Why hipsters don't need your social change
Few subcultures have been more analyzed or more reviled than that of the common hipster. The usual subject of easy jokes, hipsters have been called everything from poachers of legitimate culture to the ruin of the same, to things far too impolite for this upstanding paper to print. Yet most in the mainstream, if you'll excuse the irony, really miss the point.
Christy Wampole recently became the latest to try to diagnose hipsterdom with her recent post on the New York Times' Opinionator blog; doing her level best to stop her argument from degenerating into a crotchety fist-wag at "today's youth"; she fails, spectacularly. Briefly summarized, she suggests that new technology have made us chronically incapable of relating to each other in a real way, stunting us emotionally and driving us towards nostalgia and the obscure as an ironic barrier to real emotion. Right, blame it on the iPhones.
To be fair, Wampole is quite right in her suggestion that hipsterdom is a defense, but her inability to see past her own irritation and nostalgia is painfully ironic in itself. Yet her angle is not unpopular; people have legitimately in publications everywhere been saying much of the same.
Like all good generational prejudice, however, analyses of hipsterdom need first ignore the real origin. Hipsters are perhaps most reviled for their self-conscious appropriation of the retro and the niche as a substitute for true inspiration and creation. The fixed gear bicycles and fashions, the self-indulgence in irony, and not to mention the terrible tastes - PBR springs to mind - of yesteryear, emblems of an era of bygone prosperity or blue-collar struggle are, in the minds of the critics and kvetchers, the outward signs of a deep, core unbelief, and the posturing of a truly vapid or arrested interior life. "Emptiness" is the word of choice for most.
Nonsense. This snarling, upturned-nose approach to perceived cultural decline is the perennial approach to counter-culture. And this rebellion, it must be understood, is a response to the culture itself, because we live not in the Age of Irony, but the Age of Broken Promises. Rather than bemoan the meta streak of our culture's trend, we might do better to ask, to paraphrase a movie that is, now, acceptably retro: "What sincerity has ever done for us?"
These hipsters grew up in a cocoon, right alongside you and me. They were told that if they went to school, they would get into college, and if they worked hard in college they would get a job. That job would lead to more opportunity, and eventually to the comfortable middle-class lifestyle in which they grew up. The last decade or so, between the fall of the towers and the market and beyond, has demonstrated just how lunatic this idea was.
Instead, hipsters have inherited an age of increasing uncertainty. The skills we are taught in college such as abstract reasoning, analysis and writing seem - falsely, but that is another issue and another column - no longer of value. Indeed, recent college graduates were hit hard during the recession, with over half remaining unemployed for some time. And the jobs they did find were often underpaid, or worse, unpaid. The unpaid internship, as any ambitious undergraduate today knows, has become de rigeur in the professional world. Now it is not uncommon to find college graduates behind the counter at your local Starbucks. And those that sought more education, as I wrote in a recent column, saw even more difficulty, when they barely managed to convert their Ph.D's into subsistence wages. A rude awakening for the self-esteem generation, to say the least.
Faced with the stark absurdity of the basic contrast between the honeyed propaganda of the older classes and their newly hopeless situation, however, the hipsters have channeled those seemingly-worthless skills into an unending search for personal fulfillment through quixotic hobbies or mining our popular culture for ironic amusement, of which they have found loads. And what is wrong with that?
Now, I don't mean to defend all the behavior of every hipster - anyone who has been scoffed at for not appreciating some particular subgenre of music that only existed between 1987 and later in 1987 knows that some of these people are utterly insufferable; but like the hippies and punks before them, the countercultural impulse of hipsterdom is nothing more than a rebellion against a hostile status-quo. And, with a grim and absurd alternative, escapist though it is, living the life ironic might just be a good way to cope.
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