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A counterculture gone wrong

OTTAWA (CUP) – Hipster. To most human beings, the very word triggers a subconscious sneer. Hipsters are the kids in dirty hoodies and skinny jeans who skulk around shopping mall entrances, snickering at everyone who walks by. But they can also be spotted all over town; like cockroaches, they squeeze their way into every corner of the city, just as they squeeze their way into their tiny, Gap Kids-sized wardrobes.

Not unlike a virus, aspects of hipster style slowly infect other social groups, subtly spreading hipster trends, overwhelming pre-existing customs, and blurring the lines, until the borrowed hipster standards become the mainstream norm. Case in point: photos of Paris Hilton wearing lens-less, thick-framed glasses in “geek chic” hipster style recently made the rounds on the Internet.

But while there are certain ideals within the hipster culture that elicit rage from some, other principles are too intriguing to dismiss. The alternative culture hipsters offer – their anti-capitalist, laissez-faire, “we don’t give a fuck” attitude to mainstream society – is just too appealing to ignore.

Unfortunately, the underlying value at the core of hipsterism is antipathy, which is also what will lead to its inevitable demise.

In the beginning, there was hepcat

Michael Mulvey, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, researches consumer behaviour and has taken an informal interest in subcultures. He explained that the title of “hipster” originated during the early 1940s hot-jazz boom. It replaced “hepcat,” a term applied to young black people (and eventually white people as well) who were ahead of the trend when it came to jazz music. During that time, those labelled as hipsters were more socially progressive (anti-segregation), sexually adventurous and had open, liberal views of drugs.

Eventually, these hipsters grew up and their children became what we now know as the “hippie generation” of the mid 1960s and 1970s. Hippies espoused a philosophy of acceptance, peace, love and equality, but the movement eventually died down. From the mid 1990s, their children began to emerge as the new generation of contemporary hipsters.

Later called “traditional hipsters,” these early hipsters were part of an alternative culture that preached a low-tech, anti-corporate, working class ideology. They promoted the open and accepting ideals that previous rebel generations also championed.

Hipsterism 101

Today, the hipster is the ultimate person of the people. A working class scion, the hipster is one to take pride in his or her lower class roots and to attempt to live as simple an existence as possible. This means living cheaply, buying second-hand clothes, organic foods and cheap beer, as well as living in rough, urban neighbourhoods for the low rent.

Living an actively anti-corporate lifestyle is also a very hipster thing to do. This means not spending $20 on a Britney Spears CD, and instead going out in search of obscure, unknown bands that play coffee houses and underground clubs. The reason? The hipster is a patron of the arts. A hipster prefers the alternative scene, as these artists are still honing their craft – largely unaffected by the corporate world – and as such, are more “legitimate.”

A second-year business management student and self-described hipster who goes by the name Alouiscious Yeaah, aged 19, describes how central music and the do-it-yourself attitude are to the hipster lifestyle.

“We listen to a lot of techno, some Steve Aoki, he’s all right,” says Yeaah. “We usually just dance in a friend’s apartment. I’m a DJ, so I just bring my own speakers and laptop, and we just dance.”

But the hipster’s aesthetic appreciation isn’t confined to music alone; the hipster also immerses him or herself in the visual arts scene, visiting small galleries showcasing up-and-coming artists; the literary scene, participating in intellectually prestigious book circles; and the fashion scene, taking special pains to support local do-it-yourselfers.

Mulvey calls these types of hipsters “authentic hipsters,” while most people know them as “traditional hipsters.”

The once fringe culture that had managed to fly under the radar has slowly begun to creep its way into the mainstream. And in the early 2000s, when Ashton Kutcher insisted on single-handedly taking the ironic trucker-hat trend to a whole new unoriginal level, hipsterism officially became the latest cultural punching bag.

Mulvey explained that, similar to other alternative cultures that found themselves crossing into the mainstream, hipsterism is becoming conventionalized, and it’s time for the movement to take a cultural beating.

“(Hipsters have become) a bit too recognizable, and not unlike the head-bangers and the hip-hoppers, it’s time to take their thumps,” he says. “These things are very cyclical; one group gets marginalized and they take their turn in line for a beating, and it all gets reinvented again.”

Hipsterism, which was originally concentrated in the poorer areas of urban America, such as New York City’s Lower East Side, has managed to take root in other large urban areas, like Toronto.

Due to the movement’s expansion, hipsterism’s profile among the mainstream began to rise, and society welcomed it with open arms. Hence, what Mulvey calls “inauthentic hipsters,” or “ironic hipsters,” were born.

Ironic versus authentic

The ironic hipster is the creature responsible for today’s hipster backlash, according to Mulvey.

“(They’re the) imitative kind; they are trying so hard to be cool,” he explains. “The Offspring had a song called ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy,’ where this guy is trying so hard to be cool, trying to dress right, listen to the (right) music, get a tattoo and drive the right car. There’s nothing that kills cool quicker than trying too hard. And when you have enough wannabes visibly trying to be part of something that is a little bit exclusionist and elitist and fringe, it really doesn’t fly.”

The authentic hipster insists on living and being entrenched in the culture’s true lower-class roots.
“[Authentic] hipsters are supposed to be people among the literati. They’re supposed to read. There’s real work involved in being a hipster,” says Mulvey.

The inauthentic hipster, on the other hand, likes to skim.

And that’s where the great hipster schism occurs. Being a traditional hipster is a full-time job, says Mulvey.

“The broader (hipster) lifestyle requires investment, and you may not want all that baggage,” he suggests. “And that’s maybe why there are the two streams of hipsters. Some people are seekers of the new, the patrons of the arts. They’re the real hipsters. Then there are others (who) come to it in a different way, that don’t necessarily buy into it all. People can choose how far they want to get into the subculture. It’s not all or nothing. You can cherry pick. If you want a fancy academic word for it: bricoleurs. They pick and choose. … There are so many sources for inspiration.”

As a result, hipsterism’s appropriation of different aspects from varying cultural genres is more of a fusionof the best of the best, not necessarily counterfeit.

The ironic hipster, however, can generally be described as a well-off, middle class kid who is trying to act like a poor kid. The ironic hipster jumps from one cool trend to the next. One day it’s a neon keffiyeh (otherwise known as the now ubiquitous hipster scarves, which are, in fact, Arab headwear worn by left wingers as a public sign of solidarity for Palestinians), the next it’s lens-less Buddy Holly frames.

The ironic hipster can be easily spotted in a crowd. They’re the ones who buy overpriced leotards from American Apparel and love the choppy dance music of Girl Talk.

Nineteen-year-old Lee Jones, a second-year English major at the University of Ottawa who is part of Ottawa’s hipster scene, describes the established uniform of the ironic hipster as v-neck sweaters, expensive and time consuming bed-head haircuts, lens-less thick-framed glasses, skinny jeans and tight t-shirts with prints of obscure pop-culture references.

However, Jones doesn’t like the term “hipster.”

“(It’s) because of the connotation. I’m hip, rather than a hipster,” she explains. “I wear actual vintage clothing and have a pair of moccasins. I’m a cheap indie kid – the perpetual poor student. Then there are the hipster kids who wear head-to-toe American Apparel, and it all costs over $200. It’s bought hipsterism.”

Despite the potential for negative association, Yeaah doesn’t mind the label.

“I am a hipster,” he says. “I’m not offended by that title.”

Anti-hipsterism justified

The anti-hipster rage has been building steadily for the last few years. Writer Douglas Haddow eloquently explains (and supports) the phenomenon in the September/October 2008 issue of Adbusters.

Titled “Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization,” Haddow’s story describes hipsterism as hollow, built entirely on the “artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras.”

Haddow writes, “The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. … The ‘hipster’ (is) a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.”

Essentially, the main argument against hipsterism is based on its hypocrisy. The once proud, anti-corporate, blue-collar-loving, alternative lifestyle has become a shell of its former self.

“In 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class,” Haddow writes.

The main drive of the traditional hipsters was, according to Mulvey, the “legitimate, sincere quest for the new. There are some people who just want to see it done in a different way. Some people have an appetite for discovery.”

Today, this individual quest for the new seems to have shifted from discovering obscure new bands to scrolling through the top albums on iTunes.

“Hipsterdom is the first ‘counterculture’ to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations,” writes Haddow. “Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion.”

Basically, when hipsters claim to be anti-corporate and anti-mainstream, they deviate from their label as an alternative culture and move more toward a counterculture. But to be a true counterculture, they must totally embrace the complete hipster lifestyle. That means turning your back on materialism, consumerism and capitalism. But because of this skimming, this “fauxhemian” way of living the hipster style, hipsters have inadvertently and inevitably become an advertising agent’s wet dream.

So while the hipsters may seem to be outwardly embracing radical values and ideas, they do in fact all adhere to a strict set of pre-determined cultural guidelines that govern the hipster world. This sense of elitism breeds hatred and contempt from the mainstream as everything the majority holds dear is looked down upon by hipsters as kitsch.

In the end, the once liberal, anti-corporate, lower class traditional hipsters have morphed into the superficial, hollow consumer group of ironic hipsters. But they are only the latest in a long line of alternative cultures, and before long, they too will die out. And the western world will find a new subculture to hate.

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