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Op-Ed

Look at This Fucking Hipster Basher

Never mind news articles that link economic woes to a culture shift, the report of the hipster’s death is an exaggeration.

Photograph by Jeremy Plemon

Late last year, while the country was in the midst of a generation-defining election, the financial system was about to collapse, and the Congo was on the brink of genocide, I exited the subway on Bedford Avenue to discover hundreds of drunk twentysomethings dressed as panda bears. These self-proclaimed “anarchist cyber-pandas” in skinny jeans were part of a “costumed-roving-street-party-apocalyptic-dance-rock-battle” called Pandamonium. Equipped with all the accouterments you’d expect from such an occasion—face paint, booze, glow sticks, and a misguided notion that wearing animal costumes outside a Chuck E. Cheese is a good idea—the panda posse had effectively brought all traffic to a standstill. But this was no political rally organized to protest genocide, economic disparity, or anything approaching profound. It was performance art masquerading as activism. This was Williamsburg, after all. The trendy Northside of Brooklyn. These pandas were hipsters.

According to its organizers, the idea behind Pandamonium was to “take back the streets,” evidently by getting drunk, blaring boomboxes (“the louder the better”), blocking the streets, and by generally annoying the cops until they were forced to make several arrests. For Williamsburg hipsters, Pandamonium was their very own Kent State moment—only without the carnage, social activism, the historical significance, or the firing of synapses within the cerebral cortex. For me, it was another embarrassing moment I’d doubtlessly be asked to defend the next time someone decided to sling a little mud at the place I call home. I’ve been a resident of Williamsburg since 1996. And once again the hipsters had made us all look stupid.

If anyone has hipster fatigue, it’s me. I literally wrote the book on them—a satire called The Hipster Handbook that was, after all, the byproduct of my own hipster fatigue more than seven years ago. (Full Disclosure: I went to a state school and I can’t fit into skinny jeans. But admittedly, I listen to Grizzly Bear and own pastel Chuck Taylors. So if there were a hipster personality test, I’d be checking a few boxes.) But these days, I’m even more exhausted by the tired vitriol and self-loathing that has become integral to any conversation involving hipsters. At least for now, they’re clearly not going away—so isn’t it about time we stopped dismissing every person who owns a MGMT record as an entitled hipster? It’s been nearly a decade, y’all. The rage has gotten so shrill, the hipster haters have become more exasperating than those fools in panda suits.

For a while, it seemed the “h” word was destined to find its place beside the c- and n-words, a pejorative too offensive to utter. Thankfully, the tired hipster bashing—which was always the loudest among “non-hipsters” who owned every CD recommended by Pitchfork—seemed to have reached a crescendo in 2007. That was the summer when the hilarious Hipster Olympics became viral and Time Out New York published the cover story “The Hipster Must Die.” Seemingly, hipster bashing had peaked.

Meanwhile, a growing obsession with social-networking sites and new forms of communication—Facebook, Twitter, the iPhone—was beginning to hint that something different was on the horizon. By 2008, Obama was motivating a new generation to put aside childish panda suits, as editorialists gushed about the hopeful, refreshingly sincere generation that had suddenly emerged. The Millennials, they wrote, were taking over as those nihilistic hipsters pushed their designer baby carriages out of “the scene” and into a Park Slope sunset. If you believed the hype, the hipster suddenly seemed to be on the verge of extinction. A fleeting trend. Just like rap music.

But then hipsters started popping up in the news once again. I first noticed the trend when magazines and newspapers began devoting ink to stories on hipsters during the recession. A New York Times reporter called: “How are hipsters cutting back?” she asked. Would they have to sell their iPods? Another Times article reported booming ticket sales at Coachella, a music festival with a hipster-heavy constituency, suggesting they weren’t necessarily cutting back at all. And in its article, “The New Counterculture’s Buying Power,” Forbes appeared hopeful that hipsters would save the economy with their frenzied spending.

For weeks, the internet buzzed with tales of Ferrell’s exploits as this heavily tattooed con artist roamed the streets of New York, scamming bearded hipster boys.

“While retailers geared toward consumers under 45 – the Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Express – have struggled in the past year to increase sales,” the article stated, “hipster-centric clothing outlet Urban Outfitters has reported record results.”

Of course, the subtext to most of the articles was that hipsters were not only a thriving demographic, but as entitled and out-of-touch as ever. “What sort of recession victim spends $270 for a ticket she can barely afford?” mocked Gawker, in response to the Coachella article.

Over the past several months, the chatter about hipsters has grown even louder. In March, “Look at This Fucking Hipster,” a website that posts photos of hipsters posing, puking, and wearing over-the-top outfits that could get them killed in some states, launched and became an instant viral hit. This month it became the latest Tumblr site to secure a book deal. Meanwhile, the self-reflexively cool website Hipster Runoff—written anonymously by the mysterious chatspeak aficionado Carles—published a much-distributed critique on the band Animal Collective. It went viral too, thus introducing this formerly under-the-radar blog to the masses and generating fresh interest in bowl-cut mullets, “contorted alts,” and blog house DJs. In other words, hipsters. There’s even been conjecture at Gawker, New York, and Curbed about an alleged hipster reality series that’s rumored to be casting for a “major network.”

But this much-loathed demographic officially made a comeback when they found a new folk hero (or anti-hero) in the form of Kari Ferrell, aka the Hipster Grifter. For weeks, the internet buzzed with tales of Ferrell’s exploits as this heavily tattooed con artist roamed the streets of New York, scamming bearded hipster boys and offering to give strangers “handjobs with her mouth.” When the New York Observer introduced the Hipster Grifter to the world it became official. The hipster was back.

All of which makes me ask: Had the hipster ever really gone away?

After trying to avoid spending any more mental energy on hipsters, I found myself confronted with this question when I was invited to be a “special guest” at an n+1 magazine panel at the New School. An “historic event,” its organizers assured me, on a topic that was guaranteed to catalyze a heated discussion. The symposium was called “What Was the Hipster?”

Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster?” asked the suspiciously hip magazine’s promotional copy. “Why do we declare the hipster moment over—that, in fact, it had ended by 2003—when the hipster’s ‘global brand’ has just reached its apotheosis?”

First and foremost, hipsterism is about stuff. It’s the natural byproduct of a consumption-obsessed culture with a thriving middle class.

Of course, as I panned around the audience the day of the event, the question “who was the hipster” suddenly seemed absurd. Judging by the surplus of skinny jeans and American Apparel day-glo leggings—not to mention the inane banter that ensued after an audience member presented the panel with a question about Charles in Charge—they should have changed the name of the event to “what is the hipster” and replaced the podium with a mirror. The audience could have found the answer by gazing sullenly at their own reflections as they chanted, in unison, with a manic self-loathing, “Die, hipster, die.” For try as they might to instill the event with an air of academia, the organizers were confronted with a roomful of delusional art students, enraged by the banality of hipsterdom, but unwilling to be honest enough to admit that they were the very subject of their own derision.

Here’s the thing. As fatigued as we all may be, hipsters are here to stay. We can change their names to scenesters, or altbros and altbags (as Hipster Runoff prefers), but in the hipster we’ve found a new archetype that is not an ephemeral phenomenon. Undoubtedly, they’ve been far too exposed at this point in time to be considered an “underground” or “countercultural” movement. (See Urban Outfitters or the indie-rock drenched advertisements for the iPod.) But as the hipster aesthetic has been co-opted by advertisers and the mainstream media, they have only managed to grow in number. As Mark Greif, the co-founder of n+1, pointed out at the New School panel, the hipster is now a global phenomenon.

Further bad news for bashers is the evidence that, as time marches forward, hipsters seem to be quite adaptable. When they were first identified as a demographic, circa 1998, the two most dominant hipster aesthetics were twee—think Belle and Sebastian, sweater vests, and Ira Glass—and a white trash-chic epitomized by the tattoos and wifebeaters found in Vice magazine. (Greif referred to these two types as “non-aggressives” and “aggressives,” respectively.) Jump forward 10 years, and the latest wave of hipsters have their own trends—beards, “freak folk,” Depression-era chic—all of which communicate: “I take careful care to cultivate an aesthetic, by which I hope you’ll judge me.” The styles have changed, but the overall sensibility of the hipster remains intact. But this should come as no surprise. “Hipsterism,” after all, was always something deeper than trucker caps and PBR. It’s a sensibility that transcends fleeting trends and can be reduced to a few consistent, identifiable, time-resilient elements.

So allow me to deconstruct.

First and foremost, hipsterism is about stuff. It’s the natural byproduct of a consumption-obsessed culture with a thriving middle class. The complete works of Johnny Cash on vinyl. An iPhone packed with apps. Thick-framed glasses without the lenses. Throw in an unwavering certainty that your tastes are superior to everyone else’s, and you’re on your way to establishing a hipster aesthetic. Future generations may not have the same resources to squander, but there will undoubtedly continue to be artistically inclined young people who define their identity and their aesthetic, by accumulating meticulously selected possessions.

The James Deans and Fonzies of the world never got the girl by gushing. Instead, they made them swoon by pretending they didn’t give a damn.

The second element is pastiche, the hodgepodge blending of elements from pop culture to create a sensibility. Whether it be the goofy “post-punk-electro-blog-house” labels associated with hipster music, or the entire film career of Wes Anderson, pastiche is essential to hipsterdom. And clearly, as our already overwhelming inventory of pop culture references continue to grow with the passing of time, pastiche will continue to flourish.

Finally there’s irony, a knee-jerk way for hipsters to emotionally distance themselves from sincerely appreciating things. While the hipster’s ironic sensibility has always been the subject of ire, pretending to be disaffected isn’t exactly a novel concept among people who are “cool.” The James Deans and Fonzies of the world never got the girl by gushing. Instead, they made them swoon by pretending they didn’t give a damn.

And in regard to the hipster’s “ironic” appreciation of things that are not traditionally considered cool—shirts with Pegasus decals, Gossip Girl, PBR—I’d argue that many hipsters do sincerely appreciate all of the aforementioned, either as a form of nostalgia or as a celebration of low culture they’ve been instructed to avoid. This ironic sensibility saturates current shows like Flight of the Conchords and Important Things With Demetri Martin and it’s not about to go away.

As was true with the hippie, another contemporary archetype that’s proven to be here for the long haul, there’s obviously plenty of cultural baggage that accompanies the hipster. All of which, of course, has been thoroughly and exhaustively mocked. Apathy. Trust funds and entitlement. Nihilism. Gentrification. Celebrity worship. Lack of originality. Naiveté. Random stupidity. None of these annoyances is essential to the DNA of the hipster, but all too often, well, you meet some self-absorbed, entitled moron in a panda suit.

But let’s get real. For every cynical slacker sitting around “ironically” watching The Real Housewives of Orange County and turning his beard orange with Sparks spittle, there’s a legitimate artist who’s working his/her ass off, dare I say it, doing something cool. There’s no contrived lack of aesthetic to the films of Michel Gondry. He’s an artist, and yes, he’s cool. There’s no artificial, ironic detachment to the music that TV on the Radio produce. They’re artists too, and yes, they’re cool. And perhaps it should go without saying, but hipster profiling is about as effective as racial profiling. Owning a pair of skinny jeans and living in Bushwick doesn’t make someone cool. But it doesn’t make them a hipster douchebag either.

That’s why the knee-jerk hipster rage, perhaps best exemplified by Douglas Haddow in the Adbusters article, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization,” seems so overblown. “The hipster represents the end of Western civilization,” writes Haddow. “[A] culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal.”

I hate to call bullshit, but a quick Google search of the author reveals an article about hipsters who paint graffiti murals in their bedrooms and an author photo that looks suspiciously like something you’d find on Look at This Fucking Hipster.

Which reinforces my point. The rage and self-loathing associated with hipsters has become more annoying, more naive, and more artificial than hipsters could ever hope to be.

After all, in the rubble of this fury, what remains for artists and bohemians who are legitimately trying to be part of a counterculture? You get the sense that if Jimi Hendrix were to show up in Echo Park today, he’d be publicly mocked in a style section piece on blipsters for wearing a feathered fedora. Duchamp would have given up as soon as he appeared on dadaist-or-douchebag.com. And Warhol would be demonized as a hipster gentrifier for setting up his factory in a Brooklyn warehouse. Critics continue to complain that we live in an era where all art is derivative and devoid of substance. But if Hendrix, Duchamp, or Warhol were alive today, we’d be doing our damnedest to derail their self-expression, dismissing them as fucking hipsters.

As Pandamonium illustrates, there’s no shortage of hipsters worthy of our mocking. But our challenge is to make the distinction between the artists and the pandas. Otherwise, when the next generation finds its own Jackson Pollock, John Coltrane, or Dorothy Parker, we’re likely to stifle their talents with our misappropriated cynicism. Or worse, we’ll turn them into a joke.

Robert Lanham‘s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Maxim, Radar, Nylon, Playboy, Salon, Time Out New York, McSweeney’s, and Street Boners, among others. He is the author of the satirical anthropological studies The Hipster Handbook, Food Court Druids, and The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. Lanham is the founder and editor of FREEwilliamsburg.com. More by Robert Lanham