in defense of the hipster; or, Take heart: America needs its social pariahs and will makes them if it can’t find them and hipsters are the easiest targets of all because they simply do not care about being social pariahs, or targets…but perversely care a great deal about being called hipsters

In July, 1958, a writer for San Francisco’s Daily Express wrote the following:

“This is the home and the haunt of America’s Beat generation and these are the Beatniks – or new Barbarians.”

This is the first recorded instance of the word Beatnik, a word that in relatively short time came to signify an entire subculture. Their manner of dress, of thinking, of art and tastes, of age and even race, came to be succinctly signified by this one word. Soon after, Beatniks were everywhere; and they were forthrightly loathed by the Beat Generation, who saw them as hollow followers, pale imitations.

In July, 2009, a writer for Time wrote the following:

“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….Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care.”

This isn’t the first recorded instance of the word hipster. Not by far. In fact, the author of the Time article goes on to say that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg – the Founding Fathers of the Beat Generation – were early hipsters. But the word meant something a bit different back then.

In fact, the word has had a rather lengthy journey to what it means today. Over the last six decades or so it’s been used to signify no fewer than four distinctly different groups of people, two of them simultaneously, polar opposite groups of the 90s.

Back in aught-six and -seven, I had a smallish group of friends whom I recognized as having certain similar aspects with each other. They dressed similarly. They listened to the same music. They shared certain values and judgments, even about values and judgments. They alternated between being coolly ironic and being unhiply earnest.(1) They enjoyed meaningful tattoos, imported coffees and beers, knitted habiliments and people-watching. They enjoyed anything that could be considered meta.(2)

I noticed these sorts of similarities amongst them and honestly remember trying to figure out how to classify my friends, collectively. It wouldn’t be until about two years later when I read an article that I knew that the general populace was referring to my friends as hipsters.(3) I’m not sure this was the first time someone used that word to describe that group, but it was the first time I myself had come across it. The description the writer gave was apposite such that I had no trouble adopting the word.

Within six months though I’d stopped calling my friends hipsters. Because out of nowhere everyone started hating hipsters. It was as though now that there was a term for it we could focus our hated around them. I never ever once heard anyone complain about hipsters until there was a word for it.

Nowadays hipsters are annoying. They are pretentious. They are scrawny. They are overly intellectual. They are food-, beer-, book-, movie-, music, and culture-snobs. Except for where they like things on the cheap.(4) They love irony. I could go on, but nothing I say will be as effective as this following image:

You've seen this guy. You've complained about this guy. Though you don't know him from anyone else outside your social circles.

The writer from SF’s Daily Express made the word Beatnik by combining Beat with something the Eisenhowerian vox populi would have instantly recognized as un-American: Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that beat America in the space-race of the 50s. And it wasn’t until the word Beatnik appeared that the beatniks themselves appeared. The berets. The bongos. The flagrant unprotected sex. The music. The beards.

Hipsters are people who have certain values that, like any other group of people, you may or may not value on your own. As such, sometimes they’ll be annoying and sometimes they won’t. But all kinds of media – from newspapers to LATFH – are insisting that hipsters are annoying in just the same way that media projected the Beats as dangerous, free-thinking socialists. Most of the American populace is willing to accept that hipsters are annoying because the hipsters themselves by their very free-thinking nature don’t really care about most of the American populace qua populace.(5)

Furthermore, this has proven so effective that people who themselves are clearly hipsters whinge about hipsters. They deny any accusation of hipsterdom. They’ll say sure they collect vinyl copies of Sufjan Stevens albums but they are not hipsters. Dammit. A friend of mine, whom I, at least, would classify as a hipster(6), was at a coffee shop reading a book on literary/film theory while tweeting about a hipster who didn’t know David Bazan.(7) There’s a weird pot/kettle/absence-of-reflected-light situation going on here that I find incredibly common amongst hipsters.

My point is simple: hipsters aren’t any more profligate or annoying than any other group. People find them to be simply because the media tells them they are. This is so effective that even the people belonging to that group eschew belonging to that group. And it’s sad. It’s just sad. Because there isn’t a single serious media outlet out there whose main goal isn’t simply to make money. They have a vested interest in damning the free-thinkers because it’s the free-thinking who, in large enough groups, cause change. If you’re a media outlet and you have a solid bead on your demographic, the one thing you don’t want is someone actively altering the mind-set and/or values of that demographic. I don’t mean to imply that this is insidious at all, or even necessarily wrong. It makes economic sense. But when it comes to the propitiation of new ideas, it’s dangerous.

So for a group of free-thinking skeptics to allow a force that deserves all the skepticism we can spare upon it to define who they are against who they are is just about the most sad thing I can think of. Media has been shaping American identities for at least a century now, and got particularly good at it in the 50s when they disarmed the Beat Generation by creating a pale imitation of it. That it’s finally turned the corner and convinced a large, open-minded group of people to rebel against their very nature is, to me, incredibly alarming.

  1. In some cases they used irony ironically, admitting to earnest emotion only by pretending to be ironically emotional. It was sometimes very tough to sort out.
  2. But then let’s face it: since about 1945 the whole Western world has had an obsession with meta and how meaning can mean more than what it means to mean.
  3. I’m sorry I can’t remember where I read it. I really wish I could.
  4. Their love of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and clothes from Goodwill preclude the alleged hauteur.
  5. Thousands of lunch-room whispers can attest that the easiest people to hate are the people who don’t care that you hate them. In fact I’d call it a distinctly American impulse to be impelled to hate those who couldn’t really honestly care less about how you feel re: them. “Love me or hate me,” goes the expression, “but don’t be indifferent.” It’s as though American literally cannot tolerate a person or a group not feeling either way and will therefore push said person or group to feel something, that we’re so sub-shared-subconsciously horrified at our own indifference towards any number of groups and people that we’re hyper-consciously affected by others’ indifference towards ourselves, and that we then must makes them feel something, and well it requires way, way less work to make someone hate you than love you and Americans are, after all, incredibly averse to being moved to action.
  6. In a non-pejorative way, mind you.
  7. The implication being that he, my friend, does know who David Bazan is.

One comment on “in defense of the hipster; or, Take heart: America needs its social pariahs and will makes them if it can’t find them and hipsters are the easiest targets of all because they simply do not care about being social pariahs, or targets…but perversely care a great deal about being called hipsters

  1. I would probably agree with you… if I could look at hipsters as being “free-thinkers,” which I do not. Their culture is built around faux-intellectual superiority with nothing to back it up. As if finding everything other people like to be lame or ironic is somehow genius social commentary. “Free-thinking” is finding your own path in a world that dictates you act, think, or believe in a predefined way. But just sitting back and saying everything is lame, everybody is trying too hard, and that society as a whole is fodder for ironic musings and a terminal state of uncaring… that’s hardly forging your own way. That’s just being a judgmental asshole.

    So you’ll have to forgive me if I respond in kind.

    Because I am totally a judgmental asshole like that. 🙂

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