Monday, August 20, 2007

The Invisible Hipster: my futile search for a scapegoat

I've had a theory for a while, and it's generally unpopular... I'm almost the only one who holds it. Of course, popularity is not correlated with validity AT ALL (sometimes quite the opposite), but still, if you advance an unpopular theory, you should be sure you have something compelling to offer the opposition. So this is the first time this one's coming out.

This theory has to do with the general angst and disapproval of "hipsters" in popular culture. It's pretty ubiquitous at this point... "Fuckin' hipsters" is an alarm sounded all over New York, the Lower East Side, and (I assume) everywhere else. It's a stigma that can be applied to neighborhoods (Williamsburg), beers (PBR), articles of clothing (pork pies), filmmakers (Wes Anderson), musicians (Connor Oberst), and people (that dude who lives in the apartment above you). They get so much bad press, you'd they were EVERYWHERE, a plague of locusts on our Manhattan avenues. There are some powerful voices attacking the Hipster... Nothing Nice to Say, a generally amazing punk comic, has run a number of strips whose target was the Minneapolis hipster. More notably, Time Out New York just ran an article called "The Hipster Must Die."

But where are they? I can't fucking find them. I occasionally see a dude in a fedora, or a girl in eccentric post-hippie attire, or someone drinking a PBR, but none of them seem like the shallow bad-faith revolutionaries that are such a bugaboo of modern media. For a while, I figured they were specifically a plague on the streets of Willyburg and Minneapolis, and that I wasn't seeing them because I just wasn't in the right place.

But then, one day, someone called ME a hipster. Normally, I'd have just laughed and said, "Oh yeah, you bastard? YOU'RE the hipster, I'm just a kid who lives in Brooklyn" (kind of like in an article in The Onion). But instead I made the mistake of looking at my own life and tastes and noticing that I share a range of attributes with the stereotype. I genuinely like Wes Anderson, and I like bullshitting about Postmodern film. I have a philosophy degree. I like Bright Eyes. I used to be a punk, and now I listen to The Postal Service and Ted Leo (among many other things). Despite the reassurances of my friends ("hipsters are out there, but you're totally not a hipster!") I started to dwell on it: what's a hipster? Did I have the necessary or sufficient characteristics? Who is it I'm supposed to be differentiating myself from?

Hence my theory arose: there's no such thing as a "hipster." The hipster is an assemblage of half-hearted characterizations, designed as a sort of cultural "folk devil." These are characteristics that are benign, taken individually. Drink PBR? What's the problem? Listen to indie rock, talk about the politics of the bands? You may be a music snob, but who cares? Live in Williamsburg? Sure, it's a growing neighborhood. If you're a friend of mine, you can fit three, four, five of these characteristics and not be a hipster, cause it's all in good faith. But if I don't like you, and you exhibit even ONE of these qualifications, you're a damn hipster. I hate you people.

This "cultural folk devil" concept (which I am currently coining as a variation of the classic "folk devil") is actually fairly common. There are always large groups who have been stigmatized and blamed for culture's problems, from Jews to Teenagers to Fags. These days, this kind of stigmatization has gone from "evil" to "annoying"... we tend to label concepts as stupid, bothersome, played-out, and obnoxious. Admittedly, it's a step up, but it's still a bad social habit. Some of the cultural folk devils stigmatized in recent times have been "sXe (straight-edge)," "emo," "postmodernism," and "chavs." It's up for debate whether each of these deserves its widespread ire. However, all of these ideas and subcultures have at least existed on some level.

I repeat: the hipster doesn't exist. It's an imaginary scapegoat, a convenient target for our disapproval and ridicule. I know this because I've looked for a definition that was worthy of my own distrust, and I've found nothing of the kind. It's sort of a cultural stereotype, so my main avenue has been asking friends, but none of them seemed to have a good definition for me. Finally, looking for something comprehensive, if not exactly "precise," I consulted Wikipedia. Even if it's rarely well-written or accurate, it's at least a good representation of generally-held cultural beliefs on certain topics.

The article on hipster is here.

As you can see, there's NOTHING to go on. There's a vague mention of PBR, and a reference to metrosexuality, but there's really nothing else to reference.

Okay, wait, there's one thing... irony. And in a way, that redeems the definition. If a hipster is someone who adopts an aesthetic with no intention of buying into it or taking it seriously, then I can understand some of the pan-cultural ire they earn. Maybe that's what everybody is talking about? Williamsburg is a neighborhood where people tend to be ironic? PBR is an insincere choice for a favorite beer? Wes Anderson is an ironic filmmaker?

The definition has slipped through our fingers, folks. Even if Wes Anderson is ironic, or people tend to like Wolfmother just for the novelty value of self-deprecation, there's no worthy link between the far-flung accusations and the core complaint. Irony is too hard to pin down, and it's been used effectively in too much art, literature, and music for it to really make sense at the center of a stereotype. So we pile on these auxiliary characteristics, and build ourselves a specter that amounts to nothing.

If you want to make a stand against a culture of irony and excessive bad taste, then assert your own good taste. Become a fashion designer, play the ukulele, write for BlogCritics. Make a positive statement about what's awesome, whether you're speaking with your tongue in your cheek (hipster-style) or you're buying into it 100% (traditional nerd style). It's a worthy cause. Stop distracting yourself with random catharsis, dumped on a scapegoat represented by a term you can sling, but can't really define. No sterotype apparitions need to die for culture to be reborn. We just have to fucking DO IT.

1 comment:

David Earhart said...

Crazy thing is I just figured this out in my head and decided to google "hipsters are the modern scapegoat" which turned me to your article. Sir u have shed a bit of enlightenment upon me. Society has evolved to accept those who were blamed in the past and now all we can safely criticize is some mythical character based on superficial judgments. It's sad how even though we have seemed to accomplish so much in just the past couple of decades that we still sustain the shallow sheepish qualities of a primitive society. Thanks for making me feel less alone good sir.