What was the Hipster?

By: Joshua Glenn
December 2, 2010

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Our friends at the journal n+1 (whose new issue is just out) recently published a small book titled What Was The Hipster? (edited by Mark Greif, Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici). It features white papers by Greif, Jace Clayton, and Christian Lorentzen, the transcript of a public investigation into the rise and fall of the contemporary hipster, critical responses, and more.

As someone obsessed with periodization, I was interested to read, in Greif’s introductory essay, that

when we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.

Greif is making a strong claim, here, that the hipster phenomenon as we currently know it was an expression of the generational cohort (born 1974-83) whom I’ve dubbed the Revivalists. The hipster phenomenon emerged when the oldest Revivalists were in their mid-20s (and the youngest were in their mid-teens), and began to recede precisely when the oldest Revivalists turned 30. Makes perfect sense.

Noting that the term “hipster” was first applied to certain black subcultural figures in the 1940s and to 1950s-era “white negroes,” Greif notes that although the look of “Hipster, in its revival” [emphasis added] may have “overlapped enough with a short-lived moment of neo-Beat and fifties nostalgia (goatees, fedoras, Swingers-style duds) to help call up the term,” the 1999-era crop of hipsters were white, and uninterested in fetishizing blackness. Instead, with their trucker hats, “wifebeaters,” Pabst Blue Ribbon, mustaches, Americana T-shirts, tube socks, and tattoos, the hipsters “fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class ‘white trash.'”

Yep, this is what I’ve been saying for a few years now about the Revivalist generation. Whereas their immediate elders mix and match fragments of received cultural forms, which sometimes results in works of great originality, and sometimes simply means freshening up reheated entertainments with air quotes, Revivalists don’t have an ironic take on bygone cultural forms; instead, they reboot them, like old videogames. The hipster takes to a risible extreme what all Revivalists — including n+1’s editors — do, in one form or another. It’s hard-wired into their generational DNA.

If Revivalists despise the hipster with white-hot intensity, it’s for that reason.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

What do you think?

  1. So that means the ‘revivalists’ are actually despising the 40s style definition of hipster?

  2. More like they’re ignorant of the 40s-style hipster. They’re the children of white flight, who’ve returned to the city; they love/hate the culture of their own childhood.

  3. Waitaminnite: isn’t the inherent nihilism of a complete and total reboot enough of a statement, even more so that a cultural pastiche? A pastiche needs the hand of the collagist, and the value judgements therein. A complete and reboot is one completely devoid of meaning, so shellacked by cynicism to find value in nothing BUT surface. And naturally, if you’ve reached that point, anything less than total mimicry is a failure. What a terrifying roar to the cosmos.

    THAT is why I loathe my generation: capitulation to the instructional nothingness.

  4. That picture isn’t of a hipster… No… that’s just a douchebag. However, all hipsters are douchebags. They’re just the emo kids from the early 2000’s turned adult.

  5. That picture isn’t a hipster, that’s a full on Redneck trying to catch a lady.

    It’s not logical to connect the now-hipsters with the then-hipsters. They’re entirely different cultural movements connected with the same name– kinda like how my aunt Cindy has the same name as this slutty girl I know but they don’t have anything else together. Then-hipsters were blacks deticated to bringing culture to their race. Now-hipsters want to look cultural, when they really don’t have an idea of what’s classy and mostly exist–I know this by science!–to drink drinks and look all post-ironic.

    Their post-ironicism is why they don’t try to make new awesome stuff from pop cultural artifacts. They find that ironic, and since they are totally above ironicism they don’t make new stuff from the old.

    AND the now-hipsters are still strong, roving around in their toot-toot cars with pasticy glasses.

    BYE!

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