A Hipster Reviews, What Was the Hipster?

By Martin Silbiger
Wednesday March 9, 2011


Only a hipster would read http://www.amazon.com/What-Was-Hipster-Sociological-Investigation/dp/0982597711. (Only a hipster would even read this review.)1 It’s a collection of essays about the essence of hipsterdom; at times it’s a discussion of how the hipster is “so totally over” and attempts to point at what ‘post-hipster’ will be. It centers around a panel that these hipsters at N+1, a small publication from Williamsburg, held to discuss the hipster phenom in an academic setting. My immediate criticism — does it take hipsters to declare the hipster dead? — is covered in the book, of course. This book is so completely filled with contradicting ideas and responses to itself that it basically creates a black hole of analysis. Hope you like meta.

A hipster’s favorite mental exercise is to define what a hipster is, then exclude him/herself from this category. This book is full of quotes and ideas that will either make you nod with agreement, or shriek with disgust and defensiveness. And the best part is, it’s in the context of sociological analysis! Remember that from your liberal arts education? I do! Only one of the dozen or so writers in this book is actually able to distill the meaning and essence of hipsterdom, and it’s pretty depressing/heavy/real. But the rest was pretty entertaining, so let’s talk about that first!


The absolute most compelling argument in these essays is that the hipster never existed. Or maybe only exists as a character that can be marketed to2. I left the book feeling like “hipster” is just a term for cool people of our generation; maybe specifically those who are tired of what’s happening in “mainstream” culture, so we have to go out searching (via the internet, undoubtedly) for something better. Maybe my favorite quote with this attitude is, “’hipster’ is a derogatory term for someone who cares about culture”. Caring about culture used to be hard! To find underground music, “you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it was actually there.”3 Nowadays, you have access to a million music blogs; some 13-year-old kid on a farm already knows way more about your favorite new band than you do. Essentially, you have “nostalgia for a time when there was a substantive difference between underground culture and mainstream culture”4

This “deregulation of subculture” by the internet has its ups and downs. Personally, I think it’s great that a band that appeals to very few people can actually reach that audience through the Internet, rather than playing local shows for people who will never care about them. I also think it’s hilarious that teenagers from the Midwest can go to their local Urban Outfitters (or shop online!) to imitate the “cool” style they saw on hipstersgonewild, which in turn pisses off the style icons, sending them scrambling for something newer. The downside to this deregulation is that you have more trouble proving that you’re “authentic”, as opposed to being a “poseur”, as Dan White covered on this very blog. You can do it by “distinguishing [yourself] from other people in increasingly trivial ways”5. But the best way to do this is probably to “be true to yourself” and to “not like things just because other people do/don’t like them”. Hasn’t that been the way to be cool since, idunno, the beginning of time?

When the contributors talk about ‘things hipsters like’, it sounds to me like an episode of I Love The 00’s!, as it’s such a random grouping of things that are popular with people like me – that is, college-educated, Internet-connected, urban, white twenty-somethings. Flight of the Conchords! Dave Eggers! Sufjan Stevens! Wes Anderson! But these are just popular mindie6 things, i.e., they became popular, just not through the usual channels of TV/radio. Nobody ever proposes any test or criteria for “stuff that hipsters like”7. I am a scientist, so this is what I wanted — a hypothesis that could be tested and proven, thus leading us closer to an actual definition of “hipster.”

So yeah, lots of things that people our age like are considered “hipster.” The only limit I found compelling is that stuff hipsters like is the opposite of stuff douchebags like — douchebags being the bros that actually are trying to ‘fit in’ to bro culture, and be accepted for their normalcy. Which is exactly the opposite of what hipsters want. But that still leaves room for a ton of things to be considered hipster — comedians who aren’t Dane Cook, bands who aren’t Sublime, shirts without popped collars.8


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There’s a long rant about how oh, these hipsters these days, they’re so child-like! With their never-getting-married, permissive hook-up culture... They just don’t want to grow up! As if this is some new phenomenon — growing older has always sucked, so why not hold onto your youth for as long as possible? This is just the old generation shaking its fist at the new. Oh, and once they actually grow up and have kids? Well, those kids are just “hipster accessories,” according to Martinez. UH HUH. So, kids are something a couple picks up to “enhance their personal brand?” Please. No one has EVER factored this into their decision to have a baby, or popped one out ironically. Oh, and the whole “I have a kid, but I still want to be cool and hang out with my same friends” thing? Not unique to hipsters. This is just something that happens to people. Pretty normal occurrence.


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by flickr user Anita Sarkeesian, used under CC

So most of the authors sit around, twiddling their thumbs, arguing over whether or not hipsters like Charles in Charge. One guy even points out how these arguments cause them to gloss over the real issues of the hipster lifestyle, such as gentrification. Only Mark Greif gets this right, and even makes hipsters seem worth studying in a sociological context. So listen up. In 1999, a bunch of white kids moved into poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Instead of integrating with their Puerto Rican and Jewish neighbors, like good gentrifiers, they chose to isolate themselves. Their symbols of defiance were borrowed from poor, rural whites, what with trucker hats, PBR and thrift-store shirts celebrating local fairs and church gatherings. So that’s where the style began. You can argue about whether or not the style choices of hipsters today actually constitute “white pride” and what that means today, if you’re into that.9

Also, hipsterdom constitutes the opposite of “white flight” to the suburbs. Living in a city became desirable, and we started moving in, pushing the previous residents out. I fall squarely into the category of kids who grew up in the suburbs, graduated with a liberal arts degree, then moved to the city. After graduating, I moved to a city where I still cling to cultural capital, because my degree didn’t immediately translate into real capital. College degrees ain’t what they used to be. We hipsters act proud to be poor, but many of us are secretly preparing law school applications to move to the world where real capital actually matters. Plus, we always have our parents as a backstop if the poverty experience proves too difficult. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because this experience is not at all unique — and is a product of factors like the disappearing middle class, the lack of jobs for college grads and the rising price of education.

So yeah! If that brings you down, I’m sorry. If that doesn’t explain your life as a hipster, sorry about that too. But once you start thinking about your place in a city, or your place in society, getting your signifiers of style/class in order seems pretty trivial compared to what you are actually doing as a participating member of society.

  1. Not like this is even an original thought of mine. ”If you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyze it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of it’s ‘taint’.” (from n+1’s announcement of the event.)

  2. a.k.a. “rebel capitalism”

  3. http://www.avclub.com/articles/part-1-1990-once-upon-a-time-i-could-love-you,45892/

  4. Jace Clayton, “Vampires of Lima”. Microgenres like “witch house” are designed to embrace this. You can’t even search for them using Google! You just have to know about them! That’s how “underground” you are.

  5. Greif, “Discussion”

  6. mainstream indie; this word does not actually appear in this book. See also “indiestream”, first used by Pinna Storm photographer Christy Baugh.

  7. Also, arguing about whether or not art is “hipster” just avoids the question of whether it is “good,” which would be a more interesting discussion.

  8. Hipsters can probably like these things ironically anyway.

  9. The phrase “ironic white pride” nearly made my head explode.

Kevin C (Reply)
The most interesting point you make, from my perspective, is whether hipsterdom is a product of disappearing opportunities for the recently college educated. In my parent’s generation, a college degree essentially guaranteed a high paying job with accompanying social status. This promoted the high-consumption, materialistic culture of Yuppies, in which Yuppies, on their assured way towards the upper or upper-middle class attempted to emulate those socioeconomic demographics through their material processions. In essence, a “fake-it, til you make it mentality.”

Hipsterdom, then, is not an ideological rejection of mainstream culture; rather, it is created out of necessity due to the current financial instability of 20-something-year-olds.

Martin (Reply)
Yep, I think that has some validity to it – there’s some more stuff in the book about how, since we don’t have access to “real capital” [via good jobs], we cling to “cultural capital” because it’s the best we can do.

It would be oversimplification to say that financial instability “caused” hipsterdom, although I believe it’s a pretty important factor. But there are plenty of other sources of this “rejection of mainstream culture”. For example, in this book someone brings up the beginning of the Iraq war as an example – most young people were opposed to the war, leaving us feeling like we didn’t quite fit with the mainstream, even though we were part of a pretty significant rebel minority. Anyway, the high unemployment rate is just one of the many ways that society hasn’t quite lived up to our ideals, but I’m not sure to what extent this is “hipsterdom” or just me being a Democrat. I’m still trying to figure out what it even means to be a rebel when so many people self-identify as rebels, so many that you’re not even sure what makes us rebels or who we’re rebelling against.

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