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What Was the Hipster?

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And hipster motifs and styles, when you dig into them, are often directly taken from these adjacent countercultures. The fixed-gear bike came from bike messengers and the anarchist culture of groups like Critical Mass and Bikes Not Bombs. Hipster approval of locavore food (because local cheeses and grass-fed beef are expensive, rare, and knowledge-intensive) brings elitism to the left-environmentalist campaign for deindustrialized agriculture. Even those trucker hats were familiar to those of us who first saw them on the wrong heads in 1999; they’d been worn in punk rock in the late eighties and early nineties, through the Reagan-Bush recession, as an emblem of the “age of diminished expectations.”

Can the hipster, by virtue of proximity if nothing else, be woken up? One can’t expect political efflorescence from an anti-political group. Yet the mainstreaming of hipsterism to the suburbs and the mall portends hipster self-disgust. (Why bother with a lifestyle that everyone now knows?) More important, it guarantees the pollination of a vast audience with seeds stolen from the counterculture. Granted, they have been husked of significance—but couldn’t a 12-year-old with deep Google skills figure out what they originally meant? And might they still germinate?

Something was already occurring in the revivification that transpired in 2003. The White Hipster was truly grotesque, whereas within the Hipster Primitive there emerged a glimmer of an idea of refusal. In the U.K., American-patterned hipsters in Hackney and Shoreditch are said to be turning more toward an ethos of androgyny, drag, the queer. In recent hipster art, Animal Collective’s best-known lyric is this: “I don’t mean to seem like I / Care about material things, like our social stats / I just want four walls and / Adobe slats for my girls.” The band members masked their faces to avoid showing themselves to the culture of idolators. If a hundred thousand Americans discovered that they, too, hated the compromised culture, they might not look entirely unlike the Hipster Primitive. Just no longer hip.

Adapted from What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, by the editors of n+1, published this month.


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