Sunday, 8 April 2012

In Defense of Hipsters


This is a re-post of an article I wrote for my student newspaper a while ago:




The term ‘hipster’ is not a new one, having originated in the 1940s jazz scene and at various times being used to describe anything from fans of a certain genre of music to baggy trousers. Nowadays, the definition of the term is still elusive to the point of nebulousness, yet cultural condemnation is prevalent and visceral, echoing and probably even exceeding in volume the kind of scorn heaped on the emo subculture of the mid-noughties. A recent youtube sensation ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’, whilst not explicitly mentioning hipsters by their collective title, heaps derision on what hipster culture has become or at least, what the producers of the video imagine it to be. Other websites such as ‘Look At This Fucking Hipster’ and ‘Unhappy Hipsters photo-blog’ are endemic of a kind of cultural backlash against…well, we’re not quite sure exactly.

Looking through the various anti-hipster articles (and there are many, written in respected publications by people who really should know better) one gets nothing much more than a vague sense of misplaced outrage that can be summed up in six words: down with this sort of thing. The Guardian recently tried to find out exactly why people hate hipsters so much, but didn’t get much further than discovering that the author of the ‘Hackney Hipster Hate photo-blog’ was once kept awake by a party and has since dedicated a significant portion of his time to updating his website with pictures of annoyingly fashionable twenty-somethings on the streets of London whom he or she imagines are the sort of people that would go to that party. The fact that an angry nerd didn’t get invited to a party and blames an imaginary demographic isn’t so much of a big deal, but it’s nothing short of bizarre that even respected academics weigh in on a culture which everyone concedes has no actual clearly defined parameters.

The attempts to rationalise irrational prejudices against youth culture aren’t anything new. One can only imagine the kind of poorly written, irreverent vitriol that would have been written had the internet existed during the rise of rock and roll or in the 1960s. ‘Hackney Hippy Hate photo-blog’ is just such a believable image. But it wouldn’t have been clever then and nor is it clever now to caricature an entire sub-culture as if they possessed some omniscient hive-mind consciousness of cool. The conservative press liked to portray the hippy movement as being entirely made up of draft-dodging drug addicts and whilst there was a portion of the hippy movement that were the horrible, spotty drop-outs George Harrison so despised, the fact of the matter is that this perception was an overly simplistic way of denigrating the character of a movement that included some serious activism and dedicated, intelligent and brilliant people.

Generally speaking, though, the problem detractors have with hipsterdom is its perceived smugness. The New York English professor Mark Grief states that hipsterdom’s smug sense of self “…becomes a defence mechanism, if you’re ‘de-classed’ in a city, to stop yourself from winding up at the bottom…” That’s probably true enough, but then again, just about everyone I know who is at the bottom of the social rung tries and justify or even romanticise their social position with smug self-importance. Yet I would much rather sit across the table in a pub from someone with big, thick-rimmed glasses lecturing me on the merits of Sonic Youth and the films of Kurosawa than the downtrodden, reactionary racist who substitutes his lack of cultural capital by blaming the influx of Polish immigrants. Where one uses knee-jerk prejudice to get by, the other immerses themselves in culture. With utmost pretension, absurd idealism and naivete, sure, but then when has youth culture been anything other than pretentious, idealistic and naïve? Dare I say it, pretension is ubiquitous by necessity, as the establishment needs an angry, arrogant youth to balance its own scathing condescension.

Not that I think every single young adult clad in the latest TopShop apparel and bragging about their knowledge of Pavement’s B-Sides is the next Martin Luther King and sure some of the involvement in obscure relief efforts may be borne less out of an intellectual concern than a desire to support the cause du joure. Why is that so much of a problem, though? Throughout the BBC’s coverage of the recent student protests in London, reporters frequently conducted patronising interviews with students who didn’t really understand the ins and outs of why they were there aside from a vague sense of outrage that whatever was happening was wrong. Yet to us, it didn’t matter that they hadn’t read the Browne Report and a PhD in competition economics wasn’t necessary to their conclusions, nor should it be.

Ultimately, condemnation of hipsters is borne out of a snobbish inferiority complex from a cultural establishment comprised of predjudicial young adults and holier-than-thou bloggers intent on creating a villain who doesn’t exist (as the lack of an actual definition for what hipsters are proves). Maybe it’s now time to set this kind of childish name-calling aside. We’re adults now, after all.

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