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What Was the Hipster?

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If I speak of the degeneration of our most visible recent subculture, the hipster, it’s an awkward occasion. Someone will point out that hipsters are not dead, they still breathe, they live on my block. Yet it is evident that we have reached the end of an epoch in the life of the type. Its evolution lasted from 1999 to 2009, though it has shifted appearance dramatically over the decade. It survived this year; it may persist. Indications are everywhere, however, that we have come to a moment of stocktaking.

Novelty books on the order of Stuff Hipsters Hate and Look at This Fucking Hipster began appearing again this year, reliving the hipster’s previous near death in 2003 (titles then: A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster; The Hipster Handbook). Institutions associated with the hipster label have begun fleeing it. Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, announced in August that “hipster is over” and “hipsters are from a certain time period.” Gawker proposed to substitute a new name for the hipster by fiat—approving, after some consideration, the term fauxhemian.

Elsewhere—and especially in Europe—the deathbed scene looks more like an apotheosis. One German paper rounded up that country’s most recent reports of hipster emergence: “The current issue of the magazine Neon sees them at a club in Moscow, the Berlin Tagesspiegel spotted them yet again this week in the bars on Oranienstraße, Taz reported that in the ‘US hipster scene’ it’s cool to dress like Indians, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung knows that in Stockholm they are drawn to the district of Södermalm, Geo Saison had drinks with them at a bar in Prague, Die Welt found them in Australia from Sydney to Brisbane, the Sunday Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung knows the Parisian ‘Hipster-labels,’ and the weekend edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung commented recently that ‘big-city hipsters’ are now decorating their apartments with taxidermy.” The hipster has been reborn, too, in the American shopping mall, where Hot Topic sells thick-framed lensless eyeglasses to tweens and Nine West sells a “Hipster” sandal.

A key myth repeated about the hipster, by both the innocent and the underhanded, is that it has no definition. In August, after noting that the New York Times had printed hipster as a noun or an adjective more than 250 times in the previous year, Philip Corbett, the paper’s grammarian, wrote an open letter to the newsroom warning against its use. He certainly could have objected that it made for lazy headline copy, or that a derogatory term was being misused as praise. Instead, he objected that it wasn’t clear enough what the word means.

We do know what hipster means—or at least we should. The term has always possessed adequately lucid definitions; they just happen to be multiple. If we refuse to enunciate them, it may be because everyone affiliated with the term has a stake in keeping it murky. Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool. “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster,’ ” a headline in The Onion put it most succinctly.

The longer we go without an attempt to explain the term simply and clearly, the longer we are at the mercy of its underlying magic. In the interest of disenchantment, let me trace a history and offer some definitions. If we see the hipsters plain, maybe we’ll also see where they might come undone.

When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.

The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction.

The Lower East Side and Williamsburg in New York, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Silver Lake in L.A., the Inner Mission in San Francisco: This is where the contemporary hipster first flourished. Over the years, there developed such a thing as a hipster style and range of art and finally, by extension, something like a characteristic attitude and Weltanschauung. Fundamentally, however, the hipster continues to be defined by the same tension faced by those early colonizers of Wicker Park. The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.


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