Wallace Wylie

Hating Hipsters: How The Mainstream Hijacked Authenticity And Made Non-Conformity A Joke

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hipster cat

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:

au·then·tic [aw-then-tik]
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?

(continues overleaf)

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11 Responses to Hating Hipsters: How The Mainstream Hijacked Authenticity And Made Non-Conformity A Joke

  1. emma October 16, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Excellent read! Although I’ve discovered that I have a little bit of hipster in me. Should I be ashamed or just embrace it!

  2. Daniel October 17, 2012 at 12:48 am

    Nicely done. I had never given any thought to contempt for hipsters being an enforcement of a masculine ideal. I’m not sure I completely agree, but you make a lot of valid points.

    Probably the most puritanical thrust in American tastes is the notion of “guilty pleasures”. It seems to be a mark of arrested development from some manner of junior high trauma. We’re adults, so it might be time to embrace your inner dungeon master and forego striving to impress a nonexistent clique with whom we have little in common.

  3. peter November 24, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Really enjoyed this. I’m a teacher so I see lots of examples of attempts at ‘non-conformist’ dress – and funnily enough the indie/emo/goth/rock kids chiefly express their rebellion by wearing some of the most heavily branded product available. But why the hang-up about ‘authenticity’? The Romantic conception of the tortured artist is something that rock has always found hard to wrestle free from – as if the idea that something is constructed and marketed immediately renders it inauthentic – but even the most lo-fi outsider music is in a sense a ‘performance’, and it is bought and sold as much as Milli Vanilli were in their day. It’s daft and it’s dangerous: it costs lives.
    I was an avid Mudhoney fan in my teenage years – their records were a cartoon reflection of all my adolescent rage and alienation. Imagine how gutted I was when a friend and I met them before a gig (Hole supported) and they turned out to be these polite, friendly college boys!

  4. nick November 25, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Your article was excellent, I agreed with the lion’s share of it, and I hope it invites discussion. I think you failed to mention a key area that draws ire to the current incarnation of ‘hipster,’ however. If I could summarize it, I would call it an approximation of poverty through extremely expensive purchases. Scan the price points of items that are lambasted as hipster: fixed gear bicycles with high-end accoutrements, hi-fi turntable stereos and record collections, Urban Outfitters’ $300+ jeans, etc. All of these began as make-do accessories for those without the money for cars, CD collections, and other current gadgets and luxuries. The billboard for the Eatery, which I see almost daily on the corner of Hennepin/Lagoon here in Minneapolis, I feel is directed mostly at the celebration of a Bohemian, struggling-artist lifestyle at a price point that could be considered astronomical to any struggling-artist. The upper-class exclusivity associated with ‘hipster-ism’ as a counter-culture deserves inspection, and to the degree that its participants look down upon actual poverty, deserves its share of criticism.

  5. Wallace Wylie November 26, 2012 at 5:19 am

    Hello nick, fellow twin cities resident. I think the cultural approximations you mention have been going on since popular culture began. Rock n roll was one big race/class cultural grab by mostly middle class kids. To cite another example, someone like Townes Van Zandt was ultra privileged. Oil rich. County named after your family rich. I don’t see why this current group of people we call hipsters should be singled out. Especially considering that when you look at the Occupy movement, and the fact that they’re still doing very meaningful things (but the media is just refusing to talk about it for the most part), it doesn’t take long to realise a lot of these people fit the stereotype of hipster. They’re actually doing something to try and battle the inequality of American life. Yet we have to constantly read about the fact that hipsters are inept, lazy, and incapable of doing anything not laced with ironic intent. Also, I refuse to believe that a billboard that offers free valet parking has some kind of class critique in mind. It’s just taking a pot shot at an easy target that everyone can laugh at.

  6. colbyrasmus November 26, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    This is retarded

    “In a patriarchal society, masculinity is considered natural, while femininity is considered unnatural. For this reason, any way a woman dresses is viewed with great scrutiny”

    The only people who care about woman’s fashion are other woman.

  7. Gen May 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    colbyrasmus – “The only people who care about woman’s fashion are other woman.”

    I think any woman who’s been subjected to sexual assault (or threat thereof) and then asked what she was wearing at the time would disagree with that statement. (See: recent loudmouthed policemen and politicians who’ve suggested that women who don’t want to get raped should dress discreetly.) As would many women living in societies where women’s clothing is subject to legislation or severe societal judgment. Or any woman who’s been called a slut for wearing skimpy clothes, or any woman who’s been told she looks like a dyke or lesbian because she doesn’t wear clothes that represent her figure in a “sexy” or “feminine” way.

    Late to the party reading this article… anyway. Great reading, and valid points throughout, and the demonstrated correlation between external judgments on a subculture and gender attitudes is an interesting and legitimate one. As you say, it does ultimately come down to collective self-policing. I’d agree strongly with nick’s points though. Some of the folks I encounter who engage in hipster hatred (and there are many) are not particularly mainstream-friendly either – they distrust chart pop music, or the popular ‘indie’ that joins its ranks, as cheap and inauthentic), regard hipsterdom as merely an attention-seeking and deliberately perverse version of that (e.g. the aforementioned glorification of expensive junk, a carefully curated faux-poverty), and seek out art that appeals closely to their particular clique. I’d agree that they’re engaging heavily in their own version of conformity, I’m just not so sure about the hipster vs mainstream argument here. It seems to me much more like a lot of aesthetic tribes fighting amongst themselves.

  8. elroy September 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    yes i realise i’m quite late to the party as well but it occurs to me that part of the disdain for “hipsters” (at least from the viewpoint of someone who is probably lumped in as one by the great unwashed – what’s the percentage of perceived hipsters who self-identify as such?) has to do with the adoption on a relatively large scale of bad fashion – which figures into the ‘guilty pleasure’ side of things, i think, since they’re both manifestations of the hipster irony that has somehow supplanted all other forms of irony as of late. it’s hard to say what’s bad or good of course in music or dress or anything else but myself, i’ve always wondered why ANYONE would wear one of those deep-v t-shirts, and i pretty much limit those who i view as hipsters to people who wear those fucking things. so in effect when i see something that makes absolutely no sense to me (and not just to my personal sense of style – there are tons and tons of garments being worn in front of me every minute of every day that i unflinchingly accept though i would never wear them) i believe that the people who are doing or wearing or listening to such things are operating out of a desire to conform as an outsider. (i.e. i’m declaring that no one person could possibly actually like those damn t-shirts on their own.)

    sure i think this is ridiculous on my part but in such an information-over-saturated time as this there is some interesting glimmer to the idea that the only way to identify your group is to adopt something truly unlikeable as a signifier. and if that has even a tiny unconscious corner of truth to it that’s damned nasty – a symptom of the desire to always have an escape hatch, to be able to say to anyone who makes fun of you for absolutely anything that you don’t even really like it, that you just think it’s funny. if there’s any legitimate disdain for “hipsters” out there it’s exactly that: the feeling that anyone who doesn’t “actually” like the things they like can get fucked.

    i don’t know if anyone is truly like that, but i think the term ‘guilty pleasure’ is awful and unnecessary and that perhaps we’ve now grown a subculture who subsist SOLELY to pay homage (unconsciously or no) to that concept – and that’s the modern hipster.

  9. elroy September 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    you know, though, in a culture so obsessed with nostalgia we had to evolve at least a pocket of people whose futures are immune to our dalliances, right? and if “hipsters” (or at least the version i’m trying to define) don’t actually like anything that they like – if music and fashion, etc have for them become secondary to the IDEA of liking certain those things, for whatever perceived extreme reason (currency/rarity/obscurity/annoyingness/modernity/&C) that only ends up being because THAT’S WHAT HIPSTERS DO (what a yogi berra concept! behind the wizard’s fucking curtain…) – then when it comes time for them to reflect on their misspent youth THERE WON’T BE ANYTHING THERE. how cleansing.

    i suspect though that the main problem is in the perception of the underground as something that doesn’t exist. of course there are just as many bands no one has heard of as there’s ever been; of course there are fashions no one can predict right on the horizon. ad infinitum. erringly though we see modern hipsters as in possession of arcane knowledge, on the cusp of the cutting edge of culture. but they aren’t. they see their friends’ bands, who no one has heard of, but that doesn’t make them any more attuned to the obscure; on the contrary that’s about the most obvious thing ever. no one has to try to know about their friends’ bands. they get invited to three thousand events on facebook every month. we’re allotting the same space to hipsters that we did to the progressive rockers of the mid-’80s and it’s just fucking wrong. being a hipster requires a minimum of effort and there’s nothing to lose. it’s the same as being a steve miller band listener in 1978 or something (at least those folks stood up for their taste!). kiss was never underground once they got a record deal, y’know – they were different, but not underground. forgotten things, different things – these aren’t obscure things. when there’s a resource as ubiquitous as pitchfork reviewing every fucking record you wanna classify as obscure, there’s something wrong with your definitions. our definitions. whatever. i’m coming up with too many tangents and disavowals for each but i’m gonna post this anyhow. thanks for the rant space.

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