Monday, July 28, 2008

What is a Hipster?

A while back I was at a bar with some of my guy friends. Per normal, we were all cracking wise with one another, calling each other offensive names, talking ill about one another's manhood, etc, etc... Hell, I might have even threatened to use a pen to puncture some one's liver. Obviously, it was a jolly good time, and fun was had by all.

Well at least until some idiot played both Journey and Chicago on the jukebox (some idiot might have been two idiots, but idiocy was in full effect, for sure). Once I heard Journey and nearly everyone in the bar singing along with Steve Perry as he belted out "Don't Stop Believing," I sort of clutched my head and wondered if existence (not just mine, but collective) was worth such agony. Then some of my buddies sang along or tried to justify Chicago as a good band up to a point (somewhere between the albums 3 and 6 (the data was inconclusive) - yes, this band offered such an original musical voice that they could only think to name their albums after continuous numbers....), or that one of them stated, with a deserved sense of shame, that he played his Chicago 17 cassette till the tape broke, at that point I might have even exclaimed, in piercing falsetto no less, for all to hear: "What the fuck is wrong with my friends!?!?!?"

I am not exactly sure when it was realized that we were deeply entrenched in a hipster bar, or rather a bar full of hipsters, but it was readily apparent as soon as these songs started playing. And in fact one of my friends asked "What exactly is a hipster?" And well, we tried to answer it. But, there was no real conclusive notion on just what a hipster was or even who qualifies for such distinction. Truth be told, I am sure some people would label me a hipster. In fact, much to my dismay, I was once deemed "VonDutch" by someone, who never met me, just from what neighborhood I live in. The definition and meaning is what they call quite fluid, if you will.

But really, we were clearly at the older end of the age spectrum for the bar, and these songs were mainly recorded before the majority of these hipper than thou Williamsburg/Greenpoint hipsters were born. So, it was obviously not an ever supple massage from the gangrened hand of nostalgia that prompted the collective hipster love of these songs. Nor do I think it is the oft maligned and horribly misused irony. In fact in discussing what the hell was wrong with a world that sings along to Steve Perry and the boys, the first word that came up in our informal discussion on the subject was just that: irony. Now, I take much issue with this word, as recent events in human history - and yes I am looking right at you Ms Alanis Morissette! - have made any true definition of this word problematic at best. Bad luck does not equal irony. My fist raising to the use of the term irony took the discussion towards "camp". And really I have to say that is a great window to use to look at the current hipster phenomenon.

So I took what we discussed that evening and further tossed the idea around in my head and have come to some conclusions (be they right or wrong) on the ever important subject: what makes a hipster?

Before I begin, it is beyond lazy thinking to claim all that a hipster does is ironic due to a major totem in the attire of the hipster: the classic ironic t-shirt. I can not say I am surprised that most people attach the irony flag to the hipster and all they do, it is easy after all. But, it fails to capture the true archetype of the hipster. And I must say archetype might be too strong a term, as hipster is more of an aesthetic than an idealized model. Thus the easy marriage with camp. Or at least i hope my fellow bar goers were singing through a camp imbued microphone. And just what is this camp I speak of? Well, camp is defined as "banality, vulgarity, or artificiality when deliberately affected or when appreciated for its humor". And this is the lens that seemingly reflects the hipster worldview - seriousness need not apply.

Much like the punk/dandy/b'hoy/etc before, the hipster takes aim at culture and tries to deconstruct it though his/her accouterments. Only where those subcultural fetishists subverted the dominant culture though their exaggerated image, the hipster embraces pieces of the dominant culture, even if only just the fringes. There is no single cultural impulse that bonds disparate hipsters together, aside from what each fetishist queues up in their camp drawer. As a group (which clearly has no collective agenda, so i am only classifying them as a group in a general sense), hipsters seem to cling to particular moments of pop culture with just their finger tips, afraid to grasp at the whole trend (appearing as a normal, for lack of a better term, or in antiquated parlance: "a square") and afraid to let go and fall into cultural anonymity.

In fact, how i have chosen to see the hipster is that of a lurker or cultural shadow. The individual hipster finds disparate threads in the numerous streams of culture available to them and assembles them in their own affected way. This pastiche of symbols and signals is often an affront to those who adapt a more streamlined way of viewing and interacting with pop cultural forms. The easiest way of seeing this amazingly large chasm between the hipster and non hipster is to compare a sieve and a vase.

A non-hipster displays his/her cultural mementos as flowers in a vase, showcasing their affections in grandiose arrangements for all the world to see (think sports fans who drown themselves in the plumage of their team's colors). Weather they do this out of reverence to the team/sport/town/player/etc... or a combination of any or all of these things is not as important as doing this out of a high affinity to something in the greater cultural milieu. And while they might reject a rival team, they do not dismiss parts of the culture they choose to embody.

The hipster is not immune to this need to strut up and down their personal runway with their ruffled feathers broadcasting their affections. Only with the hipster, they replace the vase with a sieve and fill it with a general multitude of cultural products and even by-products. When the sieve is full, and the desperate forms are finely arranged, nearly ready to be set on the mantle next to the aforementioned vase, the arrangement is pounded down, letting the unneeded debris seep out, leaving only a shadow or dream like hazy memory of meaning. The sieve is then repacked and pounded down even further, letting the unwanted implications and significance of the idea/song/design/wftever leak out the sieve's holes, like maple tress crying syrup. This cycle loops continuously and whatever amalgamation is left, which may be quite different at any specific time, only has significance for the individual doing so, making any collective meaning or critique moot.

So, at the core of the hipster phenomenon is that of broken context. In funneling pieces from a multitude of sources, the hipster tosses away any notion of authenticity. For instance the John Deere trucker hat that might be collaged into his/her outward dress no longer implies a love for a brand of tractors and outdoor equipment, it is just a detatched piece of something else. What the new meaning is would be as varied as the number of people who don the cap. Hence, a common language of images and signs is made useless .

To bring this back to camp, the artifice of the hipster affronts sensibilities that deem authenticity important. Camp is about forcing the real into the unreal and creating new meaning from ubiquity. The lack of seriousness or reverence the hipster displays for cultural forms/products/wtfever confuses and confounds those seeking logical outcomes. Through the use of camp and the ever streamlined remnants of a cultural sieve, collective meaning is tossed aside for style. And as much as I find it disheartening to say, what better cultural impulse for this age of mass apprehension, where polar opposites swing into fashion at nearly the speed of just opening the drapes; thus, the impetuous of the hipster does make some sense. And the lack of critique becomes a critique in and of itself. That said, I still find the style over substance to be inadequate and a bit repulsive. And no, I have not been back to the bar that started this since that night (which is quite a shame as I really liked that place). My new rule in life is to avoid mass sing-a-longs at all costs (not to mention my "No Journey" rule), it reminds me too much of group think. This of course throughs a wrench into everything I have written above, but in classic hipster fashion recreation and reformulation is key; and thus, my analysis will be (if it is not already) as moot as.... [insert continuous loop here].


urbanmermaid said...

i think it's a corollary to what you've written, but to me it seems that so much of hipsterism is the idea of being in on something before everyone else.

of course, with ready access to every bit of information, it's harder to be unique or ahead of the pack. and there's always someone cooler than you are.

therefore, i think there's a desire to go for things deliberately uncool (or, as you describe them "ironic") because it's the only way to do something _different_ than everyone else. of course, in large numbers of people, you end up with folks singing journey or arguing over chicago albums. in my case, there's definitely a certain amount of nostalgia for journey, but chicago will always suck.

the problem is, as a hipster, there is no way to proclaim that label for you, it can only be bestowed. so this relentless pursuit is all in an effort to get recognized. while the true hipster doesn't need that recognition, instead seeking out things for their intrinsic value.

nadir said...

No, not the 'true hipster' vs 'false hipster' discussion!!!!

I am sure I opened myself up for it with this post, but it is sure something that I do not want to touch, as those type of conversations just seem to ring with elitism ("you are just doing _____ wrong."), ageism ("when i was that age..."), and any other sort of ism that boils the blood.

As for your notion that hipster must not be a self proclaimed label, I think you are on to something there. The current vernacular of the word trends towards the negative, and is often brushed off when applied: "Hell no, I'm no hipster douchebag." So not only must it not be self applied, it cannot be consciously acknowledged.

Anonymous said...

hipster/scenester/the scene...Snaps and Daps works it out:!