Thought Catalog

In Defense Of 'Hipster'

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When I was 13 years old, my friend’s older sister told me she hated some band, the name of which I have since forgotten, because they went “mainstream”. It was a term I didn’t really understand, so I pressed on – did their music get worse? “No, they’re still good.” Did they do something morally reprehensible? “No, they’re not any different. Just, too many people like them now. So I don’t.” Though I could not have known it at the time, it was my first encounter with a hipster. I made the helpless, confused face one makes when he has no idea how to make his still-contested point any clearer, a face I would not make again until several years later when my girlfriend at the time told me that she thought the Lion King was overrated. (She did not survive the week.)

I didn’t realize that hipsters were a thing, members of their own social group, until I reached college. At each debate tournament, for every three or four well-coifed, impeccably suited opponents I met, I encountered a flannel-wearing socialist who railed against the oppression of the social construct that was the debate tournament. He was apparently being oppressed by a system he chose to participate in, and my helpless, confused expression won me precious few rounds that first year.

Of course we cannot define ‘hipster’ with the precision that we can define, say, odd numbers or Homo sapiens; that doesn’t mean it has no meaning. The lack of clear boundaries around a concept hardly renders it incoherent. Classic example: how do we define ‘game’? How is it that we use the same word to describe children cooperatively imagining themselves married, the physically demanding competition between teams crashing into each other to move (or halt) a football, and the mentally exhausting individual sparring that is professional chess? After all, there has to be a finite number of games, and mercifully, there has to be a finite number of hipsters; you’d think we could clearly define a finite concept. Yet each of these ‘games’ radically differs from the next.

Does this render ‘game’ a meaningless word? Hardly; we use it to refer to a wide range of things, but not all things. Some games are competitive; some games are cooperative. Some games have incredibly high stakes, some have none at all. Most importantly, we all have a sense of what ‘game’ refers to, and what it doesn’t. Chess is definitely a game. Maybe NASCAR is a game, maybe not; fringe cases are tricky, and we love to debate them. They live right in the inherent fuzziness of words. Bananas, however, are certainly not games.

So maybe I can’t draw a circle that contains all and only hipsters, but the uncanny family resemblance among hipsters certainly points us in some helpful directions. Hipsters share a particular feeling of isolation from the world around them; they wear vintage clothing rather than spend money to look the same as everyone else; they drink PBR (or microbrews) rather than further an advertising culture which objectifies women and drinking for the sake of being ‘American’; they value obscurity for its own sake, as it reflects a willingness to find value where no one else is looking, a refusal to be told what is and isn’t cool. They love the beat generation, idolizing it as the paradigm of rejecting an oppressive culture. They value irony because it is a re-appropriation of the culture they reject, a self-aware participation, done strictly for the lulz.

These are, of course, gross oversimplifications. Not every hipster in the world drinks PBR, and not every PBR drinker in the world is a hipster. Discussing groups of people is fraught with peril, and we absolutely must treat these single-word groupings as merely convenient heuristic conventions, rather than rigid designators. Still, if you told your inquisitive grandfather that hipsters are, generally speaking, people who hang out together because of the shared feeling of mutual isolation from what they believe is an increasingly hollow and corporatized culture, you’d be off to a damned good start; toss in a couple helpful examples and a caveat that, like any social group, there will be exceptions and degrees, and you’re fucking golden.

It turns out that when non-hipsters (let’s call us ‘conformists’) hate hipsters, they have exactly the same reason as hipsters who hate conformists have: they are the Other, members of a culture which I cannot understand or blend in with, a culture that rejects precisely what I value. Does anyone want to deal with people who disdain what he values? No wonder there is so much hostility going in both directions; hipsters only get a label because there are more of us than them. Stephanie is right about one thing: calling someone a hipster is the ultimate judgmental move. But no less ultimately judgmental is the rejection of conformists by hipsters simply because we have not chosen to reject the culture you have; I happen to love my corporatized culture, thanks very much, and I assure you I’ve thought that all the way through. I see the strings that control the system, and they delight me. The assumption that I am a sheep with no personal identity or capacity for critical thinking is as unfounded as the assumption that you’re an unwashed vagabond with no real skills or useful opinions.

‘Hipster’ seems like an insult because there is nothing more insulting than, “you do not belong.” It can also be used endearingly; I appreciate the quirkiness of my hipster friends. Either way, it has a clear meaning, even if it lacks clear boundaries.

The word ‘hipster’ is alive and well, and it gets used in internet arguments because we often have the sneaking suspicion that someone is rejecting a position simply because he rejects conformists and everything about them, and no one likes to be dismissed out of hand for belonging to a group. However, at a certain point there is not much more to say to each other. If you reject my culture wholesale, then my arguments from within the culture have little weight indeed. How can you convince the man who controls the strings that the strings are bad? How can you convince someone who rejects cultural standards that gauged ears aren’t culturally acceptable? “Hipster,” they spit, the contempt leaping from the keyboard to the screen. Really, they’re just accusing you of being too different to even understand, of having prohibitively different values. However, unlike being Hitler, there’s nothing inherently bad about being a hipster; you just annoy the rest of us. So ‘hipster’ needn’t be the next Godwin word; if you want the word ‘hipster’ to go away, you should re-appropriate it as you have so many other elements of culture. Stop pretending that hipsters aren’t really a group, that it’s an unfair label, that hipsters are a mythical creature that no one actually resembles. When someone accuses you of being a hipster, accept it (if they’re right), and then explain why they too should reject the culture you’ve rejected. Or not; you could just tell them why you’re okay being that guy. Not everyone will see eye to eye with you, obviously. Be okay with that, too. Be insulted with some goddamn dignity. TC mark

image – Joshua Heller
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  • Chrmny

    Damn right!

  • Brononymous

    Insert witty, self-deprecatory ironic statement here.

  • coffeeandinternets

    Times change, and now when I refer to hipsters, I feel like it defines the kind of person who was in a sorority or fraternity until last year, somehow stumbled into an American Apparel, and are moving to Kent Avenue on the East River in Williamsburg because they heard it’s cool but what the fuck is up with living in a fifth floor walk-up, seriously.

    Et cetera.

  • http://twitter.com/NiceShirtAm Britta Folden

    So great! This is probably the most well thought out and balanced view of hipsterdom I’ve ever seen.

  • Anonymous

    i think most people intelligent enough to realize that what they’re doing is “rejecting an oppressive culture” with their choices are also smart enough to reject the tag of hipsterdom entirely, as it’s too generalized and ridiculous a statement. i think, rather, that ‘hipster’ refers to someone choosing to become a part of that counter-culture because it’s, well, hip, and without really thinking through the ramifications of their associations and tastes. hence the negative connotation. 

    but anyway, yeah, totally, bro.

  • http://twitter.com/ingenuegle Egle Makaraite

    You’re probably the most intelligent writer I have experienced on TC.

    • Chloe Scheffe

      Yes, this is beautiful writing. 

      • ll

        Jimmy Chen

  • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

    MAKE IT STOP.

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised Thought Catalog would have a defense of Hipsters. 

  • amiright?

    Seriously… if I read another goddamned article about hipsters or nice/asshole guys, I’m going to quit you, TC. Get it together.

    • Anonymous

      I think secretly, we’re all just trying to get the last word in on each other.

      • Sippycup

        Everyone wants the last word on what a hipster is so they can make sure the definition doesn’t describe them.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FQBOL3ZHPHDYFGRD53EVFREV4A El puto

    If I call myself a hipster, does that make me a conformist?

  • kaylee

    this is great, it really is

  • Michael Lynch

    Well said. I think that about sums it up.

  • Guest

    Over it.

  • http://twitter.com/amproehl Andy Proehl

    This post made me think of something the singer Jill Sobule said at her concert last week, “Hipsters used to dress like they were unemployed, now they are unemployed”.

  • Greg

    Can you write a similar article about gangsters, punks, preps, and whatever other subcultures that exist? Hipsters are getting too much attention. Really great and balanced piece, btw

  • leya

    this is probably the most mature, considered, and accurate treatment of the nature of the hipster stereotype (or, broadly, any stereotype) that i have ever read. well done.

  • ELNE

    +1 for debaters.

    • Anonymous

      kritik hacks – the original hipsters.

  • http://twitter.com/kentquirk kentquirk

    I liked the discussion, but disliked the setup. The term “game” is pretty well-understood by those in the game industry, actually. A game is a purposeful exercise of a “core mechanic” (rules) that results in a quantifiable outcome. See “A Theory of Fun” by Raph Koster or “Rules of Play” by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.

    • Anonymous

      Calvinball is a game. Algebra isn’t.

      But more importantly, understanding a term isn’t connected with knowing the definition of that term in the way we usually think. I’m not saying we don’t understand what a game is – we understand that very clearly, even though there will be a counterexample to almost any strict definition. 

    • Anonymous

      Calvinball is a game. Algebra isn’t.

      But more importantly, understanding a term isn’t connected with knowing the definition of that term in the way we usually think. I’m not saying we don’t understand what a game is – we understand that very clearly, even though there will be a counterexample to almost any strict definition. 

  • hipster

    “I happen to love my corporatized culture, thanks very much, and I assure you I’ve thought that all the way through. I see the strings that control the system, and they delight me. ”

    REALLY?  YOU REALLY DO?

    You’re obviously an intelligent person except for this statement.  This statement makes you a fucking idiot.  I don’t even need to argue why it makes you sycophant. 

    Have fun sucking Newscorps/WaronTerror/McDonalds cock.  I bet you think we live in a democracy too.

    • Anonymous

      People have told me that Flobots’ “Handlebars” is supposed to be a warning, but I’ve always considered it more of a promise than anything.

      Anyway, thanks for reading, you unwashed vagabond with no real skills or useful opinions, you!

    • Anonymous

      People have told me that Flobots’ “Handlebars” is supposed to be a warning, but I’ve always considered it more of a promise than anything.

      Anyway, thanks for reading, you unwashed vagabond with no real skills or useful opinions, you!

    • Guest

      This is mind numbing in its simplicity.

      The Herculean efforts of corporations to control, market, and manufacture are sublime. To hate this is to hate the best work of the brightest people our world has to offer.

      Have fun enjoying your pathetic little effortless rebellion.

      • Stefan

        Ok! Maybe they’re smart. But can’t I hate them because they’re assholes?

        Also, it’s their “best” work depending on how you look at it. If you mean their efforts to participate in a game the basic rules of which have been predetermined for them, ok, maybe. But if you mean “best” as in “the most good,” well, then I’d have to disagree.

    • Sandy

      fucking hipster

  • http://www.remylexington.blogspot.com Remy Lexington

    A very well written article.  However I still have gripes with the assumptions that majority of hipsters are pretentious, fake, socialists and/or rejecting of a “conforming corporate” America. Yea I understand alot of hipsters drink pbr, have facial hair and wear flannels and in the end can be pointed out to someone. But why do so many also attribute particular personality traits as well? Physical attributes are one thing. It is easy to spot commonalities that are visible. But to make a generalization about peoples character and disposition one should at least know enough of them and I do not think that most people do. That is why I believe that the stereotypical “hipster” that is pretentious, a socialist, fake, and non-conforming etc. is a myth. Most of the time I believe a hipster looks like a hipster is because he is just a reflection of the music he listens to. As with any group of people.

    I have this theory that most disdain hipsters receive is because people secretly envy the “mythological hipster” and what that stands for.

    • Molly

      “That is why I believe that the stereotypical “hipster” that is pretentious, a socialist, fake, and non-conforming etc. is a myth.”  

      …I know one of these “mythical” hipsters. He’s always complaining about capitalistic society while simultaneously mooching off the system. However, these types certainly do not make up the majority of what one might refer to as a “hipster.”

    • imean

      I have this theory that most disdain hipsters receive is because people secretly envy the “mythological hipster” and what that stands for. 
      ^^ That kind of warped thought process my friend, is why people don’t like hipsters. 

  • Anonymous

    “Our search for the rebels of the generation led us to the hipster. The hipster is an enfant terrible turned inside out. In character with his time, he is trying to get back at the conformists by lying tow … You can’t interview a hipster because his main goal is to keep out of a society which, he thinks, trying to make everyone over in its own image.”

    http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=26

  • Andrew Edminister

    I am totally fine with being accused of my Hipsterdom. I am not okay with hearing my high school aged cousin’s friends accusing so-and-so of being a Hipster with a sharp tongue and a disgusted facial expression. No singular cultural group can exist without an equal and opposite counterpart, so we can always point and laugh at the opposite culture – the abercrombie & fitch wearing, top 40 listening, jersey shore zombified hordes; and the cycle will go on, and on, and on . . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    This article made me want tacos for some reason.

  • Stop it already

    PART 1

    I speak this as a (public) college student living in Brooklyn, NY (Flatbush, not Williamsburg), apparent home of hipsterdom.  As someone who lives and socializes in NY, I think I can shed light on where the “no-such-thing-as-hipster” camp is coming from.  An argument as to why it cannot be unified and reconciled (unlike the actual definition of a game):

    I used to work in a clothing store on Broadway near NYU.  Kids paying full tuition, with West Village apartments and Balenciaga bags, studying fashion or existential poetry, were called hipsters.

    I know some activists from organizing I’ve done in New York and New Orleans.  Kids who wore ratty clothes, probably grew up in the suburbs, are majoring in something like Community Urban Agricultural Pedagogy, and carry around Frantz Fanon, are called hipsters.

    Living in Brooklyn you meant enough artists/artisans.  Someone who can expertly handcraft a whole wheat lox bagel while wearing a vintage sweater, or who sells handmade Bolivian goods at the flea market that they imported from their sponsored family (but may not necessarily be conscious of the North American salmon predicament or the structural adjustment policies of the IMF, respectively) is called a hipster.

    Yes, as you caveat-ed (to coin a phrase), some people may fit roughly into two or three of these categories, and surely other people not described have been referred to as hipsters as well, but I think I have covered enough ground to be effective and fairly accurate.

    Those three examples all reject aspects of a “dominant” culture in some way, but you would be hard pressed to argue that all three are rejecting identical cultures.  If you wear designer brands, you are still often labeled a hipster, but how can you be rejecting Corporate America?  Irony does not suffice (trust me, I have never seen someone carry a Balenciaga bag or pay NYU tuition ironically).  If you have craft but no social history, your are simply recorporatizing, as it were, in a different vein, and have not really rejected the mainstream, which trades heavily in the privilege you would be employing. Etc.

    The point is, modern usage of “hipster” (as opposed to the Beat usage, which I’ll get to), is a pejorative term almost always used to imply insincerity.  I can’t site you anything on this, but try living in New York, or looking at the way it is used as the new Godwin word online, and you will see what I mean.  The Balenciaga boy is “insincere” because he uses fashion to be cool, haute, and envied (supposedly).  The activist is insincere in trying to mask white guilt and insinuate herself into a noble struggle.  The craftsman is insincere, in a way, because of his harmless and willful anachronism and urban juxtaposition (the beards!).

    However, the insincere hipster is not something that can ever be determined by looking at surface attributes and generalizing! (As other comments have more succinctly pointed out.)  Hipster, as it is commonly used today, is a catch-all term meant almost exclusively to be derogatory towards those who dare to be sincere in their uniqueness, whatever that may be.

    • Vivoshka

      This is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to people about what “hipster” is!
      Perfect.

  • Stop it already

    PART 2 (I think I posted these in the wrong order)

    “Hip,” as in hip-hop, was mostly used
    by the Beats to described attributes that they fetishized in the Black
    jazz artists and hobos they encountered.  Hip was largely racial up
    until today, and it has been appropriated by the public to now describe
    white folks, and sometimes middle class ethnic minorities.  Yes, the
    predominantly white Beat generation used hip and began the path towards
    appropriation, but more to describe and idealize the Other.  Read a
    little bit of the Pre-Kesey canon and you will find the Beats describing
    themselves as hip proportionally less than then when they describe
    black folk.

    Plus, Kerouac wouldn’t even be a hipster today (even
    if I do love On The Road).  He hated Communism, was anti-Semetic (well,
    maybe they have that in common), was a football player at Columbia, and
    was totally French Catholic.  He strongly believed his little brother
    (who passed away young) to be a saint.

    **************************

    To
    risk pretension and being utterly wrong, the only thing I can possibly
    see “hipsters” unifying around is an unconscious attempt to somehow
    disempower a Debordian spectacle. (To be fleshed out further in an
    upcoming TC piece! [not really though])

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