I am a hipster.
This isn’t (just) a meta-fuck-you to the culture that secretly absorbed my public identity when I moved to Brooklyn. Nor do I qualify, by the strictest standards of the stereotype: my music is painfully out of date, and I’m more interested in bars when they’re just getting outed from hipdom and there’s a brief lull before they completely gentrify. Unfortunately, I am extremely lazy and have no fashion sense aside from the little voice that reminds me that cheap clothing = more beer. So I tend to roll out of bed hungover, ignore my hair, and shop at thrift stores, and my first encounter with hipster culture was going to a Goodwill and finding sixty dollar jeans that had maybe a month before they evolved into grease rags.
After carefully cultivating a look that wouldn’t get me beaten up, evicted from bars, embarrass my parents, or, and this is important, mistaken for any existing social group in northern New England, I came here and I was, quote, “another fucking hipster”. Not to be beaten, I went through my wardrobe and carefully removed anything that was even moderately desrcript, or suggested anything about me other than that I was probably a middle class twenty-three year old from just outside of Pittsburgh and worked as a part-time dishwasher. Seven sexless months later I realized my error and put it all back, and just stopped caring for the next four years.
The thing that got me caring again was coming across an Adbusters article about hipsters, that accused them of being representative of the end of civilization. Adbusters accuses pretty much everything of being representative of the end of civilization, and they’re probably not wrong most of the time, but this article was especially unfair and cynically alarmist, so I’m here in defense of my nemesis culture.
The fundamental problem of the hipster definition is its scope, which is “not obviously yuppie or working class person living in or near Williamsburg, Brooklyn.” The vast cultural generalizations between those quotes encompass everything from the the worst case scenario of a rich middle class kid with a seven digit trust fund sneering at anyone who listens to anything by a living musician making anything resembling money, while failing to contribute anything to the scene around them, to the best case scenario: Allen Ginsberg.
Being hip has the same problem as being cool: if you try, you fail. Cool, fortunately, is personal, and your own business. Hip is social, so there’s no way not to be it unless people recognize it, at which point you must deny it. So, since no hipster will admit to it, it becomes a catty and mousy game of trying to be around the scene without copping to trying to do anything.
However, there are many reasons to be around the hipster scene. It’s packed with artists, it’s packed with money and good restaurants, it has music on every corner, and, initially, cheap rent. The fact is, poor artists move to neighborhoods with cheap rent (alpha hipsters). A few of them produce, they feed off one another, and eventually, people who want to see new art and music get closer to the area, and this batch of people usually has a little more money (beta hipsters). Eventually, scenes develop, and people who want to go to parties with attractive alpha and beta hipsters start filling up the area (annoying hipsters). Then, as the New York story goes, rents climb, the area gentrifies, the food gets too expensive, and the yuppies move in with the beta hipsters, who are having babies by now, while the alpha hipsters, most of whom are still poor, get forced out, and start the process all over again. This is still a generalization, because there are always alphas, betas, and annoyings swimming in and out of the pool.
So when Adbusters accuses the hipsters of being the end of civilization, because they represent nothing and are just a bunch of consumers, they’re lumping the worst of the uninspiring shark spenders with some of the most interesting culture producers in the city. Also, if consumer culture has to consume something, why not local art?
It’s fun to point out that nobody admits to being a hipster; our only evidence is a vague fashion trend and the stoic persistence of sub par bands, and that’s circumstantial at best. So depending on the mood, “hipster” is just a roving insult to throw at anybody who you think is less or more hip than you. It is, as such terms usually are, a top down reference to an indeterminate group of people, defined by its trending statistical usage.
Originally, hipster referred to white people who went to jazz shows. The real jazz shows, not the ones sung by 50 year-old lounge singers for popular consumption, and before there were enough decent white musicians doing it to get good jazz into expensive clubs. It wasn’t necessarily bad to be a hipster; they were just the obviously not-ofs hanging out with the in-crowd. As terms which survive the evolution of language invariably disengage from their roots, hipster became a practical reference to any middle class person who doesn’t want to appear middle class. The current, New York association of hipster with ironic pseudo-detachment has nothing to do with the phenomenon of detachment, but with the endemic misunderstanding of post-modernism that comes from the middle class and followed their more fashion conscious kids to the semi-cheap neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
When Adbusters accuses the “hip” culture of being a bunch of consumers consigning us to another vaguely dated capitalist driven apocalypse, it has nothing to do with the hipsters. Hipsters, consuming away in the same fashion as every other person living in a major metropolitan consumes, are putting more of their money into local art and music than most of us, and you cannot tease apart the vapid hypocrites from the people adding interesting snippets of culture to the world. Furthermore, these two categories of people overlap as often as not.
People love to accuse the next youth culture of being zombies for the man, partly because of a weird zombie obsession, but mostly because they forget that being young and counter culture has nothing to do with being counter culture except in so far as it channels hormones. Whatever hipster culture represents, its representation is a cocktail of what’s happening in the world and what people are doing to get away from the world. The extremely hazy borders of hipster culture are only sharpened by individual personal reactions to something you or the person next to you likes or dislikes, and “that fucking hipster” is no more than a branding of fleeting emotion, exactly as valid as the emotions that compelled the fucking hipster to do whatever it is they did to annoy you.
Taken purely from dress and lifestyle, there are two people I can bring up as hipsters, who would generally be assumed to be hipsters in the present, north Brooklyn definition, as delineated by dress and attitude. The first hipster is a story: a twenty-something with bed-head hair and a black jean jacket gets off her iPhone 4 long enough to make a scene about the local grocery store not accepting her benefit card for an energy drink. The second is someone I know, a working sculptor who dons thick, black-rimmed and plaid shirts to shoot pool and drink cheap beer at local dives, because those are the glasses he’s always worn and that’s the beer he can afford. Either could be labelled a hipster, but one is gaming the system in a middle class scam, and one is as honest and straight-forward as any other classically struggling artist. There’s nothing inherent in the word “hipster” that implies predestination in either of these stories and though the hypocrite iPhone girl assuredly deserves our derision, her father may well buy the artist’s work someday.
So even as I try to ride the space between socializing yet not belonging, and resent the cumulative culture of people naively trying to be individuals, I have no issue with them as a whole, because they are individuals, whether or not the latest escape from the suburbs has an annoying meta-irony of being unique along with everyone else wearing the same clothing and being unique.
And frankly, they stole that irony from the goths.