How Did the Hipster Become Mainstream?
The true hipsters have become too mainstream to remain hip, and the mainstream itself has reacted by picking up that which was once alt.
When I accepted my boss's request to write an article about how the hipster became mainstream, I figured the best way to go about it would be to find a famous hipster and ask them what it felt like to be mainstream. I made attempts to get in contact with Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend; Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork; the guy who wrote The Hipster Handbook; two different authors of books on the concept of coolness; noted academic and turntablist Jace Clayton aka DJ / rupture; Chuck Klosterman; noted punk and cultural critic Ian Svenonius; Carles from Hipster Runoff; as well as both Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia. The closest I got to any of them was Brownstein, whose publicist at IFC referred me to a different publicist, who asked if I'd gotten anyone else to talk to me for my article and then when I said "no" stopped responding to my emails.
I thought about hipsters for several days, puzzling and pondering how I could possibly accomplish this task. I read books, articles, and essays. I interviewed non-famous hipsters about being hip. I tried writing about subcultures and their relationship to commerce, media, and technology, and how hipsters, with their access to the internet and the shrinking gap between mainstream and underground, accelerated the process of discovery and subsequent saturation. It sucked. Then I interviewed my friend who was a hipster during the early 2000s and knew Adrian Grenier and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and shit before they got famous. Problem was, that only explained what it was like to be the type of hipster who knew the Strokes before they got big. The domain of hipsterdom is too vast, too hazy to try to pin it to what it was like to be alive in New York at the turn of the century. So I rewrote this article a third time, trying to nail down just what a hipster was, and how that very large definition of a hipster meant it was unfathomable for hipster not to become mainstream. Only that article sucked too. At some point, I realized the only way I could write accurately and truthfully about the mainstreaming of the hipster was to write about myself. So now, that is what I am going to do.
Related: 2015 is the year that hipster died
I will spare you the details of my mainstream hipster resume, whose bona fides are so plentiful in number that I dare not list them here—though rest assured that they are all embarrassing and many of them involve v-neck t-shirts. I am a 26 year-old white male from the backwoods of North Carolina. I have spent the majority of my adult life writing about hip-hop for various VICE-owned publications. I did not single-handedly hammer the nails into the coffin of hip, but I certainly helped. I am equipped for writing about the mainstreaming of the hipster in the same way that a fish with hands would be equipped for writing about water.
I first realized I was a hipster in 2008, right around the time that I started denying that I was a hipster to my hipster friends. I was attending college in North Carolina, and I came by my inauthenticity in the most honest way possible—through reading VICE. Your first year of college is, for many, the first time that you really come into your own as a person. You try on new attitudes, new poses, new selves. Though I was initially drawn to the magazine for its record reviews—which seemed to have access to channels of music not accessible to freshmen in University of North Carolina dorms—I quickly found that VICE served as a bible for all things hipster, offering suggestions on how to dress, party, eat, fuck, and anything else that an impressionable 19 year-old might want to know about life. Between reading VICE and Pitchfork—which delivered incisive commentary on what a human being might want to put into their ears at any given moment—I learned how to act and what to talk about.
If I had to guess, I was not the only young person around this time who was influenced by these publications in this way. If you ask a proto-hipster who was around in the early 2000s what it was like to be a hipster, they'll probably tell you that they were trying to be punk and failing, or that they were just trying to live their life and stop calling them a goddamn hipster. But this nascent movement was obsessed with documenting itself in ways that would help establish a template for the hipsters that came after them, through sites like Cobrasnake, VICE, Last Night's Party, and even music like LCD Soundsystem, whose first album largely served as an opportunity for James Murphy to take stock of the hipness all around him.
If nothing else, reading VICE and Pitchfork helped me play catch-up, transforming me from a nervous, generic-looking-and-acting freshman into someone who looked and acted in a way that was socially acceptable to the legions of tight-pantsed smart-asses from cities who seemed hopelessly smarter, cooler, and, well, hipper than I could ever hope to be. Adopting hipster fashions helped me create a visual language for myself, signaling to potential friends that I, too, was hip, and therefore worth becoming friends with.
In a way, the hipster became mainstream precisely because the term "hipster" was so hard to define. After pouring more research and thought into the topic than I care to disclose, I've developed the theory that there are actually two types of hipsters, and they are both totally legitimate and sort of uniquely hateable.
There are Hipster-Creators: genuine artists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who belong to a large number of subcultures that produce art and ideologies through a collective mindset (this includes punks, ravers, fashion kids, crusties, literary nerds, cool academics, etc., and unfortunately often discludes the genuinely impoverished and marginalized). These are the people who, if they're good at what they do, have their work recognized, often by the mainstream. This can be in the form of James Murphy being hit up to work with Britney Spears, or it can be in the form of a collective like Odd Future gaining organic traction on the internet to the point that they become an undeniable cultural force. (Not that James Murphy or Odd Future would identify as hipsters, but then again, part of being a good hipster is not being a hipster at all). As Hipster-Creators gain recognition, they often get written off by others in the underground for selling out, appealing to too many people and therefore becoming hipster bullshit. And even if they don't, there is a certain snobbery, or at least sense of discernment, that comes hand-in-hand with being this type of hipster.
Then you've got Hipster-Consumers, who, loosely, are regular-ass people trying to live their lives but who take cues from artists and subcultures who scan as "hip," simply because they're too busy with their own lives to join a subculture or put a lot of thought into the art, culture, and fashion they consume, so they just wear whatever's on sale at Urban Outfitters and consume whatever culture people are talking about on the internet. Culture moves fast, and the time between something getting sucked up to the mainstream and spat out to Hipster-Consumers is quick. But depending on how you feel about it, this, too can be disingenuous, simply because it's easy to argue that people like this are just letting others do the legwork in acquiring their identity (and god forbid people ever acquire identity through a means other than what they consume). In an essay in Wag's Revue, the writer Robert Moor explained the anger toward this type of hipster, saying, "Without a postmodern philosophical backing and resistance to capitalism, hipsterism quickly devolves into just what it always appeared to be to the uninitiated: a shallow, meaningless, vain, hyper-consumerist, self-hating and poisonous system of living."
More than anything, being a hipster to me has always been more of an attitude rather than a specific set of signifiers. To be hip is to view the world through a specific lens that, even if you can't necessarily describe it, is still uniquely distinct. It encourages people to look at the world through new eyes and assemble a self through incorporating the flotsam and jetsam that have washed up on the shores of modern culture. For my money, it doesn't quite matter if the hipster is talking about Justin Bieber or Stan Brakhage, because consumption itself becomes the radical act, rather than the object or activity being consumed.
This blurring of creator and consumer is, to me, an essential part of the hipster as a social movement. Let's call it, as writer and self-admitted aging hipster Christian Lorentzen described to me over the phone, the "thrift store aesthetic." Lorentzen characterized it as "a method of throwing off the class codes that you grew up with in order to confuse people that just took a look at you as to whether you might have grown up rich or poor."
So essentially, hipsters were too good at creating more hipsters, and therefore became irrelevant by being too cool. At some point, calling someone a hipster essentially became a way of calling them young. And that, I guess, is where we're at now.
As college wore on and I became a better and better hipster, I eventually stopped reading VICE and Pitchfork and became the arbiter of my own tastes. I prided myself on being an early adopter to the imminently cool—my friends and I were the first people we knew to be into Four Loko, Lil B, and rolling our own cigarettes. We were convinced that we and only we knew the correct way to process such ultimately banal pop culture ephemera as the Wu-Tang Clan, Flavor of Love, World of Warcraft, and Seinfeld. I attended parties where the point was spray painting the walls of someone's bedroom so that he would get high off the paint fumes as he went to sleep. I competed in professional air guitar tournaments. My friends and I made a website based on both communism and partying. I DJ'd a show at the campus radio station in the dead of night. Sometimes I would sing along to Prince songs, live on air.
In 2011, I graduated college and, as many hipsters before me have done, moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, North America's holy land of hip. To be honest, the move didn't really feel like a choice; it seemed like something that had to be done if I wanted to be a writer (I did) and was a hipster (I was). True to the tradition of the millions of hipsters who came before me, I arrived to Williamsburg too late: by the time I got there the party had, for the most part, already packed up and moved to Bushwick. But I settled into my apartment off of the Bedford L train stop and started to fulfill my destiny. I began hanging out with a cabal of writers and started interning at what can best be described as a "hipster video game publication." By the fall of 2012, I was working for VICE's music site Noisey, covering hip-hop full time.
In the years I was busy transforming from a little alt pupa to a full-on hipster butterfly, agents of mainstream culture began co-opting the hipsters themselves. When Justin Bieber's career needed a kick in the pants, he called up Diplo, the master of repackaging underground music in ways that club kids vibed with. When Adidas wanted to inject some cool into its brand, they enlisted Jeremy Scott, fashion's chief interpreter of the willfully weird and outlandish, to throw some wings and/or a teddy bear on a pair of high-tops. Perhaps the most significant photographer of the 2000s is Terry Richardson, whose chief skill involves stripping his subjects of their greater context and presenting them in the same naturalistic, understated scene, over and over, whether they're a megastar or somebody he grabbed off the street. VICE, meanwhile, is, uh, did you guys know we're gonna have a TV channel?
It's not that this practice is anything new. Madonna lifted voguing from ballroom culture back in the 80s, Malcolm McLaren was a huckster whose entire aim was to profit off the Sex Pistols, and before he played Gilligan, Bob Denver played Maynard G. Krebs, some TV executive's best guess at a beatnik. It's just that when you co-opt your cool from people whose chief skill is co-opting the cool of others, you essentially cannibalize culture, accelerating the rate at which subcultures develop and then flame out to hyperspeed. Think of something like Seapunk, which became mainstream so quickly that it didn't even have a chance to go from being a joke to becoming an actual subculture.
There's not anything necessarily wrong with this—subcultures have always been on the cusp of becoming mainstream. It's arguable that countercultures must always exist in opposition to something, and that opposition will always swallow it up and co-opt whichever elements it thinks it can sell. That can mean a lot of things, like Volkswagen marketing itself as the car of the hippies, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye complaining that so many people were dressing like punks that nobody even understood the original reasons for dressing like a punk in the first place, or Geffen breaking grunge by buying a pre-Nevermind Nirvana out of their contract on a label, Sub Pop, whose name if we need to be pointlessly literal means "below pop."
Similarly, the idea that the hipster is undefinable in the present tense is not unique. In a recent Baffler piece on the public perception of punk, Eugenia Williamson wrote, "the people present at the beginning of punk had only nominally political and social aims, and the moral imperative to forswear major labels, money, and fame asserted itself only in retrospect." Indeed, it seems like punk, one of the most casually politicized social movements of all time, didn't truly take on the political bent we associate with it until guys like Ian MacKaye and Keith Morris took over, unleashing pointed invective to go along with the sonic squalor.
There is one difference between the hipsters and the countercultural movements of the past, though. Unlike the hippies replacing the beats and the punks replacing the hippies, hipsters haven't been replaced by anything other than more hipsters. The hipster is elastic, a catch-all for countercultures that came before it, a bubble that instead of bursting, simply expands.
And so, here we are, in the age of the mainstream hipster, or perhaps the close of the epoch of alt. In the three years I worked at Noisey, I watched as music blogging completed its transition from sites telling their readers about cool stuff they didn't know about to simply telling their readers why the stuff they were already listening to was cool. I am in no way special for being around for this. If I had never existed, VICE would have hired another young hipster for the same job that I had, and if VICE never existed, I would have watched the hipster go mainstream for some similar entity.
I guess what I'm saying is that at a certain point, subcultures just become culture, and at that point they become bigger than any one person or organization, and the archetypes and values which were once unique to one group become present in society at large. The actions of the hipster, the person for whom art is consumption and consumption is art, has become replicated through the very fabric of technology and society. We communicate in retweets and reblogs, likes and shares, references and early adoptions. The true hipsters, meanwhile, have become too mainstream to remain hip, and the mainstream itself has reacted by picking up that which was once alt. The ethos of the hipster has spread throughout culture to the point that the hipster is no more.
I fully understand that this essay opens me up to a ridiculous amount of criticism, namely that I am a hipster dipshit for even writing it at all. But then again, I'm just fulfilling the function of the hipster, pointing out patterns that already exist. And you're just fulfilling yours by getting mad. So who's the hipster now?
Oh, wait, yeah. Still me.
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