By Wallace Wylie
Hipster. As I type the word, I feel a sense of inner defeat. Popular culture is still obsessed with hipsters and is particularly obsessed with using the word hipster as a byword for moron. I myself have already written about hipster being used in the pejorative sense (at this point there’s no other kind of usage), yet here we are; a new essay and still I feel the need to reopen this particular can of worms. Why exactly does the whole world want to distance itself from the term hipster? That’s easy: hipster means trend-follower, somebody who only likes bands that are cool, somebody who ditches bands when they start to become famous (no such person actually exists, but I’m just conjuring up what the term is meant to convey). Ultimately, it implies people so image-conscious that they live in fear of being or doing anything remotely uncool or unhip. There’s a reason why so many people are anxious to be thought of as geeks. Geeks are uncool. Geeks just like what they like and don’t care whether it’s cool or not. Geeks are authentic. When we get right down to it, hating hipsters is a way of declaring your authenticity.
Confused? OK, what is the term authentic meant to convey? Something real, something unaffected. I looked up the word authentic in the dictionary and this is what it says:
1.not false or copied; genuine; real
Why does hating hipsters make you authentic? Because what people hate most about hipsters is how (supposedly) phony they are, about how much they (supposedly) worry about whether the music they listen to is too mainstream. When you’re uncool, you just are. You don’t care. Hell, you don’t even know what’s cool or uncool anymore, right? You stopped caring ages ago. If you keep digging, you get to the truth behind hipster-hating which is this: people who make a big deal about hating hipsters, or who take the time to mention how unhip they are, genuinely believe that everything they enjoy (books, movies, music, visual arts) is based on the fact, and only on the fact, that they like it. They haven’t been influenced in any way by societal trends, or peer pressure, or advertising, or notions of cool and uncool. In other words, these non-hipster people think that they, and they alone, have risen above all worldly influences and reside in a pure state of unaffectedness.
There’s an irony here because being hip was originally a quest for authenticity, a quest that began by rejecting mainstream society. In his book Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling observed that at one point, in Western society, sincerity was the most praiseworthy personality trait. Sincerity meant honesty, singularity, and freedom from hypocrisy. It implied an earnest and uncluttered approach to life. With sincerity held in such high esteem, however, society also viewed insincerity as the ultimate sin. People were at pains to present a cohesive, consistent personality. This strain led to the idea that presenting yourself as sincere was in itself a falsehood, a disguise that one had to wear in order to be judged worthy by other members of society. Sincerity became inexorably linked with the falseness of bourgeois society, with social masks and etiquette. With bourgeois morals under attack, authenticity soon overtook sincerity as the most worthy personality trait. Authenticity implied a healthy lack of concern over how others perceived you. “Here I am flaws and all, take it or leave it,” was the message that resided at the heart of an authentic life. Authenticity therefore meant rejecting societal norms, exploring other avenues, doing whatever one felt like. If you contradicted yourself, so be it! At least you were being authentic and not worrying about the judgment of others or the petty morals of the day.
The shift in attitude from sincerity to authenticity as the preferred personality trait coincided to a large degree with the rise of popular culture. When popular culture exploded in the 50s it ran parallel with notions of rejecting mainstream values and mores in order to live an authentic life. The Beats, Teddy Boys and hippies all consciously rejected societal norms. They looked and frequently acted ridiculous by everyday standards, but this ridiculousness was an attempt to scrub away years of societal repression. These youth movements sought to rid society of the imposed norms of politeness and decency that up to that point had denied basic notions like sexuality.
Since the 50s, popular culture has attempted more and more to align itself to notions of authenticity. This realignment can be observed most dramatically in the world of advertising. Where once advertisers sought to induce brand popularity by implying something was missing from a consumer’s life, more and more we see products being marketed as an obvious extension of a consumer’s way of living. Instead of buying a product to make you somebody different, you buy a product because this product reflects who you already are. In other words, advertisers are savvy to the fact that most people don’t want to feel like they’re being sold something they don’t want. Consumers would rather feel like they were going to buy that product anyway but just hadn’t heard about it. Popular culture and advertising have done such a good job of appropriating authenticity that anyone attempting to criticise popular culture, or reject mainstream values, is looked upon with suspicion and pity. They are viewed as being inauthentic. Yet at the same time, nobody thinks of themselves as slaves to popular culture and shifting tastes. What exactly is going on?