Hipster Handbook

Hipster is a slang term that first appeared in the 1940s, was revived in the 1990s, and continued to be used in the 2000s and 2010s, to describe young, recently settled urban middle class adults and older teenagers with musical interests mainly in indie rock. Other interests in media would include independent film, magazines such as Vice and Clash, and websites like Pitchfork Media. In some contexts, hipsters are also called scenesters.

‘Hipster’ has been used in sometimes contradictory ways, making it difficult to precisely define ‘hipster culture,’ which has been described as a ‘mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior.’ Hipsterism fetishizes the authentic elements of all of the ‘fringe movements of the postwar era—beat, hippie, punk, even grunge,’ and draws on the ‘cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity,’ and ‘regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.’ Others, like Arsel and Thompson, argue that hipster signifies a cultural mythology, a crystallization of a mass-mediated stereotype generated to understand, categorize, and marketize indie consumer culture, rather than an objectified group of people.

The term itself was coined during the jazz age, when ‘hip’ emerged as an adjective to describe aficionados of the growing scene. Although the adjective’s exact origins are disputed, some say it was a derivative of ‘hop,’ a slang term for opium, while others believe it comes from the West African word ‘hipi,’ meaning ‘to open one’s eyes.’ Nevertheless, ‘hip’ eventually acquired the common English suffix -ster (as in spinster and gangster), and ‘hipster’ entered the language.

The first dictionary to list the word is the short glossary ‘For Characters Who Don’t Dig Jive Talk,’ which was included with Harry Gibson’s 1944 album, ‘Boogie Woogie In Blue.’ The entry for ‘hipsters’ defined them as ‘characters who like hot jazz.’ Initially, hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely black jazz musicians they followed. In ‘The Jazz Scene’ (1959), author Eric Hobsbawm (originally writing under the pen name Francis Newton) described hipster language — i.e., ‘jive-talk or hipster-talk’ — as ‘an argot or cant designed to set the group apart from outsiders.’

However, the subculture rapidly expanded, and after World War II, a burgeoning literary scene grew up around it. Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as ‘rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality.’ In his essay ‘The White Negro,’ Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death — annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity — and electing instead to ‘divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.’

In the late 1990s, the term began to be used in new, sometimes mutually exclusive ways. In some circles it became a blanket description for middle class and upper class young people associated with alternative culture, particularly alternative music, independent rock, alternative hip-hop, independent film, and a lifestyle revolving around thrift store shopping; eating organic, locally grown, vegetarian, or vegan food; drinking local beer (or even brewing their own); listening to public radio; and riding bicycles.

In 2003, Robert Lanham’s satirical book ‘The Hipster Handbook’ described hipsters as young people with ‘mop-top haircuts, swinging retro pocketbooks, talking on cell phones, smoking European cigarettes… strutting in platform shoes with a biography of Che Guevara sticking out of their bags.’ Lanham further describes hipsters thus: ‘You graduated from a liberal arts school whose football team hasn’t won a game since the Reagan administration’ and ‘you have one Republican friend who you always describe as being your ‘one Republican friend.”

Slate writer Brandon Stosuy noted that ‘Heavy metal has recently conquered a new frontier, making an unexpected crossover into the realm of hipsterdom.’ He argues that the ‘current revival seems to be a natural mutation from the hipster fascination with post-punk, noise, and no wave,’ which allowed even the ‘nerdiest indie kids to dip their toes into jagged, autistic sounds.’ He argues that a byproduct of this development was an ‘investigation of a musical culture that many had previously feared or fetishized from afar.’

In 2008, Utne Reader magazine writer Jake Mohan described ‘hipster rap’ as ‘consisting of the most recent crop of MCs and DJs who flout conventional hip-hop fashions, eschewing baggy clothes and gold chains for tight jeans, big sunglasses, the occasional keffiyeh, and other trappings of the hipster lifestyle.’

Christian Lorentzen of Time Out New York claims that metrosexuality is the hipster appropriation of gay culture, as a trait carried over from their ‘Emo’ phase. He writes that ‘these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.’ Lorentzen says hipsters, ‘in their present undead incarnation,’ are ‘essentially people who think of themselves as being cooler than America,’ also referring to them as ‘the assassins of cool.’ He also criticizes how the subculture’s original menace has long been abandoned and has been replaced with ‘the form of not-quite-passive aggression called snark.’

Rob Horning developed a critique of hipsterism in his 2009 article ‘The Death of the Hipster’ in PopMatters, exploring several possible definitions for the hipster. He muses that the hipster might be the ’embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics,’ or might be ‘a kind of permanent cultural middleman in hypermediated late capitalism, selling out alternative sources of social power developed by outsider groups, just as the original ‘white negros’ evinced by Norman Mailer did to the original, pre-pejorative ‘hipsters’—blacks….’

Horning also proposed that the role of hipsters may be to ‘appropriat[e] the new cultural capital forms, delivering them to mainstream media in a commercial form and stripping their inventors … of the power and the glory.’ Horning argues that the ‘problem with hipsters’ is the “way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how ‘cool’ it is perceived to be,’ as ‘just another signifier of personal identity.’ Furthermore, he argues that the ‘hipster is defined by a lack of authenticity, by a sense of lateness to the scene’ or the way that they transform the situation into a ‘self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit.’

Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s work and Thomas Frank’s theories of co-optation, Zeynep Arsel and Craig Thompson argue that in order to segment and co-opt the indie marketplace, mass media and marketers have engaged in commercial ‘mythmaking’ and contributed to the formation of the contemporary discourse about hipsters.

Arsel and Thompson also interview participants of the indie culture (DJs, designers, writers) to better understand how they feel about being labeled as one. Their findings demonstrate three strategies for dissociation from the hipster stereotype: aesthetic discrimination, symbolic demarcation, and proclaiming sovereignty. These strategies, empowered by one’s status in the indie field (or their cultural capital) enable these individuals to defend their field dependent cultural investments and tastes from devaluating hipster mythology.

Their work explains why people who are ostensibly fitting the hipster stereotype profusely deny being one: hipster mythology devaluates their tastes and interests and thus they have to socially distinguish themselves from this cultural category and defend their tastes from devaluation. To succeed in denying being a hipster, while looking, acting, and consuming like one, these individuals demythologize their existing consumption practices by engaging in rhetorics and practices that symbolically differentiate their actions from the hipster stigma.

Mark Grief, a founder of n+1 and an assistant professor at The New School, in a New York Times editorial, states that, ‘You can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain. One hipster subgroup’s strategy is to disparage others as ‘liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands’; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the ‘creative professions.’ These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural ‘cool.”

They, in turn, may malign the ‘trust fund hipsters.’ This challenges the philistine wealthy who, possessed of money but not the nose for culture, convert real capital into ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu’s most famous coinage), acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear (e.g. Paris Hilton in her trucker hat).

Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch-­surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be ‘superior’: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.

Grief’s efforts puts the term ‘hipster’ into a socioeconomic framework rooted in the petty bourgeois tendencies of a youth generation unsure of their future social status. The cultural trend is indicative of a social structure with heightened economic anxiety and lessened class mobility.

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