I nearly aborted Part 2 of my hipster post, but after chatting with loyal reader Elly, I'm thinking that I need to give a bit of explanation of why I'm sympathetic to the hipster
It seems to me that hipsters are mainly hated for the following reasons (not including their own self-hatred, which is uninteresting university-indoctrinated white liberal guilt and familiar bourgeois self-loathing):
- Their elitism (they're better than you, smarter than you, have better taste than you, and are “above” consumerism); this also ties in with the perception that the hipster is white (middle-class and privileged – with or without a trust fund)
- Their combination of loose affiliation with multiple subcultures and, in apparent contradiction, rampant consumerism (i.e. they have no strong counter-culture position or beliefs, but they're wearing the fashions of previous movements, and in some cases spending a lot of money on them)
The first reason I'm sympathetic to the hipster is that I have never had any problem with superficiality. Allow me to explain. When I was in high school, lo many years ago (the late 80s/early 90s), I first attempted to find my identity by joining the “alternative” scene (which, incidentally, you weren't supposed to call that, since they didn't like “labels,” which even at the time I thought was hilariously self-important). Its comforts were many. First, these people seemed cool, and I wanted to learn how to be cool. Second, they had a uniform (all black), making the agonizing decision of what to wear (since anything you wore had a social meaning and consequences) easy. Third, there was security in numbers. It meant I'd be accepted by a group.
Pretty soon, I realized the essential hypocrisy of “rebel” subcultures: we were supposed to be “different,” but there were strict rules about what you could and couldn't wear, listen to, like, and think. Notably, you couldn't wear colours and couldn't have any fun because then you wouldn't seem angsty and depressed. I was probably clinically depressed at the time, but I thought that never joking and laughing was probably the worst way you could react to it: presumably, the point was to stop being depressed, not to stay depressed.
So, I broke free of that group of friends and went on a new identity construction quest. Having been introduced by them to thrift-store shopping, I went on a giddy spree of buying whatever looked interesting to me, including things they wouldn't like and that would also serve to protest preppie blandness. This largely involved colourful floral old ladies' blouses and clashing peasant skirts. I retained a couple of alternative signifiers, so my basic allegiance would still be clear: black tights (all-year-round), black skinny jeans (because I could never go back to blue denim and retain my self-respect, although sometimes I'd wear my dad's bell-bottom blue jeans from the 70s, with giant holes in the knees, over ripped black tights), and the pale face/red lipstick/black eyeliner combo. Otherwise, though, my colourful thrift-store fashion aesthetic ended up looking a lot like the rummage-sale aesthetic of early Morrissey (not an influence, since pre-internet, in Canada, my only “visuals” for The Smiths were occasional nostalgia photos in the NME). (Of which we got one copy per month in the downtown mall Coles.) I interspersed it with early 70s discoveries from my parents' storage closet: psychedelic minidresses, pinstripe suits (to play Thin White Duke), square metal-framed Lennon sunglasses.
This, I'm pretty sure, was one of the beginnings of hipsterism: “arty” high school students coming out of the alternative scene and rejecting the fashion and music that was marketed to them, but also the “rules” of specific subcultures, in favour of a fun thrift-store aesthetic that naturally emphasized retro fashion. Soon I became friends with a large group of similarly-inclined kids, most of us lower-middle-class in an upper-middle-class school, who represented many of the various strains of subculture influence that would later get lumped together as “hipster” taste, such as hippie-beatnik and hippie-environmentalist/multiculturalist. Most of us liked to express ourselves creatively through our fashion choices (and tended to use either thrift stores or, if we had a bit more money, such as by getting jobs, independent boutiques) and almost all the members of the core group were involved in the arts (poets, playwrights, actors, singers, dancers). There was some crossover in music tastes (and anyone who liked things that were uncool, like metal, had to be either tutored or keep it to themselves), but more discrepancy of the “my bands are better than yours” kind. (Another important point in common: most of us read books. On purpose.) But differences in taste were well-tolerated. As long as you didn't have mainstream tastes, you were obviously a bit “off” (you might, for example, be severely medicated, or insufficiently medicated), and you were unconcerned about the high school Holy Grail of “popularity,” you were accepted. Later I learned that in many cases these kids were extremely insecure and, before finding this loose alliance, had in fact been worried about popularity and been victims of cruelty. I didn't know it at the time, because I really wasn't insecure in the least. Not, anyway, about my high school social status. You had two choices, basically: you could either continue to suffer it out on the fringes of the “popular crowd,” or you could kiss them goodbye and join a group where the worst you'd get was some mild teasing for having redneck music tastes.
Within our group (from my own perspective there were about half a dozen core “members,” including my two closest friends, plus about half a dozen others), I'm pretty sure I was the one most concerned about what was “cool.” In fact I distinctly remember the day I saw the Spin “Cool Issue” (back when Spin was still an alternative music magazine) and had the epiphany: “Yes! That's what I want to be! Not popular – cool!” I didn't take their advice on what was cool, except when I already agreed with it (e.g., The Ramones). I did take their advice on not taking their advice but rather figuring out this mysterious, elusive thing, so closely associated with rock for so long, on my own. Cool, of course, meant original above all. You couldn't copy it, and there was no sure way to achieve it. That meant if you hit it right, you were some kind of genius; in a way that may be evident only to you, since no one else might be cool enough to appreciate your cool. Which made it even better, because you didn't have to rely on others for affirmation (except in your own mind, where their congenital inability to appreciate you made you feel smugger).
And I did value originality. So that when Nirvana hit in '91 and suddenly friends who'd previously exhibited the “creative” retro thrift-store aesthetic were dressing in drab plaid and slouching around literally overnight, I was disappointed to discover that they were just trendy after all. Of course to the external eye the thrift-store aesthetic of “not looking like anyone else” probably looked like just as much of a uniform, and that's certainly what it became: the hipster look. I saw it happen, as trendy boutiques in the arts areas of our city bought up the “coolest” retro items from the general thrift stores in order to sell them at jacked-up prices, presumably to solvent young urban professionals. I refused to shop in those places (with the occasional exception, naturally) not only because I couldn't afford them but also because buying thrift-store clothes at expensive prices ruined the principle. So did having the choice of what was cool made for you, rather than determining it yourself.
As the pickings got slimmer (now I'm picturing this as an indie movie, with a recurring scene of the girl on a thrift-store hunt, at first tentatively, guided by cooler friends; then enthusiastically, on her own; and then forlornly, the treasures gone), and the choice retro items were snatched up, I had to get more creative. One day all I could find that was unusual was a lace shirt, yellowed with age. I thought, “But dare I? I'd be violating every last punk principle.” And then I had another of those epiphanies. I took it home, cut off the sleeves, and wore it as a punk statement on femininity that was also a punk subversion of punk. A few months later, I saw Courtney Love on a magazine cover for the first time, in her baby doll gear. Around this time I started to get obsessed with the idea that simply by following my instincts, I could predict fashion, and believed, probably delusionally, that I was seeing the “trends” I “started” everywhere in the media. Mark Greif's snark in his NYMag attack on the hipster, “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction,” would have been taken as a compliment by me, although it may give the hipster too much credit: what's really characteristic of the hipster is not that she's able to predict trends, but that she's obsessed with being able to do so.
But I had excellent historical and philosophical justifications for this obsession, so read on.
Hipsters and the Gay Male Subculture
One of the reasons I was the member of my group most overtly concerned with fashion and “coolness” was that I had done my research into gay male culture. It started, as it does for many hipsters, with an obsession with David Bowie when I discovered The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by complete accident. (I was 13; my grandparents bought a new second-hand car and gave the abandoned 8-track collection to me; I had also inherited a record player with 8-track; these contingencies converged to provide the soundtrack that literally enabled me to survive puberty.) Even before that, though, I'd discovered Oscar Wilde, also by complete accident (I saw a photograph of the early dandy Wilde in an unreadable New York Review of Books article on Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde, which I did read). (Wilde wore a hat and a cape. How cool was that?) I read a bio of Bowie and researched his influences, particularly Andy Warhol. When Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae appeared, I got over the media portrayal of her as an anti-feminist when I looked in the index and saw that it included both Wilde and Bowie – and at the time, it was radical for a work of scholarship to incorporate pop culture references, which is exactly what I was looking for: someone to bring together the traditional arts and pop culture, my two branches of interest, which I'd never seen as separate. All of this took place for me between the ages of 13, when I discovered Wilde, and 17, when I read SP.
While I was parading around my high school in sloppy, clown-coloured retro thrift-store clothes, listening to indie music (mostly The Smiths), reading teenage hipster literature (Kafka, Naked Lunch, On the Road), and writing plays (one of which would be produced when I was 18 and win a national award), I thought of myself all the while as a Wildean aesthete. I appreciated fashion, knew its history (Cecil Beaton was among my idols), thought that the “authenticity” prized by other counterculture elements was a preposterous pose, and enjoyed tweaking these elements by emphasizing my superficiality. And, in line with another frequent accusation against hipsters – that they're more interested in cultivating the artist persona than in making art – I definitely thought that this was the way an artist should be. Artists should be colourful, eccentric, playful provocateurs. And, if possible, sexy. As a teenager, the main way in which I got interested in writers was through their photographs: Wilde, Colette, Truman Capote, Jane Bowles, Joe Orton – they all knew how to pose (which made an obvious point of connection between the writer and the pop star in my mind). The artist, I believed, should be a poseur. And they should never assume the drab pose of self-important seriousness: that was bland and middle class. The artist was trickster and imp. Obviously, I did take my writing seriously (although, significantly, my subject was still the artist), and I was surprised when in my first major interview with a local newspaper I was described as having “the pose of the writer.” The same arts critic, anyway, decided that I delivered the goods when he reviewed my play, but I didn't understand how my appearance (let alone my vocabulary) was setting me up with something extra to prove in the first place. Of course I had the pose of the writer – that's one of the things, besides good writing, that I believed a writer had to deliver!
The playwriting career, obviously, didn't take. And by my early twenties I had learned to admire writing and writers for reasons other than their subversiveness or sexiness. By my mid-20s I'd stopped wearing thrift-store clothes, even though my clothing budget wasn't any bigger, because I thought it was undignified, although I couldn't bear to adopt the standard university student costume of hoodie, blue jeans, and ponytail. My elitism was unwavering, though mild, and if in high school I'd consciously defined myself against Gap and other brand-name preppies, in university I more casually defined myself against the prevalent Canadian prairies aesthetic. Without a clothing budget, I bought clothes as little as possible, but now and then I did need a new pair of pants, and wasn't surprised when the only other girls I saw in the same ones were Asians (easily the most fashion-conscious university students in my city to this day, when they've far outstripped me at my advanced age).
What does surprise me is that in all of the media coverage of the hipster, no one seems to have noticed how much this sociological group has borrowed from what used to be the gay male subculture. That subculture seems to have lost a lot of its coherence and influence, whether it's because of the LGBT bid for mainstream respectability or because, as my friend Mark Simpson suggested in a piece of writing he let me read, the older generation of gay bohemia that survived into the 80s was decimated by AIDS. Paglia talked it up a lot as one of her main influences: the 20th century subculture that adopted the dandy persona from Wilde; that developed taste into a fine art; whose impassioned interest in art and beauty was reflected in career choices such as fashion design, stage and costume design, interior decorating, and, at the lower end of the economic spectrum, window decorating (like pre-fame Warhol) and hairdressing; and which was famous for predicting trends with their taste (e.g. Japanese art and interior design). It was this trend-predicting “savant” ability of the gay bohemian that made him so useful to pop stars who acted as conduits between the avant-garde and popular culture, like Bowie in the 70s and Madonna in the 80s.
Greif calls the hipster “that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual – the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student – who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two” (which is just bewildering, since Greif has a Yale Ph.D., and therefore was at one point a graduate student: is he really delusional enough to believe that his academic Marxism protects him from “alignment with the dominant class,” or is it like the literary theory loophole where all text is subject to ultimate indeterminacy except the text you're reading now that's telling you this?). But only recently, the gay man was that person, and liberals (well, anyway, Sontag and Paglia) considered his role of conduit as being of vital cultural importance – despite the fact that this 20th century subculture produced aesthetes and commercial artists rather than, for the most part, major fine artists (the only exceptions I can think of are Warhol, Bacon, and maybe Mapplethorpe). Which is exactly how Greif dismisses the hipster: because they're not producers, they must be consumers (there's no other role you can serve in life, and that magic word, “consumer,” obliterates all credibility with no possibility of appeal); and to the extent that they do produce, it's not “major art,” but rather artisan art (tattoos and T-shirts).
Hipsterism and the Post-Feminist Male
But even as gay bohemia, although perhaps still existing in some pockets, had lost its vital influence, its traits were spreading throughout a much larger minority of heterosexual youth – right down to their humour, snark, which (especially in its highly-developed online form) is gay male bitchery and liberal-baiting* as practised by gender-bending, bi-curious heterosexuals, many of whom had their lives changed at some point by reading Judith Butler in a Gender Studies course and/or picking up a copy of Sexual Personae. This post-gender, post-sexuality hipster is, most importantly, post-feminist: one of the main sources of the twee movement in hipster art that Greif identifies is Smiths-era Morrissey (whom Greif doesn't mention), who surprised me in early interviews (which I read late, on the internet) by mentioning 70s feminist theorists, to which I believe he was introduced by his performance artist friend Linder, as an influence on his rejection of rock machismo. If the hipsters didn't have Morrissey, they had an undergrad women's studies, gender studies, or queer studies course, or a girlfriend (or boyfriend) who took one or several of these. (And yes, there are gay hipsters – lots of lesbian ones, or maybe those are just the ones I know – since “hipster” in the broad sense just means a certain kind of youth culture, including youth from the LGBT community.)
Because “hipster,” at least in one of its meanings, refers to a large, loose affiliation of youth subcultures whose subculture affiliations are also loose (or they couldn't be part of the “hipster” melting pot), there's a tension within it, which I detected even within my small high school group of arty kids, between fashion-conscious superficiality (the trait held in common with the gay male bohemian) and punk/hippie authenticity. And if you want to deconstruct the hipster – which apparently everyone does – you can declare this an “aporia” (another magic word, but only English students care) that renders the entire project incoherent. The hipster is not only (arguably) the first youth culture figure to have her counterculture tastes marketed back to her instantly, in order to transform the rebel into an obedient consumer; she's also the first youth culture figure to be subjected to Cultural Studies-style pseudo-sociological analysis, which is apparently the exact same thing as Reefer Madness-style pseudo-sociological conservative analysis, except practiced by leftists... with Yale Ph.Ds. Or by hipsters themselves, graduate school dropouts who funneled their Cultural Studies-style education into more lucrative careers as satire bloggers. (What was SWPL but the nailing of a trend... the hipster trend?)
In the early 90s, Paglia called for several things from de-ethnicized middle-class youth, and the university student in particular: to reclaim their aestheticism from p.c. academe, recognizing that taste is elitist, something that can be cultivated but not taught**; and to learn something about life outside the university by getting menial jobs and having some experience of being poor. Well, hipsters did that. And the process got kicked into high gear after the recession made it obvious that a humanities degree was not, for most, a ticket to the middle class, but rather a one-way ticket to a career in retail, where, incidentally, full-time jobs were also scarce. Hence the two great contradictory meanings of the hipster: on the one hand, he's despised for his symbolic privilege (white, male, middle class, highly educated); on the other hand, he's despised for symbolizing the defeat of that privilege (he lacks any socio-economic power: he's not middle class, he's not working class, he's not anything, he's just ridiculous).
And make no mistake, it's the male hipster who's the symbolic point of contention: turn-of-the-millennium, cerebral, deliberately eschewing masculinity (metrosexuality arrived right on schedule to give the twee persona more of an urban, cosmopolitan touch for those who wanted it), he looks to everyone, himself most of all, a helluva lot like Wells's Eloi, and there's not a thing he can do about it.
As for the stigma on people in their 20s or 30s continuing to get financial assistance from their parents, that one's just plain baffling: since there is no such thing in 21st century Western culture as the extended family (at least not for white people) or the middle-class private income, what exactly are young people supposed to do if they are not interested in immediately starting a lucrative career and focusing their energy on advancement? Is that really what we want all youth to do? And I know plenty of young “hipster” workaholics, but they have careers as things like hairdressers, chefs, or retail managers, all of which I assume Greif would scorn. Some of them work several jobs and live with their parents. I can't tell you why: maybe so they can be better consumers, or maybe because many people in their early 20s aren't emotionally ready to leave their families. Which makes another damned-if-you-do-or-don't: hipsters can't both be mega-consumers (one criticism) and slackers (another criticism), unless all of their parents are paying for everything... and they're not.
If we all agreed to define the hipster as “that young person, student, or ex-student who professes vaguely counterculture tastes and sentiments while doing nothing but mega-consuming corporate-marketed trends on their parents' dime,” I would readily agree to jump on the condemnation bandwagon, although I still wouldn't get excited about it. (Why? Because some of these people at least look cool and have good taste, and the world needs more of that. The ones that look like idiots I could do without, but they at least provide entertainment.) But that is not every young person, student, or ex-student who professes vaguely counterculture tastes and sentiments. In fact, I don't know anyone who meets this description. But then, I don't live in a major metropolitan centre.
From Camp to Kitsch
What the hipster represents to me, in line with the role they've taken over from the gay bohemian, is one major strain of the turn-of-the-millennium aestheticization of reality. I remember the moment when I realized that youth counterculture had taken over camp: when I saw Ghost World (2001) in my mid-twenties, and recognized that the young people who were extending the retro/thrift aesthetic of my teenage years had developed a particular aesthetic attitude to the world that strongly resembled Sontag's classic definition of “camp” (poisonous, and deadly hip, New York conduit as she was between the gay counterculture and the trendy liberal intelligentsia). The middle-class teenage “counterculture rebels” of Ghost World were attempting to reclaim kitsch – including the politically- charged kitsch of pre-p.c. racial stereotyping – as camp: as something of aesthetic/humourous value. As something cool. I have to admit that I was a little disturbed that the word “camp” never appeared in the film; and disturbed again when a similar issue comes up in the second episode of The Burg, and again, no mention of “camp” appears. (“Retro,” yes; “camp,” no.) Are hipsters really so ignorant of the gay subculture they so closely resemble, and to which they owe so much philosophically? There's a vague allusion to camp in the second Burg episode, when the hipsters' new roommate, the yupster Ryan (he has a job on Wall Street and naive enthusiasm for the “creativity” of hipster culture), seeing a decorating trend of such potential gay iconography as a Russ Meyer poster and an absence of signifiers of traditional masculinity (such as other posters of sexy women), asks one of them if they're gay, to his consternation – even though the less uptight Ryan thinks it would be cool or even “hot.” So maybe the male hipster (in some versions) did have to dissociate himself from homosexuality, considering that to the outside observer, it's hard to tell the difference between his taste and gay taste.
The Middle Class, Now Purely Symbolic
Lest we add the “appropriation” of gay culture to the list of the hipster's sins, however, it's important to note that Wilde appropriated the dandy for gay culture (after Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance permanently associated the aesthete with male homosexuality).*** It was Baudelaire who appropriated the dandy as the ideal persona for the avant-garde artist, because of his aristocratic disdain for the bourgeoisie; even though this disdain was now purely symbolic, with no basis in real socio-economic power: the bourgeois was in, the aristocrat was out. Much like the situation of the hipster now, according to its critics: the de-ethnicized bourgeois is out, the ethnicities he has historically oppressed are in. For the symbolic disdain of the dandy, which refused to bend to mass taste (the origins of kitsch), substitute the symbolic knowingness of the hipster. And with Baudelaire's appropriation of the dandy's symbolic elitism for the existential stance of the modern artist came the separation of the practice of art from the cultivation of the artist persona: for the first time, being an artist meant pissing off the bourgeoisie not only with your art but with the way you looked and acted. There had been many artists like this before (and the Romantics really dug it); but now it was a programme. By the time Wilde took it up, he thought the best way to piss off the bourgeoisie was to make that the main duty of the artist, of much greater importance than creating major artworks (which he managed to do almost by accident, and only once or twice). And to this day, it seems like the best way to piss off as many people as possible is to assume the pose of an elitist artist, or “artistic type,” which artists themselves seem reluctant to do, maybe because that persona (and their cultural influence) was taken over by the rock star. Well, nowadays everyone has learned how to be their own rock star, on Facebook or walking down the street. Except now it's not the conservatives getting riled up: it's the liberals and leftists, for whom “consumerism” is the only issue of the day, to the point where the once-trenchant critique is becoming meaningless. Conservatives are too busy worrying about youth developments that have little overlap with hipster culture, like teen pregnancy and single motherhood. Liberals, it seems to me, are a little bit too distracted by fashion on this one.
*Hipster humour is a strange phenomenon. It's unusual for youth culture to be associated with a specific (or any) type of humour; we don't hear about punk humour or hippie humour. Or, if you want to suggest hipsterism as an art movement (which no one does, yet they somehow, like Greif, end up doing it anyway, if only to argue against it), it's not usual to associate those with humour either; Dadaism is the only exception I can think of. Fuelled by white liberal guilt and bourgeois self-loathing, hipster humour has paradoxically converted these things into a self-deprecation that's reminiscent of ethnic humour. That may form another source of frustration for the hipster's critics: if you come to youth with the expectation of punk rage or hippie love, and instead get snark, you are liable to perceive, humourlessly, as dispassion what is in fact a way of looking at the world from a viewpoint not only of aestheticism but of absurdism. (The humourless hipster, on the other hand, is just a fashion victim, like any other.)
**The hipster critic would reply to this that hipster taste is taught, and that's the point: it's taught at university, and its main signifying function is that you've been to university. Cutting class-based argument that this is, it's extremely attractive; unfortunately, it's not borne out by my experience. I picked up my hipster (or indie) taste in high school, and many of the “hipster youth” I know have never been anywhere near a university. If they ever plan to do so, it's not necessarily in the humanities. While it's true that some late-blooming hipsters only learn indie taste in university, it's sure not from their classes (mandatory listening to OK Computer or Funeral or viewing of HBO dramas is not part of the core humanities curriculum, at least not yet); as in high school, it's from their peers. The middle class, ranging from lower to upper, is currently faced with a choice: declass yourself by aligning yourself with elitist taste, or declass yourself by aligning yourself with populist taste. Either way, it's not your class (parental or personal income) that decides your taste, but your taste that decides your (symbolic) class.
***Thus associated, "aesthete," like "hipster" (damningly associated with the white middle class) became uniformly a term of abuse, from which only a few brave souls have tried to rescue it. I'm one. I called myself an "aesthete" and defended aestheticism as often as possible throughout university, which didn't affect my marks (disappointing my pretensions to intellectual martyrdom), but did get me into plenty of arguments with the professors who liked me best. Obviously, "aesthete" is no longer a term of abuse for its association with homosexuality, but for the implication that values exist that are independent of social constructs or materialist reductions.