I used to think that the word “hipster” had grown too all-encompassing to be meaningful. Instead of pointing to a specific fashion and musical genre like the term “emo,” “hipster” quickly began to refer to more than one subculture. I had previously felt that any and all fashion fads throughout history now fall under the umbrella. Do you have a 1920s bob & hairband? Hipster. 1940s pin-up girl with tattoos? Hipster. Buddy Holly-esque glasses? Neon colors and patterns from the 1980s? Muted flannel from the 90s? Headscarves? Suspenders? Any kind of facial hair popular before 1990? You’re a hipster. It's as if anything not considered business casual is hipster. I believed that hipster is not a style, it is style.
My belief that "hipster" was a useless signifier because of the sheer number of things to which it could point led me to agree with the argument that hipsters don’t actually exist, and that the term is,
“...co-opted for use as a meaningless pejorative in order to vaguely call someone else’s authenticity into question and, by extension, claim authenticity for yourself….you don’t use “hipster” to describe an actual group of people, but to describe a fictional stereotype that is an outlet for literally anything that annoys you.”
-anonymous poster on /mu/
There is truth in the notion that “hipster” has grown to encompass many different subcultures. How else could someone possibly group these styles under the same banner? But I disagree now with the idea that it is a meaningless term. The meaning of the term “hipster,” and its value as a word, lies in why it has subsumed so many diverse subcultures, and which subcultures remain distinct.
The Long Tail
Editor of Wired Magazine Chris Anderson has written about “The long tail”—arguing that as the costs of manufacturing and communication have gone down, it becomes profitable to cater to many small markets with more unique preferences, bordering on the bespoke. The long tail of highly specific products and services makes up a larger collective market than that of mass production and broadcasting.
This explosion of diversity, where every taste is catered to, explains the huge variety that exists today in music genres, clothing styles, etc. The ability to connect with people of similar interests, however obscure, was similarly catalyzed through the internet. The historical dichotomy of culture/counterculture, though never accurate, is made fully obsolete by the sheer number of “long tail” subcultures. As individual trends, they are so numerous and dynamic that they escape definition, and so “hipster” becomes shorthand for the lot of them. The dichotomy lives on in nomenclature, with “hipster” now a synonym for the monolithic “counterculture.”
That’s not to say that “hipster” is simply a parent grouping of mutually exclusive subcultures. Without labels, subcultural elements (interests, activities, media, lifestyle, etc.) are no longer neatly grouped into discrete categories. The apparent ambiguity of the word hipster is the result of this new matrix.
The collection of subcultural elements and trends that “hipster” now refers to is not all-encompassing, nor is it random. Hip-hop, manga, and cowboy boots are examples of cultural elements that have remained largely separate from what is considered hipster. Cultures that have strong, cohesive identities, like those tied to ethnic groups or those that are canonized in media, are not subsumed. “Hipster,” then, refers to a massive, nebulous collection of unbound subcultural elements that escape cohesive, categorical framing—the result of an explosion in “long tail” niche offerings.
This collection is akin to an asteroid belt, the building blocks of an unformed planet. Its inhabitants have no other home, and so here find refuge. A hipster is someone who does not otherwise feel like they belong to a defined cultural heritage, and seeks to fill that void and find meaning in one’s life. The quest for meaning can take different forms. It could mean rediscovering a cultural heritage (as seen in the historical strip-mining of fashion from the last century). It could manifest as an appreciation for DIY making. Or it could result in the pursuit of the obscure and unique subcultural elements that have not yet been “exploited” or made meaningless by mainstream adoption—a.k.a. being into something “before it was cool.” This hallmark of the stereotypical hipster misconstrues the pursuit and preservation of meaning as shallow elitism.
Returning to our metaphorical asteroids, what if they weren’t the building blocks of a potential planet, but instead the remains of a planet now ripped apart? In this case, the inhabitants aren’t visitors, but natives who have lost their home, their cultural identity. I believe this is why hipsters are predominantly caucasian. Being the primary target (and instigator) of mass consumption for over a century has obscured their cultural heritages, perhaps more than other cultures. A source of meaning in their lives has been stripped away, and replaced by the artificial, hence the commonly associated hipster value of authenticity. Hipsters are a primarily caucasian group because it is their cultures that have been most supplanted by mass consumption. Now that alternatives to mass consumption are diverse and easy to access, there is an opportunity for anyone to make one’s own meaning—to carve out a part of the culture you want to belong to. It’s not just a culture of DIY, it is a DIY culture.
The hipster as a drifter, seeking cultural identity in a wealth of disorganized subcultural elements, stands in stark contrast to the idea that hipsters are an imaginary group to demonize. I do not believe that these definitions are mutually exclusive. The pejorative usage is similar to any other stereotype, except the nebulous nature of hipster makes it particularly easy to invoke. The perceived inauthenticity of the hipster could be a reflection of the dynamic and sometimes fleeting lifestyle choices that a hipster transitions through in the pursuit of identity, like the juvenile teenager who is punk one month and prep the next. There is an implication that only a relatively stable identity is respectable. Alternatively, the pejorative hipster could be an inaccurate conception, more appropriately describing “posers” who adopt the subculture’s aesthetics without adopting its values.
When the pejorative “hipster-as-other” dominates the framing of hipsters, we ignore the underlying pursuit of self-identity and meaning, and favor a conception of precisely the opposite—that a significant proportion of young people are uniquely shallow, vapid, and status-driven. We devalue hipster activities, including the considerable overlap with maker culture. In doing so, we become proponents of the status quo, of top-down production and mass consumption. By embracing the "hipster-as-other", we mock each others' exploration of the long tail in the pursuit of more meaningful experiences. We call the pursuit of meaning meaningless.