Have you heard? Those crazy kids are up to no good these days! What is this younger generation coming to?
For those who haven’t noticed the growth of the hipster movement or who don’t hang out in trendy enough areas, hipsters have been loosely defined, by those who bother to pontificate on such matters, as youth of a somewhat privileged background who identify with an amalgamation of countercultural icons and constantly strive to be unique—just like all their other hipster friends. It might sound ironic for a large group of people to be unique together, but since very few people self-identify as hipsters (despite meeting any or all of the general criteria), any efforts to point out this irony are doomed to failure. A recent article in the Life & Style section of The Student Life tried to describe the hipster population on campus but found little success, as the hipster has proven difficult to define qualitatively or quantitatively. However, the overarching theme is a desire to appear unique, often through selective consumption habits (e.g. skinny jeans and PBRs).
As evidenced by an ever-expanding number of satires, blog entries, and books, the hipster movement has come under attack. Douglas Haddow, one of the speakers at the recent PSU talk on hipsters, wrote an article entitled “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization,” which outlines the common grievances with hipster culture. The article accuses hipsters of being shallow consumers who take “symbols and icons of the revolutionary working class” and “drain [them] of meaning… While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the ‘hipster’—a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstreamsociety.” Haddow repeatedly brings up the point that hipsters seek no social agenda or revolutionary change. But like many critics of the hipster movement, Haddow makes a fundamental error: he believes the hipster ideology. He unabashedly accepts the countercultural associations of their fashion statements. Anti-hipsters often focus on the trappings of hipsterdom and the superficiality of hipster consumerism, which ultimately stems from a lack of understanding as to what the hipster movement is.
Hipsters are not counterculture. Period. They are, rather, the culmination of previous countercultures being slowly assimilated into the greater American mainstream culture. The proliferation of countercultural ideology (i.e. the struggle for individuality) means that no subculture directly counters the others. The standard presumptions that the hipster movement is simply cannibalizing previous, more “legitimate” art and style movments are wrong. On the contrary, the hipster movement represents a return within mainstream society to all that America stands for: the power of the individual.
As a child I was constantly reminded to “be myself” and that I was “unique, just like a snowflake” and other daft aphorisms, and assigned corresponding crafts projects to drive the point home. But the cruel joke is that people don’t tend to break out of the mold. Psychologically, we don’t want to be too unique. We frame our rebellion of the individual within general societal norms so we won’t be ostracized for our actions. When a businessman wants to be unique, he shows up to work with a creative tie, but he still wears his suit. In much the same way, America’s younger generations have found a way to fulfill the charge of individuality: change the form but fit the function of mainstream society. This approach allows our youth to feel safely proud of their individuality, but doesn’t require them to fully withdraw from society. Ipso facto, we have hipsterdom.
There is nothing inherently wrong or detestable about being a hipster any more than there is something inherently wrong or detestable about being a jock or a punk or fitting most other stereotypes. A hipster is just another subset of mainstream society that has a different set of values. No one accuses jocks as a subculture of being the “dead end of western civilization,” so why should hipsters earn our disdain?
The bitter old social commentators need to pipe down. In the past they complained that “young folk music” was “straight from Satan” and “too damn loud”; in their eyes, the youth were a bunch of sex and drug addicts lolling around playing the guitar. With a new generation, they have a new target, but the diatribe remains the same.