Talk about hipsters has become more and more common in recent years. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t know who they were before—we understood what they looked like and how they carried themselves. Something always itched at the back of our minds whenever we spoke to the owner of the bike shop or the grocer at the health food co-op. Something about Natalie Portman’s Shins-loving quirk-queen character in 2004’s Garden State struck us as odd. Whether we fell in love with her or found her outright annoying, she left a mark of intangible otherness that seemed to awaken the sleeping giant of an apathetic counterculture.
The hipsters born of Garden State’s loins possessed none of the seditious talent of the Beat Generation or the fiery chaos of the late 70s punks. They met in coffee shops and record stores to discuss precisely why Arcade Fire’s very existence completely devalued the relevance of Eamon’s “Fuck It.” They revisited the films of Jean-Luc Godard to adopt their distinct fashion sense and visual style. They commodified Day-Glo sunglasses and headdresses as an ode to some mythological time when humans and animals danced as equals in the forest to the music of MGMT. Young adults clad in skin-tight denim and Chuck Taylors crowded the corners of Williamsburg and the Mission to peer through their thick-framed eyeglasses and spew “organic” cigarette smoke on a society they deemed unworthy of their superior knowledge.
But why? The hipsters aspired to embody the appearances of a counterculture but had none of its drive or its message. They wanted to consume culture from its margins, and in so doing, project their superiority over those occupying the mainstream. The hipsters never actually wanted to “counter” culture; they only wanted to condescend to it.
Tasked with discussing hipsters at the 5Cs, I felt uneasy and skeptical of my objectivity in the process. In my first months at school, I realized that my fashion sense and music taste, among other qualities, provoked some people to label me a “hipster.” Until that point, I never actually believed that hipsters existed as a distinct group. Perhaps this disbelief stemmed from a denial of my participation in such a stigmatized stereotype. Perhaps my New York City upbringing numbed me from the blemished repute of the hipster order, like a man who’s been on the toilet too long to recognize the shit stench. Either way, the moment I became vilified for shopping at Urban Outfitters brought me face-to-face with just how disgustedly the world looked down at my flannel button-downs and my idolization of Wilco.
In response, I rejected the implication: how could I possibly accept that my top-played iTunes tracks or my gearless bicycle involved me in a subculture of assholes? I felt pressured by the stylistic demands of my new label. Was I expected to chastise those who listened to My Chemical Romance instead of My Morning Jacket simply because I walked across campus with headphones hugging my ears? Was I betraying the fashion-over-function ethos of my ilk with thick-framed glasses that actually helped my eyesight?
Unfortunately, in our heavily regimented student body, the answer is mostly “yes.” Thus, part of my search for the “hipster” at my own campus of Pomona and the rest of the 5Cs required accepting my membership to that same loathsome cult of coolness consumption. Perhaps one day I can wear the hipster stigma like a warm blanket, much in the same way The Situation revels in his infamy for reinforcing guido stereotypes. They could call me “The Irony,” and along with my fellow obnoxious connoisseurs of high culture, I’d practice my own version of “GTL,” appropriately re-labelled “PBR.”
Last Tuesday evening I attended “Skinny Jeans, Irony & Influence: The Anatomy Of A Hipster,” a PSU panel discussion that invited three writers—Mark Greif, an assistant professor from the New School in Manhattan, Douglas Haddow, a journalist and founder of PBLKS.com, and Robert Lanham, author of The Hipster Handbook as well as the founder of FREEwilliamsburg.com—to talk about hipsters and their role in modern society. In preparation, I read Greif’s recent article in New York Magazine entitled “What Was The Hipster?” Greif’s attempt to define the “hipster” resonated with me. He writes, “The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skate punk, the would-be blue-collar or post-racial twenty-something, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.” The definition’s ambiguity haunted me because it didn’t identify hipsters by any visual signifier. This meant they could be anywhere, hiding in plain sight behind the faade of different social types, secretly possessing a deep-seeded love for Polaroid photography. What if I was waiting in line at the Coop behind a “bro,” only to suddenly realize that he wanted to talk about Dave Eggers over a cup of free-trade Kombucha?
The air at the PSU event buzzed with a kind of anxious excitement, as if we were waiting to hear Neil Young discuss the emergence of grunge. These writers were about to lay bare an intangible, taboo subculture of hipsters; the event felt decisive. I looked around, trying to pick out not only the obvious hipsters in the audience but also the hipster spies, dressed unassumingly, but ready to pounce the moment anybody dared to dismiss Jack White’s talent or debase tattoos as an art form.
As a young man helped set up the microphones for the speakers, one girl behind me asked her friend, “Who is this hipster?” “Look at this hipster,” another kid muttered. I looked at the young man, trying to discern exactly what qualities about his appearance revealed him as a “hipster.” Form-fitting jeans, a tucked-in blue button-down, a tie, and a beard hugging his face hardly seemed to scream “hipster,” but perhaps the man hid his true nature behind the deception of “normalcy”? What if he enjoyed the taste of American Spirits, but told people he smoked Newports? What if he worked for PSU, but moonlighted as a KSPC DJ? I made a concerted effort to highlight my hipster-ness: I wore skinny jeans, Vans sneakers and a messenger bag to quell any doubts as to where I lay on the spectrum of perceived prestige.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the three writers discussed the evolution of the hipster and the hipster’s demarcating characteristics, as well as hipster culture’s influence on modern society. Greif importantly pinpointed the hipster as more than a pejorative term or a particular set of tastes. He explained that hipsters are characterized by the way in which they consume art, the way in which they draw “authenticity” from the art-producing culture, and the way in which they co-opt stylistic elements from other countercultures to reinforce their otherness. Robert Lanham marked hipsters as a culture based on material possessions, a sensibility for irony, and interests in using pastiche to blend different pop culture elements in an attempt to forge an individualized sensibility. However, Douglas Haddow stood notably in opposition to the other two on the panel. While Greif and Lanham focused on identifying the qualities of the modern hipster, Haddow eschewed the concept of a hipster entirely. Like a pre-Pomona me, he did not believe hipsters existed. At one point he likened the hipster trend to the rise of Al Qaeda (his point was surprisingly astute: both movements evolved from a series of parallel phenomena spun by the media into an artificial cultural narrative) and then went on to describe hipster-ism as “one big handjob,” for a generation of “emancipated nerds.”
I left the talk both enlightened by the writers’ comments but also seriously puzzled. I wanted to reach that ephemeral goal of self-identification and claim allegiance to the better-than-bourgeois brigade, but the implications of that allegiance still loomed over me. Although my dark complexion and “hipster” facial hair often provoked airport security officials to suspect me of terrorist motives, I didn’t want to compare myself to Al Qaeda. I related most readily to Haddow’s concept of the hipster as an emancipated high school nerd. My interests in Magic Cards and handheld video games never quite gave me any retro recognition throughout high school, so I delighted in the fact that my thick-framed eyeglasses, previously the object of years-long ridicule, now placed me in a boat of perceived “intellectualism.” Throw in a few plaid button-downs and an outspoken appreciation for backwards-leaning bands with animals in their names and overnight I went from being ridiculed as a nerd to being despised as a hipster. I asked myself: is it better to be laughed at, or complained about?
I needed to go further. Individual hipsters in their various iterations can be found all over the 5Cs, but as Mudd and CMC seem to lack the same major hipster presence as Scripps, Pitzer, and Pomona, it was difficult to consider our five schools as a single entity. I needed to examine the crossroads of the nerd and the hipster—a place that seamlessly conflated those in the know with those in the clouds—and wanted to stay more connected to my personal experience. I thus conducted a survey of just Pomona’s student body, asking a series of arbitrary questions aimed at weeding out students’ conceptions of the hipster. Of those who responded, 92 percent did not self-identify as hipsters, though 88 percent believed that hipsters existed. In his article, Mark Grief identified skinny jeans as “the one stylistic marker that transcended fashion to be something as fundamental as a cultural password.” Though narrowly beaten by V-neck t-shirts as the most popular “hipster” item of clothing students wore regularly in my survey, skinny jeans still found a place in 72 percent of respondents’ wardrobes.
I was astounded. Barely anyone identified as a hipster, and yet half of the respondents owned Chuck Taylors, plaid button-downs and cardigans. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed claimed to listen to MGMT while at least half listened to the Arcade Fire, Death Cab For Cutie, Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, and Passion Pit. All of these artists had risen to fame on the contested road of hipster aesthetics, relishing the adoration of music webzine Pitchfork’s notoriously pretentious team of tacit tastemakers! Furthermore, a full 50 percent of Pomona’s student body claimed to listen to the Shins. The Shins! The one band whose career-defining involvement in Garden State helped usher in this very era of faux-hemian consumption!
The final results of the survey, however, indicated that almost two-thirds of respondents felt that attitude and personality defined the modern hipster. It explained why so many of those surveyed refused to self-identify as hipsters: in Douglas Haddow’s own words, “how many people would actually self-identify as an elitist asshole?” My final question, “What percentage of Pomona’s student body would you describe as ‘hipster’?” yielded predictable results. Most thought the percentage of hipsters fell under 10; the next biggest group said under 20. However, toward the bottom of my list of results, I noticed that one person—only one out of the 230 people who responded—answered 90 percent. At first this seemed like a joke, and maybe it still is for whoever responded that way. But for me, the answer made perfect sense: everyone at Pomona is a hipster. Conversely, no one at Pomona is a hipster.
We here at the 5Cs attend liberal arts colleges in the most liberal state in the union. Our dialogue on campus is shaped by concerns for environmental and communal sustainability. Many of us come from upper-middle class backgrounds. This environment, and the culture at Pomona in particular, offers us the luxury to engage in the “cool” through the “not-cool.” And we take advantage of this privilege. We select art, entertainment, and fashion to reflect our taste and attempt to forge individuality. We ride bicycles, with gears or without, we breathe alternative forms of music, we discuss (500) Days Of Summer, and we dress our legs in skinny jeans because they fit pretty damn well. As Grief describes, we align ourselves “both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class,” two sides of a coin of cultural awareness that all of us carry in one way or another. It explains why our most outspoken voices of protest only conveniently concern themselves with the plight of the locally oppressed.
Perhaps Haddow was right, perhaps the pretensions by which we define ourselves equate to “one big handjob.” The fact remains, if hipsters do exist, at Pomona they comprise most of the student body. If hipsters do not exist, we can stop trying to define our generation in such reductive terms and start living our lives.