Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Hipsters

It's my 200th post, and since I woke up with a sore throat, I've decided to don my finest pair of cranky pants and tell you all to get off my lawn. So to speak. Or to attack the very premise this blog has been based on. Namely: do hipsters even exist any more?

I mean, okay, yeah, sure, they do. There are plenty of folks with their fingers on the pulse of heart of the scene, or something equally meaningless. Writers and their editors, musicians and their internet admirers, fashion mavens and students, techno-geeks and media obsessives: they're all part of the hipster scene, still, because every generation and every city has its strata of people who are devoted to the New and the Now.

But when Leah McLaren (hiss!) puppy-dog-eyes the hipsters of Toronto's Queen West as "cute...with their porno mustaches, their ironic 8-track collection [and] their penchant for Top-Siders," it's enough to rage-grind my teeth into nubs. She trots out the Brooklyn-and-Berlin demographic, again, as if we haven't all heard about those neighbourhoods and cities as the epicentres of cooldom for the past, oh, decade. It'd be cute if she wasn't behaving like my grandma - this backlash began quite some time ago, Leah - and getting paid handsomely by the Globe to do it. Eye Weekly's Kate Carraway, in her brief survey of 2010's hipster scene, asks why hipsters have been dismissed as frivolous: "why these items and ideas — the straw-man black-framed glasses and who-cares-y-ness and the emphasis on detailed knowledge of art and culture mini-movements — are so potent for, say, half of a generation who have some access to an allowance and the internet. Writing off the unmanageable emotional ennui of the post-coddled, the deadening consumerism that the 1990s wrought and the subtlest class warfare probably EVER — while not even attempting to grasp why Vice's safe anarchy made total sense to millions of teenagers — is a serious Grown-Up Problem."

Carraway raises more of a point than McLaren, although I might just be biased. The whys and wherefores of the hipster isn't an issue rating a thesis statement...is it?

Challenge accepted! I came of age in a time when hipsters were just starting to resurface in pop culture. "Hipster" was previously an old-person word, more attached to the wanderings of Kerouac than the stylish pop music of Vampire Weekend. But as our culture moved into the new millennium, "hipster" started to mean someone who was posturingly cool: Marc Jacobs advertising campaigns, a sneered lip at white-bread teen comedies, more serious pop music. In a post-Britney world, a pair of black-rimmed glasses signified a rejection of all that bourgeois prepackaged bullshit. Ceci n'est pas les Ray-Bans, right? The internet brought emerging trends to the forefront like no tastemaking magazine could - websites devoted to "street style" curated fashionable looks from all over the planet into easy-to-ape slideshows, and the explosion of vintage stores and online shopping meant an escape from the mall's dreary sameness.

And then there's that other thing. I was seventeen years old in 2001, an year that was widely touted as bringing us "the death of irony." I know, it's lame to blame stuff on the World Trade Centre attacks, but it's hard to dismiss that moment as the defining pop culture moment of my generation, at least until they release the Hoverboards. The comfortable middle class had been attacked - okay, not really, but you'd never know it based on all the hysterical news coverage of A Post-9/11 World. The comfortable middle class's teenagers and college-aged students were thrust into a world that was suddenly less excited about looking forward into a newly scary world. Our popular culture longed for the pre-terrorism days, a nostalgic look back in time to when America (read: fancy white people) were mighty and powerful beings.

We ended up with fashion designers who ripped off 1980s punks in a bid for edginess, or bands who were compared (favourably!) to Hall and Oates. Hell, even the much-derided Tron has come back into style. What passes for edgy is often a ill-communicated attempt at politics: remember those controversial keffiyehs? Even war protests came with its own accessory.I know fashion is cyclical, but it seems weird that so much of what's considered "cool" these days has its origins in a hipster's childhood. Teens and 20-somethings are often folks with some cash; without a kid to support, or with the firm financial truss of living at home, we can blow our disposable income on, well, disposable stuff: beer, sunglasses, mp3s. And it's undeniably comforting to have these motifs of the past surrounding us. The uber-maligned Pabst Blue Ribbon, long rejected as the beer of hipsters, has been around since 1893, but its sales peaked in 1977 - right around the time our parents were hipsters themselves. In the new millennium, what we all seem to be longing for is a taste of what we had before.

We're feeding on leftovers, and hipsters, who, in a different generation would have been excoriated for recycling their parents' trends, have been praised for it. We like comfort. We like sameness - how many times have you heard someone exclaim, "Hipsters! They think they're sooo special, but they all look the same!" Maybe this media ripple about hipsters and their place in the world will force some of our generation's tastemakers to expand our collective horizons. Instead of lauding dingy dive bars, retro-inspired fashions, retread music and movie pitches, and the utter refusal to get our shit together, move out, on and up in the world, we can start making our own new stuff. I'm hungry for the Next Big Thing, not the last gasp of a now-futile demographic.


  1. In a post 9/11 world I have to agree with you.

  2. The date on this book, the infamous "Hipster Handbook," says it all. More specifically, its distance from our current date. http://www.amazon.com/Hipster-Handbook-Robert-Lanham/dp/1400032016

  3. Kelli, I loved that book when I was younger! But it's true, the Hipster Handbook doesn't have much to say these days.

    It also completely slipped my mind to mention Dov Charney's American Apparel, which has gone from a starry-eyed, fair-trade, logo-free alternative to the overly branded late '90s, to a weirdo, porno overexposed business with dubious hiring and financial practices. As allegory for "the scene," it's sort of...perfect.