14 votes)
- “conforming non-conformists”
- “fitting in by standing out”
- “very self-loathing because it used to be about not being ‘hip’ and now THAT’s hip”
- “apathetic about being apathetic”
- “effortless look that is actually quite efforted”
- “no make-up, silly haircuts” [Translation: trying sooooo hard to be ugly!]
- “you can’t define a hipster because definitions are too mainstream”
- “weird pets just because.. i.e. mini-pigs, ferrets, chinchillas”
[Look, sometimes ‘Miscellaneous’ wins, you know? This category is full of vague paradoxes, but all of them somehow imply that Hipsters reject the mainstream on the sole basis of it being the mainstream. ]
2. ALCOHOLIC DRINKING THAT IS EITHER PRETENTIOUS OR CHEAP (12 votes)
- “belong to a whiskey club”
- “bourbon, bitters, beer”
- “attend bars that specialize in one type of liquor” [isn’t that what a lot of restaurants do with food?]
- “responsible for the return of speakeasy-themed bars”
[It’s crazy that their drinking habits are this high on the list. This must be because our run-ins with Hipsters usually occur in public spaces when we too are drinking and if you think you spot one, you can mutter to your friends ‘Fucking Hipsters.’ Still, the fact that many people associate Hipsters with both PBR and microbrews seems absurd; they basically want to spend either $2 or $6. I guess Miller Light just sucks.]
3. IRONIC FASHION (11 VOTES)
- “THRIFT STORE, THRIFT STORE, THRIFT STORE” [Oh, Macklemore. You ruined a great thing.]
- “PAY TOP DOLLAR FOR IT”
- “URBAN OUTFITTERS” [in terms of contrived, pre-packaged irony, Urban Outfitters is the ‘Sharknado’ of clothes shopping]
- “I HEAR THEY WEAR TWEED” [l love how this was phrased, as if people wearing tweed is a subject of gossip. We can’t confirm that they wear tweed, but it is far too juicy a rumor to dismiss entirely!]
- OLD SPORTS JERSEYS
[Real quickly, I’d like to vent, defensively, about the term ‘ironic t-shirt.’ (1) The term ‘ironic’ is often misappropriated and over-diagnosed, kind of like OCD and ADHD. (2) An insincere sensibility is the calling card of everyone born post-1970, not just Hipsters. It’s a cultural force that transcends multiple generations, so it feels a little reductive to just slap that label on Hipsters. (3) To dismiss certain fashion as ‘ironic’ implies that all other fashion is to be taken very seriously, which is strange. (4) In summation, we are putting the term ‘Hipster’ on trial here, so making ‘ironic’ one of the key witnesses is unwise.]
4-T. USE ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING A CAR (10 VOTES)
- public transportation
- bikes (usually fixed-gear, or “fixies”)
- “hopefully vintage bike”
[As fair as this one may be, as nothing is more ‘trying to be better than the normal American’ than boycotting automobiles…. isn’t it strange to reprimand those that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint? Aren’t we all supposed to be at least thinking about doing that? I know, I know. It’s because they’re just so ‘high and mighty about it.’ Let’s keep going. ]
4-T. EARTHY (10 VOTES)
- “want to have their own garden and grow their own food but are too irresponsible to care for another living thing”
- “wears TOMS shoes” [I admit, this one may be a reach for this category]
- “they even think Whole Foods is too mainstream”
- “work on organic farms”
- “not Starbucks, only local coffees”
[These Hipsters! You know, they (claim to) have watched all those documentaries about the food industry and the dangers of fracking, and they just want to support clean, local businesses instead of corporations, but how are they supposed to also maintain their trendiness? I mean they can’t even go to Whole Foods anymore because it’s too popular. Which I think means Whole Foods is basically The Decemberists.]
6. UNNECESSARY EYEGLASSES (9 VOTES)
[Some people just said ‘glasses’ and some said ‘unnecessary glasses’ I made them one category because, as we’ll discuss later, that distinction barely matters anymore. Seen from afar, we can just assume they serve no purpose.]
7-T. VINTAGE STYLE (8 VOTES)
- non name-brand clothing
- bringing back plaid/flannel
- “driving a Volvo as old as they are” [so they DO own cars!]
- “nostalgia for the 90’s”
- “chuck taylors”
[Certainly one of the loosest categories. There is a lot of overlap with ‘Ironic Fashion’ here, but this is more of a Buffalo Exchange vibe.]
7-T. MUSTACHES (8 VOTES)
- general emphasis on ridiculous versions of the mustache, i.e. handlebar
[ I feel like the irony died awhile ago with Hipsters wearing mustaches. If anything, the mustache is worn most ironically in mainstream culture. Take ‘Movember’ — which yes, is on a different level because proceeds benefit charity, but let’s-get-real. It’s also an opportunity for many non-Hipster men to say, “Hey! Look at my upper lip! Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it playful?”]
7-T. OVERALL SNOB WITHOUT ANY BASIS (8 VOTES)
- “they are artificially enlightened” [because THAT phrasing doesn’t sound pretentious]
- “claim to be well-read but haven’t read a book since college”
- “they love foreign films and don’t own a television”
- “obsessed with saying ‘you’ve probably never heard of…'” [caricature alert]
- “believes their tastes in many areas (music, literature, film, comedy, etc.) are more-educated and far superior to the rest of society”
[I have a theory that ‘Hipster’ has become the new surrogate for ‘snob’ simply because the latter term was getting a little stale and people hate short words. It’s not a great theory. ]
10. ARTSY (7 VOTES)
- “social scene dictated by interest in the arts”
- “musicians and photographers, even though they work at Starbucks” [hating corporate America does not mean avoiding it entirely]
- “blogs blogs blogs”
- “love to engage in witty banter”
[If this is true, and it probably is, that Hipsters tend to be artsy or creative individuals, doesn’t that at least help explain slash validate why they hate Top-40 music and prefer indie films?]
11-T. MUSIC SNOB (6 VOTES)
- favors bands that are obscure or underground
- “reverting to old country like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn”
- loves house music [I mean, what fan of vintage country DOESN’T love house?]
- “Indie Rock … like Arctic Monkeys or The Killers” [so indie]
- uses Pitchfork for all their music advice
[Obviously this could have been added to ‘Overall Snob,’ but it seemed too specific to ignore. In truth, the whole narrative about Hipsters being ‘snobs’ and ‘obsessed with obscurity’ has all of its roots in music more than anything else]
11-T. SKINNY JEANS (6 VOTES)
[While valid, I’ve never been able to figure out if this piece of hipster chic was ironic. I mean, if their shirts are ironic, does that mean their bottom-half is a joke, too? But on the other hand, it would seem like baggy jeans would be the nostalgic and ironic choice. But baggy is the opposite of tight. I’m all turned around…. just…. stop wearing pants that vary in fit! Not everything is a ‘statement’ you have to make!]
11-T. NOT CAREER-DRIVEN (6 VOTES)
- “Ambiguous employment status”
- “they claim to not believe in money” [are we talking Hipsters or socialists?]
- “coffee shops”
- “try to look poor even though they have the latest Mac product”
- “always tired” [which is saying something since they don’t work and are always properly caffeinated]
[Kerouac would be proud.]
11-T. POLITICAL AND LIBERAL (6 VOTES)
- “always ‘taking up causes'”
- “Greenpeace, PETA”
- “loves Obama” [if they had the option, they would no doubt love a President that no one has ever heard of]
- “loves NPR”
[If Hipsters ever seize the government, their first order of business will be commissioning a statue of Jon Stewart to be erected on the National Mall. Or is that too mainstream a reference? Mo Rocca?]
11-T. ACCESSORIES! (6 VOTES)
- “backpacks” [really?]
- “bow ties”
- “scarves in the summer”
- “Ray-Bans of several different colors”
[Anything to stand out amongst the masses. The backpack-less masses.]
16-T. DEVELOPMENT OF AN ANTIQUATED HOBBY (5 VOTES)
- “pickling or juicing or infusing”
- “bike repair”
- “joining a chess club” [they sure do join a lot of clubs for wanting to stand out]
- “knitting or just anything that your grandparents were into”
[This category is super boring.]
16-T. URBAN (5 VOTES)
- “even though they live in a neighborhood suburb”
- “always in the artsy and ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhood”
- “they pave the way for gentrification”
[Hipsters living in cities has major chicken-or-the-egg potential! Is that why they ride bikes and lean liberal and attend bars that have mixologists?]
18-T. MUSIC FESTIVALS (4 VOTES)
[Because nothing says ‘iconoclastic music snob’ more than joining 90,000 people to do some drugs and see The Black Keys play]
18-T. COMES FROM A MIDDLE-TO-UPPER-CLASS BACKGROUND (4 VOTES)
[Things get dicey here when talking about what socio-economic strata breed Hipsters, but I’m pretty sure the subtext here is ‘spoiled and aimless white people’]
20-T. VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN (3 VOTES)
[definitely could have been part of ‘EARTHY’ but again, seemed too specific to consolidate]
20-T. SMOKERS (3 VOTES)
- “usually hand-rolled”
- “American Spirits”
[even when they’re killing themselves, they do it pretentiously!]
20-T. SKINNY AND POSSIBLY PROUD OF THAT (3 VOTES)
[Sorry that we couldn’t ALL be high-school football stars, Dad!]
- Worldly or open to other cultures (2 VOTES) …. “Ethiopian food! How obscure!”
- Androgynous appearance (2 VOTES) …. “hipster couples look like siblings”
- Overexposure of lower leg area (2 VOTES) …. “always wearing cuffs” [pretty surprised this wasn’t higher, actually]
- Instagram (2 VOTES) … “makes things instantly vintage!” [uh oh! that means a lot of you!]
- Bright Colors (2 VOTES) …. “neon”
- “Black tones on outfits” [but wait, what happened to bright colors?]
- “where are you brunching tomorrow?” [so… women, then?]
- “bangs … disclaimer: I’ve had them since childhood, before they were cool”
- “Dresses like an extra in a Charlie Chaplin film” [so like one of those guys in a Chaplin film that doesn’t have any lines]
- “Love talking about Marxism” [putting this on my next dating profile]
- “Travel and live in packs. Or is it called a herd? Swarm? Gaggle?”
- “RC Cola” [it’s the PBR of soda, baby]
- “read trendy books like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Twilight” [hey as long as it’s wayyyy outside the mainstream, they are IN!]
- “straight-edge xx”
- “they hate their best friend” [probably because their best friend looks like a Hipster and it becomes a mirror that begets self-loathing]
- “Lana Del Rey”
- “open-minded sexually … at least in my experience”
And that’s it. Just those 200 things that describe the quintessential Hipster. What an informative ride. I sincerely thank everyone who contributed.
The point of the survey was to prove that we can approximate the definition of what a Hipster is, but with every day that passes, it remains just a star cluster, appearing as one large, bright dot seen from a galactic distance, and not what it actually is: a collection of smaller dots that vary in location and luminosity.
I am not saying that the term ‘Hipster’ can refer to whatever you want it to, but only the following:
(1) it is a pervasive and intensely pejorative label
(2) the Hipster has become a caricature, and 74% of that is due to Portlandia
Therefore, calling something or someone Hipster, is problematic.
So …. I have an awkward question….given some of those answers above …. are you a Hipster?
If you are young and live near a major city, and also voted for (gulp) Obama, you are screwed. You will be inevitably called a ‘Hipster’ at some point by someone who is less Hipster than you, and this will be based on some dicey, transitive property logic, meaning A = B, and B = C, therefore A = C. Because you started wearing glasses and have a vintage sense of style, and prefer neighborhood coffee shops to Starbucks, and have pickled something recently, that is more than enough evidence to convict you of being a Hipster, and thus everything else that being a Hipster allegedly entails.
But do not fret, fellow contrarian beatnik, for there is a loophole here. Just because you have Hipster tendencies, that does not mean you are a Hipster. It just means you sympathize with them. You are not what makes the Hipster such a punchline.
Here are two jokes that I have heard recycled again and again:
- How did the Hipster burn his mouth? He ate his pizza before it was cool.
- How many Hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A number you probably have never even heard of.
[TANGENT: For homework, feel free to write your own memes that have this same exhausted punchline! Let’s see…. ‘Knock, Knock’ structure is available … I’m sure there is a ‘tree falling in the woods’ set-up out there somewhere.]
The true Hipster (i.e. the villain, the cartoon, the one that no one ever admits to actually being) is the snobby, baseless kind. Obsessed with obscurity for the sake of obscurity. Irony for the sake of irony. Alt for the sake of alt.
You can see this bias in almost all the answers I received. The winning category was not just ‘outside the mainstream’ … it was ‘calculated effort to eschew the mainstream.’ Hipsters don’t just wear thick eyeglasses — they wear them without prescriptions. They do not just ‘live in the up-and-coming area’ of a city — it is a lie and they merely claim to. They brag about superior taste in literature and the arts but have not read a book since high school. They pretend to be poor, but their Apple products suggests the opposite. They love ironic fashion and thrift stores, but still somehow ‘pay top dollar for it.’
This permanent distrust regarding the Hipster’s authenticity is where the stereotype became a runaway truck without brakes or an off-ramp. More than fashion, more than political biases, more than eating and drinking and transportation habits — a Hipster is a pretentious phony. And that became the default definition, and it does not matter how many of these self-righteous snobs you have actually met. What matters is that they are presumably out there and that they are the adult version(s) of That Guy in high school who aspersed his peers as being ‘mindless sheep.’ And who doesn’t hate That Guy? I was That Guy and I hate That Guy.
[TANGENT: I suspect Hipsters have won enough of the culture war at this point that most high schools right now are populated by Hipsters and Non-Hipsters at a 50/50 split]
Hipsters, apparently, called the rest of us ‘sheep’ and that pissed everyone off, rightfully so. But we are not fighting with dignity by dismissing all of their behavior as inauthentic. The Hipster says things like “oh, I don’t own a television” or “I am trying to only buy organic food” and our response is a heavy eye-roll and an exaggerated ‘Ugggggh.’ And that’s fine, because stereotypes are funny, and someone bragging about yoga or mentioning that they are on a ‘cleanse’ fills me with a giddy rage as well. But frankly, we are all being wildly presumptuous about the life the Hipster leads and the motivations therein.
There is an implication here that one would only sidestep the mainstream in order to be noticed for doing so, which inaccurately suggests that there is some clear-cut, monolithic culture in America in 2013. Hipsters hate mainstream music, but what does that include? Like Jay-Z, Mumford & Sons, and songs like “Ho Hey” and “Thrift Shop?”… Is there such a thing as network television anymore? There are 1000 different shows or clips you can watch, at any time, and all you need is an internet connection. And as far as fashion is concerned…I don’t know, are we really saying we prefer that everyone put on a polo shirt and khakis? There is just too much choice for anything to become that popular, or at least not to the scale that it used to [references in the survey to The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Game of Thrones, and Twilight certainly prove that we don’t even know what ‘indie’ means anymore].
The ideals and attributes of Hipster culture reflect those of our generation as a whole. We are narcissistic and we don’t all work 9 to 5. We are having babies and starting careers at a later age than ever before. We are not, generally, accruing assets and buying houses or fuel-inefficient SUVs. And as far as living ironically, which is probably the biggest glass house of them all, Hipsters are not the only Americans who celebrate the 4th of July by pronouncing the name of this country as ‘A-murr-cah,’ or who attend ‘Awkward Sweater’ parties come Christmas. We are all winking. We all bleed snark.
So sarcastic congratulations are in order, my friend, for you are a Millenial (yayyyyyyyy!!!!!). Your enemy out there today is a counterculture that has more similarities to you than differences.
If you are to vanquish this enemy, keep in mind two critical points:
(1) there is no definition of ‘Hipster’ (but you will probably know ’em when you see ’em)
(2) the greatest trick the Hipster ever played was convincing the world that the Hipster did not exist.