Behind the Mustache: The Cultural, Racial, and Class Implications of the Hipster Identity

The hipster has been an easy target in pop culture for much of the last decade. Like any social stereotype or fad, it can be identified by the shorthand of material culture: skinny jeans, aviator glasses, American Apparel. A widely discussed article in New York magazine recently did just that, placing PBR cans and vinyl records in display cases above its discussion of the death of the archetype.

For hipsters, perhaps, such allusions amount to ad hominem attacks. But there must be a better way to get at who the hipster was sociologically, culturally, economically — this weird social type who was always someone else, never the person speaking. Everyone always claimed to be not cool enough to be a hipster, or simply too authentic or individualistic to be one. Yet someone must be a hipster, and this category must bear some relation to the beatnik, hippie, punk, yuppie, bobo, ‘culture vulture’ and other tribes of pop sociology. In his New York magazine piece, Matt Greif attempts to excavate the meaning of the term “hipster,” tracing its trajectory from Norman Mailer’s 1950s essay on the “white negro” to an early aughts incarnation that “fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class ‘white trash.’” Ironic that the term and identity emerge from a white subculture that Mailer argued emulated blacks. Mailer’s 1957 essay dug deep into a grab bag of racial essentialism. What passes for 1950s masculine philosophy today comes off as histrionic, ponderous, and racist claptrap:

Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.

If that doesn’t sound like modern day Heart of Darkness -– black-people-live-outside-time late-1800s self-indulgent Social Darwinism –- you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. Unless, of course, you keep reading Mailer’s essay:

Hated from outside and therefore hating himself, the Negro was forced into the position of exploring all those moral wildernesses of civilized life which the Square automatically condemns as delinquent or evil or immature or morbid or self-destructive or corrupt. (Actually the terms have equal weight. Depending on the telescope of the cultural clique from which the Square surveys the universe, “evil” or “immature” are equally strong terms of condemnation.) But the Negro, not being privileged to gratify his self- esteem with the heady satisfactions of categorical condemnation, chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom, an ethical differentiation between the good and the bad in every human activity from the go-getter pimp (as opposed to the lazy one) to the relatively dependable pusher or prostitute.

This is where the “hipster,” as a part of America’s intellectual discourse, came from. If not problematic, it is at least ironic considering the undeniable whiteness of many people associated with the hipster lifestyle.

While Greif avoids this discussion, he does point out important shifts in the identity. In his view, the archetype continued to evolve such that by the late 2000s it represented something distinct from the ersatz imitator of the white working class. “The more sinister strain of White Hipster style started to diminish,” he writes, as “the artistic concern with innocence turned from human absolution to the fragile world of furry creatures, trees, and TRS-80s.” Greif suggests a “green” hipster arose, with an aesthetic he dubs “Hipster Primitive.” (The podcast Sound Opinions refers to music emanating from this social group — think Animal Collective, Blitzen Trapper, Grizzly Bear — as “forest rock,” so Greif isn’t the only one to notice). Hipster Primitive shifted the focus from white male suburbanity “to animals, wilderness, plus the occasional Native American.” The hipster critters aptly looked to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as their cultural touchstone, displacing reference points like Sgt. Pepper that had inspired past generations of rockers.

Capitalism’s Street Team

Following Fredric Jameson, Greif suggests hipsters represent less a rejection of anything as much as a knowing consumerism. “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction,” he writes. In the end, the most visible hipsters occupy two basic roles: charismatic yet detached entrepreneur or giddy yet jaded patron; or as Greif summarizes, “The most active participants sell something—customized brand-name jeans, airbrushed skateboards, the most special whiskey, the most retro sunglasses—and the more passive just buy it.” In this way, hipsters exist as little more than “rebel consumers.” Though Greif doesn’t do this, one might consider situating this “rebel consumerism” as a reaction to the “consumer activism” that exploded in the late 1990s and aughts (say “free trade coffee,” “free range chicken” and an assortment of other ways companies could market to your more vainly philanthropic impulses). Wouldn’t a cynical youth revel in this rejection of earnest capitalism? For Greif, even the less material aspects of hipster appropriation grew out of their infiltration of other subcultures from vegans to bike messengers (symbolized by the popularity of the fixed gear bike).

This distinction between hipsterism and the many subcultures that fed into it seems unsustainable, especially given the estuaries of class and culture that define Brooklyn’s topography of “transitional” neighborhoods. The bike messengers and vegan anarchists Greif cites existed at the edges of hipsterism, if not often at its core. Indeed, some have noted before that the accoutrements of the so-called “white trash hipster” in fact borrowed from hallmarks of butch lesbian style: trucker hats, wallet chains, etc. Perhaps hipsterdom streams from many sources of refusal, mixed up with consumerism. The love of thrift store clothing surely involved a love of kitsch and a competitive spirit of discerning consumption (pulling just the right retro cardigan out of the 1.29/lb pile). Yet no doubt many young people opted for thrift duds because they didn’t want to pay full price for new clothes or simply did not want to participate in the crass machine of sweatshop-made fashion; for this author’s part, a desire to reuse old things rather than junk up the world with new crap was part of the motivation as well. For some struggling bohemians, shopping at the GAP was a fiscal impossibility in any case, while for many others frequenting the thrift store was a deliberate choice.

Of course, we have seen how vintage stores emerged to mine thrift stores for their finest articles, and American Apparel turned 80s trailer park style into a commercially powerful aesthetic. In this sense, the hipster’s notorious preference for the new and obscure might be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to the market’s ability to absorb and appropriate every activity and resell it at a premium price. A similar pattern has long been familiar to observers of independent music scenes, where participants resent bands for selling out and sounds are viewed as cheapened by mass exploitation. Hipsters, in part, can be viewed as a class of (mostly) young people, (mostly) with disposable income, (mostly) with some higher education, who play a cat and mouse game with the market — aspiring in some way or another to combat capitalism and conformity, but generally powerless to resist the market for long. Greif connects this ambivalence to their association with consumerism. “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction,” he writes. “This in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative—an insult that belongs to the family of poseur, faker, phony, scenester, and hanger-on.” Ironically, the frequent excoriation of the trend-seeking hipster is central to the group’s own aspiration to reject the conformity of consumer culture. To be different, one must always be on the lookout for something as yet-unabsorbed by the market, which turns hipsters into the advance guard of capitalism itself – freelance “Merchants of Cool,” to cite a PBS documentary many of us have used in the classroom.

Hipsters in Space

The city was reborn as the super mall, its allure augmented by its storied history, born of the diversity which would be abolished. Cheap white labor, in the form of aspiring artists, could be lured via this history, mythologized in books which marked the city through the very idiosyncratic or marginal character its advertisers had helped to systematically exterminate.

– Ian Svenonius

Adapted from the N+1 publication What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, Greif’s article provides a great overview over the hipster phenomenon. But maybe there are other material explanations for the rise of this particular subculture at this particular time. For example, others have developed slightly different reasons for the rise of the “Primitive Hipster.” A Marxist and rock theorist, Ian Svenonius points directly to markets. Today’s indie music groups are “like the expansive rock groups of the suburban era… a reaction to, and an expression of, the real estate market and the economy as a whole,” Svenonius observed in 2006. Like any good postmodernist, Svenonius displays a fascination with space. For the former Nation of Ulysses leader, the fads for “psych folk” and “electro” represent the collapse of urban space more than anything else. Categories like “garage band,” “arena rock,” and “bar band” all reflected a relationship with a particular kind of space. The rock band, Svenonius argues, “in its very essence, declares ‘I’ve got space.’ Whether its an invitation for settlement (like early punk) or an advertisement of affluence, the rock ‘n’ roll band cannot be divorced from the idea of real estate ownership and therefore, from conquest.” The growing class divide, the increased partitioning of space into smaller and smaller units, made neo folk and electro not only an aesthetic reaction to burgeoning technology but also a pragmatic response to diminishing physical space. Unlike many other observers, Svenonius finds the origin of hipster culture not in affluent consumerism but in the straitened circumstances of a new, insecure, “flexible” urban workforce – the part-time graphic designer, the actor waiting tables. Psych folk and electro point to a new age of penury:

These new types of micro-groups are an advertisement for a new way of living, a new serfdom to be tolerated as the class divide becomes intolerably large and the specter of home ownership and personal solvency becomes more absurd and unrealistic. They also point to the imperial reversal and the American decline. The only space in America now is cyber infinitude, to replace the ravaged “new world,” hopelessly polluted after a few decades of mindless exploitation.

In this sense, Alan Greenspan was the father of the indie aesthetic of the aughts – and this before the subprime crash dragged the American campaign of suburban empire to its greatest crisis in 70 years. For all the insights of Greif and Svenonius, they both firmly situate hipsterdom in whiteness. Granted, few people would suggest the “identity” was not overwhelmingly white, even promoting this whiteness in the early aughts, but haven’t we witnessed hipsters of all racial backgrounds? After all, the Bipster, as exemplified by Kanye West (circa black horn rimmed glasses) or possibly the Cool Kids, has become a prominent social identity. As Greif notes, nobody ever admits to being a hipster, resulting in a bewildering circle of logical violence that makes defining the term in a way that isn’t pejorative nearly impossible. If the Cool Kids represent the Bipster, they exhibit a marked reticence about it. “I can’t think of any humans who have gone out and said ‘Yo, I’m a hipster,’” Cool Kids member Chuck Inglish said. “What is that? It’s vague and hard to define. You know, it’s based upon a look, and in hip-hop that’s a way to clump a certain type of artist into a genre to make it easier to understand… I didn’t even know what a hipster was until a year ago.”

While the hipster lifestyle may embrace all hues under its liberal tent, their presence in urban communities tends to obliterate working class white ethnic and minority communities. Unknowingly or not, the influx of hipsters into a “transitional neighborhood” frequently lead to gentrification followed by corporate residential development. This new spatiality oozes outward to neighboring communities, who then absorb the very hipsters who unwittingly served as the knife’s edge of corporate interest. As real estate interests proliferate, attempts to expand the target area for economic expansion result in a recasting of community. For example, as Brooklyn’s Williamsburg leaked underpaid interns and artists, Bushwick (a largely Latino and Black community) took them in only to find real estate agents rebranding parts of the neighborhood as “East Williamsburg.”

Perhaps even more regrettably, the media often employs loaded terminology when describing hipster movement into largely lower income minority areas. Dubbing them “pioneers,” media outlets from the New York Times to the Village Voice present an urban landscape where the mere presence of whites suggests hope, renewal, and growth. The use of the term “pioneers” operates as a form of erasure. Pioneers venture out into the “virgin” wilderness, making something out of “nothing” – kind of like Western expansion if not for those proprietary Native Americans. Witness Williamsburg. One might be forgiven for not knowing about its iconic Hasidic population or the pockets of ethnic whites that remain around the neighborhood’s L train Lorimer stop. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Williamsburg, a multi-racial, multi ethnic community, struggled with violence, poverty, and disinvestment, but these problems receded more because of New York’s economic revival of the mid 1990s than the emergence of the hipster scene. However, the arrival of middle class kids with bedhead and used clothes somehow obscures everything else. It’s not hard to understand the ambivalence or even hostility this might provoke in some people.

Bringing It All Back to the Rat-Infested Mailbox You Call Home

Is the rent check of the “trustafarian” –- i.e. money –- what really defines this group? Is it more dollars and cents than cultural capital that matters here? We have so far defined the hipster in terms of food, fashion, drink, and even housing, all of which are based on the ability to consume. It is easy to tie this fruitless quest for individuality-through-consumption to whiteness, privilege, education, employment in a “creative class” occupation, or some combination of these factors. But there are hipsters who are not white; there are privileged, educated young white people who aspire to have a BMW and a house in the suburbs, not a spot on an ultra-underground cassette-only mixtape and cramped quarters in Bushwick. There are young musicians or web designers who eschew the clothing or competitive temperament of hipster style itself.

What does seem to define the hipster category, broadly speaking, is the existence of a new group of youngish, more or less educated people for whom career ambitions, prolonged education, or personal choice have pushed marriage, children, homeownership and other traditional features of adulthood farther and farther into the future. Such outsiders have long existed – take, for instance, the gay subcultures that existed in the shadows of American life in the mid-twentieth century. But it seems fair to say that there are more people with a degree of disposable income, an affinity for independent culture, and few family responsibilities today than at any previous point in American history. (Certainly, “pioneering” depends on a willingness to move into neighborhoods that many middle class parents, whose chief concerns are safety and the quality of schools, would be reluctant to embrace.) This new class’s aspiration to be different takes on many forms (and, some would say, pillages from many sources) to produce a soup of stylistic nods and diluted political impulses.

Indeed, we might best understand the hipster as a sort of Cuisinart Bohemian of the 21st century – the unwitting son of Beck, the musical postmodernist who jumbled up hip-hop, country, punk, and R&B influences (among others) as casually as today’s young Brooklynites mush together gestures to a variety of familiar motifs of the 20th century, from Johnny Cash to Maynard G. Krebs, John Cale to Kurt Cobain, the Unabomber to Afrika Bambaataa. The politics of authenticity so central to movements like punk or grunge seems strangely absent from hipster culture. Yet, as Greif notes, its most prominent musical representative at the moment, Animal Collective, belts out the following line in one of its more recognizable songs:

I don’t mean to seem like I
care about material things, like our social stats
I just want four walls and
adobe slats for my girls.

If a new form of hipsterism is now taking shape, as in Greif’s idea of the “Primitive,” perhaps its greatest feature is a studied earnestness – earnest about the right things i.e. family, egalitarianism, and simplicity. Surely, songs by Brooklynites that celebrate a bucolic, electro-folk nature-based vision are subject to a reasonable amount of skepticism. But does this new model hipster look to the pastoral for yet another refuge from a market society that is transforming young people into either an aristocracy of snob-connoisseurs or an army of techno-serf McTemps? Today the financial exuberance that fueled both gentrification and the arts and media in American cities is waning; in a new economic reality, it remains possible that the nascent yearnings of the Primitive could sharpen into something more than a vague refusal of mass culture.

Suggestions for Further Reading