Visions of vegetarian stirfry swirled through my thoughts as I was riding my bicycle to the grocery store. Oblivious to the world, I swerved into the street when suddenly, a revving engine ripped me from my refreshing rapt, and the driver of a pickup truck yelled, “Getout of the road, hipster!”
I chuckled, waved, and kept on riding, but as the truck passed, I noticed that the back window was plastered with an enormous sticker that read “Semper Fi.”
I tried to shrug it o and move on, but my thoughts began gnawing at me, and before too long I was enthralled by the implications of this encounter.
Once upon a time in hipster heaven, I lived in downtown Los Angeles. I worked at American Apparel, and I went to dance parties on Hollywood Boulevard.
So let’s just say I may have been called a hipster once or twice in the past. However, that was only in jest, and of course, by others who could have just as easily applied the term to themselves.
This was different.
Now, instead of thoughts of veggies and tofu, questions consumed my mind:
What about my appearance led that Marine in his pickup truck to call me a hipster? Was it my skinny jeans or my rolled up sleeves? My Oxford shoes or my single-speed, (almost) fixed-gear bike? Was it my fingerless gloves or my somewhat ironic sunglasses? Was it the way I was wearing my shoulder bag? Perhaps he could hear Radiohead blasting from my headphones.
I was immediately absorbed by the fear and loathing I had only read about in books.
Has my personal style become so obviously and easily consumed by mainstream culture that I can be labeled as quickly as one can nearly run over a bicyclist in a car?
Has hipsterdom become so homogenous and mainstream that it can be spotted a stop sign away by a Marine who has probably spent more time in the Middle East than in America for the past year or so?
I calmed my mind and decided that I first needed to answer the two most important questions: What exactly is a hipster and why does being labeled a hipster by an outsider make me feel kind of dirty?
A search for the term ‘hipster’ on UrbanDictionary.com reveals the following entry first: “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.”
That doesn’t seem so bad.
The second entry reads, simply, “Definitions are too mainstream.”
The term was originally coined in the 1940s, at a time when being a hipster meant listening to hot-jazz, jive-talking, and smoking marijuana (and occasionally opium).
Hipster eventually evolved into meaning a white, middle-class suburbanite youth, who was disenchanted by fundamentalist American conformity, apathetic towards politics, and spiritually thirsty in the aftermath of exploded nuclear bombs and destructive world wars, according to Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”
Mailer describes hipsterdom as the birth of American counterculture.
The term hipster lives and breathes. It ebbs, flows, evolves, revolts, repulses, swells, and dwindles, only to be born again in some oddly familiar but distinctly imaginative and contemporary way.
Back then, hipsters were “urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action…”
Sounds romantic, exciting, and identifiably modern, right?
The Underground Turned Upside Down
Fast forward to the age of the Internet, where counterculture seems more popular than just plain-old culture and rebellion is bought and sold by bored teenagers in mass quantities at the mall.
Stores like Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters thrive on selling middle-class, suburban America — a sort of commodified rebellion.
There is a historical trend here though, like when Scott McKenzie claimed “if you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” when he was trying to promote the Monterrey Pop Festival.
He ultimately triggered a mass exodus from the city by “true” San Francisco hippies, mainly due to the influx of suburbanites, or “wanna-be” hippies, to the tiny, 46.9 square miles of land the upon which city sits.
Punk rock went through growing pains as well when in 1994, a mostly unknown punk trio called Green Day was broadcast in the living rooms of everyone who had cable television via MTV for their Jaded in Chicago live concert.
“Pop-punk” as we know it was born and “true” punkers everywhere found a depressing irony in the oxymoronic term.
They probably thought to themselves, “Isn’t punk the opposite of pop?”
Khayree Billingslea is the founder of The Underground Foundation at ASU, an organization that seeks to support and someday solidify the independent music and art scene at ASU.
Billingslea is intelligent and creative and he rides a rad bicycle. He would never say it himself, but I think he is pretty hip.
Perhaps more importantly, he recently did an independent thesis on hipsters for a sociology class where he sought to find out what exactly a hipster is and why it is becoming so popular at this particular point in history.
“After World War II, American youth became nothing more than consumers,” says Billingslea. “Thanks to the birth of mass media, the ability for culture to transport movements, ideas (and) identities … were created.”
In other words, he says the hipster is just a common response to mass marketing, one which is, quite ironically, mass marketed to.
“In the late nineties and early 2000s young people were sitting around and watching TV and they said, wait a minute, we are being told who to be right now,” he says. “Future hipsters said ‘fuck that’, I am my own person. I can’t be put in another box.”
And then they were.
Billingslea and I agree that by about 2005 or so, hipster, once again, became a real-life thing.
Hipsters started buying MacBooks, becoming DJs, hosting sweet dance parties and listening to semi-obscure bands from their neighborhoods (Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Silverlake in Los Angeles and Wicker Park in Chicago to be specific).
“And suddenly everyone is doing hipster,” Billingslea says. “But no one is a hipster if you are asking.”
Being labeled the hipster is being categorized, he says, which is the very thing he or she was trying to fight against when he or she became interested in hipster bands, hipster films, hipster art and Apple products.
“You know very well you are a hipster because you can look at some other hipster and say, ‘Now that’s a hipster,’” Billingslea says. “But if you look in the mirror it’s not you, even if you look exactly the same.”
Billingslea and I note that hipsters in most urban areas tend to flock to one section of the city.
In Tempe, it’s the neighborhood west of Mill Ave. and south of University Dr. and, of course, Billingslea resides there himself.
He says it’s an area with the largest concentration of hipster nooks and crannies.
The neighborhood has almost everything a hipster could ever need. Coffee from Cartel Coffee, food and drinks from Casey Moore’s Oyster House, vinyl from Zia Records, and clothing from Buffalo Exchange.
Even the houses in that neighborhood look like groovy artist dwellings and are often the site of house shows, where eccentric local and touring bands meet up to entertain the Tempe hipster masses.
The only niche not yet filled in this area is that of a solid, weekly hipster dance party featuring the dope DJ of the week mashing up pop radio hits and obscure hipster gems — someone should start one ASAP and invite me!
Lauren Coleman is from Long Beach, California, she sings in a band called Pebaluna and, in this humble hipster’s opinion, she too is pretty hip.
Hip enough, in fact, to land a role in an indie film without any previous acting experience.
The film is aptly titled, “I Am Not a Hipster.”
She says the film is not so much about hipster culture (go figure), as it is about a guy, presumably a disavowed hipster, dealing with the death of his mother.
Coleman says she does not know much about hipsterdom (of course not), but she has picked up some hipsterisms along the way.
“Apathy is cool. Quirkiness is cool. Be the first to know about the next band on the scene. If you’re in a band, use a lot of reverb. Photography is super cool (what lens are you using?). Polaroids can’t be beat. Glasses, hats, feathers, tight pants, shirts with holes and ideas from Pinterest are the shit,” she says, “oh yeah, and don’t forget, neon colors on sunglasses and fixies.”
Coleman says people who dislike being called hipsters do so because they feel they are too unique and creative to be pigeonholed.
Thus, they are enmeshed in the snares of the hipster conundrum.
And so it goes.
Hipsters have become just another demographic. A not-so-countercultural phenomenon, trapped like rats in a maze of capitalism with only two available options for self-expression left: Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.
Vive La Hipster
Ok, perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic here. Maybe things aren’t so bleak…
Brandi Lamb is the owner of Upstyle Boutique, a vintage store on Mill Ave. whose clothes are hipster-chic and truly unique.
In fact, everything is one of a kind, meaning it can’t be found in every city and suburb in the Western (and sometimes Eastern) world.
Brandi’s favorite spots in Tempe are hipster staples such as Yucca Tap Room, Cartel Coffee and even Urban Outfitters. She is a hipster and she isn’t ashamed to admit it.
“Just like beatnicks or hippies, (hipsters) just want to be a little outside of the box, and I think that is awesome,” she says. “There isn’t anything negative about that at all.”
Lamb makes and sells vintage clothes and if she isn’t selling them in her shop, she is selling them on the Internet, many of which she tags with the frightful term “hipster.”
“I know that some kid who is way into this certain look is probably going to search for the tag hipster, even though when they go out with their friends, they aren’t necessarily going to admit it,” she says.
She pointed out my shoes and said she would tag them hipster if she were to sell them online. I blushed and probably rolled my eyes.
She would also tag cowboy boots, men’s ‘70s shirts with loud prints, anything southwestern, anything that combines the ‘80s and ‘90s and pretty much anything that looks cool and unique.
Lamb says there are hipsters who dress hip-hop. There are dapper, classy, ex-emo hipsters. There are preppy, boyfriend’s clothes-wearing girl hipsters. I add outdoorsy hippy-hipsters. Urban-warrior hipsters. Fixie obsessed hipsters. And art-school Hipsters.
The list goes on and on — and that is not a bad thing — she says.
“It’s all one big mash-up really,” she says. “If I want to take a weird southwestern print shirt, and wear it with my polka dot leggings and be taken seriously at the same time, I can totally do that.”
Lamb would potentially separate herself from the term hipster only within the stigma that describes hipsters as pretentious or even downright pompous (hipsters who are still reading, and thinking ‘this is stupid, doesn’t this guy know that there is no such thing as hipster’ or ‘this guy is so not hip for writing this’ might just fall into this category).
However, she describes herself as a happy, fun-loving, and open-minded hipster.
“Call me what you will, I am me,” she says.
In my experience, Lamb’s response echoes what most hipsters say when they are asked to answer the contemptible question, “Are you a hipster?”
After a roll of the eyes (if not visible, then definitely in their heads), many hipsters will reply with something along the lines of, “You can call me what you will, I just like what I like.”
My search to define myself of and within a group of people has led me to discover a quite anomalous cultural nonpareil, whose fundamental focus is to not be obvious enough to be defined.
Perhaps this is why I cringed when I heard it being yelled at me out the window of a pick-up truck in the middle of the day.
Hipster is a strange and peculiar, yet simultaneously familiar, subset of popular culture that manages to maintain a sort of liquid state of conventionality by constantly changing and remaining unconventional.
Consequently, the hipster is a fanatic like none other. An anti-fanatic fanatic so to speak, whose existence can be summed up in a contradictory statement, which confidently declares, ‘I am, therefore I am not.’
And there, I believe, lies the one hipster constant — the true spirit of the hipster.
Reach the writer at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza