Is there any insult lazier or more nebulous than “hipster?”
I asked this on my Twitter feed earlier because it’s something that’s been on my mind, mostly as a result of it being an insult that gets hurled at my peers and me on a near daily basis over at Comics Bulletin. As someone who has worked as a critic and/or creator in nearly every medium within pop culture, I feel like I’ve experienced the entire spectrum of “hipster” meanings, and the only thing they have in common is that the person using the insult doesn’t have too clear of an idea of what the word means to them. At the least, the hipster I am in the eyes of a comics fanboy is not the same hipster I am in the eyes of a music fan is not the same hipster I am in the eyes of a mainstream moviegoer.
Historically, a hipster was someone who was ahead of the curve on trends and art. The word experienced its highest cache in the Jazz Era, when hipsters were aficionados, cultural explorers you spoke to in order to find out where the often hidden or obscured jazz hot spots were. In his excellent pop culture study Hip: The History, journalist John Leland theorized the word grew out of the West African phrase “hipi,” which roughly translates to “to open one’s eyes.” Before the 21st century, you get the sense that the term hipster was not necessarily meant in a derogatory or derisive way but somewhere along the way it mutated into the preeminent term for pop cultural attack while losing any identity it had.
What’s especially interesting is that other derogatory, pop culture-based terms don’t lack identity. You and I may disagree on the strict definition of nerd, but we’d probably agree on the gist and even if we didn’t, an image search confirms the conformity of the stereotype. Meanwhile, I doubt either of us would come up with much similarity while discussing “hipster,” and the image search likewise confirms the disparity. Even a gimmicky visual from Paste Magazine in 2009 shows how confusing the notion of the hipster is; somehow, emo kids— never exactly equated with the word “hip”— are viewed by the magazine as the predecessor to the modern hipster, which is especially hilarious when you remember that the last time the word hipster had a resurgence, it was in the cool daddy-o ironic ’90s and that’s still half a century off from when it first actually appeared. Worse, that visual ropes in several other subcultures, from a bizarre Ashton Kutcher reference to “twee” (itself associated with a specific, acoustic-driven sect of ’80s UK indie and the international acts inspired by it), to scenesters (originally a derogatory variation on the hipster usually meant in reference to people who ruled as the snooty judges of your local scene) to the inclusion of the residents of the geographical place that maybe gave birth to the notion of the modern hipster, Williamsburg.
Williamsburg looms large in any discussion of what modern hipsterism is or means, because Williamsburg provides us not just with a hipster mecca but with a sort of Rosetta Stone for the term thanks to Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook. In that text, Lanham himself describes hipsters as a serious of possessions and hairstyles, specifically singling out their “mop-top haircuts” and “retro pocketbooks,” their “European cigarettes” and “platform shoes.” You’ve probably noticed that all four of those things are not generally associated with current hipsters. You can go to Wikipedia right now and read about five different interpretations of hipsterdom in four short paragraphs, including a cultural white flight theory that is hilariously incongruous with the original jazz explorer hipster. If you think about it, that last points allows for a perhaps more accurate theory in which the current hipster is just a manifestation of whatever preceding generations are afraid of at the moment with the current generation.
Not coincidentally, if you read into all these contradictory arguments about The Hipster, you’ll notice a throughline of appropriation paranoia. There’s the aforementioned hip-hop white flight one, where a Prefix scribe argues that hipsters are white folks who are into hip-hop but don’t want to be part of the culture unless it comes “without all the scary black people.” But that’s an odd claim to make considering hipster is a derogatory term with a whole lot of weight in hip-hop at the moment, used like a Molotov cocktail against performers like Kanye West and Danny Brown, who have been singled out as “hipsters” for anything from wearing tight pants to having weird haircuts.
Then there are the cultural commentators who merge hipsterism and metrosexuality, itself a weirdly vague identifier/insult targeted at straight guys who have the gall to care about their appearance. The theorist here is Christian Lorentzen, in the infamous Time Out piece “Why the Hipster Must Die,” which more specifically targeted the hobbyist hipster, the one “more likely to be brokers or lawyers than art-school dropouts,” a breed that’s allegedly in the game for cultural clout without the hard work. Lorentzen goes on to argue that this brand of hipster is appropriating gay culture, “defanging” it and other more authentic cultures in order to make a “collage” identity, which is all well and good until you ask what elements of hipsterdom are stolen from queer life— asymmetrical haircuts? vests? bowties? glasses? proudly flamboyant style? How can you ask that question without seeming offensive? And how can you legitimately peg what is original to the cultures being appropriated? After all, gay culture appropriates all the time, from camp to drag, and hip-hop culture is arguably built upon appropriation, from samples to Adidas. What makes one form of appropriation okay while another isn’t? And what do we do when the culture supposedly being appropriated uses this term itself to call out their peers who appropriate the appropriaters?
If hipsters are the “dead end of Western civilization,” as Time magazine once boldly proclaimed, is that because they cause that void or is it because we as a society are unified in our hate without knowing what it is we’re hating? As previously pointed out, I’ve always felt that the hipster tag is a way for the prior generations to judge the current one without having to actually explain what it is we’ve done wrong. As a generation, we’re unique in our ability to experience culture in an endless number of formats, at any time, in any place; we’re the inheritors of the greatest technology and the greatest method of communication the world has ever seen, but we’re also arguably the inheritors of the worst state of affairs the world has ever seen. We’re drowning in art and media and speech and our identities have become vague and indefinable as a result. It’s no longer sensible to loyally subscribe to an individual subculture— we don’t have to be punks, or b-boys, or teddies, or nerds because the communities those provided at the cost of variety have been subsumed by a global community, where everything is shared and we can mix and match at will. We can’t define hipsters because we’re attempting to define cultural evolution itself and the way borders and divides are increasingly becoming more of a thing of the past. We’ve caused the dead end of Western civilization because there’s less of a need for a Western/Eastern divide at all. And maybe we should be celebrating that rather than using it as a way of shutting evolution down.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover