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What Was the Hipster?

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The question arises: What was it about the turn-of-the-century moment that made it so clear—as it was immediately clear—that the character had to have this name, the hipster, which was so fraught with historical meaning? Subculture has never had a problem with neologism or exploitation of slang, from emo to punk to hippie. The hipster, however, was someone else already. Specifically, he was a black subcultural figure of the late forties, best anatomized by Anatole Broyard in an essay for the Partisan Review called “A Portrait of the Hipster.” A decade later, the hipster had evolved into a white subcultural figure. This hipster—and the reference here is to Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay for Dissent in 1957—was explicitly defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation, and achieve the “cool” knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of black Americans. (Hippie itself was originally an insulting diminutive of hipster, a jab at the sloppy kids who hung around North Beach or Greenwich Village after 1960 and didn’t care about jazz or poetry, only drugs and fun.)

The hipster, in both black and white incarnations, in his essence had been about superior knowledge—what Broyard called “a priorism.” He insisted that hipsterism was developed from a sense that minorities in America were subject to decisions made about their lives by conspiracies of power they could never possibly know. The hip reaction was to insist, purely symbolically, on forms of knowledge that they possessed before anyone else, indeed before the creation of positive knowledge—a priori. Broyard focused on the password language of hip slang.

The return of the term after 1999 reframed the knowledge question. Hipster, in its revival, referred to an air of knowing about exclusive things before anyone else. The new young strangers acted, as people said then, “hipper than thou.” At first their look may also have overlapped enough with a short-lived moment of neo-Beat and fifties nostalgia (goatees, fedoras, Swingers-style duds) to help call up the term. But these hipsters were white, and singularly unmoved by race and racial integration.

Indeed, the White Hipster—the style that suddenly emerged in 1999—inverted Broyard’s model to particularly unpleasant effect. Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called “wifebeaters,” worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; “porno” or “pedophile” mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos.

Key institutions were the fashion magazine Vice, which moved to New York from Montreal in 1999 and drew on casual racism and porn to refresh traditional women’s-magazine features (“It Happened,” “Dos and Don’ts”) and overcome the stigma of boys looking at photos of clothes; Alife, the hipster-branding consultancy–cum–sneaker store, also launched in 1999, staffed by employees who claimed a rebel background in punk/skateboarding/graffiti to justify why they were now in retail sportswear; and American Apparel, which launched in L.A. in 1997 as an anti-sweatshop T-shirt manufacturer and gradually changed its advertising focus from progressive labor practices to amateur soft-core porn.

These were the most visible emblems of a small and surprising subculture, where the source of a priori knowledge seemed to be nostalgia for suburban whiteness. As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash.” “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of,” Vice founder Gavin McInnes told the Times in 2003.

This recalled the seventies culture of white flight to the suburbs, and the most uncanny thing about the turn-of-the-millennium white hipsters is that symbolically, in their styles and attitudes, they seemed to announce that whiteness and capital were flowing back into the formerly impoverished city. They wore what they were in economic and structural terms—because for reasons mysterious to the participants, those things suddenly seemed “cool” for an urban setting.

The early White Hipster aped the “unmeltable ethnics” (Irish, Italian, Polish, and so forth), but now with the ethnicities scrubbed off. And rather than an indie or bohemian subculture, it felt like an ethnicity—with its clannishness, its claiming of microneighborhoods from other, older migrants (Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Orthodox Jews), and its total uninterest in integrating into the local populations.

It would be too limited, however, to understand the contemporary hipster as simply someone concerned with a priori knowledge as a means of social dominance. In larger manifestations, in private as well as on the street, contemporary hipsterism has been defined by an obsessive interest in the conflict between knowingness and naïveté, guilty self-awareness and absolved self-absorption. Consider hipster art. At the same time that hipsters were dressing like seventies-model Stanley Kowalskis, they were consuming culture that was considerably more anxious about machismo, heterosexuality, and maturity.


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