Hipster (contemporary subculture)
The hipster subculture typically consists of white millennials living in urban areas. The subculture has been described as a "mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior" and is broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility (including vintage and thrift store-bought clothes), generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles. Hipsters are typically described as affluent or middle class young Bohemians who reside in gentrifying neighborhoods.
The term in its current usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the 2010s, being derived from the term used to describe earlier movements in the 1940s. Members of the subculture do not self-identify as hipsters, and the word hipster is often used as a pejorative to describe someone who is pretentious, overly trendy or effete. Some analysts contend that the notion of the contemporary hipster is actually a myth created by marketing.
In a Huffington Post article entitled "Who's a Hipster?", Julia Plevin argues that the "definition of 'hipster' remains opaque to anyone outside this self-proclaiming, highly-selective circle." In Rob Horning's April 2009 article "The Death of the Hipster" in PopMatters, he states that the hipster might be the "embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics." In a New York Times editorial, Mark Greif states that the much-cited difficulty in analyzing the term stems from the fact that any attempt to do so provokes universal anxiety, since it "calls everyone's bluff".
Origins in the 1940s
The term was coined during the jazz age, when "hip" emerged as an adjective to describe aficionados of the growing scene. Although the adjective's exact origins are disputed, some say it was a derivative of "hop", a slang term for opium, while others believe it comes from the West African word hipi, meaning "to open one's eyes". Another argument suggests the term derives from the practice of lying on one's hip while smoking opium. The ultimate meaning of "hip", attested as early as 1902, is "aware" or "in the know". Conversely, the antonym unhip connotes those who are unaware of their surroundings, also including those who are opposed to hipness.
Nevertheless, "hip" eventually acquired the common English suffix -ster (as in spinster and gangster), and "hipster" entered the language. The first dictionary to list the word is the short glossary "For Characters Who Don't Dig Jive Talk", which was included with Harry Gibson's 1944 album, Boogie Woogie In Blue. The entry for "hipsters" defined them as "characters who like hot jazz". It was not a complete glossary of jive, however, as it included only jive expressions that were found in the lyrics to his songs.
The same year, Cab Calloway published The New Cab Calloway's Hepster's Dictionary of Jive, which had no listing for Hipster, and because there was also a 1939 edition of Calloway's Hepster's (an obvious play on "Webster's") Dictionary, it appears that "hepster" pre-dates "hipster". Initially, hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely black jazz musicians they followed. In The Jazz Scene (1959), author Eric Hobsbawm (originally writing under the pen name Francis Newton) described hipster language—i.e., "jive-talk or hipster-talk"—as "an argot or cant designed to set the group apart from outsiders".
However, the subculture rapidly expanded, and after World War II, a burgeoning literary scene grew up around it. Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as "rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality". In his essay "The White Negro", Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death—annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity—and electing instead to "divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self".
1990s through today
"Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care."
In early 2000, both the New York Times and Time Out New York ran profiles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, without using the term hipster; the Times refers to "bohemians" and TONY to "arty East Village types". By 2003, when The Hipster Handbook was published by Williamsburg resident Robert Lanham, the term had come into widespread use in relation to Williamsburg and similar neighborhoods. The Hipster Handbook described hipsters as young people with "mop-top haircuts, swinging retro pocketbooks, talking on cell phones, smoking European cigarettes... strutting in platform shoes with a biography of Che Guevara sticking out of their bags". Lanham further describes hipsters using the heavily politicised rhetoric of a fantasy-world where Republicans are few in number: "You graduated from a liberal arts school whose football team hasn't won a game since the Reagan administration" and "you have one Republican friend who you always describe as being your 'one Republican friend.'" One author dates the initial phase of the revival of the term from 1999 to 2003.
A similar phenomenon occurred the United Kingdom, with young workers in the media and digital industries moving into traditional working class areas of London such as Hoxton, Spitalfields, and, particularly, Shoreditch. The subculture was parodied in the magazine Shoreditch Twat (1999) and the television sitcom Nathan Barley (2005). The series, about a self-described "self-facilitating media node", led to the term "Nathan Barleys" being used pejoratively to describe the culture it parodied.
A 2009 Time magazine article described hipsters thus: "take your grandmother's sweater and Bob Dylan's Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam — hipster." Slate writer Brandon Stosuy noted that "Heavy metal has recently conquered a new frontier, making an unexpected crossover into the realm of hipsterdom". He argues that the "current revival seems to be a natural mutation from the hipster fascination with post-punk, noise, and no wave", which allowed even the "nerdiest indie kids to dip their toes into jagged, autistic sounds". He argues that a "byproduct" of this development was an "investigation of a musical culture that many had previously feared or fetishized from afar".
In 2008, Utne Reader magazine writer Jake Mohan described "hipster rap" as "consisting of the most recent crop of MCs and DJs who flout conventional hip-hop fashions, eschewing baggy clothes and gold chains for tight jeans, big sunglasses, the occasional keffiyeh, and other trappings of the hipster lifestyle". He notes that the "old-school hip-hop website Unkut, and Jersey City rapper Mazzi" have criticized mainstream rappers whom they deem to be posers or "fags for copping the metrosexual appearances of hipster fashion". Prefix Mag writer Ethan Stanislawski argues that there are racial elements to the rise of hipster rap. He claims that there "have been a slew of angry retorts to the rise of hipster rap", which he says can be summed up as "white kids want the funky otherness of hip-hop ... without all the scary black people".
In his 2011 book HipsterMattic, author Matt Granfield summed up hipster culture this way:
"While mainstream society of the 2000s (decade) had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears's underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new 'new'. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath's cardigans and Buddy Holly's glasses — they revelled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool. They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognised for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn't something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn't to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you'd never seen television."
New York subgroups
As hipsters, "young creatives", priced out of Bohemian urban neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Greenpoint moved into suburbs near New York City such as Hastings-on-Hudson The New York Times coined the neologism "Hipsturbia" to describe the hip lifestyle as lived in suburbia. Dobbs Ferry, Irvington and Tarrytown were also cited.
A minor trend of cross acculturation of Chabad Hasidism and Hipster subculture appeared within the New York Jewish community, beginning in the late 2000s. A significant number of members of the Chabad Hasidic community, mostly residing Crown Heights, Brooklyn, appear to now have adopted various cultural affinities as the local hipster subculture. These cross-acculturated Hasidim have been dubbed "Chabad hipsters" or "Hasidic hipsters." The Soho Synagogue, established by Chabad emissaries in SoHo, Manhattan, have branded themselves as a "hipster synagogue." The trend of Chabad Hasidic hipsters stands in contrast to the tensions experienced between the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the local hipster population.
Christian Lorentzen of Time Out New York argues that "hipsterism fetishizes the authentic" elements of all of the "fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge", and draws on the "cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity" and "gay style," and then "regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity." He claims that this group of "18-to-34-year-olds," who are mostly white, "have defanged, skinned and consumed" all of these influences. Lorentzen says hipsters, "in their present undead incarnation," are "essentially people who think of themselves as being cooler than America," also referring to them as "the assassins of cool." He argues that metrosexuality is the hipster appropriation of gay culture, as a trait carried over from their "Emo" phase. He writes that "these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod." He also criticizes how the subculture's original menace has long been abandoned and has been replaced with "the form of not-quite-passive aggression called snark".
In a Huffington Post article entitled "Who's a Hipster?", Julia Plevin argues that the "definition of 'hipster' remains opaque to anyone outside this self-proclaiming, highly-selective circle". She claims that the "whole point of hipsters is that they avoid labels and being labeled. However, they all dress the same and act the same and conform in their non-conformity" to an "iconic carefully created sloppy vintage look".
Rob Horning developed a critique of hipsterism in his April 2009 article "The Death of the Hipster" in PopMatters, exploring several possible definitions for the hipster. He muses that the hipster might be the "embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics", or might be "a kind of permanent cultural middleman in hypermediated late capitalism, selling out alternative sources of social power developed by outsider groups, just as the original 'white negros' evinced by Norman Mailer did to the original, pre-pejorative 'hipsters'—blacks...".
Horning also proposed that the role of hipsters may be to "appropriat[e] the new cultural capital forms, delivering them to mainstream media in a commercial form and stripping their inventors ... of the power and the glory". Horning argues that the "problem with hipsters" is 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", as "just another signifier of personal identity". Furthermore, he argues that the "hipster is defined by a lack of authenticity, by a sense of lateness to the scene" or the way that they transform the situation into a "self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit".
Dan Fletcher in Time seems to support this theory, positing that stores like Urban Outfitters have mass-produced hipster chic, merging hipsterdom with parts of mainstream culture, thus overshadowing its originators' still-strong alternative art and music scene. According to Fletcher, "Hipsters manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity. Critics have described the loosely defined group as smug, full of contradictions and, ultimately, the dead end of Western civilization."
Elise Thompson, an editor for the LA blog LAist argues that "people who came of age in the 70s and 80s punk rock movement seem to universally hate 'hipsters'", which she defines as people wearing "expensive 'alternative' fashion[s]", going to the "latest, coolest, hippest bar...[and] listen[ing] to the latest, coolest, hippest band". Thompson argues that hipsters "don't seem to subscribe to any particular philosophy ... [or] ... particular genre of music". Instead, she argues that they are "soldiers of fortune of style" who take up whatever is popular and in style, "appropriat[ing] the style[s]" of past countercultural movements such as punk, while "discard[ing] everything that the style stood for".
Zeynep Arsel and Craig Thompson
Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu's work and Thomas Frank's theories of co-optation, Zeynep Arsel and Craig Thompson argue that in order to segment and co-opt the indie marketplace, mass media and marketers have engaged in commercial "mythmaking" and contributed to the formation of the contemporary discourse about hipsters. They substantiate this argument using a historical discourse analysis of the term and its use in the popular culture, based on Arsel's dissertation that was published in 2007.
Their argument is that the contemporary depiction of hipster is generated through mass media narratives with different commercial and ideological interests. In other words, hipster is less of an objective category, and more of a culturally- and ideologically-shaped and mass-mediated modern mythology that appropriates the indie consumption field and eventually turns into a form of stigma. Arsel and Thompson also interview participants of the indie culture (DJs, designers, writers) to better understand how they feel about being labeled as one. Their findings demonstrate three strategies for dissociation from the hipster stereotype: aesthetic discrimination, symbolic demarcation, and proclaiming sovereignty. These strategies, empowered by one's status in the indie field (or their cultural capital) enable these individuals to defend their field dependent cultural investments and tastes from devaluating hipster mythology.
Their work explains why people who are ostensibly fitting the hipster stereotype profusely deny being one: hipster mythology devaluates their tastes and interests and thus they have to socially distinguish themselves from this cultural category and defend their tastes from devaluation. To succeed in denying being a hipster, while looking, acting, and consuming like one, these individuals demythologize their existing consumption practices by engaging in rhetorics and practices that symbolically differentiate their actions from the hipster stigma.
Mark Greif, a founder of n+1 and an Assistant Professor at The New School, in a New York Times editorial, states that "hipster" is often used by youth from disparate economic backgrounds to jockey for social position. He questions the contradictory nature of the label, and the way that no one thinks of themselves as a hipster: "Paradoxically, those who used the insult were themselves often said to resemble hipsters — they wore the skinny jeans and big eyeglasses, gathered in tiny enclaves in big cities, and looked down on mainstream fashions and 'tourists.' " He believes the much-cited difficulty in analyzing the term stems from the fact that any attempt to do so provokes universal anxiety, since it "calls everyone's bluff". Like Arsel and Thompson, he draws from Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu to conclude:
You can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain. One hipster subgroup's strategy is to disparage others as "liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands"; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the "creative professions". These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural "cool".
They, in turn, may malign the "trust fund hipsters". This challenges the philistine wealthy who, possessed of money but not the nose for culture, convert real capital into "cultural capital" (Bourdieu's most famous coinage), acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear. (Think of Paris Hilton in her trucker hat.) Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch-surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be "superior": hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.
Greif's efforts puts the term "hipster" into a socioeconomic framework rooted in the petty bourgeois tendencies of a youth generation unsure of their future social status. The cultural trend is indicative of a social structure with heightened economic anxiety and lessened class mobility.
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- This short glossary of jive expressions was also printed on playbills handed out at Gibson's concerts for a few years.
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- GREENFIELD, NICOLE. ."BIRTH OF HIPSTER HASIDISM?" RELIGION DISPATCHES. University of Southern Carolina. FEBRUARY 2, 2012
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hipsters.|
- Robert Lanham deconstructs hipsters in The Morning News
- "The Sad Science of Hipsterism: The Psychology of Indie Bands, PBR and Weird Facial Hair" in Psychology Today
- "Will The Last Hipster Please Turn Out The Lights? New York cool dies its thousandth death. A satire." Zev Borow, New York, May 21, 2005
- "Selling Out" David McRaney "You Are Not So Smart" April 12, 2010
- The New Counterculture's Buying Power