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So that makes you a Square: In defense of ‘The Hipster’

There has been a lot of dropping of the H-Bomb here lately, whether it be in relation to riots at SXSW, or criticism of The Stone Roses. The word “hipster” has gone from vaguely meaning “poseur” to being a catch all term to describe anyone with different tastes to ourselves. I think it was time I addressed the matter head on. I’m not going to try and define what a “hipster” is here - if you need a crash course, I’ll point you in the direction of the Wikipedia “Hipster (contemporary subculture)” page, which is surprisingly on-point. I don’t even need to prove to you that the term is media fabrication used to hate on the young - though I probably will. No. I just want to say “Enough! If you going to call someone a hipster as an insult, then you should know that makes you a square.”

The first article I ever read on the subject of “hipsters” was Douglas Haddow’s Adbusters’ piece “Hipster - The Dead End Of Western Civilsation” from 2008. The article’s shrieking headline and hyperbolic tone should be a giveaway to the author’s intentions, but the fourth and fifth parts of the essay really show the hypocrisy involved. Haddow is at a party taking photos, yet manages to complain about both the other photographers at the same party AND the kids who want their photos taken. It’s genius! And herein lies the rub - the people doing the complaining themselves fit into the neat little bracket they have described. We have cultural commentators and arbiters of previously obscure tastes moaning about the now more widespread acceptance of those tastes. We have opinionistas offering up opinions on why we should hate other opinionistas. Photobloggers bitching about other photobloggers. Fixed gear cyclists who tell us only THEY can ride bikes properly.

Using WIki as a guide, it is possible to trace how this meme caught on in the media, and came to be some sort of established fact . It was not the first time the term was used this way, and “hipster” was not completely pejorative when it re-emerged in the last decade, but articles like Tim Walker’s “Meet The Global Scenester” re-inforce the idea that “hipster” was a stick used by cultural commentators to beat a perceived threat to their roles. There was no talk of the positive elements of the emerging youth culture, a culture these articles sought to define. It felt like it was a backlash waiting for an actual scene to happen. For a time in the early ‘90s, the UK music press lumped shoegaze bands together as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” - anti-hipster chroniclers could now just as easily be labeled “The Scene That Berates Itself”. 

According to these articles, there are two main aspects used to define a “hipster”. The first is of course fashion. Read the first-wave of anti-hipster articles now, and it merely comes across as people moaning about other people’s aesthetic fashion choices, like a do’s and don’ts section with pictures replaced by thousands of words. All this decrying of the new generation’s “fetishization of the authentic” in itself fetishizes authenticity, yet something tells me that anti-hipsters would be the first to offer up statements like “fashion isn’t that important to me really’. The second tenet of anti-hipsterism is slightly more complex - it concerns “irony” (and by association authenticity), and its use in defining one’s fashion, consumption and music tastes, and from there one’s sense of self.

We are entering an era where “way of life” music genres (genres which stand oppositional to other genres) are rapidly losing their hold over consumers’ aesthetic choices. A love of heavy metal does not now preclude a love of gay disco, just as a love of jazz doesn’t preclude a love of rock anymore. However, to an older generation to whom these walls still stand, it can seem as though the only explanation for the liking of oppositional genres is “irony”, when this is not the case. The most obvious arena where this can be seen is in the ongoing debates over “Hipster Hip-Hop”. So because kids don’t rock baggy pants and backpacks anymore (a look that peaked in the late ‘90s), and because they dare to listen to, say, Vampire Weekend they can’t be fans of real hip-hop? Hmmm. The fact is that consumers can now make choices that are not beholdent to notions that surround a particular music, but based on the actual music itself.

The snarking by hipstorians over “ironic” appreciation of music and culture to me betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the changes in pop culture over the last decade. If the value of music is changing (as has been argued elsewhere on DM), then mustn’t music consumption itself be changing to reflect that? This is an age of media saturation and constant meme-bombardment. Leaving aside the complicated relationship consumers now have to products and entertainment (ie it’s not as simple as “love” and “hate” anymore), file sharing and digital distribution have expanded our potential choices to the state where there is no such thing as “rare”. All music of all types is at the consumer’s fingertips, and you don’t have to go through cultural initiations to prove your loyalty to any particular genre. But does this mean that a teenager downloading the entire Crass back catalog tomorrow will not feel the same impact of the music as the person who bought the 7” back in the day? Or that the TOOL fan downloading that irresistible Usher song somehow can’t really like TOOL?

In effect what we are seeing is a nation of cultural gatekeepers cottoning on to the fact that the fences they erected were pulled down years ago. They use the tools at their disposal, mostly articles in the mainstream media, to decry the younger generations lack of interest in their well established modes of cool. Meanwhile the younger generation are out defining what is cool for themselves, which inevitably will clash with what older writers prescribe. Perhaps it’s just a cyclical process - the olds grumble that their yardsticks of cool aren’t adopted by the youngs, while the youngs reject the ideas of the olds and create their own cool. The difference here though is that the mainstream commentators have huge access to means of propagating their ideas in the media, and they are hella resistant to letting anyone else take their coveted roles. And even, it seems, promoting the positive sides of youth culture. But the fact remains, they’re losing their edge.

Of course, you could just say “Twas Ever Thus”. Why am I expending so much energy on what is surely a cyclical process that recurs throughout the ages? Well because IT’S FUCKING BORING! Can’t we at least even attempt to break this age-old (actually only half a century old) cycle? To me John Peel was the ultimate hipster - he consumed more varying and clashing types of music (and had access to more obscure tastes) than all the readers and writers of this blog combined. He genuinely loved roots reggae, black metal and gabber, and all at the same time. Yet he never snarked at young people doing their thing. On the contrary he found it exciting. And he never gave up on music, retreating into the tastes of his youth to define his middle age. Why can’t more be like him I wonder? Yes, the kids may be doing things of little cultural value to any one else but themselves, but let them fail at those things on their own terms. They don’t need anyone else’s help with that. And if you are fortunate enough to get called a hipster, don’t look guilty, don’t cower away in terror. Turn around, look that jealous square in the eye, raise your keffiyeh above your head and say “Yes! I am a hipster and I AM PROUD!”

Originally posted on 04/08/11.


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
07:15 pm



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