A Brief Defense of the "H Word"
To defend the hipster is to redefine the hipster. It is to reclaim a dirty word, a marketing word, and reappropriate it for good rather than evil.
"Hipster," as it is commonly used today, is a slur, a vague, derisive catchall for a cool-kid monoculture that fetishizes novelty but makes nothing new, that drifts through life in a nihilistic haze of irony, cannibalizing the culture, high and low, only to regurgitate its mediocrity. Worse still, the "hipster" has become marketing's patient zero, inhabiting a demographic Petri dish of instant focus groups and easily commoditized cool where the line between "content" and "commercialism" is all but gone.
With these deeply negative associations, then, it's not surprising that the very people for whom the label is so appropriate are the least likely to refer to themselves as "hipsters." And that's too bad. Our culture—our city—needs hipsters, and they should be proud to call themselves such.
Why? Well, here's what I'm talking about when I talk about hipsters.
If we think of a city as an ecosystem, with economic and cultural niches in perpetual but equilibrius flux, the hipster occupies that particular urban space reserved for young people who escape to the city to make art, be beautiful, get fucked up, and subvert convention. From the Romantic Poets to the Lost Generation, the Beats to the Factory, the hipster has been a catalyst of the counterculture, instigating through art, sex and rebellion the ongoing creation of life outside the mainstream.
A healthy society needs this niche, this lived example of youthful subversion and artistic experimentation, in order to grow; even when it pushes the boundaries of taste and devolves toward absurdity or shock for its own sake (Harmony Korine and Vincent Gallo come to mind) there is value in a committed hipster counterculture that seeks to subvert convention at any cost. It might occasionally seem pretentious, approaching self-parody even, but we need it to push us, to force us to question the art we create, the art we value, and the conventions we accept.
This sounds a lot like what we called the "avant-garde" through most of the 20th century, but there is something broader about this idea of the hipster, less academic. Not all hipsters make art, but they aspire to the artist's life, to live in the gutter, burn at both ends, and not say commonplace things.
In this sense, "hipster" is a necessarily fluid category that can't be reduced to fixed signifiers (the Beatnik goatee, the skinny jeans), but is rather an approach to existence that revels in subversion and appropriation: in art, in fashion, in nightlife. In fact, the moment a hipster signifier is captured and tagged, it becomes nothing more than a commodity, ready for export from the avant edge of city life to the mall spaces of mainstream America [see: trucker hat, c. 2003]. That these signifiers—over the last decade, at least—have been so easily repackaged and sold for mainstream consumption is only one of the reasons people have come to believe they hate hipsters, but it is significant.
One of the more impassioned and intelligent attacks on "hipster" culture in the last few years was Christian Lorentzen's "The Hipster Must Die" (Time Out New York, June, 2007), a forceful articulation of the dangers and dead-ends of hipsterism in New York City.
The problem with the article, though, was that it wasn't really a critique of hipster culture per se. Instead, it was an indictment of lifestyle marketing and the alarming speed (and skill) with which it mines the counterculture for commodities. Lorentzen, in fact, was able to retrieve a miraculous, disturbing quotation from a "downtown" real estate broker, one of the new breed of lifestyle marketers: "The profile of the typical renter in [the Lower East Side] is changing from the 'counterculture' hipster to the 'more mainstream' hipster and young professional."
Yup, the "mainstream hipster."
Of course this descriptor makes about as much sense as "corporate hippie," but whatever value it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in marketing power. Giant corporations want the hipster dollar, and they salivate at the idea of a "mainstream hipster," a minor league tastemaker with major disposable income. Never before has the distance been so small between the counterculture and the corporation, and Lorentzen has every right to be angry, scared and sad, all at the same time. Fuck, we should all be worried.
But we shouldn't let our fear and disgust with "hipster" marketing lead us to a Bedford Avenue scorched-earth policy. And here's where we get to terminology; here's where we try to salvage the idea of the hipster.
Gawker recently tried to replace "hipster with "fauxhemian," as if the two were synonymous. They are not. While fauxhemian is a useful term for the thousands of young professional types who rent their way through gentrifying Brooklyn on the way to fully realized yuppie lives, it excludes the very people I'm talking about, the people I'm trying to defend. The "fauxhemian" is just a young city-dweller gravitating to whatever signifiers of youth counterculture happen to bubble up through marketing filters. The fauxhemian can't (and doesn't want to) commit to a real hipster lifestyle because they're too worried about being on time for work or saving money for downpayments on a home. And that's ok. This is what people do. Good, smart people.
But these good, smart people are not hipsters. The people Lorentzen wants dead aren't hipsters either (and don't try to call them "mainstream hipsters").
The hipster I'm talking about—the definition I'm trying to get back to—is an obsessive curator of her own life: from fashion and art to drugs and rock and roll, the real hipster is a voracious consumer of culture in constant search of new routes to beauty and truth, ways of forestalling death, of fighting back against the inevitable compromises of time and age. The real hipster is desperate to remain one step ahead of convention, to make art from life and life from art. She is a collector and a collage-artist, aesthetically adventurous, intellectually playful. Do not blame her for the marketing commodity her lifestyle becomes six months after she's lived it.
So let us embrace Gawker's "fauxhemian" category, and let it apply to what Mr. Lorentzen's real estate guy would call the "mainstream hipsters." But let's not abandon the "hipster" altogether, because they are still out there (even if we don't yet know their names), taking risks, experimenting, making it new—and we are all better for it.
Hipsters Throughout History: The Definitive List
A brief polemic against the lists we make...
Jan 25, 2011