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What Was the Hipster?

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The most exemplary hipster artists are probably the early Dave Eggers, of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and his journal McSweeney’s (1998), and Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). These and other artists who were referred to as hipster produced a body of work that was otherwise classed more precisely as “precious” or “twee.” The older Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, not a part of this system at their own genesis, stood at the head of a new soft-spoken, often anti-homophobic aesthetic in music. (Eggers tried to claim the older Flaming Lips as allies. Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and Joanna Newsom were later manifestations.)

The tensions of this art revolved around the very old dyad of adulthood and a child-centered world, but landed heavily on the side of the child. Formally, there was an aestheticization of the mode of pastiche, which Fredric Jameson identified in the early eighties as a characteristic mode of postmodern narrative. Here, however, “blank parody” gave way to a reconstruction of past techniques more perfect than the originals, in an irony without sarcasm, bitterness, or critique. Reflexivity was used as a means to get back to sentimental emotion.

In the nineties, it had become commonplace to assume that one could no longer say heartfelt, sincere things outright, because all genuine utterance would be stolen and repeated as advertising. Whatever anguish this caused seemed gone in the artifacts of the early aughts. The ironic games were weightless. The emotional expressions suggested therapy culture, but hipster art often kitschified—or at least made playful—the weightiest tragedies, whether personal or historical: orphans and cancer for Eggers, the Holocaust and 9/11 for Jonathan Safran Foer.

The hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts.

By 2003, though, an overwhelming feeling of an end to hipsterism permeated the subculture. It seems possible that the White Hipster was born in part as a reaction to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle—the emboldened anti-capitalism that was the signal youth rebellion of the century’s end. But 2003 spelled the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and a pivot in the national mood from post-9/11 mourning to patriotic aggression and violence. The wifebeater-wearer’s machismo no longer felt subversive, and while the more sinister strain of White Hipster style started to diminish, the artistic concern with innocence turned from human absolution to the fragile world of furry creatures, trees, and TRS-80s.

Suddenly, the hipster transformed. Most succinctly—though this is too simple—it began to seem that a “green” hipster had succeeded the white. Certainly the points of reference shifted from midwestern suburbs to animals, wilderness, plus the occasional Native American. Best perhaps to call this the Hipster Primitive, for linked to the Edenic nature-as-playground motif was a fascination with early-eighties computer electronics and other rudimentary or superannuated technologies.

In culture, the Hipster Primitive moment recovered the sound and symbols of pastoral innocence with an irony so fused into the artworks it was no longer visible. Music led the artistry of this phase, and the period’s flagship publication, the record-review website and tastemaker Pitchfork, picked up as Vice declined. Here are the names of some significant bands, post-2004: Grizzly Bear, Neon Indian, Deerhunter, Fleet Foxes, Department of Eagles, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, and, most centrally, Animal Collective. (On the electronic-primitive side, LCD Soundsystem.) Listeners heard animal sounds and lovely Beach Boys–style harmonies; lyrics and videos pointed to rural redoubts, on wild beaches and in forests; life transpired in some more loving, spacious, and manageable future, possibly of a Day-Glo or hallucinatory brightness. It was not unheard of to find band members wearing masks or plush animal suits.

Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls), the Hipster Primitive feminized hipster markers; one spoke now of headdresses and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, not just male facial hair. Women took up cowboy boots, then dark-green rubber Wellingtons, like country squiresses off to visit the stables. Men gave up the porno mustache for the hermit or lumberjack beard. Flannel returned, as did hunting jackets in red-and-black check. Scarves proliferated unnecessarily, conjuring a cold woodland night (if wool) or a desert encampment (if a kaffiyeh). Then scarves were worn as bandannas, as when Mary-Kate Olsen sported one, like a cannibal Pocahontas, hungry enough to eat your arm.

There were also some practical technological withdrawals. As CDs declined, LP records gained sales for the first time in two decades—seemingly purchased by the same kids who had 3,000 songs on their laptops. The most advanced hipster youth even deprived their bikes of gears. The fixed-gear bike now ranks as the second-most-visible urban marker of hip, and not the least of its satisfactions is its simple mechanism.


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