What We Talk About When We Talk About Hipsters 


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."

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