Why Hipsters Are Better Than You

Exterminate hipsters! Not the people. The people are fine -- inasmuch as anyone even knows what they are anymore. A few are great, some are annoying, most are probably pretty unremarkable, same as with everything else. I’m saying exterminate the word "hipsters." There is no single word currently in the lexicon that is more hacky and shopworn, more indicative that there’s a lazy half-joke and unearned insight heading your way. Hipster has been used so compulsively by so many for so long now that it has ceased to really mean anything. Skinny jeans? Hipster. Workwear? Hipster. Acid-washed, high-waisted jeans that look like diapers? Hipster. EDM? Hipster. Americana? Largely hipster. Organic farming? If you moved from the city to do it: hipster. Make your own pottery? Hipster. Dress like it’s the ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? Hipster, hipster, hipster, hipster, hipster. Love Apple? Hipster. Hate Apple? Hipster!

Drained of meaning, hipster has become a convenient way for people to position themselves as knowing and/or superior without having to actually know anything or be better than anyone. (Which, ironically, is what all hipster-haters hated most about hipsters in the first place.) It’s a zombie insult, the by-product of a culture that knows it needs to always be talking, opining, condemning, but can’t really think of anything to say most of the time, so it just props up straw men and knocks them down over and over again, joylessly and forever.

Stupid fucking hipsters!

And irritatingly, the less hipster means, the more frequently we seem to use it. It’s a publishing cottage industryA political wedgeGrist for mathematical shenanigans. And look at the chart above: it’s like something Al Gore came up with.

Well, grab a sustainably harvested club. It’s time to kill the zombie. Not only because all lazy insults should be exterminated (and replaced with better and more specific ones), but also because using hipster as indiscriminately as we do excuses us from recognizing the actual contributions so-called hipsters have made to the culture. Like it or not, they’re more than just an easy laugh line toting an artisanal ax and wearing an Alf T-shirt. They’ve been fascinating and influential. More interesting still, while they’re often sloughed off as some sort of fatuous countercultural afterbirth, they could not have emerged from the tepid muck of the American mainstream at any other time history, which makes them an invaluable lens through which to view our shambles of an American scene.

Plus, let’s be honest: you’re one of them, at least partly. And you know it, which is why you’re always shitting on them. We’re all one of them now. So laugh it up. Laugh it up, you stupid fucking hipster.

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“Who is the hipster?” the novelist Herbert Gold asked in an essay on the topic. “What is he? The pure beast is hard to track ... but let us follow the spoor of history and symptoms. We will probably find that ‘pure hipster’ is a phrase like ‘100% American’ -- an unstable compound with an indefinite content.” While Gold couldn’t really pin down the hipster, he did manage to conclude that hipsters are “individualists without individuality ... laboring with tremendous violence, noise and heat -- and all for one purpose. To keep cool.” Some of them, he added, are like “male impersonator[s]. Adorably brutal, stripped of the prime attributes of manliness -- intelligence, purpose, control.”

Stupid fucking twee conformist androgynous hipsters!

Except that the essay is from 1958. And Gold was, by most definitions, a hipster himself, associated with the Beats. It’s the Beats that kicked off the story that concludes with the modern hipster. They started, as many countercultures do, with trauma and subsequent existential emptiness, watching the world burn itself halfway to the ground and then stuff itself senseless in a materialist orgy. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich called the Beat canon “the first all-out critique of American consumer culture.” Jack Kerouac, the reluctant king of the Beats, railed against the “middle-class non-identity” which had “everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time,” ruining “the sanctity of the moment.”

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Like all 20th century American countercultures that followed, the Beats wanted something real and pure that hadn’t yet been ruined by the marketplace. They went in search of it, by foot, by car, by bus and train, and in the end, as with so many of America’s greatest cultural advancers, they wound up lifting it from black people. “Hipsterism began in a complex effort of the Negro to escape his imposed role of happy-go-lucky animal,” Gold wrote. “[And] then their white friends took up the fashion, complicating the joke by parodying a parody of themselves.”

The early hipsters were intellectuals, students, motorcycle-riding petty criminals, even lawyers and ad men. As a group they were hard to pin down, but they found common ground in bop: “the still unravished bride,” as Gold called it. It was their secret language, not easily accessed, loaded with style and furious energy, and it baffled or frightened the white middle-class sensibility -- which is historically the point of American, or really any, counterculture. Bop was the soundtrack for the Beats’ assault on a whole range of ’50s taboos: sex, profanity, drugs, and, well, I guess hanging around with black people.

Ever since, every countercultural movement has traveled the same road, searching for more taboos to slay and unravished brides to ravish. After the Beats fizzled, the hippies arrived. They were anti-war, pro-drug, pro-sex, anti-capitalist, dirty rock ’n’ roll longhairs. And like the Beats, they were derided for being fakes, conformist nonconformists. Their motives and sincerity were constantly being questioned. “I fail to see much real altruism or idealism in my children or their friends,” a concerned reader wrote to Time magazine in 1967. “I see, rather, a perverted, sentimental self-centeredness.”

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The hippies, too, collapsed, but not before being thoroughly mined for salable material by the marketplace. A decade or so later, the punks, having seen the last two countercultures co-opted, went for something more extreme. “Punk promised to build a scene which could not be taken,” wrote scholar Dylan Clark. “Its anger, pleasures, and ugliness were to go beyond what capitalism and bourgeois society could swallow. It would be untouchable, undesirable, unmanageable.”

We all know how that worked out. Not only could bourgeois society swallow it, it swallowed it whole, and we wound up with Ramones baby clothes and Sex Pistols credit cards.

The plundering of punk, and after that hip-hop, and after that grunge and the indie music revolution of the ’90s and a dozen micro-scenes besides, stood as further proof that any intrinsic mainstream American terror of alternative culture would always, in the end, be overwhelmed by the market’s fetish for novelty, youth, and new revenue opportunities. From the Beats onward, each movement has yielded great art but then wound up press-ganged into the service of capitalism, its quest for the original and the authentic ultimately just increasing the volume of banal plastic consumer goods dumped daily into the churning river of commerce. More than half a century since the Beats, the fallen countercultural gods proclaim from their graves: look upon my works and despair... you stupid fucking hipsters! Vision/Getty Images

Today’s hipster -- I’m defining them as broadly as the critics do; others have offered more specific definitions -- takes a lot of abuse for being too twee, too ironic, and too consumerist. And all those things are true to a degree. But you have to consider that countercultures are products of their respective environments, and today’s hipster exists in a world that, in a strange and unprecedented way, is far less hospitable to the growth of countercultural movement. Which means that what passes for a hipster today is fundamentally different than his predecessors -- a fact that frustrates and confuses the hipster’s critics to no end.

First, it’s no longer that physically dangerous to be a nonconformist. Every previous subculture spent a good deal of time getting the shit kicked out of it by cops, rednecks, jocks, etc. That general absence of real threat and true alienation -- even kids stuck in backwaters can find likeminded souls online -- removes a lot of the focus, direction, and spite that ordinarily drives a subculture forward. As a result, where previous generations’ elbows were sharp, the modern hipster’s are merely bony. (Though I guess you could also argue that when rage has been so thoroughly and enthusiastically co-opted by the mainstream, maybe twee placidity is revolutionary.)

Secondly, there just aren’t many taboos left to smash. Gay marriage is legal, weed is decriminalized, rock and rap are sanitized and corporate. The only things middle class America is really afraid of at this point are Snapchat and terrorism.

And thirdly, I’m speculating here, but crushing student loan debt and unconscionable health care costs probably make it considerably harder for a lot of young people to go rogue the way they did in previous generations.

Trinette Reed/Blend Images/Getty Images

But even setting those factors aside, the biggest stumbling block for the modern hipster is that there just isn’t that much fresh culture to own. In his viciously good race satire, The Sellout, Paul Beatty writes, “The black experience used to come with lots of bullshit, but at least there was some fucking privacy. Our slang and debased fashion sense didn’t cross over until years after the fact ... these days mainstream America’s nose is all up in our business.” You could say something similar for the counterculture (save for the black part).

By the time the modern incarnation of the hipster came along (I’m using the term loosely, as most people do now), everything had been or was being snatched up, stripped for parts, and discarded with greater and greater velocity. Richard Godwin in the Sydney Morning Herald put it well in a column last month: “In the pre-Google era,” he wrote, “to be ‘cool’ meant you had to hang out in the right clubs, take the right drugs and talk the right talk. Now you just need to read the right blog. This accelerates the trend cycle to such a degree that anything potentially hip will be analyzed to death before it has a chance to evolve.”

The perpetual churn led to the widely mocked hipster trend-panic, as he or she scrambles to stay ahead of an ever-steepening taste curve: now I like kitschy lunch boxes! Now I like organic farming! Now I have boat shoes! Now I’m an ironic racist! It’s hilarious to watch, but it’s also understandable. And I sympathize. With the possibility of really possessing something taken off the table, all you’re left with is this unending effort to cobble something new out of the ring of discarded space junk orbiting what’s left of the monoculture. Ergo: Atari! Mason jars! Phil Collins’ back catalog!

(We also may want to also leave open the possibility that most of these people just liked this stuff because it was weird and new to them, and had access to all of it at once because of the Internet, and didn’t consciously select it to help bring about some planned countercultural-dominance scheme.)

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Anyway, we wound up with an ungainly, philosophically centerless hodgepodge that forever straddled authenticity and irony, and, annoying to its critics, wouldn’t stay in one place long enough to do whatever it was its critics wanted it to do. (Which as far as I can tell was to be more like punk.) Eventually, things started getting contentious, and hipster became a dirty word. As Mark Greif put it in his widely read 2010 essay “What Was the Hipster?”:

This in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative -- an insult that belongs to the family of poseur, faker, phony, scenester, and hanger-on. The challenge does not clarify whether the challenger rejects values in common with the hipster -- of style, savoir vivre, cool, etc. It just asserts that its target adopts them with the wrong motives. He does not earn them.

The increased use of hipster as a pejorative led to our present situation, in which a whole vaguely defined population is being maligned and dismissed. But in his fascinating 2012 book, Sincerity, R. Jay Magill Jr. breaks down the hipster conundrum more charitably. While hipsters “wished for a more authentic kind of life than the one in which they were raised,” he wrote, “they were also aware, nursed on the teat of postmodern theory, that their ideals were unnatural constructs, and therefore hokey and embarrassing.”

In other words, it wasn’t so much that hipsters loved irony. It was that hipsters found themselves forced into a fundamentally ironic position. They had the same abiding desire for real things as hipsters in the past did, but they also had a strong sense of futility in ever possessing them. So basically they got stuck. If they really went for sincerity, they fail. If they were seen as insufficiently sincere, they fail. The countercultural seed is there, as it’s been for previous generations. It just couldn’t take root like it used to.

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Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Unlike other countercultural movements, today’s hipsters are castigated for failing at a task they never even attempted. In his essay, Mark Greif hung Robert Frank’s term “rebel consumer” on them, defining the type as “the person who, adopting the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture, convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive.” He adds ominously, “Hipsterdom, at its darkest ... is something like bohemia without its revolutionary core.”

This is a common critique. But what it misses is the entire point of everything. Today’s hipsters were never revolutionary. Not as a group. They never tried to be. They didn’t seek self-exile. They didn’t opt out of the consumer culture or present an alternative to capitalism. (And before we set some kind of purity standard, let's pause to recall that Lou Reed used to shill for Honda scooters.) In fact, they’ve been right in there, buying shit with the rest of us and deriving meaning from it. This generally gets them labeled fakes or hypocrites, but from what I can see it’s more that they’re resigned. They see the futility of chasing authenticity, and yet they still chase authenticity. They see going to war against America’s hallowed institutions is stupid and pointless, and yet they also believe those same institutions are one vicious joke played over and over again on all of us.

Greif argued that hipsters haven’t made any lasting art, just “a range of narcissistic handicrafts,” but I’d credit one of their own, Father John Misty, for perfectly summing up the hipster’s position in his song “Bored in the USA,” which he delivers like a torch song, only one with a kitschy laugh track:

How many people rise and say
My brain's so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day
Now I've got all morning to obsessively accrue
A small nation of meaningful objects that've gotta represent me too
By this afternoon I'll live in debt
And by tomorrow be replaced by children...

They gave me useless education
And a sub-prime loan
On a Craftsman home
Keep my prescriptions filled
And now I can't get off
But I can kind of deal

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To the extent you can say any group believes one thing, hipsters aren’t opposed to capitalism. They’re opposed, I suspect, to rabid, deadening, exploitative capitalism. And now we can see, 15 years after the supposed advent of the modern hipster, that the biggest effect the cohort has had on the system hasn’t come from stealing cars or forming communes or smashing the state, but by practicing conscientious consumerism and extolling the virtues of local business, craft, and quality. It's not revolution, it's incrementalism. We were expecting Joe Strummer, and instead we wound up with Ron Swanson -- in different and slightly more tailored clothes.

None of this stuff originated with today's hipsters by any stretch, but they’ve taken it up, as previous generations did with jazz and folk, and rock, and hip-hop, and, via media trend-mongering, helped push it into the mainstream. Laugh all you want about the hipster barista, but coffee has never been better. Or smirk at that asshole with the mustache and suspenders at the cocktail bar with the ampersand name, but cocktails have never been so reliably good in so many places around the country. Liquor is better and more interesting. Food is better and more interesting. Restaurants are more creative, and more likely to support local farmers (even if the chefs do have stupid bacon tattoos). There are more indie designers making clothes in the US. Their stuff costs more, but at this point we all know full well that it takes a chain of human rights violations in order to make a $30 shirt. Jeans fit better. Beards are socially acceptable. Glasses are socially acceptable. You can wear chambray with a suit. You can publicly nerd out without fear of social banishment. Etsy saved me from having to buy a laptop case from Apple. (Hipster!) The list goes on.

Is it all good? Of course not. Like everything else in the world, 90% of the hipster’s cultural influence probably ranges from negligible to crap. Are a lot of them fakes? Probably, but have you met humanity? The whole enterprise is shot through with fraudulence. Is there a growing cloud of marketing bullshit and hip-washing quickly engulfing all of this? Of course there is. I just got an email from a publicist saying she represents the largest hotel in Manhattan “and would love to have you stop by to experience the authenticity and local flavors of their gourmet market.” I laughed, but I’ll take that market over what was there before.

And yet here we are, drinking our good coffee, eating good food, and making the same lame hipster jokes we’ve been making for years. Griping about “the awful cult of the talentless hipster” with his or her “mindless attitudinizing.” Griping about how they all dress the same, even though that’s what subcultures do, you nitwit. But like it or not, the modern hipster -- derided for having no real cultural impact -- wound up being a big bang writ small. And just as we contain stardust from the birth of the galaxy, we all contain hipster dust, down to a molecular level. Time to own it. Time to enjoy the spoils to the utmost. Time to retire the word.

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Joe Keohane is Thrillist's features editor.