There was a party going on in London E5; a house party in one of the Victorian terraces that line the streets in this modest area of east London. There had been parties on the street before, only on this particular Friday evening two months ago, guests wore Ray-Bans, deep-cut v-neck T-shirts and skinny jeans. They were also, according to one partisan report, in possession of "a sound system louder than the big bang". Quite an event, yet not everyone in the street appreciated the loud music and louder fashions.
"I only put ‘hate’ in the title of the blog," explains annoyed neighbour and anonymous author of Hackney Hipster Hate photo-blog, "because, on the night I wrote it, I was watching floods of hipsters arrive in the early hours at a terrace house and having an Ibiza-style party. It drove me insane."
The partying, which lasted until 4am on Saturday morning was, in the blogger’s opinion, symptomatic "of new arrivals not really getting the measure of where they were living, having no idea about the community there and deciding to have a festival in a back garden at dawn, while people were trying to sleep, because Hackney’s supposedly the centre of cool for the next five minutes."
Though it began in a moment of sleep-deprived abhorrence, Hackney Hipster Hate now posts images of fashionable east Londoners accompanied by a scornful commentary. The site has become one of an increasing number dedicated to vilifying fashionable twits who appear to care more about the next big thing than the welfare of their fellow man. Got slimline jeans, tattoos, a headband and a fixed-wheel bike? Then perhaps turn away now.
American comedian Joe Mande began his photo-blog, Look At This Fucking Hipster in April 2009. The site also captions shots of the young and pretentious with lines such as: "Hold on, let me check to see if Topshop sells any iPhone purses." A paperback collection of the best posts was published in March 2010.
In July 2009 US writers and editors Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz began Stuff Hipsters Hate. They’ve also published a paperback collection of posts.
The Unhappy Hipsters photo-blog was inaugurated in January 2010. It satirises the smug, modernist home-owners often seen in the pages of US interiors magazine Dwell.
Hipster Hitler web comic was launched in August 2010. It re-imagines the führer as a cardigan-wearing know-it-all, fond of bicycles, organic cashews and typewriters. Fans can buy American Apparel T-shirts bearing such slogans as "Eva 4 Eva" and "Death Camp For Cutie".
Early this September, TheGrandSpectacular posted its debut pop video, Being a Dickhead’s Cool, on YouTube. While lacking that crucial H word, the song brutally teases London’s poseurs and the video animates shots taken from Hackney Hipster Hate and latfh.com, among other sources. Since its upload on 8 September, the original clip has had around 3,275,000 views.
In autumn/winter 2010, if there’s one thing more fashionable than being a hipster, it’s laughing at hipsters.
Of course, ridiculing young poseurs isn’t an especially new thing to do. The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker created the character of Nathan Barley, a vacuous media playboy, back in 1999, around the same time the east London fanzine The Shoreditch Twat began published its first edition. Plenty of the jokes in 80s sitcom The Young Ones, or even the 70s comedy Butterflies were at the expense of similarly youthful pretentions.Though these newer, online baiters pick similar targets, it isn’t clear that the term hipster, in its modern usage, is sharply defined enough for truly cutting satire. While all these sites appear to know what they’re talking about, none of them offers a working definition of a hipster.
The OED isn’t much help; it traces the word back to the 1940s and offers "hepcat" as its rough equivalent. Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay The White Negro was subtitled Superficial Reflections on the Hipster and describes an American existentialist who adopts the jazzier trappings of African-American life to free himself (and it usually is a he) from "the squares". Yet "hipsters" was also used during the 1960s to describe trousers that flared from the hip. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that in August the New York Times has advised its journalists against using the word, citing doubts over "how precise a meaning it conveys"; meanwhile, a public debate held at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently failed to offer a useful description of this latter-day bogeyman.
Nevertheless, from London to Lima, Sydney to Mexico City, detractors might not know exactly what a hipster is, but they do know what they don’t like: a tiresome sort of trendy, ostentatious in their perceived rebellion, yet strangely conformist; meticulous in their tastes, yet also strangely limited. Squatting somewhere between MGMT, The Inbetweeners and Derek Zoolander, this modern incarnation is all mouth and skinny trousers.
Perhaps the most comprehensive examination of this contemporary manifestation is being published in a traditional print format this week. What Was the Hipster? is a 200-page collection of American essays and discussions, which assesses the significance of these turn-of-the-century poseurs.
Put together by n+1, a twice-yearly Brooklyn journal of politics, literature and culture, the book offers three definitions of the type in question. The first is white, urban, cool dudes in Manhattan’s Lower East Side circa 1999. This summation begins with a string of keywords: "trucker hats; undershirts called ‘wifebeaters’ worn as outerwear; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, fake wood panelling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; ‘porno’ or ‘paedophile’ moustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts for church socials, etc; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash produced by Rick Rubin; and tattoos."
The second definition highlights followers of a certain hipster culture, which revels in a childlike naivety; the films of Wes Anderson, the early books of Dave Eggers, and the twee indie pop of Belle and Sebastian are all mentioned.
The third is the "hip consumer": the smart shopper who understands that some consumer purchases, such as the right vintage T-shirt, might even be regarded as a form of art. They even split the term, drawing a distinction between the trucker-cap-wearing New Yorkers of 1999-2003, and a more recent type of cool kid, keen on such low-tech status symbols as typewriters, fixed-wheel bikes, and the kind of outdated instrumentation used on records by Arcade Fire, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear.
Mark Greif, a New York English professor and one of the book’s chief editors traces this hipster’s recent history back to the post-punk DIY movement of the 80s.
"Back then there was this insistence on something like an alternative to capitalism," says Greif, "an opposition to major labels and pop; you could make your album on a small unknown label and it would only be sold for cheap. Youth culture had this quite hopeful notion that it was possible to make your own art and distribute it, in order to evade this wider commercial sphere." By the early 90s, these ideals had foundered; grunge bands signed to major labels and Kurt Cobain had killed himself.
"What is meaningful about the hipster moment, 1999 and after," says Greif from his office in New York, "is that it seems to be an effort to live a life that retains the coolness in believing that you belong to a counter-culture, where the substance of the rebellion has become pro-commerce."
Instead of "doing art" the cool kids were now, in Greif’s words "doing products".
"In the 50s and 60s, there are five people at the centre working very hard, miserably trying to write a book and around them there are 95 people more or less having fun," Greif explains. "In the hipster culture the people at that centre aren’t necessarily producing art, they’re actually working in advertising, marketing and product placement. These were once embarrassing jobs. Now it’s meaningful in this world to say that you sell sneakers, at a high level."
The book settles on 1999 as New York’s hipster year zero. This was when American Apparel opened, the Canadian hipster magazine Vice moved to New York, and the sneaker boutique and branding agency Alife established itself on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
"There was this crucial bar, Welcome to the Johnsons," Greif recalls, "it opened in 1999. It was only the lower east side, but it was made to look as if you were sitting in a living room in Middle America."
Early hipsters’ adoption of these and other suburban signifiers, such as trucker caps and BMX bikes, as they sauntered around urban areas is significant. The White Negro had fetishised blackness; these newer arrivals glorified lower-middle-class whites. This is partially why Greif and co, in a line that sounds very much like it may stray into Pseuds Corner, see these early hipsters as neoliberal.
"It seemed to revolve around the desire to reproduce as rebellion these things that had formerly been part of the mainstream market," says Greif, citing the art-gallery porn by the likes of Richard Kern and the conspicuous consumption of meat while in the company of vegetarians as two examples. "There’s this idea that they are the agents of change, the true revolutionaries, where the revolutionary change is to . . . make exclusive the pleasures that had potentially belonged to anyone in the past, to celebrate the upwards redistribution of wealth."
Not all hipsters arrive in the big cities flush with cash, but they almost always possess some cultural capital, usually a university degree and refined upbringing. They can use this to prevent themselves from ending up on the bottom of the pile, even if their only means of upward mobility are snarky putdowns and a working knowledge of the Smiths.
"It becomes a defence mechanism, if you’re ‘declassed’ in a city, to stop yourself from winding up at the bottom," Greif argues. "It’s about social positioning, how to mark yourself out as different or exclusive in a democratic society, where it’s quite easy to buy the consumer trappings of success."
A more withering assessment of youth culture is hard to imagine. And yet, in a neat flourish in the n+1 book, US writer Rob Horing asks whether the hipster hatred doesn’t raise deeper questions in the detractors.
"The hipster," Horing suggests, "is the bogeyman who keeps us from becoming too settled in our identity, keeps us moving forward into new fashions, keep us consuming more ‘creatively’ and discovering new things that haven’t become lame and hipster. We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to us to be the hipster’s fault, not our own."
Horing also raises an even less-palatable notion: ‘"If you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyse it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of its ‘taint’."
Is this view from the heights of Manhattan academia shared on the streets of Hackney? Not entirely.
What does our anonymous blogger think? "The argument of ‘you’re probably just a failing or self-hating hipster’? Heard that one before. I honestly count myself out of that argument on the basis I barely socialise. My skin is translucent from not leaving the house. When I take photos on [London hipster enclave] Broadway Market, I’m not noticed because they take one look at me and look away. My blandness is an insult to their eyes."
Could Hackney’s hipster-baiter ever concede that east London’s trendies might, in the words of one n+1 contributor, remind us of "youth and daring and style, that we don’t have any more or perhaps never did?"
Apparently not. "There’s nothing daring about wearing Ray-Bans with colourful frames. Every single idiot is doing it."
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