* While I acknowledge that the Hipster crosses all genders, for the purposes of this essay I will focus primarily on the Hipster male*
For four seasons now, IFC’s Portlandia has been a consistent source of hipster satire, providing insight into the world of gearless bicycles and feminist bookstores. In season 2 of Portlandia, creators and stars, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein tackle the latest Hipster specimen, the Lumbersexual. This hipster combines the sophistication, refinement, and balanced temperament of a gentleman with the ruggedness and self-sufficiency of a backwoodsman. His hobbies include home-brewing, chicken farming, and bee-keeping. Like all other members of Club Hipster, one of the Lumbersexual’s defining characteristics is his appearance. Trademarks include mutton chops, cartoon oil baron mustaches, and wardrobe sure to be in accordance with Calvin Klein’s official lumberjack regulations. Like all hipsters, the Lumbersexual is a man of many eras mashed into one indeterminate time period. The Lumbersexual represents a harkening back to simpler times in which particular emphasis was placed on process as opposed to product. People had stronger connections with the products they consumed because they had a hand in making them. They looked after the bees from which they harvested their honey. They chopped the wood they used to build their tables. They raised the chickens that provided them with eggs and protein. The Lumbersexual also encompasses modernity with “his backpack [that] carries a MacBook Air, but looks like it should carry a lumberjack’s axe” (Puzak). With a new hipster that emulates earlier time periods than ever before, it begs the question, why, in our technological age are people rushing backward as opposed to forward? What is our strange obsession with the past, and where is this nostalgia coming from? It could potentially be the product of a false reality heavily influenced by media constructions and a lack of identity. This essay will explore these questions and their accompanying social implications with particular emphasis placed on the effects they have on the field of media and communication.
Hipsters are a cultural collage of fads from decades past. In many ways they emulate the Internet which so defines them. The Internet is a cultural playground unencumbered by linear restrictions. It takes everything out of its original context allowing for smoother reappropriation. Reappropriation is the process whereby an artifact (an article of clothing, a piece of art, a song), is removed from its original context and placed in a new one, thus rejuvenating and redefining it. Suddenly, each aspect of culture is broken down into its own separate element, creating a buffet of fashion and music and politics and art. By looking at each element individually, we can choose the best parts of each time period and use those as the decade’s defining factor. The 50s becomes the era of Beatniks and housewives, the 60s is all about free love and headbands, the 70s is the decade of rock and roll. This contributes to the oversimplification of entire decades, sometimes even centuries, so that instead of understanding the economic, social, and/or political turmoil that led to the creation of a certain trend or piece of art, all we see is the product. This promotes an unhealthy ignorance of the circumstances required for the creation of certain products and processes. This is a huge contributing factor to the nostalgia felt by Hipsters and society as a whole.
Christy Wampole’s article, “How to Live Without Irony” opens like this, “The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself” (Wampole). Upon first reading, I questioned this. To me nostalgia implies a personal loss, a longing for something once had. If that’s the case, how can the hipster be nostalgic for a time period he never lived in? But that’s just it, his loss is that he never got to have the experience in the first place. Although, the people that were alive during the times for which we are so nostalgic did not get to live through them either; we are not nostalgic for the reality of the times, but for a romanticized version of them. We crave the constructed reality in our heads, a reality that has been formulated by our media intake. Film and television are the closest we come to living through the past, but they are hardly accurate recreations. While most of us are smart enough to realize that what we’re seeing isn’t real, it is impossible to deny the fact that media permeates our culture and greatly impacts our perception of the past. It creates the lens through which we view all major past occurrences.
Although I began this essay with a focus on the hipster, it is impossible to discuss hipster culture without looking at it as an example of larger social truths. Whether we like it or not, the hipster culture has become dominant culture. With help from the Internet, hegemony is happening more rapidly and effectively than ever before. With more and more people uploading, sharing, and liking, the rate at which information is dispersed is ever increasing. This means that there is no such thing as being “underground” anymore. Subcultures are being enveloped by the dominant culture before they can even establish themselves.
Nowhere is this hegemonic hell more evident, or successful, than with hipsters. Hipsters decided to make their own clothes and Free People started selling clothes that looked like they were homemade. Hipsters rejected computers and decided to write on typewriters. Urban Outfitters dyed them aqua and started selling typewriters. Each reincarnation of hipster gets commercialized just like the early evolutions it so hopes to disassociate itself with. In the words of Steven Kurutz, in “Caught in the Hipster Trap,” “Such is the pervasiveness of hipster culture that virtually every aspect of male fashion and grooming has been colonized” (Kurutz). No matter how desperately the various sanctions of Hipsters try to differentiate themselves, they will always end up under that blanket term “hipster.”
The problem with creating an all-encompassing definition is that its definitiveness is often lost in the process. In his Slate article, “It’s Hip to be Hip, Too,” Luke O’Neil writes, “When a hipster can be defined as anything, it also essentially means nothing—that’s an undeniably appealing paradox to poke at” (O’Neil). This generation suffers from chronic identity crisis. We live in a time when there is access to copious amounts of information, we are constantly connected and there are communities for everything. This proves beneficial in that it is nearly impossible to feel like you’re alone in anything. Entire communities are built on a single shared interest and it becomes a twisted game of accumulating as many interests as possible in hopes of belonging to as many communities as possible. And, what with virtually every interest being encompassed in the hipster definition, what is it but an attempt to belong to as many communities as possible?
It also proves troublesome in that it is impossible to distinguish yourself. No matter how obscure the interest or feeling, you can easily find at least one-hundred other people who share it. In “It’s Hip to be Hip, Too,” O’Neil also says, “Those of us in our 30s and younger have come of age during a time of incessant media-based self-reflection…‘What is my personal brand?’” (O’Neil). In a world of Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, Instagram and Twitter accounts, there is pressure to identify and associate yourself with certain interests. This need for branding is also an attempt at distinguishing yourself from everyone else. However, in this brand-centric society, self-discovery is a luxury that can no longer be afforded. It forces people to self-promote before they even know who they are yet. Brands are also superficial in nature and by asking people to “brand” themselves we are asking them to create a persona rather than a personality. Branding leads to the creation of blanket terms such as “hipster,” as it relays a lot in just one word. “Hipster” comes with a variety of implications and assumed affiliations with plaid shirts, organic food, and obscure Russian literature. Labeling yourself with the hipster brand means that you are already associated with a successful brand; it’s less work for you.
When self-branding, it is also important that everything you do be representative of that brand. Everything turns into a reference, in the case of the hipster, it’s a reference “you wouldn’t understand.” But, what is a reference other than the idea of an idea, the substance lies in what’s being referred to, not in the reference itself. Thus, being a brand is merely embodying a reference, being the shallowest form of an idea. This is evident in the hypervisualcy of hipsterdom. It is all about looking the part, it doesn’t matter if you understand your lines. American culture is already an incredibly visual culture, but add a label that is heavily defined by looks and you’ve got a generation of facades. In our struggle to define the hipster, one definition is foolproof, “you know one when you see one.” This statement speaks to the success of hipster branding; you can tell if someone is a hipster just by looking at them.
A true hipster has the attitude to back up the look. In her New York Times article, “How to Live Without Irony,” Christy Wampole writes that the Hipster’s ethos stems “in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done” (Wampole). This makes sense, instead of challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas, a kind of reverence of the past appears. This is dangerous for a multitude of reasons. It means that all attempts at originality are thwarted because of a mutual understanding that ideas born in the present will never live up to those generated in the past. It also means that despite the confidence we so readily portray, we are a generation of unsure adolescents that are just grasping at straws. We are living up to this belief that we are culturally frigid. Yet, now is the perfect time to create a new, lush culture. With the connectivity provided by technological advancements, we could easily combine cultures from around the world to create a new global culture. I’m sure some people would argue that that is in fact what’s happening. However, I think that the cultural aspects we’re combining are based on outdated ideas of global cultures. We are just taking select elements of the past and using them to form the ultimate romanticized culture.
In the same article, Wampole also discusses the Hipster’s use of irony as a coping mechanism for criticism. If we never fully invest in anything, we don’t care if we’re judged for it. We are all just a bunch of overly sensitive teenagers at heart, scrambling to figure out who we are. This contributes to this generation’s lack of genuineness. I am reminded here of my favorite quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “There is luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has the right to blame us” (Wilde, 100). However there is a certain arrogance attached to this way of thinking. Television shows, films, book adaptations are all reconstructed under the assumption that we can make them better. And, if we do continually remake things from the past at least the source material is not our own. At least we’re not going to have to be responsible for any possible failure. It’s as if we’re a generation of Jay Gatsbys convinced that if we just keep repeating the past our present will somehow improve. Yet, if we actually look at our present it is a good time to be alive. We are making social progress and moving toward the most equality we’ve ever had. But, with progress comes understanding and complication. The nostalgia we feel for the 1800s or the 1950s is really nostalgia for a perceived simplicity. The simplicity associated with earlier time periods is definitely part of the constructed reality that I mentioned earlier and is a direct product of contextual elimination. Many people would hate living in the 1950s, a time when racism ran rampant, or the 1800s when you had to chip your own ice and eat cured meats. These were not easy times to live in and they certainly weren’t simple. What we are attracted to is the ideals of the time. They seem simple because they are more primitive, less informed. In fact, a lot of the issues that plague us today existed in the eras we so crave. Or, the issues they faced were worse. Social interactions appeared more pure because social constructs were for the most part adhered to. However in many cases the rebels are the ones we revere.
Our generation is a series of contradictions. We are incapable of making up our minds and even when we do decide what we want it is some twisted impossibility. We are a lost generation, unsure of who we are or who we want to be. We look to the past in hopes that it will guide us but instead of using it as a rough guideline, we treat it as a blueprint. We end up recreating it instead of using it as a frame of reference.
In a time of scientific and technological advances, the field of media and communication is struggling to keep up. It has definitely become a slave to this generation’s mode of thinking and it has left us with an exorbitant amount of media mush, which we have to sludge through in hopes of finding a speck of originality. There is a slight issue when Batman is remade twice within the same decade. But, where does this leave us? What will future generations be nostalgic for? When we examine the nostalgia we feel for the past now, we can see that it is generated by the cultural tidbits left behind. We long for the days of speakeasies, flappers, pinup girls, sailor tattoos, free outdoor concerts, flaming electric guitars, bellbottoms and fringe, neon leotards, jumpsuits, typewriters, dark rooms, white t-shirts, and leather jackets. What will be our legacy?
The Internet makes for an interesting paradox of permanence and impermanence. Anything uploaded to the Internet remains there forever, but the web also makes trends much more fleeting because of the abundance and availability of material. Technology is on the verge of eliminating the physical and making everything digital. It will be interesting to see what future generations will make of ours. Will they be nostalgic for a time of rapid advancements? Will they wish they could have lived in a decade of rampant identity crisis? Probably. Our generation will be seen as the generation of thinkers. The time when people could sit around and try to figure out who they were. The time when people were just figuring out how to balance an influx of knowledge with a lack of identity. The time when people like me had the time to write papers like this.
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O’Neil, Luke. “It’s Hip to Be Hip, Too.” Slate, September 23, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/09/proud_of_being_a_hipster_one_bearded_indie_rock_loving_contrarian_article.html.
Portlandia – Dream of the 1890s, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_HGqPGp9iY&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
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