I became a hipster around the turn of the century. I was just a teenager but as my inauguration into Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð (the ‘lefty/arty’ college in Reykjavík) drew nearer, I was drawn to the long hair, the vintage jeans, the ‘70s sports jackets, the ‘80s ski jackets, the Chuck Taylors, the Wayfarers. I exchanged my oval shaped glasses for thicker, horn-rimmed frames in a strong navy shade. I took especially to (very) short shorts, preferably of the European team handball variety, and tank tops. More importantly, I was pulled in by the raw sound and power of the garage rock revival, the clicks and cuts of the bedroom electronica scene, the beauty and twee innocence of indie pop. It seemed like watching anything but David Lynch was a waste of time.
Today, my friends like to joke about the fact that I haven’t changed one bit since then. I still wear the jackets I bought at Roskilde Festival in 2003 and stuff my Apple accessories in the tiny messenger bag I got during my pilgrimage to Williamsburg two years later. I still love The Strokes and Belle & Sebastian, especially on snarkling virgin vinyl. ‘Mulholland Dr.’ is better than 99.9% of what’s out there. I never bought a car. I’m still a hipster.
For some reason, I’ve never been afraid to refer to myself with the h-word. As soon as I registered the term I just knew I was already one of them. Around 2003 somebody gave me a copy of ‘The Hipster Handbook’ by Robert Lanham. It features illustrations of ready-made looks, a glossary of hip words (‘cool’ is now ‘deck’), a guide to what hipsters like, an overview of hipster hairstyles… stuff like that. I flipped through it and thought: ‘Fuck that guy looks deck’. I looked at the film and album titles and thought: ‘How does this guy know I like all this shit?’ I went out of my way to see and hear the stuff I didn’t already know. This is how I got to see ‘Suspiria.’ And ‘Duel.’ (I had already seen ‘Buffalo 66.’) This is why, before visiting a new city, I actually search the internet for ‘hipster neighborhood’ to make sure I won’t miss it.
Books like ‘The Hipster Handbook’ were always meant to poke fun at hipsters. But I never really took it as a joke. Or maybe I just didn’t get it. I guess it always seemed too self-celebratory and true to me. Lanham was too well-versed in hipster culture not to be one himself. Of course, it was obvious that he was detailing characteristics of a somewhat uniform group, but this was my group—our group—and it sure didn’t seem as homogeneous or boring as all the Diesel-clad bitches around.
It wasn’t until much later that I understood that the term was derogatory. It was pretty much coined (for the second time; ‘hipster’ is originally a term from the 1940s) so people could make fun of hipsters. I didn’t know that even hipsters take offense when called hipsters. Had I done wrong in wearing my hipster badge proudly?
Suddenly I felt like everyone was talking (read: blogging) about ridiculous hipster hairstyles, their hideous sweaters, how bad their tattoos are, how empty their existence is, how they’re the bastard-children of the yuppies, consumerism’s dream come true. Hipsters really got, and still get, on people’s nerves. They yield more scorn than the Hell’s Angels. And for what? Well, hipster scum are bike-riding, vintage-wearing, fair-trade-coffee-drinking vegetarians that work in the so called ‘creative professions’ and are always on the prowl for the new, the cool, the hip. Disgusting.
Let’s break this down:
* The hipster prefers the bike (or his longboard) to the car. He is ecologically conscious and leads a lifestyle that is low on carbon emissions. Riding bikes is also good exercise that will improve your health. His choice of transportation discourages sprawl in urban planning.
* The hipster wears old clothes. In other words, she recycles. She refuses to throw out things that are perfectly fine. She creatively re-appropriates the old. She is opposed to sweat shops. She is opposed to overproduction.
* The hipster likes the idea of fair-trade. He prefers business models that are ethical and non-exploitative. He puts money towards those who benefit from such models. This also helps explain the hipster’s love for microbreweries and his allegiance to smaller, independent businesses.
* The hipster may be vegetarian or vegan. She questions the ecological impact of industrialised meat. She questions the employed methods of slaughtering. She believes meat is an unnaturally large part of our diet and, in such doses, possibly detrimental to our health. She encourages sustainability.
* The hipster does creative work. His work has a very small ecological footprint. He creates valuables out of ‘nothing.’ Landing a good job with a corporation is not desirable because independence is key and micro-economies are humane. NGOs are a cool place to work because they are pro-people and non-profit.
* The hipster is fascinated by the new. She is in constant search of fresh ideas, of inspiration, of glimpses from tomorrow. Of a way to move forward. Of that which is different. His spirit is entrepreneurial and progressive.
I don’t know; this sounds like a much better, healthier, saner and more sustainable lifestyle than most Western lifestyles out there. This sounds like something to aspire to.
A Few Retorts
The more intelligent critiques of the hipster have to do with a) hipsters’ supposed apathy, b) hipsters’ lack of respect for pre-existing communities in urban areas where they thrive, c) hipsters’ supposed arrogance/elitism/sneering, and d) a mentality that makes ‘the product’ central and not ‘art.’
a) There is definitely an unwillingness to partake in traditional politics among hipsters and, rather, a desire to live life to the fullest. This is, I think, in part due to a widespread disenchantment with politics in the US—the birthplace of the hipster—at least since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and certainly throughout Bush Jr.’s reign. In the face of what young people saw as a stupid system designed to make richer the corporations and their owners, hipsters surfaced as a crowd that lived out their politics instead of discussing them. This is certainly the case in Iceland, where engagement in (partisan) politics is widely seen among young people as less conducive to improving society than radical disengagement from politics. However, it is true that most hipsters are not advocates of socialism or anarchy but on a mission to improve consumer capitalism by appropriating the radical and opting for a more fractured economic model, the end goal being a sort of infinitely diverse globalism.
b) The hipster populace emerged fast, and the face of many historical neighbourhoods changed rapidly as hipsters spread. In my opinion this is simply a fact of urbanity that urban dwellers should know and come to terms with. People come, people go. Things change. Hipsters do not behave like nasty real estate developers that drive people out of their homes or make buildings crumble so they can be torn down. Hipsters find cheap housing and vivify dead zones. It is true that hip areas do often attract attention and become gentrified as a result. But by then, the real hipsters are long gone.
c) Hipsters are notorious for being arrogant, at least towards non-hipsters. Honestly, I have not found this to be accurate. Either I’ve just never been subjected to it since I’m a hipster myself, or this is a form of criticism directed towards corporate assholes and banksters, or this is simply misinterpreted behaviour as perceived by an insecure outsider.
d) It is true that the Romantic/Modernist idea of art is waning in hipsterland. The question, for a hipster, is too often how ideas can be sold. The internet is too often seen only as the marketplace in a global village, not the gallery or the salon. Success is not necessarily measured in dollars but in likes and hits and plays—essentially the same thing, only worse: a useless, vain currency. I guess this is where I am let down by the hipster. My consolation, on the one hand, is that this is a global trend that cannot be attached to the hipster especially. On the other, the hipster obsession with ‘product’ seems to be more a question of survival than accumulation of wealth. It is an answer to the question ‘how can I do what I want and enjoy but still live and eat comfortably under capitalism?’ I would like to note, however, that hipsters have given birth to a lot of great and truly artistic music. Moreover, one of the most important currencies in hipsterland is cultural capital and this is, in theory at least, fertile ground for good art.
What I’m saying is that, although hipsters may not be perfect, we don’t deserve all the flak we get. We’re actually doing a bunch of stuff to make the world a better, smarter, more wholesome place. Probably more than you are, actually.
Hipsters! Let us reclaim the word and boldly tattoo it on our chests!