Enough time has passed since the world was at Peak Hipster for us to look back at it as a movement, or a craze, or a meme, or whatever the fuck it was and try to take stock of what it all meant, if anything. So this week we're doing exactly that in a short collection of stories.
At the top of this page, next to my name, there's a little picture of me looking like the top Google image search result for "hipster." Sorry. That's just what I look like, and so do a bunch of my friends and coworkers.
I'll readily admit I'm most comfortable walking around town as a beard-and-glasses guy with plaid shirts, listening to new-ish music, but still, I'm none too eager to self-apply the label "hipster." It seems to be a mean word, and people use it to take pot shots at me.
So knowing what I know about the term "hipster"—that based on my consumer habits, I am one, and I also don't want to be called one—I got pretty curious as to what it is about me that people look at, and hate.
Related: 2015 is the year that hipster died
I reached out to Zeynep Arsel, research chair in the fields of consumption and markets at Concordia University. In 2010, Arsel co-wrote an influential paper called "Demythologizing Consumption Practices: How Consumers Protect their Field-Dependent Identity Investments From Devaluing Marketplace Myths," in which she unpacked how different types of consumers—including hipsters—respond to labeling, and how they label others. I thought she might be able to fill me on why people object to hipsters.
VICE: Why do all these non-hipsters out there hate hipsters so much?
Zeynep Arsele: Everyone is a non-hipster. A hipster is who we don't want to be. Even when we look exactly like one.
In that case what is a hipster really?
If you are asking how marketers construe "hipster," it usually refers to a rather nebulous category of people that are superficially described as status-seeking, urban twenty-somethings that are on top of trends.
All right. What's your take on what a hipster is?
I see this concept as an evolving mythology, an imagined idea—a stereotype—rather than an objective sociological category. It's an evolving narrative shaped by the public discourse. It was once a somewhat precise target market that represented counterculture, but today it doesn't mean much, because we diluted it by creating a messy narrative around it. Even The New York Times admitted to overusing the term.
We are listening to these bands, drinking that beer, wearing that outfit for the right reason, and the hipster isn't.
Was there ever a time when the term had a clear meaning? A "golden age," if you will?
Not sure if there was a golden age per se, but if you historicize the term it was indeed once interpreted in a much more positive fashion. In the 50s a hipster was an authentic countercultural rebel. Around the mid 90s, the media depicted a homologous and symbiotic relationship between the term hipster and the emerging indie scene. They were cool. Things start to get more complicated in the early 2000s when we see not only an increase in the frequency with which the media talks about hipsters, but also a change in the content of the discussion. This is the discursive turning point, and the beginning of the backlash.
Would you say hatred of hipsters is mostly an objection to how people dress?
I don't think the stereotype should be reduced to just fashion sense. It's a more complex lifestyle representation. Besides, dressing conventionally—for example: normcore—might be a status game in itself. But if a person is usually mainstream in their tastes, they will probably escape being identified as a hipster.
And that's what a person wants most of the time, right? Because being a hipster has negative connotations?
There are more negative associations than positive ones. My work on the topic covered the public perceptions on "hipster" in the last decade, and even then it was a tricky category to be associated with. I haven't done a systematic analysis of the public discourse around the term in the last five years, but I would be surprised if things got better. More importantly, I think the category became so nebulous, empty, and diluted that it doesn't even mean anything.
What happens when a term is nebulous?
Anybody that is below the age of 35 and has some sort of cultural curiosity, or an unusual haircut, could be easily labeled a hipster. The biggest problem with this stereotype is that it is somewhat of a straw man argument, in the sense that public portrayal of the hipster misrepresents, or at least trivializes, the interests and motives of people that could be classified as one.
But the question is, why lump people into a bin marked "hipster" in the first place?
We are trying to make sense of a multilayered social reality, and lumping a whole generation into a two dimensional caricature helps us to minimize our efforts in trying to understand this reality, without dealing with its ambiguities, contradictions and complexities. We all want to make sense of the world, and stereotypes help us in that. A scapegoat like "hipster" also enables us to legitimize our actions, by giving us the permission to contrast our own authentic lives with those who are posers. We are listening to these bands, drinking that beer, wearing that outfit for the right reason, and the hipster isn't.
So as one of those "social functions," someone might trash hipsters around their friends, but not feel that strongly about, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon if they're offered one the next day?
It is all about framing and context, and I think human beings are very adept at making symbolic distinctions. These are tacit mechanisms of status and difference. The same set of clothes could be interpreted as cool and not-hipster, or pretentious and hipster, in two different contexts.
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