To be hipster you have to hate hipster. Here is Miista’s guide as to why you are probably a hipster, and why its hard to see the end of the hipster ‘scourge’.
The anxiety of somehow not being real, the fear of fakeness, that is the driving force behind hipster-ism. Unlike the hippies, the beats, the rockers, the punks, slackers, the ravers – being a hipster is an identity that dare not speak its name. But still, it may outlast all that went before it.
To understand why the hipster is such an interesting, insidious and unique development in youth culture, you need to know the history and importance of counterculture itself.
Battles against the mainstream
The hipster is quite a new cultural phenomenon that arrived on the scene around the year 2000. Throughout the previous century generations opposed the mainstream’s way of doing things through creating counterculture. Counterculture has a long history – prominent examples in Europe and North America include Romanticism (1790-1840), Bohemianism (1850-1910). The impact of these was deeply felt in art, culture and politics, with Romanticism in particular often accused of being a handmaiden for totalitarianism and even fascism! In short: Counterculture matters.
In the last century we had a slew of countercultures compared to eras that had gone before. This was not surprising, the media and technology landscape evolved at an ever more rapid pace. Jazz culture was an early example. And then things accelerated even more after the two world wars.
The Beat Generation formed is post WW2 New York. Tired of the establishment who had lead humanity into destructive wars, the Beats were anti-materialist, pro-alternative sexualities, alternative expressions of style and experimentation with drugs. In other words it was radically different to the then very conservative mainstream of the day.
But the Beats did not change society that much. Homosexuality was still taboo. Racism rife. Governments and big corporations got even bigger and more powerful. And these governments waged more wars with weapons built by these big corporations – see Vietnam for example. The Beats were by all accounts a failure.
So in the late 60’s a new powerful counterculture developed. Hippies rejected mainstream society even more vehemently, including its beaurocratic hierarchies (in business and government), environmental degradation, sexual repression, militarisation and its commercial bent. In the USA many Hippies left the cities to stay in thousands of communes all over the country. Allied to the Hippies were progressive groups fighting for the rights of black and gay Americans. In Europe the hippies were also present, and in France students lead huge protests in Paris in 1968 that almost toppled the government. Their slogan: “Underneath the street, the beach”.
The Hippies had more success than the Beats. Their ideas of personal freedom has found wide purchase in society, even in business, particularly technology and fashion. But the Hippies were spectacularly unsuccessful is curbing growing commercialism. In fact the movement seemed to fuel capitalism and give it new dynamism.
A pattern emerges. Rock, a music genre of the Beats had long been a way to rebel. But it had become too safe. So the 70’s saw the arrival of punk and – stripped to its bare bones – it was seen as a more honest authentic version of rock, which had become elaborate and coopted by mainstream society.
The 70’s also saw the arrival of many other countercultural movements, including hip-hop – in the 80’s, unlike now, very political. It was a time when groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy, sang songs openly challenging racist American society. But despite these vibrant movements Reagan and Thatcher was in power in the west, sweeping before it utopian sub-cultures.
While these countercultures were successful in many respects, it could not stop one thing – the turning into commodities more and more of our lives. In fact they only seemed to feed the beast. New approaches was called for.
And in reaction to Reagan Grunge came – to express how lost and alienated from society Generation X felt. Grunge or the so-called slackers – had very little of a political message to offer. It was a depressed shout at the sorry state of things, while refusing to get co-opted in the corporate economy.
Death of the underground
The late 80’s early 90’s saw the arrival of Rave culture, which started like the countercultures before it, far outside the mainstream and underground. Rave’s strength (and weakness) was that it did not have an overt political message, except for personal expression, drug induced pleasure, peace, unity and dancing your ass off. That allowed it to cross divisions of class (the UK), sectarianism (Ireland), race (South Africa). It also quickly became big business.
Perhaps not surprisingly the 90’s was also the period where hipster-ism was starting to gestate under a new more subtle push against the capitalist machine. Cynical about the failures of these previous movements and their mainstreaming and commercialisation, and because people did not see other options “Lifestyle culture” emerged.
The “Lifestyle culture,” of the early 2000’s Canadian journalist Niedzviecki claims, was “our last, desperate, pervasive attempt to rebel against those who seek to reduce us to cogs in the machine.” Pop culture matters because it was all we had left. “To negate pop culture is to negate the very foundation of our lives—a foundation that is no longer found in religious instruction, in the moral precepts of the state, in the bosom of the family, but in the frantic embrace of a pop emancipation we crave despite, and because of, who we are.”
New Inquiry editor Rob Horning notes that at the time there still was a thing such as a consumer underground. The hipster was yet to emerge fully. Horning explains that in the underground “devotion to pop obscurities was expressed in hand-mimeographed fanzines and home-taped mix cassettes and other arduous analog means.”
But it was not to last. “That culture was just beginning to die its digital death, and outlines of hipsterism—the zine mentality without the trouble of zines, the proud consumerism without the effort of digging up trivia and the sacrifice of marginalizing oneself—was just beginning to become recognizable. Hipsterism is born when the cultural underground dies.”
So when the underground went, and consumerism proudly came out of the closet, and tada! — we got the full blown hipster.
But hipsterism has proven very different from countercultures that had gone before it. And that’s because those most accurately described as hipsters hate the term more than anybody. But if people hate being called hipsters why do we have hipsters?
Why do people act like hipsters?
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offers an explanation says literary professor Mark Greif. We might not have much money (in fact after the financial crisis this generation is worse off than their parents), but we still use taste as a way to show and define our superior status. The main strategy in this competition for status is to define yourself as more real than anybody else. Horning agrees: “Hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster”. And what could make you more real than to be part of an underground trend, or even better – a movement?
Unwittingly in this quest to define yourself, hipsters seek out real stuff, immerse themselves in it, but then display it publicly, as an identity, in order to get status. This process of finding and public display is now of course made so much easier through social media tools like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.
They act as a “poison conduit” between marketing and the street says Greif. The hipster’s “arrival… transforms people who are doing their thing into a self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit.” Hipsterism is a giant vacuum that sucks up marginal counterculture and spews out safe for commerce ‘scenes’ on the flip-side. Even porn has been given the hipster treatment.
Horning is cutting:
“Hipsters are the infiltrators who spoil the resistance — the coolhunting collaborators and spies.”
So face it – you are a hipster
This means all of us that are chasing trends, the best new thing, are all hipsters – unless you are right at the forefront and underground. And even if you are, as the hipsters spies find you (as they inevitably do), you have to keep moving on. As soon as you join the race for the new real thing, you too are a hipster too.
It seems theoretically impossible to escape.
Russell Brand recently – in his charming way – called for a revolution. Will RustyRockets lead us out of the land of the hipster consumerism or is he actually a hipster double agent?
Perhaps no counter-culture was ever immune to the pull of the mainstream (as our potted history seems to suggest), but the arrival of the hipster has made the appearance of new countercultures instantly co-optable, even before they have time to embed themselves. At the same time it itself isn’t fixed. Its aesthetics and style, its music, its obsessions and philosophy move relentlessly on to the next big thing. This week this is hipster, next week that is. As long as it’s hip and cool.
That is why it is hard to see what counterculture could supercede it.