In Defense of Hipsters
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.
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.
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.
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When I was 21 and living in the city, “hipster” was a bit of outdated 1940s slang nobody outside of Allen Ginsberg used.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.
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.
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.
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?)
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?
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!