“Why is our generation so proud of being useless pieces of shit?” was a comment below a list of mostly silly ‘new years resolutions’ I had published on Thought Catalog earlier this year. Harsh as the comment was, anonymous guest 568929 (or something) had a point. It would seem that so much of our generation’s culture, a lot of which plays out online, is a whole lot of hipster-nothing. A culture of people who are continually engaged (our ‘online’ social media status’ give us away) and yet too cool to admit that any of it matters.
Of course, this wasting time, purposelessness, online bullshit applies to other demographics also, but for now, let’s talk about the mainstream, anti mainstream subculture of hipsters. What is a hipster anyway?
I won’t bore you with the obvious — flannel plaid shirts, skinny jeans, dark rimmed glasses, worn vintage clothing, Williamsburg (or the like) residing, Indie rock listening lefties — as I’m assuming anyone who’s browsing this online mag gets the gist. But where and how did this subculture emerge? The term “hip” emerged in the early 1940’s to describe the aficionados of the growing jazz scene. The actual origins of the word are not definite although it’s believed that “hip” is a derivative of “hop” which is slang for opium. Another theory is that it came from the West African word “hipi” which means “to open ones eyes”. This theory is relatable to the anti mainstream connotations of “hipster”, as to open ones eyes suggests “seeing and thinking independently to the pack”.
Of course, such an altruist definition of today’s hipster is highly subjective. To many, the term implies only a superficial image devoid of any philosophical backbone. In his 2009 Pop Matters article, ‘The Death of The Hipster’, Ron Horning bemoans that “they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how ‘cool’ it is perceived to be.” He also proposes that the hipster might be the “embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics.”
Sure, cool subcultures have always emerged — punk, hippie, beatnik, grunge, goth, and even emo — but for the most part, these cultures were driven by a political or philosophical heartbeat. Editor of LAist, Elise Thompson claims that hipsters are “the soldiers of fortune and style” who “appropriate” styles of past subcultural movements but “discard everything that the style stood for.”
What’s humorous though, is the extreme loathing that hipsters have evoked among non-hipsters and critics alike. For such an apparently substance-less culture, they’ve managed to impassion the world around them. Mark Greif from the New York Times explains that when they announced a debate on “hipsterism”, “the responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism.” Dan Fletcher from Time adds, “Hipsters manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity.” Does the “intensity” of such a backlash imply that hipsters carry more weight than their critics dare to admit?
This war on hipsters is perhaps ironic when so much of hipster culture penetrates the mainstream (if hipsters are not already the mainstream). For instance, hipsters are usually the connoisseurs of indie music before it breaks through to the masses. And fashion as a whole is largely inspired by the hipster look. For instance, ‘distressed’ designer jeans are an appropriation of hipster’s authentically worn out clothing. American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are large chain stores that create clothes that both replicate the hipster style for the mainstream and appeal to hipsters respectively.
The curious thing is though, in the face of such an anti-hipster outcry, besides Urban Dictionary, pro-hipster online discourse is virtually negligible. Also, clothing preferences aside, the one consistent characteristic of a hipster seems to be the defiant denial of being one. Grief writes, “No one, it seemed, thought of himself as a hipster, and when someone called you a hipster, the term was an insult. Paradoxically, those who used the insult were themselves often said to resemble hipsters.” If one was to openly identify oneself with the proposed image driven subculture, would one instantly be exposing oneself as vacuous, shallow and a fraud? Better to keep cool and turn the other way?
As Horning implies, maybe the emergence of such a movement is the cultural embodiment of capitalism and consumerism alike. Since hipsters are normally educated and from the middle classes, the irony of “we have access to a lot of things but don’t know what our motivation behind adopting them or doing any of it actually means” stands up. A lotta ‘things’ but no substance. Like the New York based Indie pop band and hipster kings, Fun., sing, “What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know…”