I wrote this article before writing this kind of article was cool.
For making that statement, you'd call me a hipster and you'd be right. By the modern definition of the term, accepted within popular culture, I'd be a terrible, beanie-wearing, Macbook Air-using hipster. While we’ve quickly enabled the populace with a descriptive term for the enlightened and bearded know-it-alls that are above cool, it’s interesting to note that the history of the word itself — “hipster” — might be more hipster than the hipsters themselves would ever care to admit (though they’d most likely inform that I'm wrong, with numerous obscure counterpoints swathed in sarcasm and pretension).
Hipster is an adjective, a noun and sometimes a verb. According to Merriam-Webster, the term means, “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion),” with first use cited in the 1940s. So let’s travel back in time to the 1940s. I'm sure some of you more qualified hipsters have already been there, but just in case — might want to pack a change of socks.
The jazz movement of the 1940s created a subculture that would permeate throughout time, creating further subcultures that would redefine the mainstream culture. There would be a point when everyone thought they were a version of Jack Kerouac, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The word hipster, or hepcat, as the hipster was known at the time, came directly from the word “hep,” or “in the know,” usually in reference to an emerging culture. The most interesting tidbit is that hipsters were the first to erase racial lines, as most of the emerging culture in the 1940s, such as jazz, was coming from the black community. Hepcats in the 1930s gave way to the hipsters in the 1940s without changing much but the term itself.
Most of the descriptions of hipsters in the 1940s to 1960s were of those without ideologies, a common trait being to exist without existing in the mainstream culture. While of course logic dictates that if enough people shun the common, then they themselves become something common — this logic has always been ignored by the hipster who believes their individuality is truly unique. Have you ever seen two hipsters arguing about an indie band they both think they discovered? Then you know what I mean.
Hipsters in the 1940s had no political alliances, they didn't create a divide in culture and were basically viewed as groupies of a movement (either Jazz or beyond) that would eventually die off. While that might have held true, the hipsters would then find another movement that was yet to become "square" as swing did before jazz. The term itself became something of a zen connotation, burned into the lexicon to describe someone of low worth, youth and irreverence towards modern society and the expectations of the generation before them.
Then, hipsters went away for about 50 years. With many that would become hipsters getting drafted into the second World War, and then Vietnam, there was no room for hipsters. Yet, the term didn't completely die. Hipster spun off into the hippy, a person still concerned solely with cynicism, nihilism and a moral code based on doing what one liked to be doing regardless of public perception. The hippy would eventually become a completely different subculture than the hipster. In the 1990's the hipsters returned in full flannel wearing form, creating a divide between the general public and hipsters; an often venomous and spiteful divide. The hipsters condensation towards anything considered "popular" was acidic to those who viewed hipsters as lazy do-nothings concerned with being cool without being cool. Of course, being cool is subjective and that has always been part of the problem.
So when did the word "hipster" come to be associated in a negative connotation with skinny jean wearing self prescribed anti-establishment scenesters? While the word hipster made a solid comeback in the 1990's, it wasn't truly until the 2000's that the hipster came to be something so despised by the general public. Their desire to be seen as being something outside the mainstream, at the same time not wanting to be seen, created a retro subculture rife with stereotypes and animosity. Calling someone a hipster translated roughly into an insult, especially if someone didn't self identify as a hipster and was just doing the things that made them happy. This generalization caused hipsters to further withdraw from the general operations of daily society, in order to not be associated with hipsters who didn't self identify as such. This is where it gets a bit confusing.
You see, hipster has quickly become a term for folks who want to be noticed by being noticed for not wanting to be noticed. This apathy and deep seeded need to find irony where there is none (and when the definition of irony is quickly forgotten) may be the eventual downfall of society. Hipsters exist for the sake of existing, all the while trying to create and perpetuate an image of ultimate individuality not realizing they have just created a club of like minded people who all think that looking like my dad from 1978 is somehow cool. These are young people, lost in their generation and trying to find their identities, not realizing that in doing so they are losing their own identity.
So with all the negative connotations in pop culture, should we ban the word "hipster" from the lexicon as was previously suggested for the words "nerd" and "geek"? As with those terms, no. The word hipster and the culture that it embodies will change and continue to evolve. Yet, it is the hipster subculture that helps independent artists, musicians, writers and other creators expand their audiences. Because after all, I heard of them before you did so I must be cooler. The hipster, whether they want to admit it or not, helps previously undiscovered artists reach a higher level of popularity, making them mainstream.
Since we've established that the hipster shuns the mainstream content in popular culture and embraces that which has not reached that apex, what happens when something the hipster loved becomes mainstream? As Julia Plevin pointed out in her 2008 Huffington Post article, "the look has gone mainstream." Along with that, many staples of the hipster culture have become popular, such as eating gluten-free (aside from those with Celiac disease who have no choice), living green and wearing more hand-me-downs. Many of this has to do with economic factors and the passing of time and society adapting to new technologies. The hipster, while perhaps sitting listlessly on the cutting edge of pretty much everything, does little to actually further the causes they support. Plevin wonders what will happen when the hipster subculture completely goes mainstream. In that case, when that does inevitably happen, they'll be on to the next subculture item, which will also eventually go mainstream. It's an Ouroboros.
Rob Horning of Popmatters wrote an article titled "The Death of the Hipster" in which he went to a panel discussion on the topic and summarized it succinctly. Basically, he raised the point that perhaps society needs hipsters to complete a socioeconomic circuit as cultural middlemen. He went on to describe that perhaps our hatred of the term hipster could be nothing but a base fear of the unknown rooted in our own paranoia.
"The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which 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. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster. But are there hipsters, actual hipsters, or just a pervasive fear of hipsters? Hipster hatred may actually precede hipsters themselves. Maybe that collective fear and contempt conjures them into being, just as the Red Scare saw communists everywhere, or how the Stasi made spies of everyone. Late capitalism makes us all fear being hipsters and thus makes us all into one, to some degree."
So what does hipster mean? Before answering that question myself, I asked the people what the word "hipster" means to them. This is the response of the people:
"Saw your tweet, looked out my window here in Portland, shook my head..." - @ahockley
"A dirty, wannabe socialite with an elitist attitude towards art and music with a propensity for bizarre 'counter-fashion'." - @retron8
"I originally thought (whether it was based on fact, I don't remember) that it just meant someone very hip and stylish who was on the leading edge of things. Other people tell me that it means some guy in skinny jeans wearing a godawful trucker's cap and wearing horrible sunglasses." - @jennywilliams
"It's always been a bit derogatory. I think Maynard G Krebs (Bob Denver) was labeled a hipster in a negative sense. Was he the first? When I hear it, I think 'artisan bacon makers in Williamsburg with glasses they don't need, flannel they don't need, and bikes with no gears.'" - @chrisbrogan
"Pretty certain it means ridiculous teen who wants to pretend they are cooler than they actually are by acting 'uncool'" - @kirstenwright
"What we now call hipsters we used to call SCENESTERS. Scenesters would do anything to be cool, and claiming the uncool was always super edgy for a scenester (fanny packs, wolf howling shirts). Hipsters were actually cool, a call back on the original use of the word hipster in a beatnik sort of way, they were usually nice, low ego, in bands or artists. It's about being noticed. They choose to be contrary because it seems edgy or trend-setty." - @farrensquare
"One who acts aesthetically different to be different and not utilitarian, mainstream or sensible." - @funky49
Hipster is a word describing a cog in the machine. A cog with a purpose that the cog does not, will not and refuses to recognize. The hipster is the coal in the engine of pop culture, the bait on the hook. They stoke the fires of the new and ground breaking, creating buzz below the surface. Eventually, the ground swell becomes big enough for a non-hipster organization or group to notice and something becomes popular, to which the hipster immediately shuns it. Their hand in creation, music and art is heavy, yet the hipster will never admit credit for something becoming popular, just that they knew it was so before it was so. The hipster operates outside the confines of modern sensibilities, prejudices or ethics. The nihilistic view of society creates the next level of society which replaces the top level when that generation moves on. The hipster will always have a place in society, they just know they had that place before you even thought of it.