Julia Rose Duray’s hair is red with aqua tips. Morgan Hecht is a campus rep for Sony who always has half a dozen newly released indie rock CDs in tow. Alex Beer walks around campus in form-fitting sweaters, skinny jeans and big boots. Nancy DaSilva works on the Northwestern Art Review and started a Tumblr called "Nancy Standing On Things."
We call these Northwestern students “hipsters” because we need labels—student-athlete, Medilldo, frat star, etc.—to differentiate NU's 8,000 undergraduates. Like all labels, this one carries connotations—an aesthetic, a set of interests and, above all, an attitude.
But like all labels, this one is problematic.
An Imagined Subculture
Take Alex Beer, a Weinberg junior. There is a reflex to call him a “hipster” based on his clothing. And his position on A&O’s Concerts Committee amplifies this tendency. Since A&O’s task is to bring musicians to campus for concerts like Fall Blowout, it’s easy to think of them as “hipsters.” They have extensive knowledge of indie music that we laypeople have never heard of.
Beer doesn’t see it that way.
“If I find music on a website that I don’t think other people have heard, I want to share it with as many people as possible, and I want them to share as many things with me,” he says. “A real hipster would not want to share those bands. They wouldn’t want that band to get more popular because then they would lose ownership.”
A&O’s task isn’t just to bring cool artists to campus—it’s to sell tickets to concerts. The members of A&O have to bring artists that enough of the student population will know and want to see. In the last few years, A&O didn’t bring "hipster" bands like Animal Collective to campus; they brought Nas and Snoop Dogg.
“It’s a hard thing, because I’m definitely more into alternative artists right now,” says Communication sophomore Morgan Hecht, another member of A&O’s Concerts Committee. “But we can’t pick an artist that no one’s ever heard of because that won’t sell. We have to figure out what the student body wants.”
Even though the members of the Concerts Committee might know more about music than you and might dress in ways we associate with “hipsters,” they also work to make music more accessible for you.
This notion made a recent op-ed in The New York Times all the more jarring. “How to Live Without Irony” appeared on the front page of the Sunday Review on Nov. 18, 2012. Written by Princeton French professor Christy Wampole, it offered a diagnosis for a generation of modern youth and the hipster, “its archetype of ironic living.” Wampole’s lengthy description of the “contemporary urban harlequin” who “appropriates outmoded fashions, mechanisms, and hobbies” and for whom “irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt” should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Portlandia or scrolled through the Look at This Fucking Hipster website.
But the “hipster,” at least as Wampole and others see it, doesn’t exist.
The skinny jeans-wearing, vinyl-obsessed hater of “mainstream” culture invoked by people seeking to protect their tastes from condescension is now a shadow of a small subculture that may never have existed.
When describing this subculture, there are lots of qualifiers. That’s because the definition of “hipster” is hard to nail down, and debunking this definition is tricky, too. Beer says he thinks “the hipster definition has sort of become a monster and gotten a life of its own.”
While it does make some good points, Wampole’s op-ed mixes all three of these concepts, which leads to an inaccurate portrayal of modern youth and their values.
The Irony Factor
Jonathan Fitzgerald is the editor of Patrolmag.com, a website dedicated to covering religion and modern life. In his book, Not Your Mother’s Morals, he argues that modern youth, “Generation Y” or whatever the hell they call us, value sincerity way more than irony.
“Starting around [the] 2000s, virtues of sincerity and authenticity have become the highest virtue in our culture,” Fitzgerald says.
Interestingly enough, Fitzgerald and Wampole use similar evidence for their arguments: “hipsters”—and the art they value and produce. But where Fitzgerald breaks the hipster trope down, Wampole never directly mentions bands or writers. Her description of hipsters comes across as generic and ends up lumping everything her readers have associated with “hipsters” as purposefully ironic.
She’s not the only one who dismisses certain movies and albums because they seem “too hipster.” This is where Fitzgerald disagrees: Taking a second look at the art typically called “hipster” reveals it to be anything but ironic.
“If there are people in my life whom I would refer to as ‘hipsters’—behind their back of course—I don’t see irony as their greatest ethos,” Fitzgerald says. “As I was working on my book, the things I was remarking as New Sincerity were the main cultural output of ‘hipsters,’ like indie rock and Wes Anderson films.”
Then there’s Wampole’s interpretation of the cultural ethos of the 1990s. She looks back on the '90s with nostalgia, calling them “relatively irony-free” and remarking wistfully about how “the grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and attitude.” This analysis differs completely from that of fellow Generation X-ers, from Fitzgerald to music writer Steven Hyden.
“What was really bizarre about that article was that she said the '90s were irony-free, which is the biggest load of bullshit ever,” says Hyden, a staff writer for sports and pop culture website Grantland. “I went to college in the '90s, and if people my age are mad at your generation for anything, it’s because of the earnestness. In the '90s it was all about looking down at mainstream culture/pop music and sneering at it. Now it’s kind of uncool to do that.”
[Insert Obscure Music Reference]
Hyden also frequently writes album reviews for Pitchfork, an online music publication that has become a lightning rod for discussions about the relationship between music and “hipster”-ness.
Pitchfork has garnered a reputation for snobbery over the years. In 2006, the site’s review for an album by Jet (a typical radio rock band) consisted solely of an embedded YouTube video of a monkey peeing in its own mouth. Meanwhile, they’ve given three separate albums by indie band Pavement perfect scores on their 10-point scale. This has, understandably, led to the belief that Pitchfork’s writers are condescending hipsters evangelizing the superiority of their cool, indie taste to the rest of the world.
What the magazine chooses to review might point to a certain arrogance, but Hyden says that argument's ridiculous.
“Most music fans I know are nerdy and have no pretense to being cool,” he says. “Being in a band is cool, but being into music is nerdy. I never got a girl because I knew the name of a drummer in some shitty band or because I owned all the albums by Spoon. That never impresses anybody except other music fans.”
Like A&O, Pitchfork is associated with being “hipster,” simply because its writers are very passionate about music. In fact, the image of a hipster is very closely tied to music taste.
“It’s just a really easy jumping-off point and a really easy means of talking to people,” Weinberg junior Nancy DaSilva says of the close cultural association of music taste and identities like “hipster.” “It’s like a common vocabulary. When you’re getting to know someone, it’s like, ‘What kind of bands do you listen to? What kind of music do you like?’ Your music defines you. People who love hip-hop have a certain culture. People who love classical music have a certain culture.”
So if a “hipster” is a certain type of music listener, it's still unclear what genre they enjoy. It's easy to say “indie,” but what the hell does that mean? An artist signed to an independent label? "Indie" could refer to anything from Cloud Nothings' garage rock to Vampire Weekend's Afro-pop.
Thus, it seems that the consensus is that “hipsters” simply hate on mainstream music and listen to alternative artists. But even that has its problems, since ideas about what’s cool and what’s mainstream shift constantly. Hyden notes that in music critic circles, there’s been a backlash against the last decade's pervasive indie rock elitism.
“Now it’s kind of hipster to kind of love Usher or commercial music, as opposed to liking the Decemberists,” Hyden says, referring to a band whose storytelling opuses (one of their albums is a rock opera about fairy queens and forest creatures) are freqeuntly used to exemplify the excesses of indie music. “Whereas nowadays you’ll see these New York writers going really in-depth about Mariah Carey.”
DaSilva also noted that a disinterest in mainstream music doesn’t necessarily denote an interest in indie rock.
“I’m a Jewish girl from New York,” DaSilva says, confused by the hipster allegations often thrown her way. “What do I know about alternative music? I enjoy listening to Simon & Garfunkel and my parents’ music.”
On top of that, it’s hard to even tell what’s “mainstream” and what’s “alternative” anymore. Bands like Mumford & Sons and fun. could be considered “indie rock,” but both had songs on top of the Billboard lists. At this point it’d be hard to find anyone who isn’t familiar with “Little Lion Man” or “Some Nights.” It's become impossible to predict what you’ll hear when you flip on a Top 40 station.
“The other day, when I was home over break, I was listening to the radio in my car and heard ‘Call Me Maybe' played next to ‘Ho Hey’ [by The Lumineers],” Hecht says. “That’s just such a funny juxtaposition.”
Strictly drawn lines between different cliques of musical taste no longer exist, because in the Internet age every song ever made is free and a click away. Communication sophomore Julia Duray has been identified as a “hipster” since high school and says the “hipster” culture is a response to the volume of information accessible online.
“I think it’s heavily linked to the Internet,” she says. “With this mass increase in information, hipsters consider themselves the snobs who can pick out what of that is valid. I think they’re like the ‘sifters’ in a way, and I think that it has to do with a rejection of new technology and an insistence on exoticizing the past.”
This might explain the association between “hipsters” and nostalgia (think vinyl LPs and Polaroid cameras), which isn’t a false claim. Some even think that vinyl is the only true way to listen to music.
The Internet has accelerated everything—not just the speed of technological innovation, but the rate at which the cultural dialectic absorbs fringe cultures. If “hipsters” like photography, what does that mean when everybody and their uncle has the Instagram app on their phone, making goofy camera phone shots look 50 percent more like trained “hipster” photographs?
The “hipster” stereotype is composed of bits and pieces, each of which is individually true. But that doesn’t mean those pieces always go together. Once, maybe, there was a “hipster” subculture based in places like Portland and Brooklyn, where people did all of these things. Duray seems to think there was. If so, it’s dust in the cultural wind now.
“Now I think it’s become another trend,” Duray says of “hipster” culture. “I think the fact that stores like Urban Outfitters are springing up in my rich, white Connecticut suburb hometown sort of speaks to the fact that it’s becoming less of a subculture and more of a fashion trend.”
Things that “hipsters” are supposed to like are still around, and people still enjoy them. However, Instagram and the Internet have made a lot of those interests popular and even mainstream. The pieces of this stereotype don’t fit together.
DaSilva says that when she met Beer in her art history class last fall, she immediately thought of him as a “hipster” only to watch that flimsy stereotype fall apart once they became friends.
“I immediately saw his aesthetic and thought, ‘He’s such a hipster,’” she says. “But now if someone asked me to describe him, the last thing I would say is ‘hipster’ because I know so much more about him than the fact that he dresses kind of trendy. It’s the last thing I would choose to describe him as. Not because he’s not that, but because it’s just like such an empty label. It doesn't mean anything.”