The very funny comedian and UCB performer Alex Fernie had this to say on his blog recently:
“Let’s stop using the word “Hipster” as if it means anything. It doesn’t. If you can use it to describe equally the characters in Girls, the chicks wearing Indian feathers at Justice’s Coachella set, and 40 year old guys with beards and Pulp t-shirts writing screenplays at Intelligencia, it has no meaning.”
This got me thinking: What exactly do people mean when they say that someone is a hipster? Why is it that so many of the people who use it as a term of abuse are nearly indistinguishable from those they use it against?
I can remember a time before the word “hipster.” The word is new, at least as a pejorative, but the concept is old. I remember well the vapid conversations my friends had back in the dark days of the mid-1990s, dissecting whether or not this band or that was “punk.” It wasn’t only bands, though; the entire realm of human experience could be judged against the vaguely defined and ever-evolving notion of punk-ness. The more punk a thing was judged to be, the more credible and pure it was. The worst thing you possibly could be was a poser. To affect the outward appearance of the subculture, without subscribing to the vaguely defined philosophical, political, and intellectual underpinnings was taken as a grave offense. At best, this distinction was used to distinguish between substance and fashion. At worst, and far more frequently, it was used to enforce an onerous group-think which was the opposite of the values it purported to defend.
After a cursory survey of articles deriding and defending the North American “hipster”, here are the most common complaints:
Hipsters are obsessed with trends and fashions,
Hipsters are smugly self-satisfied.
The most striking thing about this list is that it could apply, nearly without alteration, to the authors of the articles themselves, at least on occasion. Note that almost all of these complaints don’t have to do with liking specific things, but with liking them in the wrong way. To pick up Fernie’s point, there really is no such thing as a “hipster” independent of outside definition, or, to put it another way, the Pabst Blue Ribbon is in the eye of the beholder.
What is really happening here is that a set of cultural values that have emerged relatively recently in the US, as well as other wealthy nations- cultural omnivorousness, geographical rootlessness, the cult of authenticity- have reached a critical mass and have started to be digested by the advertising arm of Western capitalism. This last happened starting around 1992 with the mainstreaming of what had been 1980s “alternative” culture (remember OK Soda?), leading to a similar “poser panic” among those true believers and early adopters, who, not wishing to be confused with “those idiots” in the suburbs who were just into (fill in the blank) because it was currently cool, instituted truly rigorous ideological discipline. Anything short of Steve Albini level purity was unacceptable. They weren’t wrong, necessarily; it’s easy to forget the sheer torrent of crappy bands that were packaged up and resold in those years, because most of them were deeply forgettable. Just as all revolutions start with a bang and end with a whimper, 90s alternative rock started with Nirvana and ended with Creed.
As it turned out, it was just a cultural blip, and we were back to boy bands and adult contemporary soon enough. It’s hard to imagine that this cultural moment will be anything particularly lasting either. In the meantime, here’s some advice from grandpa: instead of endlessly interrogating the fashions and motives of everyone around you, trying to sniff out posers and fakes, why not focus on trying to uphold and promote the broader values that you actually hold dear; fashion is silly and meaningless and most of all temporary. Don’t let your convictions be so tied to your “lifestyle” that they are swept away with it. To use the parlance of days gone by: don’t sell out. Even if you are a bunch of dirty hipsters.