A Critical History of the Hipster

250px-Pabst_Blue_Ribbon_logoMark Greif writes an obituary of hipster culture for New York Magazine:

If I speak of the degeneration of our most visible recent subculture, the hipster, it’s an awkward occasion. Someone will point out that hipsters are not dead, they still breathe, they live on my block. Yet it is evident that we have reached the end of an epoch in the life of the type. Its evolution lasted from 1999 to 2009, though it has shifted appearance dramatically over the decade. It survived this year; it may persist. Indications are everywhere, however, that we have come to a moment of stocktaking.

Novelty books on the order of Stuff Hipsters Hate and Look at This Fucking Hipster began appearing again this year, reliving the hipster’s previous near death in 2003 (titles then: A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster; The Hipster Handbook). Institutions associated with the hipster label have begun fleeing it. Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, announced in August that “hipster is over” and “hipsters are from a certain time period.” Gawker proposed to substitute a new name for the hipster by fiat—approving, after some consideration, the term fauxhemian.

Elsewhere—and especially in Europe—the deathbed scene looks more like an apotheosis. One German paper rounded up that country’s most recent reports of hipster emergence: “The current issue of the magazine Neon sees them at a club in Moscow, the Berlin Tagesspiegel spotted them yet again this week in the bars on Oranienstraße, Taz reported that in the ‘US hipster scene’ it’s cool to dress like Indians, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung knows that in Stockholm they are drawn to the district of Södermalm, Geo Saison had drinks with them at a bar in Prague, Die Welt found them in Australia from Sydney to Brisbane, the Sunday Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung knows the Parisian ‘Hipster-labels,’ and the weekend edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung commented recently that ‘big-city hipsters’ are now decorating their apartments with taxidermy.” The hipster has been reborn, too, in the American shopping mall, where Hot Topic sells thick-framed lensless eyeglasses to tweens and Nine West sells a “Hipster” sandal.

A key myth repeated about the hipster, by both the innocent and the underhanded, is that it has no definition. In August, after noting that the New York Times had printed hipster as a noun or an adjective more than 250 times in the previous year, Philip Corbett, the paper’s grammarian, wrote an open letter to the newsroom warning against its use. He certainly could have objected that it made for lazy headline copy, or that a derogatory term was being misused as praise. Instead, he objected that it wasn’t clear enough what the word means.

We do know what hipster means—or at least we should. The term has always possessed adequately lucid definitions; they just happen to be multiple. If we refuse to enunciate them, it may be because everyone affiliated with the term has a stake in keeping it murky. Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool. “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster,’ ” a headline in The Onion put it most succinctly.

The longer we go without an attempt to explain the term simply and clearly, the longer we are at the mercy of its underlying magic. In the interest of disenchantment, let me trace a history and offer some definitions. If we see the hipsters plain, maybe we’ll also see where they might come undone.

When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present…

[continues at New York Magazine]

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  • http://deliverators.typepad.com Andrew Dobbs

    When I was in New York this past year, I heard a Marxist writer give a succinct and valuable definition of hipsters: artsy yuppies. The important part here is the choice of “artsy” and not “artist,” as the hipster usually doesn’t produce much creative work of any worth. They are defined by their pure position of critique devoid of any creation. They are also of a particular class and interest group–the yuppies, bourgeois and ambitious, jealous, competitive and fake. Hipster = artsy yuppie. Perfect, no?

  • http://deliverators.typepad.com Andrew Dobbs

    When I was in New York this past year, I heard a Marxist writer give a succinct and valuable definition of hipsters: artsy yuppies. The important part here is the choice of “artsy” and not “artist,” as the hipster usually doesn’t produce much creative work of any worth. They are defined by their pure position of critique devoid of any creation. They are also of a particular class and interest group–the yuppies, bourgeois and ambitious, jealous, competitive and fake. Hipster = artsy yuppie. Perfect, no?

    • Tuna Ghost

      I would argue (and in fact have argued, both in person and in an essay) that the “fake” accusation is born of a misunderstanding of the notion of authenticity. Even if someone sincerely likes a piece of fashion just because it is fashionable (how would you know if they did, anyway), how does that make them fake? There’s this notion that hipsters are drinking PBR not because they derive any enjoyment out of it, but because they feel they must; that these self-harming hipsters also listen to music they hate and go to bars they despise and hang out with people they loathe, obviously not because they want to, but because they feel for some masochistic reason that they must.

      I dunno, too much criticism of hipster sounds to me like people saying “I don’t see how indulging in fashion and irony can be fun, therefore it isn’t fun, therefore they’re not having fun–they’re being fake”.

  • Tuna Ghost

    I would argue (and in fact have argued, both in person and in an essay) that the “fake” accusation is born of a misunderstanding of the notion of authenticity. Even if someone sincerely likes a piece of fashion just because it is fashionable (how would you know if they did, anyway), how does that make them fake? There’s this notion that hipsters are drinking PBR not because they derive any enjoyment out of it, but because they feel they must; that these self-harming hipsters also listen to music they hate and go to bars they despise and hang out with people they loathe, obviously not because they want to, but because they feel for some masochistic reason that they must.

    I dunno, too much criticism of hipster sounds to me like people saying “I don’t see how indulging in fashion and irony can be fun, therefore it isn’t fun, therefore they’re not having fun–they’re being fake”.

  • Tuna Ghost

    I would argue (and in fact have argued, both in person and in an essay) that the “fake” accusation is born of a misunderstanding of the notion of authenticity. Even if someone sincerely likes a piece of fashion just because it is fashionable (how would you know if they did, anyway), how does that make them fake? There’s this notion that hipsters are drinking PBR not because they derive any enjoyment out of it, but because they feel they must; that these self-harming hipsters also listen to music they hate and go to bars they despise and hang out with people they loathe, obviously not because they want to, but because they feel for some masochistic reason that they must.

    I dunno, too much criticism of hipster sounds to me like people saying “I don’t see how indulging in fashion and irony can be fun, therefore it isn’t fun, therefore they’re not having fun–they’re being fake”.

  • Tuna Ghost

    “Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool”.

    I must admit that’s a damn good line and I am going to steal that as soon as I am able.

    “The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”

    Not sure why it has to be poisonous…by this defintion, I became a hipster when I developed a robust substance abuse problem and moved from an upper-middle class white neighborhood to a shit-hole in Detroit sometime during my eight years in college (which isn’t true, I became a hipster years ago when I decided I was shit hot and better than everyone else). Is that all it takes?

    “As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash.” “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of,” Vice founder Gavin McInnes told the Times in 2003.”

    Is that what it fetishized? I have serious doubts about that. Don’t get me wrong, hipsterism certainly fetishized cultures and cultural fashions at an alarming rate, but ironically aping with tones of not-so-subtle mockery is not the same as fetishizing. As far as I am aware, unless you’re an ICP fan (or a country music fan, I suppose) being poor white trash has never been fashionable.

    “Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls),…”

    It’s possible that I didn’t notice this because I am a white male hipster and entitlement can easily blind one. Any female hipsters want to comment?

    What gets me most is the this bit:

    “In the neighborhoods, though, there was a feeling throughout the last decade that the traditional arts were of little interest to hipsters because their consumer culture substituted a range of narcissistic handicrafts similar enough to sterilize the originals.”

    Mmm I’m not so sure, I’ve met several hipsters who were very talented or at least had training in classical arts…anyway, the author goes on to say

    “One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts.”

    Is he attempting to say that these arts are inferior yet somehow sterilizing the traditional arts (for other hipsters, I presume)? I don’t see how he can possibly qualify that.

    The article is well-written but, like most articles attempting to criticize or even just define the Hipster, they fail to describe any of the hipsters I know. At worst these kinds of articles point out someone who is simply aping a style in the hope of being accepted by a group (which is certainly not a new phenomenon), and at best a kind of two-dimensional representation, a cardboard cut-out, of fashionable young people and calling it a “hipster”. I’ve said it a million times: 99% of people using the word “hipster” are using it as an othering device.

  • Tuna Ghost

    “Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool”.

    I must admit that’s a damn good line and I am going to steal that as soon as I am able.

    “The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”

    Not sure why it has to be poisonous…by this defintion, I became a hipster when I developed a robust substance abuse problem and moved from an upper-middle class white neighborhood to a shit-hole in Detroit sometime during my eight years in college (which isn’t true, I became a hipster years ago when I decided I was shit hot and better than everyone else). Is that all it takes?

    “As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash.” “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of,” Vice founder Gavin McInnes told the Times in 2003.”

    Is that what it fetishized? I have serious doubts about that. Don’t get me wrong, hipsterism certainly fetishized cultures and cultural fashions at an alarming rate, but ironically aping with tones of not-so-subtle mockery is not the same as fetishizing. As far as I am aware, unless you’re an ICP fan (or a country music fan, I suppose) being poor white trash has never been fashionable.

    “Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls),…”

    It’s possible that I didn’t notice this because I am a white male hipster and entitlement can easily blind one. Any female hipsters want to comment?

    What gets me most is the this bit:

    “In the neighborhoods, though, there was a feeling throughout the last decade that the traditional arts were of little interest to hipsters because their consumer culture substituted a range of narcissistic handicrafts similar enough to sterilize the originals.”

    Mmm I’m not so sure, I’ve met several hipsters who were very talented or at least had training in classical arts…anyway, the author goes on to say

    “One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts.”

    Is he attempting to say that these arts are inferior yet somehow sterilizing the traditional arts (for other hipsters, I presume)? I don’t see how he can possibly qualify that.

    The article is well-written but, like most articles attempting to criticize or even just define the Hipster, they fail to describe any of the hipsters I know. At worst these kinds of articles point out someone who is simply aping a style in the hope of being accepted by a group (which is certainly not a new phenomenon), and at best a kind of two-dimensional representation, a cardboard cut-out, of fashionable young people and calling it a “hipster”. I’ve said it a million times: 99% of people using the word “hipster” are using it as an othering device.

  • Tuna Ghost

    “Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool”.

    I must admit that’s a damn good line and I am going to steal that as soon as I am able.

    “The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”

    Not sure why it has to be poisonous…by this defintion, I became a hipster when I developed a robust substance abuse problem and moved from an upper-middle class white neighborhood to a shit-hole in Detroit sometime during my eight years in college (which isn’t true, I became a hipster years ago when I decided I was shit hot and better than everyone else). Is that all it takes?

    “As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash.” “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of,” Vice founder Gavin McInnes told the Times in 2003.”

    Is that what it fetishized? I have serious doubts about that. Don’t get me wrong, hipsterism certainly fetishized cultures and cultural fashions at an alarming rate, but ironically aping with tones of not-so-subtle mockery is not the same as fetishizing. As far as I am aware, unless you’re an ICP fan (or a country music fan, I suppose) being poor white trash has never been fashionable.

    “Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls),…”

    It’s possible that I didn’t notice this because I am a white male hipster and entitlement can easily blind one. Any female hipsters want to comment?

    What gets me most is the this bit:

    “In the neighborhoods, though, there was a feeling throughout the last decade that the traditional arts were of little interest to hipsters because their consumer culture substituted a range of narcissistic handicrafts similar enough to sterilize the originals.”

    Mmm I’m not so sure, I’ve met several hipsters who were very talented or at least had training in classical arts…anyway, the author goes on to say

    “One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts.”

    Is he attempting to say that these arts are inferior yet somehow sterilizing the traditional arts (for other hipsters, I presume)? I don’t see how he can possibly qualify that.

    The article is well-written but, like most articles attempting to criticize or even just define the Hipster, they fail to describe any of the hipsters I know. At worst these kinds of articles point out someone who is simply aping a style in the hope of being accepted by a group (which is certainly not a new phenomenon), and at best a kind of two-dimensional representation, a cardboard cut-out, of fashionable young people and calling it a “hipster”. I’ve said it a million times: 99% of people using the word “hipster” are using it as an othering device.

  • Orgonebox

    I think the hipster aesthetic comes from the establishment of a subculture which hates being differentiated against, so the kids band together in order to differentiate against those who don’t share their aesthetic. Same story as any other subculture in the twentieth century, really. It’s a vanity of ugly, or an always outdated currency of current coolness manifested in historic uncoolness traded around the western nations. The sad part of it is the people who can’t say screw this, I’ll be my own person and like what I like – instead I’ll get my hornrims and black tights and a purple scarf and go sit at the coffee shop and look at a book while I contemplate whether or not to get a blue/orange/purple streak in my hair, or a new tattoo of a unicorn riding a bear drinking beam’s 8 star.

    • Tunaghost

      What if you like being fashionable, though? Isn’t that still being true to yourself and all that garbage?

  • Orgonebox

    I think the hipster aesthetic comes from the establishment of a subculture which hates being differentiated against, so the kids band together in order to differentiate against those who don’t share their aesthetic. Same story as any other subculture in the twentieth century, really. It’s a vanity of ugly, or an always outdated currency of current coolness manifested in historic uncoolness traded around the western nations. The sad part of it is the people who can’t say screw this, I’ll be my own person and like what I like – instead I’ll get my hornrims and black tights and a purple scarf and go sit at the coffee shop and look at a book while I contemplate whether or not to get a blue/orange/purple streak in my hair, or a new tattoo of a unicorn riding a bear drinking beam’s 8 star.

  • Tunaghost

    What if you like being fashionable, though? Isn’t that still being true to yourself and all that garbage?

  • Tunaghost

    What if you like being fashionable, though? Isn’t that still being true to yourself and all that garbage?