The societal value of the hipster: My attempt at defending America’s most hated subculture

I make some points as to why I believe the hipster subculture that everybody loves to hate really does have a value beyond the big glasses, skinny jean fashion, and cigarette smoking vegetarian lifestyle. Am I successful or does my attempt to defend the culture come short?

What is the modern day hipster? This is the mind-churning question that people have been trying to answer for over a decade now. They are part of the current subculture that everybody loves to hate. Hipsters have been accused of being rebels without a cause, ripping off of other subcultures, being overeducated but underemployed, and living off of others’ means. There are many satirical works (e.g. here , here, and here) that do one thing and one thing only and that is to show how ridiculous the concept of the free thinking, skinny jean wearing, cigarette smoking vegetarian lifestyle of a hipster actually is. One thing that hipsters love is Irony with a capital “I.” In an unapologetic song that criticizes hipster culture, the Canadian band Billy Talent points out, “It won’t be so ironic when your daddy is broke” and refers to the culture as “a lost generation trying to act profound.”

And it is not all fun and games. The tones range from humorous to serious. Even anthropology and social science professors are getting in on the quest for answers. One professor believes that the hipster is the beginning of the end of all subcultures because modern technology and changing values is splintering society so that there is nothing left to fight for and the hipster is what’s left (but I am getting ahead of myself here…)

Urban Dictionary defines the hipster as the following:

“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter. […] Although “hipsterism” is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities. Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often […] seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses.”

Speaking of those thick rimmed glasses, I have had a history of swapping my contacts for those obnoxiously large glasses but I do have a defense for this irksome fashion accessory.

Unlike the colorful bracelets of the hippie culture, punk rock mohawks, the Marilyn Manson* (or Robert Smith from The Cure for all you Goth rock purists out there) makeup of the Goth culture, the MC Hammer parachute pants of the 90s, or the skinny jeans which I hear reduces sperm count in males, the huge glasses – which are the stereotypical hipster accessory – are a medical device! Also, without giving away too much bio-identifiable information, my prescription for myopia is close to the power of -6 so there is a good chance that without lenses, I would not be able to recognize you from Adam if you were standing a short distance away from me – even if I did know you.

Fair enough, you might think, but why do I need to wear glasses so obnoxiously large? How about if I put it this way: As Little Red Riding Hood said to the big wolf, “What big eyes you have!” the wolf replied, “The better to see you with, my dear.” The bigger the glasses, the better the peripheral vision.

I think the glasses are kind of cool, but just how irksome is this style of glasses? People may be surprised about the controversies resulting from the “hipster glasses” in scopes ranging from law to politics to the U.S military. In the court of law, defendants have been instructed by their lawyers to wear such glasses to appear more innocent and the eyewear has been likened to “masks” that are “designed to confuse the witness and influence the jury” and this has sparked much outrage. As far as politics are concerned, The Atlantic published an article called “The D.C. War Over ‘Hipster Glasses” that described how Obama’s former press secretary Jay Carney has faced some heat when he decided to swap his regular glasses for some flashier specs. People wondered why on earth he would make such a silly statement for such a professional job position.

At one point, the U.S Army and Navy gave out what are now known as hipster glasses. The military has a knack for creating lots and lots of acronyms, one of which is BCG or “basic corrective glasses” which are given to soldiers as part of the courtesy military health program. The acronym took a life of its own when comrades changed the acronym to stand for “birth control glasses” because there was no way anyone was going to have progeny wearing such ugly face wear. (Too bad the “hipster eyewear” given by the U.S army took a recent style upgrade and hence no longer holds their BCG [soldier defined acronym] status).

But really, I’m getting a little bored with the big glasses and I’m thinking about trading them for purple dotted contacts which I think will make a wackier statement.

But being a hipster is more than just what you wear, it’s what you listen to. One of the albums that is most frequently cited as being a “hipster classic” is Animal Collective’s album Merriweather Post Pavilion. But I have to admit it is really a great album and a very Pink Floyd-esque mind bending collection of experimental artsy indie rock. Animal Collective’s creative powers go all the way down to the album artwork which is really a mental illusion designed to fool the viewer into thinking that the image is moving. Clever, clever I might add. Their flavor of introspective lyrics and soundscapes go perfect with the drifty, daydreamy cognitive tempo of many ADDers who love to let their minds wander, and I’ll say I’m one of those mind-wanderers.

But, as Miss Hipster Confessionista points out, once a band gets too popular and is liked by too many people, or heaven forbid gets played on the radio, it is part of the hipster ethos to abandoned the music altogether in search for more obscure alternatives. This is the purported hipster taste culture that defines what it means to be an individual and is the butt of many jokes. Believe it or not, there was a Harvard study investigating the hipster music phenomena and the lead sociology professor commented that the “taste rests not just in the taste itself—but also in being the only one among one’s friendship circle that expresses it.”

My opinion on the subject is this: There is only a finite amount of time in the day and I would rather listen to music that just so happens to be liked by millions and millions of other people around the world then to try to prove my individuality by listening to some obscure band no one has ever listened to just for the sake of listening to bands that no one has ever heard of. (Also, might as well listen to the best of the best – classic and progressive rock, right?)

But forget about music tastes alone. We can all accept that different people like different things. Maybe the cream of the cream of hipster culture is musical taste coupled with financial sensibility.

In “Thrift Shop,” Mackelmore taught today’s kids a lesson in money management in that despite “only having $20 in your pocket” your dollar goes further at Goodwill and that, in his own words, “is fucking awesome.” While some have dubbed it “the hipster anthem,” the song itself shows not the slightest resemblance to the artsy, introspective indie rock that hipsters are known to like, but this could all be part of the irony.

Perhaps adding to the irony is that the first time I heard the song was on an indie-alternative rock channel. A possible explanation for the hip hop crossover hit making it on rock airwaves is the history of the term “hipster.” It originally was a term from the 1940s referring to the African American Beatnik jazz musicians and it also referred to 1940s whites who thought black culture epitomized the essence of cool and had a certain “otherness” that some whites thought mainstream culture lacked. Perhaps this is the reason why the 21st century hip hop dance song found its way to white suburban rock stations and this explains its status of “the hipster anthem.”

As far as the hipster connection with thrifty shopping is concerned, why object to such thrifty ways of living especially when America has a waste recycling crisis at its hands? If the coolest kids on the block are shopping at the local thrift store, the lines between the upper middle class and lower middle class become more and more blurred. The thrift store phenomenon sweeping high schools around the nation gives new meaning to generic “critical thinking” question “Should uniforms be required in schools?” that is often given to 5th graders. And what about that kid who gets picked on because of his poor taste in fashion? How are bullies able to tell the difference between an ironic ugly grandma’s sweater and an “unironic” ugly grandma’s sweater? One can thank hipsters for bringing on all these welcome ambiguities.

However, hipsters have not had a particularly good reputation for being the breadwinners of society despite their thrifty tendencies. In fact, hipsters have been ridiculed as being as being “trust fund children” and living off of their parents’ means despite sometimes being college graduates.

What about this intellectualism thing that hipsters have been associated with? (And by the way, for the grammar Nazis I absolutely love ending sentences with prepositions despite all those times my creative writing teacher tried to correct me.) The hipsters have been known to be educated right, perhaps with a degree in liberal arts or the sciences. So does that mean hipsters are more likely than non-hipsters to appreciate the complexity of a Shakespearian play, reflect on nature like a Romantic-era poet, understand the philosophy of Schrödinger’s cat, and understand the science behind what The Barenaked Ladies really meant when vocalist Steven Page sang “Ring a bell and I’ll salivate, how’d you like that?” To answer the question (but provide a non-answer), the answer is yes and no. While it is possible that hipsters may be knowledgeable due to a college degree, this is debatable. Being a walking scholar may be too much to ask for a person wearing brightly colored pants anyways.

Well, does the hipster have any redeeming qualities worth discussing further? There surely must be more to it. Even if the hipster love affair with thrift shops and expensive gadgets makes them look like the easy-to-spot hobos with iPhones, we can at least count on them – being the educated American citizens that they are – to be political advocates and vote for the most competent people to lead the nation. This is the theory, right? But one blogger cautions of the hipster’s rather peculiar voting of candidates “on the outskirts of the mainstream.” I wouldn’t be surprised if another Harvard study came out examining the question of whether hipsters choose their political party in the same way they chose their music (see first study done by Kevin Lewis). The same blogger points out an even more peculiar inverse relationship between a candidate’s successes and a hipster’s desirability for that candidate – the worse, the better. Some may even translate hipster tendencies to simply “Vote for the Worst.”

How about this: if the mainstream American people cannot count on hipsters improving the nation directly through voting, perhaps the nation can benefit indirectly by the positive lifestyle choices that hipsters choose for themselves on an individual level. Perhaps due to some of their anti-high fructose corn syrup and vegan/vegetarian tendencies, hipsters can ease America’s already pregnant health care woes since proper diet is essential for good health. The American Heart Association has made an official statement documenting the numerous health benefits of regular aerobic exercise and its role of sustaining health and curtailing disease. Speaking of exercise, it is hands down guaranteed that the fixed gear bicycle hipster will get more than enough of physical activity whether he is riding his wheels to and from work or just enjoying a leisurely tour around town. It is hard to argue with the one who trades high emission motor vehicles for more environmentally friendly transportation.

Do I consider myself a hipster?

A question one may be thinking is, “Do I consider myself a hipster?” Well, this is a trick question. If I say no, then I obviously am a hipster and if I say yes, then I am obviously not one. (Should I just say “yes” then?) Maybe the musings of my mind make me a bit “hipsterish,” but I have never once claimed to be the most socially inclined and outgoing individual so all those cool local bars and clubs that hipsters supposedly go to (or whatever else “real hipsters” do) are foreign to me. But perhaps being a hipster is really a state of mind after all.

In elementary school, I was not really the most popular kid. I couldn’t swing a bat to save my life and I was always picked last in gym glass because nobody wants to pick a total klutz. Not only did I have ADD (and still have ADD as an adult), and was a bit socially awkward and missed social cues, but I also had to wear only big ol’ glasses – and not just that. I also had a full mouth of shiny metal to fix my overbite. So this girl decided one day that she wanted to go on a witch hunt, not just to find the four-eyed kids (because that would be too boring since so, so many kids wore glasses), but to find the four-eyed kids who also wore braces. Now that would be a challenge. And then she noticed I was standing right beside her and she got scared and abandoned the witch hunt altogether.

So reflecting on these events, I occasionally dish out the huge “hipster glasses” in memory of those younger days when now I can just as easily pop in those contacts and escape in stealth mode. (Some hipster satire videos on YouTube have how-to tutorials on how to make fake braces, but I think I shall skip that for now).

What is the hipster: what I really think

The hipster, in my opinion, is really best thought of as a generic term to refer to any young person who considers himself or herself part of a subculture, not just the cigarette smoking, tight jeans variety. Rob Dobi, the talented artist behind “Your Scene Sucks,” was the first person I came across to make this generalization. The same type of arrogant elitist mentality that seems to be the number one complaint against so-called hipsters is really just a trait that many counter-cultures share. And when I say “arrogant elitist mentality” I am taking about this attitude: “I am authentic/I am an individual/You are the ‘mainstream,’ and therefore I am better than you.” As an example, when I used to lurk around on the Ultimate Guitar discussion boards, it seemed like many of the so-called metalheads held this air of superiority that they are the true connoisseurs of music while the rest of the people are just victims of the media who willingly eat up Top 40 manufactured music that is thrown at them. Of course, I don’t want the metalheads to come after me because I said this about them, but it should be admitted that at least some have this view. The parents of said hipster then rationalize their child’s behavior by saying that “it is just a phase” that s/he will “grow out of soon.”

And there is always the argument that such individuals are really not a part of any genuine movement, but rather just engaging in some sort of fashion show. However, I think this is beyond the point. It does not matter if people who consider themselves a part of a subculture are accused of not really embracing the true notion of individuality but merely conforming to what they believe is an individual. What matters is the intention of those young people when they dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and act a certain way. Many behave in the way they do because of personal interests, but ultimately want a place to belong regardless of how big of a pool their chosen niche is.

In an age where students who are not accepted by their peers feel the need to do unthinkable acts of violence, and in a culture where young girls are starving themselves to feel beautiful while another young person is called the “ugliest woman in the world” for being too skinny because a rare genetic disorder keeps her from building fat tissue, the hipster idea of diversity and acceptance is something to embrace. (And true, hipsters may seem “arrogant” on the surface, but a digger beneath the surface the culture is generally welcoming of all people regardless of race, class, religion, sexual orientation and so on.)

It is okay to be different. That, I believe, is the true message to take away from the hipster construct regardless of whether such individuals exist in real life or whether the entire concept is one big caricature gone wrong.