As of late, by attending the slew of artsy events taking place in London, I’ve found myself frequently discussing, with both friends and strangers, a topic we’ve all indulged in before: hipsters. It’s always so interesting to me to hear the profound and deeply thought out, more often than not negative, opinions people offer regarding just what constitutes a hipster. This then begs the question, why? What’s with this collective preoccupation or perhaps better described as a denied fascination? I find this subcultural befuddlement to be one of the most interesting aspects to youth/pop culture today. For example, there are the stereotypical markers of hipsterdom (i.e. vintage clothes, geek glasses, and a penchant for PBR) but anyone who partakes in or embraces these stylistic signifiers would never admit their hipster status to save their lives. So the problem is twofold: those who display hipster traits refuse the label and those who label do so for derogatory purposes. Oh world, you fascinate me so.
So, to help suss out the meaning of this perplexing term, I’ll go now to the most cozy and comfortable place I know, literature (hipster comment? hmmmm). Robert Lanham, author of The Hipster Handbook (2003) stated “the core elements of hipsterdom [are] clothes, music, and the belief that irony has more resonance than reason”. Is that really it though? Can a term heavily situated in a historically significant subcultural movement really be reduced to nothing more than material objects and musical tastes? Besides, irony is one of the most misused words in the English language...thanks Alanis. American writer Norman Mailer diligently observed the countercultural White youths of New York in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s who emulated Black culture and distanced themselves from social norms or “Whiteness” as much as possible. His findings: a population of young people completely disillusioned by two World Wars, rejecting the rapidly influxing personal luxuries of modernity in favour of fashionable poverty, laissez faire living, and indulgent behaviour (The White Negro, 1957). The word came into the being as a variation on “hepcat” which was a term to describe those who knew what was what and were active participants in the 1920’s to 40’s international jazz scene. As time progressed, acts of utter coolness became “hip” and thus the “hipster” was born (What was the Hipster?, 2010).
There’s the history of the term in an extremely tiny nutshell (I suggest more research on the subject, it’s so interesting) but it has enough basis to question present connotations associated with the word and act of being a hipster. A youth culture that was born out of an already marginalized community which, although attemptedly “non-contributing”, actually paved the way for the evolution of subcultures throughout every decade up until and including the present. The beatniks of the 50’s, the hippies in 60’s, the punks of the 70’s, the 80’s in general (!), the grunge scene in the 90’s and so on. I now ask why is a term produced by individuals who changed the entire course of youth culture indefinitely so nastily rejected? Why would someone sooner call themselves narcissistic, pompous, or lazy than identify as a hipster? I suppose it’s a case of a term being widely used to describe something detached from its original significance or meaning (i.e. “emo”, “gay”, even “ironic”) thus it takes on a completely different or dramatically skewed definition.
My ultimate question then, is not “what defines a hipster,” because we all can rattle off a long list of superficial material/behavioural markers that do so - but why has being called one or self-identifying as one become an unthinkable act to the enth degree? The truth is there are hipsters out there. I know various. Just as there are metal heads, club kids, or tree huggers. You’re inducted into a social group that simultaneously defines you and you it through where you go, what you do, how you speak, what you wear etc., etc. In an earlier LondonFuse article, Ryan Craven asked is there such a thing as hipster pride?. And in my opinion, there definitely is but it’s drenched in denial and a refusal to identify with a term that, if accepted for its positive qualities, could bring people together to combat the dwindling social engagement and awareness of today’s youth (not all of course but many). I know that sounds cheesy deluxe but I truly believe that change starts with the youngins and their overwhelming passion for and dedication to the things they love. As Ryan had said, being a hipster is about “being in the know” which is something that’s eternally cool and knowing what’s going on in the world around you is the first step towards being able to instigate change (whether political, social, personal etc.).
In short, my answer is yes, there can and should be such a thing as hipster pride because this hating game is as passé as faux neon Ray Bans. So let’s re-invigorate the potency of the term. Let’s jam that culture shall we, which is, perhaps, the most quintessential hipster act of all. The only real negative quality associated with hipsterdom is a snooty, standoffishness usually bred out of a killer taste in music and apparent love for Hemingway. In the simplest terms, being a big, judgmental, close minded meany (a la Grade 3 recess) is and always will be uncool, no matter how well dressed you are. So if you exude signs of hipsterdom and partake in things that bolster those very traits but still manage to be a good person, who’s socially aware and just so happens to have particularly good luck at Talize and Value Village, then embrace it. Post it on your Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook, print it on a homemade graphic tee, and write it in the bathroom stalls at CTO and APK: “I am a hipster and I’m proud”.