My name is Tuna Ghost and I have a confession: I’m a hipster.
One may think this is a self-defeating statement, like “this sentence is false” or “all Cretans are liars, says so-and-so of Crete”, as one of the commonly accepted hallmarks of a hipster is that he or she will vehemently deny that they are a hipster. This bit of conventional wisdom is easily verified, all one has to do is ask the hipsters around one if they self-identify as a “hipster”. Personally, I have to look no further than my own friends to see evidence of it. By the traditional definition of “hipster” they are obviously hipsters, but thus far I am the only one who will gladly self-identify as such. One may wonder why anyone in their right mind would identity with a subculture that has become synonymous with shallowness, lack of authenticity and sneering douche-baggery (my friends certainly do), but in this article I will demonstrate that this is not a fair assessment of Hipsterism.
But before I can defend The Hipster, we should define our terms. From Wikipedia:
Hipster is a slang term that first appeared in the 1940s, and was revived in the 1990s and 2000s often to describe types of young, recently-settled urban middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture, particularly alternative music, indie rock, independent film, magazines such as Vice and Clash, and websites like Pitchfork Media.
Well that sounds innocuous enough, yes? I don’t read Vice or Clash but I am certainly a type of young(ish) adult from middle-class roots with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture, particularly indie music and independent film. My friends all have similar interests, and surely these interests don’t have any intrinsic, toxically condescending elements that transfer to the people who who are involved with them.
Then why are hipsters almost constantly under fire? For a closer look, check out Christian Lorentzen’s article “Why the Hipster Must Die: A Modest Proposal to Save New-York Cool.” Here he provides another, much more accusing definition for “hipster”:
Under the guise of ‘irony,’ hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era — Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. (Read more: Time Out NY)
The definition reeks of an agenda, sure, and it is total bunk in many ways, but it provides us with an adequate starting place. Ignoring the debate over whether or not these movements ever had “fangs” to begin with, all of the movements listed were the hipster movements of their times if we use the Wikipedia definition. Urban young adults with middle-class roots? Check. Interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture? Check. Mostly white and appropriating minority cultures? Check. In the article, Lorentzen calls hipsters the “assassins of cool”, charging them with the attempted murder of New York Cool. He comes off like an aging hippy complaining that these kids don’t know what real cool is, angry and afraid that his values are disappearing with the advent of a new movement devoid of meaning that will leave him behind. And, as he is surely aware, to be left behind in this race is to be made un-hip.
As problematic as Lorentz’s article is, it nevertheless provides us with the conventional answer to “what is a hipster”: someone who values the aesthetic value above all else, who prides themselves on their coolness while at the same time denying it. They wear clothes for the ironic/fashion value, because it is deemed hip or cool. Their favorite music and literature are chosen for the same reasons. They go to shows and hit the scene to be seen, to be viewed as cool. They buy working class beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon is often cited) instead of the more expensive beer they can obviously afford. Their entire identity is just a construction. They slum. They’re fake. Check out Look At This Fucking Hipster, www.latfh.com. Or Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization at Adbusters (I should warn you that the article is pretty lousy, but there are some insightful comments) for confirmation of this idea. Basically, it seems hipsters are focused on image, even to the detriment of feelings or sentiment or meaning of any kind.
The problem is, a lot of this involves some pretty crappy and occasionally insulting reasoning. A common criticism I hear, perhaps you’ve heard it yourself, is “they don’t wear those clothes because they like them, they wear it because x/y/z”. Apparently they are wearing those tight jeans and t-shirts for some other reason, something incriminating. They don’t wear those clothes because they like them, ergo they are “fake”.
This is a ridiculous criticism for a number of reasons. First, someone wearing clothes for reasons besides the apparently primary reason of “I like it” is not a new phenomenon. Simply put, people wear clothes for reasons other than “liking them” ALL THE TIME. Why did women ever wear corsets and girdles? Or high-heels that smash one’s toes? Why does anyone wear a hijab in terrible heat? Why do we wear suits to funerals and tuxedos to weddings? For that matter, why don’t we all strip our clothes off whenever it is too hot? “Because I like it” is not always the primary reason to wear something; in fact, it’s pretty far down the list.
Secondly, to charge someone with insincerity because they are wearing something simply for ironic value, rather than because they like or enjoy something, is equally silly. If one enjoys irony, or any other post-modern idea for that matter, and are wearing something to achieve a desired effect in that area, then I think that qualifies as “liking it”. How could it be otherwise? There’s a very nasty idea at work here: Irony isn’t fun, therefore you can’t have fun being ironic, therefore they’re not wearing it because its fun. They must have some other, more insidious reason for wearing it.
There are class issues brought up in accusations of hipsters as well; there’s this notion of middle-class white kids appropriating working-class fashions and tastes for reasons other than because they are working class, e.g. hanging out in dives rather than the upscale bars they can obviously afford to patronize, wearing shirts found in thrift stores and Salvation Army donations instead of the more expensive clothes they could easily purchase. I find this accusation of middle-class people not acting middle-class enough for someone’s taste very strange and a little unsettling. For one, determining someone’s class by a glance is not a talent most people have. The age of most hipsters is in an area where their class is fairly nebulous anyway — their careers are only just beginning, and that’s if they’re lucky. What does it mean when you label the person who serves you coffee or rings up your purchase at the counter “middle-class”? What about the line cooks and the waiters? The young man or woman working at the bank? The bartenders? How do you know they are supported by their parents? My parents may be financially comfortable, but when I was living in a rundown rat-hole of a house in Detroit working two jobs to pay rent and tuition (and to support my fairly robust substance-abuse problem) was I still “middle-class”?
Even if they are definitively middle-class with the money and education typical of that demographic, frankly the idea of a group of bohemian-minded middle-class people purposefully standing apart from the dominant trends, politics, and morals of their class is nothing new. Aside from the already-mentioned Beatniks and Hippies, what about the Dadaists? Shelley and Byron? How are they different? Do the same criticisms apply to them? I often hear the argument that these people contributed something to music or the arts and so become (somehow) exempt from the same criticisms, but will one then make the claim that hipsters don’t? That is plainly false. Bands started by hipsters are everywhere. I can’t throw a rock without hitting a hipster artist or musician, and if you claim that hipsters aren’t making good music or art you’re simply not looking hard enough. Not only that, but hipsters have a wide-range of artistic interests, and their attention (or at least their financial support) has helped bring formerly small-time acts into a larger arena. Take metal for instance, a scene with a large variety which has recently found a new market in hipster circles (I’m not just talking about Mastadon here, before anyone says anything). This attention has helped metal bands sell more records and reach a new audience, something vital to any artistic endeavor.
Too much of the criticism against hipsters seems to be from people who cannot understand how indulging in fashion and fun hair and the “scene” can be fun, therefore it CAN’T be fun, therefore these people aren’t actually having fun. They’re just fakes with ulterior motives. They don’t want to look good and be passionate about music and the arts, they are forcing themselves to do so in some masochistic fashion to seek approval from a scene they actually detest. There’s a very troubling notion inherent in all this, that indulging in fashion and being passionate about music and the arts is not something real people do, that one cannot like something just because it is fashionable, which is ridiculous beyond words.
You may have noticed a common theme in these criticisms of Hipsterism: authenticity, or rather the lack of it. Many of their trends are affectations, so they’re not sincere — but if someone genuinely likes affectations, what does that make them? Real or fake? Does that make them, a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a “real fake”? Once again, there’s an unspoken but agreed upon idea at work here, namely that real people don’t indulge in new trends or fashions simply because they are new or fun. Are we really willing to agree with this? The implications are pretty severe. Look around you — if we operate as if this idea is reality, then there are almost no “real” people out there. When did indulging in fashion and fun hair become a crime? When did “real” people stop doing this?
Too often the criticisms I hear simply reaffirm that “hipster”, as a pejorative, is functioning only as an othering device. Hipsters are as guilty of this as anyone, but only because “hipster” is such a dirty word. I see so many people, people whose notions of culture or masculinity are being threatened, using “hipster” simply to mean “someone who’s cultural markers, as evidenced by the clothes they wear and the music they listen to, reflect a culture that I am not a part of and therefore must be stupid or fake”. The assumptions about the accused, about their sincerity in regard to their tastes and fashions, come shortly after. Someone can’t be politically or socially aware because they want to, because surely nobody likes that. They can’t dress in an androgynous fashion because they like it, because nobody “real” likes being androgynous. They can’t have fun with irony because irony isn’t fun — therefore, they’re just doing it to be popular, to get laid, or, most importantly, to make me feel stupid or out of touch.
People, please! I’m doing it because its fun and to make you feel out of touch.
Stick around for Part 2: AUTHENTICITY IS BULLSHIT, or: POP IS THE NEW PUNK, in which I will explore the notion of authenticity that is the root of most criticisms of Hipsterism, and explain why it is bullshit.