(Note: Video is NSFW, as if the title weren’t enough)
Hipsters are easy to hate. They look ridiculous. They act pretentious as hell. They are so addicted to style and irony that they have time for little else.
Hipsters have been targeted as the “Dead End of Western Civilization,” which seems a bit histrionic, but underscores the general critical disdain for hipsterdom. Everyone, it seems, hates hipsters, even hipsters. Living in Wicker Park — hipster central in Chicago — I can’t tell you how many times I have heard bearded, skinny-jeaned hipsters discuss how much they hate hipsters.
But what exactly do hipsters do to deserve the hate? To me, a hipster is little more than an evolution/hybridization of many previous existing subcultures. The one that most reminds me of hipsters, however, is the dandy movement of the 19th century. Baudelaire describes dandyism, fairly accurately, as an elevation of aesthetic to a religion. Dandies in their time were decried by many outsiders as well, for their superficiality and snobbery with regards to aesthetics, as opposed to the “real issues” of the day.
To this end, I think much of the hatred of hipsters focuses on the uselessness of their existence. What exactly do hipsters produce? Hipsters are often derided for their lack of economic productivity, funded by their parents to live in overpriced apartments from Portland to Williamsburg. They live for the scene, oblivious to the problems of the world. Yet, I would caution anyone who labels a movement as purely aesthetic or narcissistic, since such movements often have far-reaching effects. Dandyism, after all, produced Benjamin Disraeli, as well as writers such as Wilde, Baudelaire, and Byron. My point here is that a movement that seems driven by superficial aesthetics only appears worthless to a society focused on economic production.
The superficiality of the hipster does differ in some sense from previous counter-cultural movements — the scruffy beatniks, the decidedly unkempt hippies — but has deeper roots in other aesthetically driven subcultures. One need only trace the term “hipster” to its origin in the Bop era of jazz, with its roots deep in musical snobbery (a taste for hot jazz, as opposed to big bands or old-timers) and fashion (zoot suits and black turtlenecks), in order to understand that hipsterdom is an attempt to find the authentic, the “cool” as opposed to the “square.” What modern hipsterdom has discovered, to its own dismay, is that trying to find the “cool” is itself inauthentic — “uncool.”
What does the hipster stand for? Irony, music, fashion, the scene. Thus, hipsterdom is less of a specific ideology, so much as it is a posture, a subculture bent on standing for the meaningless. Perhaps the hatred of hipsterdom comes from its obscurity, its refusal to permit entrance from the “square” world, and its embrace of the meaningless in a world overflowing with meaning. This lack of ideology makes the hipster hard to pin down. If a hippie stood for free love and embracing all mankind, the hipster stands for nothing and knows it.
The hipster has appropriated other subcultures and transformed them into merely so many clothes to wear (see here). A keffiyeh goes from symbol of radical Palestinian solidarity, to a fashion statement. A neighborhood goes from gritty working-class to fashionable (and fashionably overpriced), only to be abandoned for the new “hot spot.” Rather than embracing something as “authentic” or “real,” the hipster continues to focus on the “cool,” shifting from one band to the next, one trend to the next, etc., accelerated and aided by the trend-seeking Internet. Where hip-hop or country music seem obsessed with the question of authenticity — exposing fakes, giving real talk, etc. — hipsters have largely bypassed the question.
Part of what is fascinating about the hipster hegemony is actually the violent reaction of the non-hipster. A hipster may exult in his own taste, addicted to superficiality and meaninglessness, but where exactly is the affront to the mass? The hipster’s very existence is the affront; the fact that this person exists, refusing to participate in the “real world,” perturbs the dominant culture.
I don’t think we know yet exactly what the hipster aesthetic will create. Hipsterdom shifts too often in its tastes and trends to be examined for its social and political outcomes. But in the same way that beatniks provided a counterweight to the dominating culture of Cold War fear and dualism, perhaps the modern hipster will provide a sort of futile rear guard to our dominating culture of economics and globalization. A movement driven by an aesthetic may not appear productive, but is it less productive than the mass culture of infotainment that we regularly consume?
White, upper-middle-class, urban subculture movements have been around as long as there has been a white upper middle class. Hipsterdom is a variation on a theme, one that bothers us because of its embrace of its emptiness. In some ways, hipsters resemble a more literate Jersey Shore, so ensconced in its own aesthetic that it has become foreign to the culture at large.
As we look back on such subcultures — Victorian dandies, Bloomsbury bohemians, Greenwich Village beatniks, San Francisco hippies, London punk — we see the same pursuit of the meaningless, the same shifting tastes, the same snobbish reaction of mass cultures. And yet, as we look back, these groups are often the ones that produce the most interesting art, the most compelling public figures, the most enduring ideas. I’m not saying that hipsters will write the history of the future, but hipsters, by the nature of their constant shift against the “square,” serve a role as counterbalance, a murky reflection of society’s values at large.
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