A certain image probably pops into your head when you hear the term “hipster”–but what does that label REALLY mean?
by Ethan Stanislawski
ATTN: MUSIC BLOGOSPHERE: The next time someone mentions that the term “hipster” is meaningless, doesn’t exist, is a social construct, etc., etc, please refer them to this blog post. It’ll save you the time and energy.
What do we think of when we think of a beatnik?
What do we think of when we think of a hippie?
What do we think of when we think of a punk?
What do we think of when we think of a yuppie?
These are all very clear concepts, even if their application to actual human beings in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s/90s was rather flexible and indeterminate. People went in and out of phases (or, as conservatives love to say, “fads”), never being purely classified as a pure hippie, pure punk or pure yuppie for their entire lives (mostly), but a legitimate community of these types did exist, and the term applied loosely but accurately to actual people.
All of these terms were specific variations of their times that fit under the blanket term “hipster.” “Hipster” was a term coined by Norman Mailer in The White Negro, and it refers to the subculture of the educated, art-minded young urbanites who resented and fought against the mainstream trends of the era, many of which were established by previous generations of hipsters. “Hipster” is a distinctly post-war American variation of the well established concepts of “bohemian,” “bourgeois,” “squatters” and “artist colony,” and in his definition, Mailer referred to the tendency of young, white, arty college graduates adapting black culture as a radical slap to the face of the establishment during the civil rights movement.
Each of the generations of hipsters listed had their distinct ideology: the hippies were a mix of peace and love that turned to violence when drafted; punks were a nihilistic, borderline anarchistic response to a world that had lost its innocence after Watergate/Vietnam; yuppies were responding to the rebellious identities of their parents by gentrification and business savvy with alternative culture thinking. Again, these are all generalizations that, when applied to an individual person from that era, or even a group of people, don’t necessarily hold up. Nonetheless, as a national, broad, sweeping trend, the terms no doubt have resonance.
The term “hipster” as we use it today features the same resume and place in society as previous generations: liberal arts college graduates, exposed to the most radical ideologies of their era, resenting the older, power-wielding generations and focused more on art rather than immediate political goals (though it’s arguable that hipsters were one of the driving forces that elected Barack Obama). The modern use of the term “hipster” probably originated from 2003′s The Hipster Handbook and was promulgated around that time by Vice Magazine.
Once Mailer’s hipsters entered the mainstream, so did the commodification, appropriation and condescension of black culture with rock and roll, rebellious advertising and post-Civil Rights Act racial politics. While this continued through the ’70s and ’80s, it didn’t rear its uglier side until the culture wars took on political correctness in the mid 1990s. Most likely, the reason the term “hipster” has taken off in the ’00s is because of the fear of the of generalization and condescension that had been an integral part of hipsterdom up to that point. Furthermore, the hipster class is unprecedentedly diverse. It’s still predominantly white, but affirmative action in liberal arts schools and the boom in Asian and Hispanic populations have led to much less uniformity. Look no further than the debates about ” and TV on The Radio, metrosexuality as a , films like Harold and Kumar and Better Luck Tomorrow and the standup of and to show the ethnic variations of hipster culture. In reality, the hipsters of today reflect the demographics of contemporary liberal arts colleges: unprecedentedly diverse, though still with a long way to go, and despite a heavy emphasis on financial aid and geographic diversity, still disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds.
In fact, the blanket use of the term “hipster” is really a convenient method of defining a group of people who reject being labeled in essentialist terms. The only consistent characteristic of contemporary hipsters is a refusal to be defined as such, though that is certainly not the only defining characteristic. Fashion, music and artistic trends change so frequently thanks to the Internet that it is hard to keep up with the changes in hipster fashion, though certain brands (American Apparel), music authorities (Pitchfork.com), film auteurs (Zach Braff, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach) stay relatively consistent in their influence (and simultaneous resentment).
The upside of the blanket contemporary use of the term “hipster” is that it helps avoid anger, resentment and in-fighting due to a refusal to be labeled (if you think the Internet noise over the term is bad now, imagine if the term “hipster” didn’t exist.) The downside of the blanket use is that it prevents any coherent, transcendent ideas and cultural attitudes to come out of the hipster class except for confusion, with the anger of previous generations muted rather than removed.
Depending on how you view things, this can be seen a great way to keep diverse opinions flowing and create a wide array of artistic and cultural attitudes. Alternatively, it can be seen as a convenient method of the powers that be to have the younger generations squabble amongst each other and let the military/industrial complex proceed unchecked by the demographic that’s traditionally fought against it. The breakdown of the music industry, another by-product of the Internet (and legitimately of a desire to “stick it” to a corrupt industry), has helped this confusion along, and the literary and print world is no less starved. (Though the film, television, comedy and art worlds, all things considered, have done rather well, while theater has remained in dire straits as always.)
One thing’s for sure: 20 years from now, when your kids see an image of a guy in a thick woven scarf and dark-rimmed “emo” glasses, they won’t be thinking of an arbitrary social construct; they’ll think “hipster.”