Pioneered in the 1950s by the original pinup boys of rebellion (think James Dean and Neal Cassady), every decade since has seen a counterculture youth movement defiantly carve out their own generational-specific opposition to the status quo. If it’s true that a decade’s subculture becomes the nostalgic legacy of that era, then we ought to feel pretty jipped that we got stuck with the apathetic, underfed, culturally pious, narcissistic ‘hipster’. Too aesthetically fixated to pull off the anti-materialism, bohemian-hedonism pioneered by Kerouac’s beatnik generation; too vapid to be politically engaged like the 60s activists; too reticent to rock the self-destructive “I don’t give a fuck” refrain of the 80s grunge, our generation’s renegades, in their obsessive pursuit of aesthetic originality, are successfully standing for that which no other generation’s subculture has ever stood for: nothing.
They are the aristocrats of taste in a social class where wealth is measured in terms of style and where the currency is “products”. No philistines allowed. As the acquisition of the cultural capital necessary to enter this cool-cat elite is dependent upon real capital, the illusion of the impoverished struggling artist is often just that, an illusion. Sorry poor people, this means you’re also out.
And that’s where the irony begins.
There’s irony at a stylistic level: a bizarre fetishization of impoverishment where the look of “romantic destitution but spiritual wealth” comes with a Gucci pricetag. Unflattering lamb-dressed-up-as-mutton vintage and horn-rimmed glasses exude an unimpeachable hipness. Even the most hideous of outfits can be sufficiently hip as long as they are worn ironically. Naturally, it’s a style best complemented by a placidity of personality bordering on blandness so as to not overshadow the quirk of their physical difference. There is something disturbingly disingenuous and paradoxical about a pro-consumer yet downwardly-mobile class whose membership is restricted to the bourgeois. Their interaction with society’s lower middle class extends only to the romanticisation of the hobo aesthetic for the purposes of garnering stylistic street cred. In reality, the hipster has little real interaction with society’s poor and contributes nothing to improving their social mobility.
Then there’s the irony that the hipster has become a global phenomenon. A rebel consumer-based culture that’s centred upon the idea that they are opting out of mainstream fashion when in reality they are opting in to an increasingly universalised concept of individuality. The ‘hipster aesthetic’ has become a project of mass commodification and consumerisation of originality by…well, us. Freelance, amateur paparazzi have charged themselves with capturing the latest trends that are sauntered up and down the hipster ghettos of New York, Copenhagen and the other international cities of style. These are then posted on their blog and re-blogged a zillion times across the world before they are speedily repackaged and sold back to us by global companies as a universalised and prepackaged stab at individuality. So are we responsible for prolonging the life of the insufferable hipster? Well, if we can be blamed for rendering the poor androgynous souls victims of their own narcissism, entrapping them in a vicious cycle of trend-setting, identity theft and forced reinvention, then maybe a little. But if they’re thinking anything when perfecting their faux-nonchalant, “I don’t like the fame but please don’t stop snapping” non-smile for a street-style blogger, then I’m sure it’s not this.
This brings us to the final scrumptious morsel of irony: it’s profoundly uncool to be a hipster. Differentiating between the legitimate trailblazers of ‘cool’ and the imposters can be an impossible task, the end result being that they all get tarnished by the same brush of hate. Whilst the is former accused is stripping the counterculture movement of all the subversive badassness that history has taught us to expect from our generation’s rebels, the latter is accused of pathetically trying to buy into a superficial and exclusively elite youth subculture. All this nutshelled? Step 1 to being a hipster is to deny that you are a hipster. Step 2: hate all other hipsters for one of the above two reasons.
So, in the theme of irony, perhaps a reinvented cliché maxim can be used to best describe the lesson of the hipster project: if a book demands to be judged by its cover, then we had best get a-reading. With so many people externalizing their “uniqueness” in the same way, true originality has been returned to its rightful place. We must strip away the masquerade mask of “cool” or the dagginess of the “uncool” and explore the wonderment and creativity of the psyche underneath. Ah, a happy ending after all.