In defense of the hipster


Discussing the finer points of ‘hipster’ has become a fashionable pursuit. A slew of articles have emerged recently with the intention of unraveling this loaded term. Along with more serious article such as The Guardians, ‘Why do people hate hipsters?‘ and adbusters.com somewhat hysterically titled ‘ Hipsters: The dead end of western civilisation‘  we have  popular humour sites such as ‘Look at this fucking hipster‘ and the highly circulated ‘Being a dickheads cool’ video, which became something of an online sensation this summer.

Most of these express a similar sentiment; The hipster movement is a vacuous non-culture. A scene which has taken all the codes which marked former youth movements, and spliced them together to create a mutated monster.  Gleefully these articles proclaim how hipsters have no collective political ideology, and no art movement that expresses its particular ethos.

Their political stance is apathy, their art movement is selective consumerism. Hipsters appropriate the symbols of other groups, and re-assemble them to create a nonchalant look that belies the excruciating nature of its own self awareness. People really, really don’t like this.

What’s more, not liking hipsterdom does not make you a square. Unlike proponents against other youth subculture, hating hipsters actually propels you up the cool ladder. Because – and this is where it starts to get complicated- being part of the complex cultural exchange that informs hipsterness, requires the direct denial of being any part of it.

It is such a loathed term, that even those who wear its mass of ever transforming symbols will insist that they themselves have nothing to do with it. As the joke goes…

Why is the hipster culture so troubling to people? What is it exactly that marks it out as being so different from any other fleeting youth movements? Essentially, hipsters are young, white, privileged, and disenchanted youth.

They inhabit urban spaces, ride bicycles and are involved in a constant hunt for the obscure and the authentic. To be a hipster is to take the Foucaldian idea of self regulation to a whole new level.

The hipster must be in tune not only to their bodies, but to the never ceasing wash of information that characterises our age. It is this awareness that crystalises to form a knowing look based on an odd form of bricolage. Old and new merge and transmogrify to create a walking set of symbols that communicate an understanding about semiotics of past style.

What makes hipsters approach to bricolage different to say, punks however, is that the objects and styles chosen, are done so in a manner that essentially only communicates an intellectual elitism about knowing their original symbology.

For the punks,  the wearing of the safety pin was an intended homage made to the everyday nature of its intended use, and its association with the British working class (Hebdige). Something seemingly mundane and innocuous was taken up, and re-established with a new meaning through its relationship with other objects.

When a hipster places an original 1940s pie ball hat on top of their newly cut hitler-youth hairstyle, what is being communicated is not political. It is about knowing the right vintage clothes shop, the right kind of pieces to wear at that particular moment in time, and the right way in which to mark themselves out to other hipsters as being of a selective group.

authenticity is

All youth movements have had an elitist element to them, a desire for the underground and the not yet discovered. Something which can be seized upon as ‘theirs’, that is rejected by the mainstream mother culture.

Hipster culture is also carried by this desire, but has found itself faced with the free exchange of information that typifies modern western culture. The internet has meant that everyone and anyone has easy access to all forms of creative expression, the most obscure bands can be found in a matter of minutes on Google, self published zines can be read online by anybody.

To know about a particular band from the depths of musical history, or from the outer reaches of the globe, is just not that hard anymore. Bob Dylan built a career from discovering a rare collection of Woody Guthrie records, barely heard of by most people of his generation. It is inconceivable that such a thing could happen now. That sense of a few people all tuning into something at the same time, the essential blood to counter culture, is no longer possible.

Not only do we have the free and mighty internet, we have a capitalist culture that has finally caught on to the fact that kids will buy cool. Scenes barely have enough time to emerge,  before ‘cool scouts’ are taking photos of what they’re wearing, and selling them to Urban Outfitters.

The organic and natural progression of a youth culture has been stunted by a constant media fascination with what kids are wearing and listening to, and how exactly it can be re-packaged and sold back to us.

A hipster girl in Hackney gets ‘cool scouted’

In the face of this, hipsters have created a scrabbling culture, that moves more quickly, and rejects more swiftly past trends than any other youth movement that has come before it. It centres around the need to know ‘obscure’ music, that ‘you probably wont have heard of’ because it recognises that this is something that has been taken away from us, something that was at the cornerstone of all other counter cultures, but is now unreachable.

In the past, young people would rally together with those few others that had heard they’re much loved but sidelined bands. Jonny Ramone couldn’t help but be friends with DeeDee because he was one of the few other people to like The Stooges. There is an awareness that this is how it used to be, and hipsters try to recapture this sense of belonging through music. Drawn by the need to find things that haven’t yet been seized upon, sanitized, de-politicised, and made appropriate for mass consumption.

Hipsters are left trying to keep one step ahead of a constant barrage of products that have been distilled from counter culture and then re-sold. The mother culture can no longer be resisted in the same way. It has come to realise the lucrative potential for absorbing dissonance and re-selling it. Reification baby.

Hipsters are criticised for being consumerist, for being smug and apathetic. But this seems to me only a natural reaction to the suffocating situation young people have found themselves in. We have no real movement, because as soon as anything springs up, it will be plastered across magazines and news articles, picked up by fashion houses, and any political resistance it could potentially have is neutralised. Young people know that any political ideology would quickly be gobbled up and regurgitated out by mainstream culture as merely a trend, and so hipsters have embraced the mentality of style over substance.

We simply do not have any space in which to express a political movement, we are too scrutinised, too self aware. When young people have as of late reacted in a political manner, they are treated as though they are bad parodies of a bygone era, as if they are only poor imitations of the ‘real’ young people of the 60’s and 70’s.

Is it any wonder that hipsters fetishize objects of the past? The hipster movement is, as all youth cultures are, a direct reflection of our culture as a whole. The 60’s beats were a product of a changing understanding of the world,  a desire for change and belief in the new. The 70’s punks reflected back across middle-england the dissastisfaction of a country being squeezed by Thatcherite neo-liberalism. The 90’s grunge scene saw young people reclaiming music from the bloated corporate music industry in a renaissance of the punk spirit. And hipsters.. Hipsters show us the ultimate result of a world saturated with information. Of a world that hinges around globalised knowledge, and high speed consumption.

Hipsters give insight into the core experiences that inform our modern age, of consumerist culture and deadening of resistant politics. Ultimately, it seems to be that most people find it far easier to mock and belittle the actions of young people trying to forge a collective sense identity, than it is to look with a critical eye upon the culture they are reacting too.

The hipster movement does not exist in a vacuum, and if it is to be problematised, so too should be the globalising, consumerist nature of current Western society.

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9 thoughts on “In defense of the hipster

  1. This article is absolutely fabulous and incredibly well-written and well-researched. I’m glad you put the hipster movement in context because there seems to be so much anti-hipsterdom creeping up in the past few years. And who is Adbusters to criticize?

  2. Intuitively I’ve always felt sorry for ‘hipsters’ and thought the hipster hate was more complicated and recursive than the haters acknowledge. After all, hating hipsters is the sine qua non of hipsterism. It’s that that need to be acknowledged in the same way that http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/ really should have an entry for ‘Stuff White People Like’.

  3. Pingback: 2010 in review | Anna Clover

  4. I found this article to be quite well-written overall, and describing the hipster culture accurately and with a familiar depth. I would agree with most of it, as a description but I am particularly inflamed with this statement: “We simply do not have any space in which to express a political movement, we are too scrutinised, too self aware.” as well as those adjacent to it. This is utter BS. At least here in Western democracies, the only political movement that people (hipster or otherwise) have no space “in which to express” are not true political movements, but just pseudo ones. Like being counter-culture for the sake of being counter-culture. Or adopting real political and social movements, but only superficially so, for their aesthetics and their non-mainstreamness?
    In this age of political and economic turmoil (and even before that) there are several valid, real, and utterly important political and social movements (climate change, the environment, economic reform, sustainable development, rationalism, anti-extremism, etc.). There are also some misguided, wrong, but nonetheless still real and valid political movements (like the Tea Party movement 😦 …).
    So to say that “We simply do not have any space in which to express a political movement, we are too scrutinised, too self aware.” betrays the vacuousness of the majority of the hipster movement, their superficiality, their caring more about aesthetics and how others view them, and never truly supporting meaningful causes.

    • I would also like to add that “embracing the mentality of style over substance” to counter that fact that youth’s opinion is too scrutinized is a paradox that only makes sense to the lazy kids that want to start a revolution in a second-hand clothes shop and end it at the pub.
      If any subculture doesn’t have the time to be born before it gets “re-packaged and sold back to us”, wouldn’t the immediate, conscious reaction be to linger a bit less on your grandma’s wardrobe and a bit more on ideals that shape your life in a voluntary way, nevermind what the media say next week?
      And what does that say about the whole movement?

  5. While I don’t disagree with anything said, I fail to see how ‘hipsters’ are any different from the mods of the 60s, the new romantics of the early 80s or any other non-political youth culture. Is not being “meshed in a constant hunting pattern for the obscure and the authentic” the very definition of Northern Soul, a movement no doubt revered by the hipsters and yet created by people now approaching their 60s?

  6. What an excellent, lucidly composed article. I’ll certainly come back to this blog. However, I had ambivalent reactions towards two important premises of the article, namely, the real substance of antipathy towards hipsters, and secondly the idea that hipsters are in some way politically neutered by the unique conditions of our post-information, late capatalist society.
    Firstly, actual antipathy toward Hipsterism is (at least based on my somewhat shallow experience, living as I do, in the provinces) in fact more likely to come from hipsters themselves as from outside, as you astutely point out. I think this self-conscious, self-loathing aspect of hipsterism was well represented by ‘Nathan Barley’ – particularly in the fuzzy boundaries between Barley and Brown, the anti-hipster who was lauded all the more for his scathing criticism of Hipsterism – in fact he was enveloped by it seemingly against his will.
    The antipathy is therefore qualitatively different to that which might have been aimed at earlier, more ‘dangerous’ or politicised groups. It’s very difficult to imagine hipsters being decried en masse by the twitching curtain brigade for large scale public disturbance or destabilising the state, like punks, hippies, and radical student movements in the past. The notion of the hipster is still scarcely understood by the public at large, not only because of its inherently amorphous, possibly even elitist nature, but also owing its basically benign aims. A few months back, in London, I found myself in the midst of a hipster-laden pub session following a degree show, which spilled out into an impromptu, off-licence wine fuelled drinking cluster after the pub closed. Although several hundred people blocked were blocking a road, the police, who drove past several times, did nothing to disband the group (this was pre-riot- not sure if it would be different now). But it was as if the police took one look at the crowd of freakishly dressed youngsters and just assumed the whole thing was too riduculous to be threat. Could it be that hipsters are simply arch-consumers, of both information and conventional products, and that’s why they seem to fit so unantogonistically within the body politic? The kind of social ire which is reserved for the unemployed, the underclass will never find them, perhaps because they carved out a comfortable space for themselves in the ever expanding frontier of bourgeois interiority.

    • Dude, I was at the same street sprawling Goldsmiths-tastic hipster love in as you, and I was struck by exactly the same thing.
      The police didn’t see them as a problem because white, middle class little sillies in brogues clasping red stripes are a threat to nobody, and the police know which side their bread is buttered on. As you put it so well, they’ve carved out for themselves a warm little niche within the bourgeois interiority that is ultimately benign. My original sentiments towards hispters – as seen in this post – was one of sympathy. That has now waned quite considerably.

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