In Defense of Hipsters

July 31, 2013
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Only 16 percent of Americans view hipsters favorably. WTF?

Only 16 percent of Americans view hipsters favorably. WTF?

A recent poll says that just 16 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of hipsters. That’s a pretty surprising statistic. Comparing this to other recent polls, it means more Americans have a favorable view of George Bush, socialism, Islam, the federal government and Sarah Palin than they do hipsters. More Americans even view George Zimmerman favorably than they do hipsters.

At least it's not like in that Back to the Future sequel, where everybody wore their clothes inside-out.

At least it’s not like in that Back to the Future sequel, where everybody wore their clothes inside-out.

That’s a strange turn of events, given the fact that, as our editorial intern Jason Singer pointed out, there’s something ineffable about what makes somebody a hipster. As of late, the moniker has become sort of a slag, a joke about the ennui of jaded people who believe they were cool before you ever were.

When you have your own negative meme, your disapproval rating is secure.

When you have your own negative meme, your disapproval rating is secure.

Of course, the “cooler than thou” bit has always been with us. I remember having the time of my life in 1986, seeing Black Flag live on the east side, and watching elder punks shake their heads and say, “You should have seen them a few years ago. Now they suck.” Or take the supercilious attitude of the record store clerk, for instance. This is nothing new, and may be, in fact, embedded in American counterculture.

"Oh, this is nothing! You should have been up here at Mount Vernon a few years ago. It totally sucks now."

“Oh, this is nothing! You should have been up here at Mount Vernon a few years ago. It totally sucks now.”

The jokes may have changed a bit, but I sense the same strain of disdain Middle America has always felt about people who want to stand outside the mainstream. It’s a kind of pretentiousness, right? Why do you do that? Why do you look so strange?

When I was 21 and living in the city, “hipster” was a bit of outdated 1940s slang nobody outside of Allen Ginsberg used. The people I knew best in the city were the same people I’d gone to punk shows with in the 1980s, and there we were, growing our hair out, working dead-end jobs, living in grimy apartments, wearing cheap clothes from the resale store, drinking cheap beer, saving on hair care by sporting beards and cutting our own hair.

Actual 1940s hipsters.

Actual 1940s hipsters.

The very thing that had first drawn us to the city — going to see fringe bands — meant we listened to obscure records. There was no Internet then, of course, so we’d buy cheap books at used book stores. I would go one better, actually, and fold dollars into envelopes to send away for zines.

One of those zines I got when I lived in a tiny rear apartment in Hamtramck left an impression on me. The title is long-forgotten, the authorship unclear, but there was a comic strip in it I still recall vividly. It was about the people like me who had fled the suburbs to live in the city. Like the people I knew, we were no longer punks or hardcore kids. So what were we? People who dyed their own clothes, drank cheap beer, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, wore ill-fitting resale clothes, sported glasses with thrifted frames, ate ramen noodles, and tried to work as little as possible and have as much fun as we could.

The title of the comic was “Low-Life Scum,” a sort of endearing appropriation of the insult our parents had hurled at those who lived in the city. I embraced it, and figured that my friends and I were lovable low-lifes, living in the cracked-out city, sort of like the hippies and punks had. Except we didn’t have any overarching, monolithic identity — except that we were poor and that we had the trappings of a quirky, lighthearted kind of poverty. You simply dressed as stylishly as you could afford. Any savings might go for something extra, like a cool tattoo.

Frankly, Kajagoogoo looks weirder than most hipsters, and they got lots of radio play in the 1980s. The 1980s were America's greatest decade. So why do you hate America?

Frankly, Kajagoogoo looks weirder than most hipsters, and they got lots of radio play in the 1980s. The 1980s was America’s greatest decade. So why do you hate America?

Less than a decade later, living in New York, I first started to hear about these hipsters, and realized that I was allegedly one of them. I had the dubious honor of denying it in print — in the Village Voice, no less (I was called a “reluctant hipster”). It’s a strange thing to be branded something you don’t claim to know about. But then looking at the people who were called hipsters, I saw all the earmarks of my low-life existence: Mismatched clothes from the Salvation Army, cheap and comfy Chucks, bad haircuts likely done at home, a thirst for cheap beer, a taste for obscure music. I grew to realize that the trappings of my poor life in the city had been appropriated by a new generation of people, even though they  could afford better beer, finer clothes, hairstylists, etc. I guess that’s where the “pretentiousness” comes in.

Can anybody who shops here really be all that bad?

Can anybody who shops here really be all that bad?

But style is often appropriated, and doesn’t have to stay wedded to its original purposes. So what if they can afford all that stuff? Why have they embraced that style? Well,things become cool for a variety of reasons. A punk guitarist will use three chords, not because they can’t play more, but because the style was set by guitarists who weren’t virtuosos. A bebop jazz drummer will use a small drum set, and it’s called a stylish eccentricity, but weren’t the stages of those smoky New York clubs of the 1950s so small you could hardly fit a four-piece combo on them? The reasons behind a style don’t matter if it’s imitated by others. And I think that’s what happened here.

Styles get their labels from other people. You can bet that “hipster” business wasn’t started by the hip urban-loving crowd. (Similarly, wasn’t “punk rock” a noxious label cooked up by the British press?)

1940s hipster trap.

1940s hipster trap.

I think all this hipster-judgment is regressive. I remember a time when simply having “weird hair” and wearing an Army jacket meant you ran the risk of a van full of jocks jumping you. Then, in the 1990s, punk rock finally broke through, and a lot of quirky, individualistic flair became more widely accepted. Are we now so uncomfortable with resale clothes and Converse sneakers that we have to do anything more than shrug our shoulders?

And when we talk about hipsters, aren’t we really just talking about what used to be called the “bohemian” lifestyle? Haven’t we seen since the 1950s how well-fed suburban kids move into the city to re-create themselves? To find some new style to glom onto and become something much more interesting than a graduate of Podunk High School? It’s totally normal in my opinion. If they get a little pretentious or wear used clothes, that’s fine. I don’t even care if they look a little silly. “Oh, my god,  today’s kids are turning into fucking bohemians!” Whatever. It could be worse; they could have become hippies instead, right?

If hipsters were hippies, then we'd have cause for alarm.

If hipsters were hippies, then we’d have cause for alarm.

The irony of the situation is that young people who move into the city and embrace this style are rejecting the conformity of their parents — and embracing a whole new brand of conformity. It’s like former Metro Times writer Elissa Karg said back in her 1960s book How to Be a Nonconformist: Follow all the advice, and you’ll be a nonconformist — just like everyone else!

... just like everyone else!

… just like everyone else!

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  • Cigany

    Nobody cares much what you like, where you live, what you wear, what music you listen to, or how many gears your bike has or doesn’t have. They just care about not having to be completely annoyed by the shitty, obnoxious, bogus, “hipster” attitude that goes along with all the “hipster” preferences.

  • danieldresden

    there are plenty of good reasons to hate everyone, because they are a “hipster” is not one of them.

  • Xavier

    The thing with hipsters is that they create nothing that defines their generation. They cling on to what was “cool” to other generations and then present it as if they’ve discovered something new. I’m 40 and had a “hipster’` once tell me that they just saw a great movie that explains who they are. That movie was “The Breakfast Club.”

  • Jake

    So, in other words, you were a hipster before it was cool?

  • @detroitrebirth

    Anyone who is picked on unfairly needs to be defended. Diverse kinds of people add to the make up of a great city. Everyone doesn’t need to love everyone, we all just need to get along.

    @detroitrebirth

  • Cheap Book Store

    Nice Post. Keep it up. I will keep update the same

  • Bluey

    One thing I do know,, hipsters are terrible in bed.

  • Dante LaSalle

    labeling people as hipsters is as lame as being a jock in a van. to some you may be a hipster, while to other’s you could be a hick, and still others a ____________. whoever gives a fuck or a shit can choke on either as far as i’m concerned. Whatever group you align yourself with or malign others as being a part of please just be nice and do things you think are good for your happiness and that of those around you.
    (:

    as for “hipsters” people who want to hear new kinds of music and repurpose old stuff and care about art and don’t care about great jobs and well kept lawns are heroes in my opinion, and if that becomes/has become popular than good for us!

  • Dante LaSalle

    assuming a shitty, obnoxious, bogus attitude goes along w/ ‘all’ the “hipster” preferences is kinda ridiculous. I’m sure there’s likely some “trapping” of hipsterishness that you subscribe to, regardless there are tons of people that cut their own hair and are without said attitude. j/s be easy.

  • UdThinkImAHipsterButImNot

    I thought you were going to say that BEING a hipster is as lame as being a jock in a van. And do “jocks” really still drive vans? And if they do, do THEY need defending?

    There are lots of people across Detroit who don’t care about JOBS or LAWNS. They are what drags Detroit into the gutter and there is NOTHING HIP about them.

  • WedonthavetimeforahandjobJoe

    foReal…

  • u cant take the truth

    No, you’re talking about individuals you hang out with, and you generalize it to a huge group…that’s prejudiced and racist since its mostly whites who are an easy target…if you know so many people that well , then you are one of them….you look like a so -called hipster…me, i defend the word bc it means cool and that’s all…its used derogatorily by jealous people who resent and are jealous of the huge success of hipster artists or entrepreneurs and the well-deserved attention they are getting…

  • u cant take the truth

    so , that person is a different age, so what…what is your problem? Are you so jealous of the success and attention these artists (“hipsters”) are getting? You probablly are one, theres nothing wrong with it….youre giving in to a racist against cool white kid term…what did they do…try the whole grunge/nu music, and DIY movement…try all the All – natural movement, non-fracking, the environmental movement…why do you THINK they are so popular??? They (weve ) done more than most…and SOBER…from Minor threat on down…please…

  • u cant take the truth

    Youre a bigot, racist, just so YOU know…no doubt there…

  • e130478

    I loathe hipsters because they pretend to be smart when typically they have no veritable qualities of intellect. They’re constantly vamping on the culture and ideals of major art icons, attempting to align themselves with high-brow culture, when in reality they have neither the talent nor discipline to ever be anything like any of these people. I know this kid who talks about film like it is his job, but he has never stepped foot in a college classroom and he cannot write worth a lick. I have friends at UT-Austin’s MFA Screenwriting program who are a.) ten times less pretentious than him b.) ten times better writers than him c.) ten times more likely to actually one day be a screenwriter.

  • persnicketypete

    I don’t think your intern knows what ‘ineffable’ means.