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Excavating Cool: An Analysis of Hipsterism and Why it Matters
by Nicole Batrouny
WRIT 1733: Fandom and Fan Writing
Professor Juli Parrish
Popular culture is everywhere; it consumes us as much as we consume it. We are so caught up in pop culture today that we must be rescued. But who is the hero that can save us from the omnipotent mainstream? Enter the hipster, determined to liberate us one Polaroid picture at a time. The mentality of “rebelling against the mainstream” has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1940s, when the term “hipster” was coined, that it had a name. As opposed to a downright war against pop culture, hipsterism is an ideology that aims to save society from an oppressive mainstream. Acting as both archaeologists and curators, hipsters salvage relics of the past—deciding what is cool and what is not, what should be kept and what should be dropped from pop culture.
POP CULTURE AND THE MAINSTREAM
Urban Dictionary defines “pop culture” as both “a widely accepted group of practices or customs” and “the destruction of the human race” (“Pop Culture”). Between the impartial definitions of the mainstream and the degrading descriptions of media “brainwash[ing]” and creating “zombies” (“Pop Culture”), it is evident that people have some mixed feelings about pop culture. The most neutral definition of “pop culture” found on Urban Dictionary is “the lifestyle and tastes of the majority of mostly younger people.”
In a 2013 marketing study, Aurora A. Saulo, Howard R. Moskowitz, and Abigail S. Rustia sought to define “mainstream” more strictly and identify the effects of demographics on the concept by asking participants to give opinions on popular consumer products. Their definition of “mainstream” pinpointed the phrases “‘most read, heard, talked about…almost every day,’ the ‘product most people buy…[or that is] found everywhere,’ or ‘what most of the population prefers’” (Saulo, Moskowitz, and Rustia 160). Their study revealed two different attitudes among respondents: those who “relied on the characteristics or attributes of the product or offering to form their concept of [it]” and those who “relied on the behavior of other people toward the product or offering” (174). The first, those who based their thinking directly on the products themselves, defined their own tastes and preferences, regardless of others. The second, larger group let others define the way they felt about the product. This group internalized what was defined as mainstream and adhered to the cultural standards that defined good taste.
TASTE AND CULTURAL CAPITAL
Cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of French society help explain these competing attitudes toward the mainstream. Bourdieu borrowed the economic concept of “capital,” the accumulation of economic wealth and assets, to explain his own idea of taste. He found cultural capital in our displays of “skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc.” (“Cultural Capital”). These aspects of cultural capital are most obviously expressed in stereotypes of the rich: playing golf on one’s own range, having a private jet, dressing in only the most expensive brands, dining on caviar and foie gras (regardless of whether you like it or not)—the list goes on.
While cultural capital helps us distinguish the major levels of social hierarchy, Bourdieu concluded that cultural capital is most often used as a way to separate those “closest…in social space” (Duffett 129). Anyone can tell the difference between those who are far apart in the class spectrum. However, something as subtle as “knowing whether a good bottle of Beaujolais should ever be served chilled” can illuminate the differences between those who are in-the-know and those who are not in the ever-shifting struggle for class dominance (129). Shared cultural capital creates a sense of “us” and “them.” In Bourdieu’s words, “[t]aste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (“Cultural Capital”). Even in judging another’s taste, you define your own (Harman and Jones 953).
In every culture, there is a new arbiter of taste who determines what’s in and what’s out. In today’s culture, specifically for the generation of Millennials, who is that arbiter of taste? Cue the hipster.
DEFINING THE HIPSTER
You have probably observed hipsters in their natural habitat: locking up a single-speed bicycle outside a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with a typewriter tucked away safely in a leather satchel. Today’s incarnation of the hipster is clad in ironic t-shirts, ankles bared by cuffed pants and eyes framed by superfluous, large-rimmed glasses. When the term first originated in the 1940s, the hipster was an embodiment of “the white predilection for black (jazz) culture” (Schiermer 169). Since then, the term has been applied to many distinct groups. To typical college student Jonathon Roeder, the reason hipsters are constantly changing form is because they discover something “underground” and then share it with friends until it becomes mainstream, “like the rock movement of the 1950s. That was a hipster thing…every big movement started out with hipsters, just like grunge in the 90s and skaters. Then it just becomes popular and mainstream” (Martin). Each decade, the hipster reappears in a new form with the same mantra: be different.
Though they would deny it if asked, the hipster mentality has reappeared in the twenty-first century as a subculture of people characterized by a specific set of qualities. It is generally agreed that the hipster is “young, white and middle class, typically between 20 and 35 years old” (Schiermer 170). Their look can be defined by bizarre and vintage fashion choices, with a general inclination to shop for the old, the used, and the forgotten. Hipsters frequent Goodwill and other thrift shops to fulfill the “cheap, stingy and gaudy aspects to the hipster aesthetic” (170). There are two key reasons why hipsters are drawn to thrift stores. The first is economic: “hipsters are typically recent graduates with arts degrees. Like many graduates, they often can’t afford high-end brands, and as a result, they shop at thrift shops” (Martin). The second reason is explained by Shalaka Gole, a self-proclaimed hipster: “everything uncool (lumpy sweaters, thrift stores, thick-framed glasses) is suddenly cool.” For Gole, shopping at thrift stores is a way to rebel against the mainstream and feel superior to those who don’t. Together, both reasons say something important about the values of hipsterism. On the one hand, thrift shopping is a practical consideration. On the other, it is a statement that defines both the aesthetic and the ideology of hipsterism: being “authentic,” “unique,” and “creative” is always superior to following the typical, uniform mainstream.
AUTHENTICITY VERSUS IMITATION
Hipsters resist the most basic aspect of popular culture: an overwhelming quality of sameness or imitation. Because pop culture is tremendously replicable, it creates a sort of black hole that sucks people into unconscious imitation. To Bjørn Schiermer, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, imitation is “doing what others do exclusively—but unwittingly—for the sake of doing what others do” (169). Schiermer uses his concept of imitation to redefine the mainstream and relate it to the hipster’s purpose: living a perfectly authentic life.
If hipsters are to resist pop culture and the mainstream, they must have weapons to stave off ignorant imitation. Things that are commonplace are rarely original; the ability to craft the world around them is a hipster talent that supports this sense of authenticity. Schiermer uses the nerd figure to exemplify this creative authenticity. He argues that the nerd figure is central to hipsterism because “the nerd is the paradigma of an authentic personality: He cannot adjust even if he wants to” (171). Reinforcing their pursuit of authenticity, the awkward glasses and sweater vests of the nerd have been deeply integrated into modern hipster style.
IRONY AND SINCERITY: THE CYCLE OF THE INITIATED
Hipsters revolve in a constant cycle between inauthentic pop culture and authentic hipsterism. The relation between these two states is expressed through irony, the tool hipsters use to achieve the conversion from inauthentic to authentic. As Schiermer argues, when one distances oneself from inauthenticity, one enters a “negative or reflective” state (171). From negative, to cynical, to bitingly sarcastic, what starts as inauthentic quickly devolves into the ironic. In hipsterism, irony is “a reaction to overt but unconscious imitation” (Schiermer 172).
Achieving the transition from the inauthentic, to the ironic, and, finally, to the authentic is the true struggle the hipster faces. In his book Sincerity, R. Jay Magill, Jr. scrutinizes objects such as trucker hats, beards and mustaches, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, knit wool hats, wife-beater t-shirts, youthful sneakers, and the previously discussed nerdy glasses. He argues that all of these things have complicated and totally non-hipster roots, which makes them the perfect ironic statement. Consider, for instance, the trucker hat: “what once evidenced an occupation (truck driving) tied to low social standing…now invests its college-educated wearer…with a bragging (and misinformed) defiance of bourgeois standards” (Magill 215).
Another example of irony identified by Schiermer is tattooing. Although not all hipsters are tattooed, those who are must make very definite statements; a hipster tattoo “can never be intentionally uniform” (171). Hipsters can overcome uniformity by either designing their own tattoos or choosing a cliché tattoo. For example, a “kitschy sailor-style tattoo” embodies what is standard among a population while embracing a certain scorn towards that same population (171).
Hipsters utilize irony in their style to separate themselves from imitable mainstream drivel, but also as a means of identification. Hipsterism is not an individual sport. Instead, it is a community of people where “the successful understanding of an ironic remark creates instant social bonds” and “mistaken irony often creates embarrassing and awkward situations” (Schiermer 171). Hipsters use their irony to reveal their superiority and gain leverage in their critique of pop culture. Rather than actually rejecting the dominant culture, a hipster’s choices comment on, protect, and even save that culture by redeeming and teaching us about those things that the mainstream has left by the wayside.
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THE ARCHAEOLOGIST AND THE CURATOR
Picture an archaeologist, clad in khakis, digging around in the dirt. Now cuff the pants, keep the hat, change the shirt to flannel, and add glasses and facial hair. We now have a hipster, digging around in thrift stores. The role of an archaeologist is to study past human activity, and classical archaeologists do this research by recovering and analyzing the material culture that was left behind. Likewise, hipsters’ investment in the past and its material culture is fueled by a similar passion for things bygone. Like an archaeologist studying and learning from ancient times, a hipster brings to the present artifacts that were once new and cool but, due to the unrelenting nature of consumer culture, have lost their mojo. As they are rediscovered, these relics of the past regain authenticity and new cultural capital. Thus, it is tasteful to wear your aunt’s fringe leather jacket from her high school years, while it is uninspired to go buy a new, brand-name piece of the same style. Schiermer identifies a strong need for “redemption of the past” in hipster culture, as well as a “veneration for dying media and old technology” (176).
And this veneration is not ironic. Schiermer argues that such fascination with the past is more than nostalgia or repetition but is directly related to the search for an authentic experience. Recent excavations have turned up “the vinyl disc record, the cassette tape, the travelling typewriter, the traditional offset printing technique, the conventional ‘film’ camera and the ‘old-school’ photograph development” (Schiermer 176). The hipster values these objects that modern technology has left by the wayside because “hipster culture saves sensibilities and ‘experiences’ inherent to certain media; from the warm scratching sound coming from the pickup in the groove to the yellowed ambience of the old Polaroid photographs” (176).
The hipster works against pop culture through a specific cycle. The first stage is what I would define as “overpowering vanilla”: the breaking point of the mainstream, when pop culture becomes huge and imitation becomes all-powerful. Everyone is identical and unexceptional. Plain Vanilla. This prompts the hipster to embark on a new archaeological exploration. Sick of “selfies,” hipsters discovered Polaroid pictures. As opposed to going along with what music the radio says is popular, hipsters discovered record players and underground, decades-old music. With these newfound treasures, the hipster shares the wealth of authenticity with mainstream culture. This integration of the old and the new, the cool and the overdone, will eventually blend seamlessly into a new “vanilla,” starting the entire cycle over again.
Not only do they excavate and decide what is cool, hipsters also take on the task of keeping this material in the public domain and safe for future generations. Hipsters are liaisons between past and present, either “ironically burning the objects of the recent past which deserve it or redeeming authentic cultural expressions from oblivion” (Schiermer 178). Schiermer identifies a certain “snobbery in hipster culture,” and labels them “collectors and connoisseurs” (169). At its heart, then, hipster culture is “a conserver culture” (174).
By sharing her finds, the archaeologist becomes the curator. It is the traditional curator’s task to manage, oversee, and preserve certain institutions and aspects of cultural heritage. Curators educate the public and are often teachers of secrets of the past. Hipster curators are also tasked with bringing this knowledge back to the mainstream. The hipster is thus involved in a constant process of excavating and informing. As they refurbish old, lost objects, hipsters in turn gain status themselves. They then use this higher position to justify their redemptive work: reminding everyone else in times of “cultural decadence or fatigue” that objects of the past are unique and meaningful (169).
In order for culture to be redeemed, we need the hipster to decide when the mainstream has become too powerful and to take us back to a simpler time. It is hipsters who decide when culture needs to change as well as how. In time, the underground music or films or objects hipsters discover and share will also become mainstream, forcing the hipster back to work in archaeology. Thus, even as the hipster trend is commercialized, commercialization lays the foundation for the next hipster trend that will change the landscape of culture once again and lead to the next reincarnation of the hipster. This seemingly endless cycle explains the presence of the hipster figure throughout the decades and why, right now, “the hipster ethos is more alive than ever” (Schiermer 178).
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A note from the author
I don’t know when I first fell in love with the hipster. The nerdy glasses that have nothing to do with vision. Scandalously exposed ankles. Ironic t-shirts. Unkempt hair sticking out perfectly from a knit beanie on a warm, sunny day. If you were to take an average Joe and slap on some of these accessories, you could turn a 5 into a 9 in my book. Let’s fast forward through this embarrassing infatuation to spring quarter freshman year. I was taking an honors writing class centered on the social phenomenon of “fandom.” I was more than pleased when I found out that it was totally cool to write papers about Frozen or anything else I was obsessed with. Like, maybe, hipsters. Cue the final project, a research paper on a topic of our choosing. I knew it had to be on hipsters. I based my paper around a facet of fandom aptly named “anti-fandom,” which you maybe wouldn’t guess because the paper’s current incarnation has absolutely nothing to do with fandom.
Though the paper was spawned from a class assignment, the idea quickly outgrew the prompt. To me, hipsterism became so much more than a version of anti-fandom. Hipsters have been mocked, imitated, and underestimated, but never praised. I didn’t start this paper knowing I would end up exalting hipster ideology, but here we are. Not only was a hipster destined to be the love of my life, but the hipster was also (spoiler alert) the great redeemer of pop culture. Once I got inside the mind of a hipster, I realized this figure is so much more than a cute boy on a single-speed bicycle.
About the author
Before Nicole moved to Colorado, she had never even been to the state. She had never been camping, never climbed a real rock attached to a mountain, and never panted so hard from one flight of stairs. Nicole is originally from Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb that no one has ever heard of. She did not grow up on a farm and did not know Dorothy; however, she was swept up into a tornado of college applications and big decisions that landed her at the University of Denver, where she is now a sophomore studying mechanical engineering.
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