[17 March 2010]
PopMatters General Features Editor
Keeping the hipster theme going, here are my responses to questions put to me by Heba Hasan, a journalism student from Northwestern University. (It proves my point that everyone believes they are entitled to an opinion about hipsterism, especially me):
1. With everyone denying the fact that they themselves are hipsters, is anyone really a hipster?
The hipster is always the other, someone else who is making you question the legitimacy or impressiveness or timeliness of what you are doing. We see somebody else doing something that is obviously a ploy for a certain kind of recognition through a clever take on consumption, and it makes us feel self-conscious and inadequate. Then we want to lash out.
2. Why do you think people are so quick to deny the fact that they are hipsters, why has the title attracted so much loathing and criticism?
The term is pejorative because it often describes the coercion that others’ ostentatious coolness exerts on us, making us feel inappropriately excluded or lame. People think of their own bids for recognition in a different way: we’re not trying to be cool; we are just expressing who we really are. That other guy, though, what a douche.
The pejorative use of hipster also designates people who are invalidating the originality or authenticity of certain social practices by making them seem as though they are only about scoring points on identity, for seeming cool. “Hipster” describes that feeling that everything you do will be interpreted as a gesture made only for attention; the moment you realize you can’t do something because other people will see you as just doing it to be cool is the moment you want to lash out at hipsters.
3. Many people say that today’s hipsters have no subculture of their own, that they merely take facets of certain eras. How do you feel about this statement?
Since there are no self-identifying hipsters for the most part, hipsterism has no positive agenda; it doesn’t stand for anything, not trying to achieve anything, not trying to express anything. There is no manifestos for the hipster way. A hipster is always alone, with the problem of solving their own identity, how to make it seem more “cool.” This usually comes at the expense of others, who must recognize they have been out-cooled. The hipster always seems to implicitly be saying “look at me,” which others may experience as stealing the spotlight from them. When gestures don’t seem to be crying “look at me” they aren’t labeled “hipster.”
4. How do you think that hipsters have evolved?
The term has changed meaning—it doesn’t refer to beatniks or anything like that—the pre-2000 usage of the word is completely separate I think than the post-2000 usage. Hipsterism cannot evolve, because, in my view, there is no agenda to shift. Hipsterism is never about specific signifers—wearing a certain shirt, believing certain things, etc. It is always a matter of form, not content. It’s about trying to tweak trends so they reflect positively on you, and so that you show you belong without being a total follower either. We get called “hipster” when our efforts to do this don’t quite come off, and it’s obvious that we are trying too hard, or copying others.
5. Many people argue that Hipsterdom is long since dead and lacks originality. Would you agree with this statement?
Hipsterism is failed attempts at originality, almost by definition. If not referring to awkward attempts at cool, then it is a term used by one group to convey their exclusion from the “hipster” group they want to demonize. The mentality of trying to be original and cool is, if anything, so prevalent that it doesn’t need a term. It’s simply a matter of participating in culture in a certain contemporary way. Anyone trying to make a successful Facebook page is running the risk of hipsterism. Anyone trying to self-consciously express a “unique” identity through the way they consume is potentially in the hipster camp. All they have to do is try and fail, and almost all of us try now. No one belongs to the generic mainstream anymore.
6. Do you think that stores that capitalize on the hipster image like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel are helping or hurting the subculture?
I don’t think there is a subculture to hurt or help. Hipsterism is always closely connected to commercialism because it is a phenomenon related to expressing identity through goods that take on “cool” connotations. Hipsterism isn’t possible without brands like American Apparel. And likewise, hipsterism calls into being such retailers. Something always has to occupy that spot—when they become too “hipster” something else will have creeped into position to be “genuinely hip” for a little while. And they use up their cool capital, and so the cycle continues.
7. Would you say that capitalism and the Internet have played a heavy hand on the current state of hipsters?
Hipsterism is an aspect of identity creation, which has taken on a greater significance with the self-publishing capabilities online. Capitalism has found ways of assimilating identity creation as a form of labor it can exploit—to impress people, we talk about what we think is cool for free online, and thereby have built brand equity for manufacturers.
8. How would you, in your own words, describe a hipster?
It is not a specific look. It’s instead a feeling someone gives you—which says as much about you as them. Sometimes you are feeling inadequate; sometimes they have tried too hard to seem cool, sometimes it is a blend of the two.
9. Why do you think hipsters have become such a cultural phenomenon?
Think it’s a development of consumerism that stems from the ability to reify personal identity, that is, to market oneself as a brand. Once that happens our manipulations of our own identity take the same form as the marketing efforts meant to enhance brands, and all of this stuff falls into the category of ersatz authenticity, aka hipsterism.
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’ve probably said too much already.