Of Hipsters

In August of 2008, there was a spike in Google searches for the word hipster. The spike was small, almost ignorable. But it foreshadowed the rise of an important historic word in the modern lexicon.

I do not remember the details but sometime between 2010 and 2011, the word hipster entered my vocabulary. I never bothered to look it up. It was one of those words the meaning for which you think you know. It’s because you have heard it enough times in enough contexts to just think you understand it. And so, I thought I knew the hipster — not just the word; but I knew walking, living, breathing hipsters.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago: as a discussion about hipsters raged on around me, I sat in silence. I think I had been in mid-sentence, when in a fleeting moment, I had gone from being certain about who the hipster was to questioning if s/he exists at all (for the sake of simplicity, I use he as a gender neutral pronoun to refer to the hipster for the rest of this essay). In that moment, although I could picture him, I found it impossible to define him. Who is the hipster? In the days that followed, I followed the question and it led me to intriguing corners of the hipster world.

There are differing opinions about what being a hipster means today, but the word dates back to before the end of WWII. The original hipster was born in the 1940s American jazz scene. At first he was black and a jazz aficionado. He was hipster because he was hip or “in the know”. He knew about jazz. He had been marginalized for centuries and did not know his place in 1940s America. He didn’t know his fate, or the factors that controlled it. But he knew jazz and had unwittingly started to create a subculture around it. The hipster rebelled against the pre-written script of pursuing the post-war American dream of suburban houses and safe life-long jobs. Jazz was his rebellion. Jazz did not follow scripts. Jazz was created and ended in the moment. Its fate was in the hands of its participants — an empowering thought. Soon there were white hipsters, born out of an attraction to the hipster way of life and out of a disgust for the “whiteness” of authority who couldn’t be trusted — the war, the atomic bomb, Truman, Eisenhower, big money corporations, and McCarthy. And soon, the hipster was not just American – you could find him in any major city in the West.

The hipster grew up in an era where the threat of nuclear aggression suppressed dissent and reason and creativity. The hipster’s subculture was his collective perpetual disobedience. He created his own fashion of pinstripe suits and berets. He spoke in a code, a language in which the same word could mean a number of things based on how the word was said. He lived around music and drugs and self-imposed poverty and relaxed sexual codes. He lived with abandon, and lived in the moment. His lifestyle was symbol of his power and his ability to think different, be different.

The hipster fathered James Dean, and the beat generation whose credits include the liberalizing of Western literature. He grandfathered the countercultures of the 1960s, the hippies and the sexual revolution — counter cultures that advanced the black civil rights, the feminist movement and the LGBT cause. The hipster set the countercultures of the post-war era in the West in motion. His language, of ambiguous words, continues to reverberate today through the streets of New York and Berlin and Toronto and Rio. If you have any doubts, ask a kid what “dig” or “sick” mean.

The cataloguing of the modern hipster is a bit spottier — it seems the modern hipster movement took shape in two waves. The first was the wife-beater wearing, trucker hat sporting hipster of the early 2000s who seemed to celebrate the nostalgic white suburbia life of the 70s. The second wave was inspired by youth of the green movement post-2003. Frankly, much of the literature about the modern hipster (in both its waves) focuses on how he looks (a throwback from a couple decades ago) and what he buys (non-mainstream products) — a somewhat disjointed profile that seems more like a list of associated emblems than a profile. The literature is rather sparse on his values, philosophy and psychology. This is where the debates begin — who is the hipster really? And where is he? You could go up to a hipster and ask him but no one that you think is a hipster ever admits to being one.

In my quest to find answers, I found three broad cultural opinions.

  1. The Common Opinion: The Hipster is Hip

Although contemporary culture has borrowed the word hipster from history, the word’s usage unwittingly has remained true to its original meaning: the hipster is “in the know”. That is the opinion of the common man, if you will. Not sociologists, not hipsters themselves but the common man who does not claim a stake in the hipster scene.

For these people, the hipster is a trendy urban subculture. He is the bartender at a local brewery who is struggling as a painter. The young lawyer who only eats organic. The grad student whose urban garden is the envy of his neighbourhood. The ad exec who builds his own solid wood furniture.

The word evokes an archetype. He is young and stylish and lives in gentrifying neighbourhoods of urban cities. It seems he shops for clothes at a thrift store, and considers flannel and skinny jeans bullish investments. He wears dark-rimmed eyeglasses while riding a fixed gear bike. He rides it to his yoga class or to shop for grass-fed beef, if he eats beef that is. Chances are he is vegetarian, and also indulges with Eastern spiritual practices. The hipster is a connoisseur of food and beer and coffee and music — he indulges in talking about his interests and in providing recommendations. His consumption choices are not mainstream. Mass popularity does not sway him. He is consistently ahead of the mainstream in knowing what’s hip. He sways the mainstream. And when the masses finally catch up to him, they find he has moved on. The archetype hipster’s lifestyle seems to be built around 5 key notions: authenticity, knowledge, sustainability, sexually fluid appearance, and non-mainstream consumption.

Authenticity — The more a taco shop looks like a hut in an alleyway in Mexico City, the more authentic it is; so is an unpainted wall, a badly painted sign, mismatched cutlery, and recycled mason jars for drinking water. This sentiment might have stemmed from a belief that the polished life in Western cities has washed away the charm from daily living. The hipster finds himself in a world full of perfect objects with perfect colours and perfect shapes. They are perfected by machines. And some of what the machines have perfected are not objects. They are fruits and vegetables and animals. That is neither charming nor authentic. So, when something is hand blown, hand woven, brewed-in-house, or crafted in a small village in New Zealand, the hipster finds it authentic, and holds it superior.

Knowledge — The hipster knows. He knows the details of the ingredients that go into the coconut oil he uses to cook, its smoking point, where the coconut is sourced from, the cold-pressed technique it is extracted through. Only because he knows the details, can he be sure that his experience is authentic. This knowledge — through extensive research, experiences and conversations — equips the hipster with a language in which he can communicate with others within his community. Knowledge enhances his consumption experiences. And he knows before others do.

[Closely tied to knowledge, is the notion of good taste. It is never expressed in so many words, but an underlying conversation of taste seems to dominate the hipster culture. Taste simply refers to an individual’s choices and preferences, and it is widely accepted that the hipster has a more refined taste than the mass. I have to be honest I struggled to decode what represents good taste. It could be the vocabulary that allows hipsters to indulge and deconstruct aspects of culture — food, beer, art, music. It could be the ability to discover things that may yet not be popular. It could be the skill to critically evaluate what’s good and worthy, and what’s not. It may be that the hipster develops taste through his intrinsic curiosity, experience and knowledge.]

Sustainability — A broad concept encompassing diverse aspects of environmental activism finds itself at home with the modern hipster, sustainability have a number of positive associations. Sustainable products are good for the environment and free of everything artificial. Sustainable food equates to healthy and better tasting. They are also usually local and handmade — the proximity to producers elevating the authenticity of the product.

Sexually Fluid Appearance — Much of the hipster appearance blurs the line between traditional binary male and female, straight and queer. Some argue that the modern hipster movement incubated at the intersection of the LGBT community and the green movement. Thus much of the fashion associated with the hipster — largely androgynous skinny jeans, messenger bags, and dark-rimmed eyeglasses — were popularized by the queer community before becoming emblems of the hipster.

Non-Mainstream Consumption— All of the above culminate into a lifestyle of the hipster that’s grounded in non-mainstream consumption that echoes the ideology of anti-consumerism of the green movement. The hipster’s pursuit for authenticity, his drive for knowledge, sustainability and non-traditional fashion sets him apart from the mass and its consumption patterns. The hipster does not blindly buy and consume what’s marketed to him. As a result (and as evident in recent history), the hipster perpetually stays ahead of the crowd. He discovers and blazes trails. In the past decade much of what the hipster had pioneered has become mainstream in fashion, food, design and technology. The hipster is hip.

2. The Hipster is Lost (among a crowd of imposters)

Five years ago, I recall being in a room at an ad agency where a group of “creative guys” engaged in an extended homophobic joke about one of their colleagues not in the room. Their laughter did not drown out the irony, as they all sat in skinny jeans and hefty full beards, a look that queer men had fashioned until recently.

One could argue that the hipster is lost in a crowd of imposters. You don’t have to be a hipster to look like one. And today much of the urban youth can lay claims to all or many of the behaviours of the stereotypical hipster. Youth from all kinds of professions, economic strata, backgrounds and ambitions flock to “hipster neighbourhoods”. Although they adopt the hip garb with its many emblems, behind the flannel they have created a world of irony.

In ‘hipster’ neighbourhoods, no one admits to being a hipster. The very word is often reserved for an imposter, someone with inferior taste, who is pretending to be a participant. The lawyer establishes her own superiority by denigrating the recent grad as a hipster, who recently moved to the city and has unseasoned taste. The bartender denigrates the lawyer as a corporate sell-out who has moved into her neighbourhood to appear “cool” driving her rent up. This infighting further blurs the lines.

The eager participants of the non-conforming counterculture now conform to prescribed aspects within the counterculture. To qualify, they must share the community’s distaste towards chain restaurants, be able to sense the apricot notes in the pale ale and be able to tell organic tomatoes from non-organic ones. You must dress a certain way, and abandon popular music. Buying only a specific set of brands ensures that you remain non-mainstream. The supposed anti-consumerism reaches its ironic crescendo on Sundays when the “hipster” pays for a $45 brunch bill sitting in a shirt that looks like it was bought at a thrift store but had costed him $125 at Urban Outfitters.

The participants of the modern hipster culture are the establishment.

And may be among them, the hipster is lost contemplating his own identity. Or maybe, he is not lost — he is just hiding. And laughing. Hidden in the crowd, he is orchestrating today’s culture while the rest of the not-knowing pack is simply following.

3. The Hipster is Dead Opinion

Or it may be that the hipster is dead, and what remain are his fragments among today’s youth. The “hipster” today is not an individual of a counterculture. He is a lifestyle trend that permeates the fashion, the food, the music and design of today’s mainstream urban youth culture. It’s likely that hipsterism is limited to what the modern youth buys and consumes. In that case, he is anti-consumerism consumerised. He is a counterculture that has been normalized.

But it’s also possible that some of the dead hipster’s most prized values like sustainability and Eastern spiritual leanings have found their way into the minds of unsuspecting followers. But the hipster, as we knew him, is dead and his death probably began in August of 2008 with that spike in Google searches. It signalled the mainstreaming of the hipster. And without debate, the one thing we can agree on about the hipster is that he is anything but mainstream.

Closing Thoughts: What’s in the Name?

Whatever you call them, there exists a large section of youth today that looks and acts like the hipster. They may be imposters or simply trend adopters meaning no harm. They may have the counterculture’s garb but not its revolutionary heart. Many are lured to the attractive hipster lifestyle through clever commerce — further expanding hipsterism’s reach among youth who couldn’t care less about its philosophy. They are the establishment that buys a delusion of being anti-establishment.

However, this comedic symbiosis must also be credited for inadvertently popularizing recycling and organic food and independent small businesses and clean energy. Someone might be composting today because it’s a trendy thing to do — although I may shake my head at it when no one is noticing, I cannot frankly say it’s a bad thing.

I wouldn’t quite equate this to a defeat for modern countercultures though. Countercultures have a way of flaring up unnoticed on seedbeds of dissent, of simmering to heat levels that propel change. And today’s youth will find plenty to dissent about. For all you know, under the nose of the mainstream and undetected in Google trends, another movement might be on the rise. Someday, we will catch up to it.