We all know the routine: you smirk condescendingly at the arty young adult with the glasses and the tattoos, or assume that everything he or she does is “ironic”—scare quotes included. You roll your eyes. You scoff. You make some sort of generalization on the way to your sweet new condo in Williamsburg: “We’re not walking fast enough for the hipsters.”
I laugh to think I might be the first to point out to you that if it wasn’t for hipsters, your snazzy $2.2 million condo wouldn’t exist in the first place. Who are you, dear reader, to talk shit on an entire subculture that you can’t even clearly identify or define while you yourself have been swayed to wear tight, high-waisted pants, oversized beanies, or large-framed glasses? Are you going to just subsume the elements of their culture that mainstream America okayed and then slander them to death for, say, growing their armpit hair, being vegan, or gentrifying the very next neighborhood you’re going to move into?
I happen to think the general hate of hipsters indicates something much, much bigger. I don’t believe any subculture has been so antagonized since the first punk rockers—who, as it turns out, were doing something truly important, destroying and laying foundations for new subcultures to exist, that everyone might find a place to belong. Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were famously booed off talk shows, spat on, and even exiled from England. Sure, they were “obnoxious” in their outright rejection of societal norms. Punks were unhygienic to an extreme that put hippies to shame, spitting in people’s faces and giving them pink eye (as happened to Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant). They glorified the Id, punching and pushing each other in mosh pits in clothing indicative of their subversive sexual preferences. They had outlandish haircuts and wild, self-aware make up that completely defied what the contemporary standards demanded: bad hygiene equals bad manners. Try and fit in. Comb your hair. Sit like a lady. Punk rock deliberately and loudly defied all that, giving room for those othered by society to other society in return—that is, a community for freaks to belong to cemented by a common abstract enemy: the status quo.
Hipsters are a breath of fresh air after the stagnant remnants of seventies through nineties subcultures. We all know punk is dead: it’s no longer rebellious, no longer menacing, and thus no longer culturally relevant. Goth is dead too, as it always wanted to be—trapped in a feedback loop of masochism, narcissism, elitism, and nostalgia. Rave culture is said to be making a comeback, but I maintain that “rave” is just another dirty four-letter word, a euphemism for a vapid and obnoxious trend with no manifesto but PLUR. The acronym has become a symbol for sketchy pills that dissolve identities and make everyone act identically trashy; stupid bracelets with rave pseudonyms spelled on them called kandy; parties with music so bad you’d have to be loaded to enjoy them. Rave culture never should have existed in the first place. In fact, remember the nineties all together? Remember Clueless and Britney Spears? The important musicians killed themselves or sold out, or just lost steam entirely. After the militant social pressure to straighten your hair, wear contacts, and have your ass crack show every time you bent over, the stark contrast of the hipster aesthetic—an acquired taste for me at first—stands for personal liberation.
Hipster culture allows anyone to rock an unconventional aesthetic. For the first time, boys make passes at girls who wear glasses in the mainstream. Hipsters never sought mainstream attention to my knowledge—they gained it just by being so outlandish in their “no rules” aesthetic. Hipsters pioneered the nerd revolution. They made it okay to be who you are, or to be who you aren’t if you’re riding that wave with any self-awareness. Anything can be cool if you both mean it sincerely and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Hipsters really began back in the forties, when white middle-class youths sought to emulate the black jazz musicians they so adored, but lost cultural relevance until about a decade ago. What’s so important about this subculture is that it has no agreed-upon definition. What is a “hipster”? Technically, when the term was first coined in the early nineteen hundreds, “hip” meant “in the know”, and the suffix “-ster”, like in “spinster” or “youngster,” was added to it to describe a person who fits in with the root adjective. So “hipster” means someone who is in the know. But what about now? What does “hipster” mean to you, today? Is it an aesthetic that you can compromise by disdain for people who transgress the boundaries of what is socially acceptable more than you do? Is it a novel attitude? Is there a manifesto? I live in Brooklyn, and even I don’t really know what a “hipster” truly is. I know one when I see one, but I couldn’t possibly define one. That, my friends, is what I believe you find so annoying. It is a culture so free, so ambiguous, you can’t even put your finger on it. Anything goes. That is also why I know what the hipsters are doing is important. It’s such a dynamic subculture that I don’t foresee its stagnation so much as its transformation, just as it has been doing for the past several years. It has even revitalized dead subcultures heretofore mentioned and even spat upon, such as goth and *gulp* rave culture—though, thank my pagan deities, with irony, nostalgia, and beats at 1/3 of the speed. In fact, the sea punk idea of raves is refreshingly idealistic. It bears mercifully little resemblance to the horrible “Happy Hardcore” of my youth.
In my opinion, hipsters seem not so much to know what’s hip as to create what’s hip. Therein lies their power, which you find so mysterious that you hate them for it. This puts them literally at the avant-garde. Your repulsion means they’re doing it right.
So, to conclude, whatever hipsters are, they’re revitalizing our culture merely by making us question ourselves. They maintain dynamics in their ineffability. Perhaps this is because “hipster” refers to more of an attitude than an aesthetic with a rigid manifesto, but even then it vacillates wildly between ironic apathy and political dedication (veganism, body hair, et cetera). They encourage paradox and a healthy degree of hypocrisy. Hipsters are keeping American culture fresh—even you have adapted some of their aesthetics, albeit at least half a decade later. Really this reflects poorly on you, and not on those scapegoats bravely and haphazardly carving the way for us at the forefront of the battlefield of cultural development. Considering non-hipsters co-opt the hipster aesthetic, move to neighborhoods gentrified and made safe and desirable by hipsters, and throw the term “hipster” at arty people with the same calculated abandon that scaremongers threw “Communist” at actors, activists, and transgressors not so long ago, you look damn stupid when you hate on hipsters. Damn stupid, and damn closed-minded.