Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Making Fun of Hipsters is the Hip Thing to Do!

(above: Toothpaste For Dinner, on hipsters)

The magazine, “Adbusters,” is one that I had no contact with before now. After doing a little research, I see that the magazine shoots for small press but big change, something I certainly can get behind. It’s slickly designed and has features on how you can feel like you are changing the world. It appears the magazine harnesses the hipster aesthetic to try to sell to a niche independent market of hip young people.

Notice that I used the word “hipster” to describe the magazine. That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days without really having a definition. In this case, all I really mean is that the magazine uses the current trend of sleek, sexy design and style to hock its substance to a young demographic. But really, all that my stilted definition of “hipster” does is show just how poorly-defined the term actually is.

Enter, once again, “Adbusters.” The magazine recently featured an article called “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” The article, by Douglas Haddow, tries to delineate exactly what a hipster is and how this current trend of hipsterism means the downfall of the legitimacy of culture. Since his article has these twin aims, I will discuss each in turn, first his definition and second his claims about the significance of hipsterism.

As far as the definition of “hipster” is concerned, Haddow makes a valiant effort. His essay is interlaced with vignettes from the “hipster” world, including clubs, all-night parties, and the like. These little scenes really do establish just which crowd he means when he talks about hipsters. That Haddow equates hipsterism with a shifting sense of brand and self, in order to facilitate instant relevance, is certainly a large part of what hipsterism is all about.

This, I think, does get at a fundamental commonality among all of those that we might call hipsters. Hipsters are strongly interested in being on the cutting edge, on being the trendsetters and culture creators. There is an emphasis on recentism inherent in hipsterism. (Incidentally, this same recentism motivates most articles on hipsterism, but that would be a digression.)

But something is missing from Haddow’s definiton. Most people you might call a hipster would bristle at the insinuation. Hipsters rarely self-identify (Andy Warhol likely was the closest to self-identifying as a hipster). The term isn’t a general description of a culture. It inherently only reflects the negative side of this culture. Inasmuch as “hipster” is a pejorative term, Haddow nails what it means.

This brings me to Haddow’s second point. He argues that hipsters, because of his definition, are leading to a dead end in cultural and societal development. This claim is flawed for two main reasons: it imputes a negative trait to a largely indefinable group, and it ignores a good amount of history in marketing and culture.

Firstly, hipster, as I understood it and explained it above, is a negative quality of culture that is currently pretty dominant. It would be fair to say that this negative trait is bad for culture, but so is the vapidity that made “Epic Movie” profitable and the selfishness that lets 3rd world children starve. In other words, while self-interested superficial recentism is certainly a bad thing, it, more often than not, comes in concert with many other things, like political awareness, political action, and the development of art and culture. Hipsterism is just a rather unfortunate side effect of being young and trying to be cool.

Which solidly introduces my second point: the emphasis on recentism and superficiality is not new. It is what drives advertising and marketing. But even if you don’t care for advertising and marketing, you need look no further than the politically influential movements of the past to see hipsterism at work. The beat movement, arguably, had elements of hipsterism. So did the hippie movement (no surprise there) and the grunge movements. That the modern era has elements of this does not eliminate its relevance or spell doom for culture. If anything, the current election serves to demonstrate the influence of young voters and young, politically active students, despite the fact that some of them evince some elements of hipsterism.

So in essence, Haddow’s article is first and foremost well written and a good read. It even gets a lot of things right about hipsters. But the article arrives at some false dichotomies and some false conclusions. Haddow has fallen pray to the common belief that things are totally different now than they ever have been before. The call has gone out many a time in the past that Western Civilization was being threatened by “those crazy kids” and their “rebellion without a cause.” But 50 years has shown us that many of these movements weren’t death knells, but cultural cornerstones.

All that said, unfortunately for Haddow, this article will likely be forgotten long before the political influence of hipsters is forgotten.

NOTE: Thanks, Melanie, for the article. And also, see hipster runoff for examples of why hipsterism is hilarious, interesting, important, goofy, meaningless, and ridiculous.

1 comment:

  1. I really detest all these little sub-cultures who think they're achieving something just because they live differently than most people, mostly because it turns into a fad that people blindly follow in order to give off the impression that they have some kind of ideological commitment when in reality they are just following a trend. It's pretty sad.