You might have noticed in the news recently that the Office of National Statistics released a guide to hipsters, which clearly means they’ve now been officially recognised as a social group, they’ve been defined, legitimised, they are finally – and they will absolutely hate this – an accepted face within modern culture. If you listened closely, you could probably hear the anguished groans coming from Hackney, or Stoke Newington, or Walthamstow, or Margate, or wherever the perceived hub of all creativity happens to be right now.
But here’s the thing that really struck me – almost every single media source reporting the subculture’s elevation seemed to declare it with a curling lip, and an underlying sneer (just like the one you can find in my opening paragraph, for example!). “These fucking idiots”, came the message, reading between the lines, “with their beards and their stupid clothes, and their bikes, and their entitlement, and their insistence on telling you where they live like it’s a badge of credibility – they just won’t budge.”
It doesn’t take Einstein to make out the flashing neon signs screaming WE ALL HATE HIPSTERS, it’s a fairly constant and ubiquitous (and quite tiresome) societal message – hence why a torch-wielding mob can descend on an independent shop selling bowls of breakfast cereal, and people will basically cheer them on. But WHY? Why do we hate hipsters? What is it about these guys (and girls) that seems to stir up so much venom (even amongst people who seem like they might possibly have hipsteresque tendencies themselves)? What, I ask, have they ever done to us?
I decided to get to the bottom of it. And like any good investigative journalist, I would split my investigation into three important phases.
PHASE ONE – ATTEMPT TO FIGURE OUT PRECISELY WHAT A HIPSTER IS
I started my investigation by compiling a list of equally notorious polarising subcultures and detailing their most basic, easily-recognisable traits, with a view to ultimately doing the same thing for hipsters. I grabbed a typewriter, a shot of wheatgrass, a single daffodil in a cup (for good vibes), and got cracking.
“PUNKS,” I wrote: “bondage trousers, mad hair, anarchy, spitting, politics, noisy music.”
“GOTHS – black clothes, messy hair, nihilism, winkle pickers, angsty music.”
“HIPPIES – long hair, peace protests, bare footedness, free love, pubic forests, uplifting music.”
I continued with a few more that I won’t bore you with now, and then I eventually got to hipsters with my mind well and truly lubricated, and my list spewing forth in front of me like a Texan oil rig – only like the oil rig, the more words that spurted out, the more the finer details of the construction became harder and harder to make out. “Beards, barber shops, fixed gear bikes, tatts, coffee, craft beer, vinyl, knitwear, mismatching furniture, cupcakes, backpacks, macbooks, street food, ‘normcore’, thick-rimmed glasses, polaroid cameras, hats…” It was morphing into a giant shopping list of vaguely kitsch things that could have gone on and on, yet I couldn’t think of an overt watertight political stance, or any specific music that I’d assign to this stereotype either.
The punks, the goths, the hippies – they were from movements that you could recognise, they’d been easy to characterise, they had a fairly obvious ideology (which generally seemed to centre on either nihilism or hedonism, or both). But what were these hipsters all about? What were they trying to say? All of this avid list making, and I still didn’t know.
I had a lie down on tatty chaise longue, and then moved onto Phase Two of my journey.
PHASE TWO – WATCHING A TELEVISION DOCUMENTARY ABOUT HIPSTERS, HOPING IT MIGHT FILL IN THE GAPS
So here’s what I knew at this point of my study:
- No one likes hipsters
- I’m not sure what one is
- I’m worried that I might be one
It’s true. In the spirit of full disclosure, part of the reason I’m carrying out this study is because I’m worried that I might be a hipster, and I’ve been worried about it for a while now. Since before it was even cool.
It’s an accusation that’d been levelled at me many times over the years, and I can understand why people would think it. I have a beard, I wear glasses, lumberjack shirts, I sport an earring, I buy vinyl records, I work as a freelance writer (an absurd way to make a living). And yet, like so many perceived hipsters before me and since me, I have always reacted to the suggestion in the preordained manner – ie. like I’ve been electrocuted by their cruel words, squirming and wincing at the connotation that I’m somehow being insincere with my lifestyle choices.
Then, like all great anti-hipster hipsters, I doth protest too much.
I make a list of arguments in favour of me definitely not being a hipster. I don’t drink coffee. I also prefer normal weak lager to craft beer, I don’t ride a bike, I live in a relatively unfashionable part of London, I physically twitch if anyone says the word “essay”. But it’s too late, because by that point I’ve already fallen into the most dangerous hipster trap there is, which is saying that you’re not one when challenged on it. It’s a bit like the famous scene in Spartacus where everyone stands up and says “I’m Spartacus” as a show of unity, but in reverse. You’re like St Peter at the end of the bible, desperately separating yourself from the bearded freaks in a moment of shriekiness.
But, of course, it inevitably backfires, because now you’re seen to be acting in a hip contrary manner for your own gain, desperate to not be lumped in with a sprawling masses, you’re swimming against the current, essentially casting yourself as the ULTIMATE HIPSTER. This severe dent in the road was the chief reason why my quest for enlightenment was hamstrung from the start – because when even the most dedicated hipsters will vehemently deny that they’re hipsters, how are you supposed to find one who will talk to you?
So I moved on to a Plan B, which basically involved tracking down Peter York’s Hipster Handbook (a BBC doc which aired last year), and watching it on a VHS videotape in a room decorated with flowery wallpaper. Hopefully this would sharpen the focus and present a crisper image of this tainted breed of gentrifiers and restaurants queuers. And the great news is that it sort of did (to a point).
It peered through the window with the same slight sneer that seems impossible for anyone to shift, it sipped from the jam jar and presented a preening rootless subculture that expertly builds over-elaborate castles on the sand, making them rich pickings for advertisers. It looked at the ripple effect from splashes in uber-trendy parts of New York like Williamsburg spanning across the pond to areas like Shoreditch in London. A picture was painted of a social group obsessed with authenticity, with craftsmanship, but while it peered behind the curtain and talked to some of those making a mint off these rabid consumers, it still didn’t quite get under the skin of the thinking behind them. The brick wall of “why?” still remained. Why are they what they are? And why do we hate them so much?
Slightly more enlightened but still feeling like I was in a dimly lit bar wearing a pair of vintage Wayfarers, I activated Phase Three of my quest.
PHASE THREE – JUST ASK PEOPLE OUTRIGHT WHY THEY HATE HIPSTERS SO MUCH
I plugged in my MacBook Pro and took to my old friend Facebook. I’d decided to just come out with it, to put it out there.
“Hey friends,” I began, real casual like. “Why does everyone hate hipsters so much?”
Before long, the opinions were flying in like ferocious shoulders barging through a converted warehouse door, and the theme, it seemed, was universal.
“Because of their relentlessly arduous self-important quest to demonstrate their individuality.”
“Because they have yet to realise nothing is original and trying to be cool is a contradiction.”
“Too much effort, just to look like a dick.”
“Trying to demonstrate one's non-conformity by conforming to a stereotype makes my shit itch.”
“Faux authenticity... I don't actually chop any wood, I just want to look like a lumberjack!”
“Because, though they crave authenticity, they are sickeningly inauthentic.”
“They're empty signifiers, inherently post-modern, all style over substance – they don't stand for anything. They're like a punk band on X Factor.”
The consensus was pretty damning, and it hit me loud and clear. Right in the solar plexus. People hate anything that seems pretentious, and hipsters, it appears, are the very embodiment of modern pretention. Achingly cool, humourless, full of themselves, uninformed, and at some level, possibly a bit thick. There was a sense that they manufacture depth in their shallowness, that their every move is made with one eye on your reaction. As a hipster-denier, I felt a pang of embarrassment. Was that how the world saw me? As po-faced and unaware?
I made myself a teapot of gin and tonic, and found a quiet corner where I could gather my thoughts and form my own conclusions. I was hoping that I might pluck a deep insight out of thin air, to somehow make sense of all this.
I certainly hadn’t lacked in people coming forward with reasons to hate hipsters, the negativity towards them as brutal as it is universal. And yet, I was still left scratching around, trying to figure out precisely who and what they were.
A subculture with no strict ideology, and one also crammed with bizarre contradictions. Hairy but groomed, homespun but mass produced, the demographic most likely to invest in reissued Nokia phones, but also the one that seemingly grew from social media on their smartphones. No soundtrack to speak of but an upsurge in vinyl sales, non-conformity expressed through conformity. I look like one but I don’t know if I feel like one.
It was starting to feel like the term “hipster” was just a catch-all for a large generation (predominantly aimed at men) following fashion in a way that they might not have followed it before. Not fashion as in getting a pair of Adidas Gazelles or a “pulling shirt”, or vaguely suggesting you’re a mod revivalist because you have a parka, but mass market fashion as it has been consumed by women for absolutely bloody ages – in a relentless, exciting/exhausting, competitive, ever-changing, slightly intimidating and disposable way that happens pretty much daily.
I came away wondering if perhaps, at some level, we all have a little bit of self-loathing hipster inside us. If we hate them so much because they are us – but us at our most vulnerable, shallow, and susceptible. Us at our most self-involved, when we’re trying to look cool, or to add another layer to our complex aesthetic, or if we’re trying to rebrand ourselves to bat away the cruel inevitability of aging.
Or perhaps, I thought, as I doodled a little anchor onto my arm using a biro… Perhaps they are just dicks?