Hipsters are so individualistic they may not exist

By Dave Coffey

Courtesy Joel Bedford

Click here for the other side of Point-Counterpoint: “Take away the PBR, American Apparel and scarf – who are these people?”

Hipster is perhaps one of the most divisive words frequently uttered in contemporary pop culture.  One can hear its utterance nearly anywhere, in any context.  “That’s so hipster.” “You’re such a hipster.” “Leave Thom Yorke alone, you relentless hipsters.”  Its use as an adjective or noun (or in rare cases an adverb, hence the term “hipsterly”) in our modern day English language has become nearly second nature to many. However, as much as the term crosses our lips, many of us are left wondering – what exactly is a hipster?

Everywhere a hipster looks, “official” definitions abound.  Urbandictionary.com suggests a hipster is one who, “…rejects ‘mainstream’ culture, and embraces and contributes to independent culture…”  A singular, overlapping definition is hard to stick to, however, because of the various fragments of culture people identify hipsters within. 

For instance, you’ve got your film hipsters who worship film noir almost as much as they cherish their half-dozen-count black beret collection.  You’ve also got your music hipsters who constantly look like they’re trying to win a Rivers Cuomo look-alike contest while exclusively listening to dance-punk, underground hip-hop and Lady Gaga (the latter only ironically, of course).  And then there are your just-in-it-for-the-fashion hipsters who walk around fully bearded in derby hats and plaid button-down shirts.  To the naked eye, it would seem that hipsters abound, to say the least.

But do they really?  I do admit that I find myself muttering the h-word under my breath like a slur of sorts whenever anyone with horn-rimmed glasses claims that one of my favorite bands’ “earlier stuff was better.”  However, I have recently come to a somewhat startling conclusion regarding hipsterdom (a word I just made up, no less).  I don’t want to go all M. Night Shyamalan on this article, so I’ll spill the twist in the middle: Hipsters don’t exist. 

The way I see it, the concept of someone being a “hipster” is similar to the concept of the existence of “race” in human society.  It’s a purely social construct, in that there is no empirically appropriate way to determine who is what and who is not.  Is there some sort of formula or reasoning for where we draw the line between “hipster” and “not-hipster?”  And even if we could draw said line, would it be anything but arbitrary in nature? 

Notions of obscurity concerning cultural trends and individualism in thought and deed will always be on a sliding scale.  For every self-proclaimed or otherwise accused hipster who thinks the most recent neo-folk artist on the music scene is the bee’s knees, there’s some Norwegian teenager recording black metal on an analog tape deck deep in the forests of Nordmarka.  Yet you still can’t refer to him as a hipster, because there’s one important hipster element amiss: the conscious necessity of obscurity and social divergence merely for its own sake. 

Of course, some may say that even though it’s impossible to scientifically determine the “hipster meridian,” one can still know a hipster when they see one.  Once again, I would beg to differ.  Most of the time, it seems that when one calls any given person a hipster, it’s done so on a knee-jerk reaction, without knowing the full picture. 

Take, as an example, the author of this article: I can say with 100% honesty that I was asked to write this article solely based on the fact that I have a beard.   Apparently my unshaven face led my editor to believe I’d have a good first-hand account of the hipster situation.  I won’t lie; my shaggy hair, plaid jacket and frequent use of over-the-ear headphones might lead some to think, at first glance, that I am what one might call a hipster.  But anyone who’s ever conversed with me can be pretty sure I’m no hipster.  I wouldn’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon if someone paid me by the can, and I’d rather take a railroad spike to the septum than listen to more than two or three tracks of “indie rock.” 

Even if we strip back the various specific and cosmetic attributes of what the average person considers to be hipster, the main idea itself seems inherently contradictory in a way.  Whenever one points out someone they think is a hipster, they group them such into this collective “group” of hipsters with at least some of the various attributes noted to be shared by most hipsters.  Yet a hipster is supposedly someone whose mindset, behavior and lifestyle, by definition are based on individuality.  They are a group who all similarly think individually.  Am I the only one that finds this to be wildly contradictory?

Hipster culture – or what we perceive to thusly be – clearly derives itself from an amalgamation of beatnik, progressive and “indie” social culture.  Why not just call these modern archetypes “post-progressivists” or “bindies” or something to that extent?  The term “hipster” itself is too glued to a sense of obscurity and individuality at this point, rendering it hopelessly incongruous with the fact that every third person between the ages of 18 and 35 very closely resembles, in many peoples’ eyes, the “hipster” archetype.

In short, the hipster phenomenon is nothing more than a cultural existential crisis.  As Sartre would put it, it’s bad faith in its purest form; it’s a clever myth just annoying enough to survive, just vague enough to defy actual, factual analysis.  And we swallow it because it’s slightly less bitter than the truth.  We want to believe PBR is some social trend instead of realizing the ugly truth: college students are willing to drink the alcoholic equivalent of sewage as long as they can get enough of it to kill a bull elephant for the price of a matinee movie ticket.  We want to believe Ke$ha is listened to in irony instead of facing the cold hard facts: people genuinely enjoy this tripe. 

So in lieu of the misleading term “hipster,” what alternate phrase should we use to describe this current cultural phenomenon?  I have a pretty good idea, but it’s a really obscure term, and you’ve probably never heard of it. 

Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]