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Looking beyond the parody to define the hipster

The term “hipster” has become increasingly prominent in Australia’s urban lexicon this year. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has caught on, writing about “Hipster Housing”, featuring a young bespectacled…

“Hipsters” are mocked at the moment, but do we even know who they really are? Wikimedia Commons/Jack Newton

The term “hipster” has become increasingly prominent in Australia’s urban lexicon this year. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has caught on, writing about “Hipster Housing”, featuring a young bespectacled couple on the front of the weekend property pages.

It is a rather scathing phrase, used at the moment primarily as a criticism. Across the cartoons, jokes, video parodies and feature articles, a caricature emerges.

The hipster is that funny smelling kid in tight jeans who sits in front of you on the bus or tram, pre-rolling cigarettes and judging you through his Ray Bans because you don’t have an ironic tattoo, 80s facial hair or read the zine he and his friends author.

Yet my own experience with hipsters indicates that such representations share only a partial, albeit humorous, likeness to reality.

How to define a hipster

Further reading of the hipster commentary will see some gross inconsistencies emerge.

For some critics, hipsters are all about the latest trend, whereas others argue vintage and kitsch are more highly valued. Some say hipsters wear their jeans around their knees, yet others claim high-waisted pants to be the preferred style. Hipsters are simultaneously mocked for both insisting on individualism and adhering to conventions.

Overall, the varying media definitions of hipsters inevitably oversimplify what is actually quite a complex and significant cultural happening.

Underneath subculture

Hipsters are bit more complicated than you’d think. Flickr/craigfinlay

Perhaps the biggest problem in trying to qualify the hipster movement is the tendency to use a subcultural lens, which suggests there are a coordinated group of people performing these social acts with reason and intent.

Granted in Sydney there are bars (Chingalings, The Cricketers Arms), music festivals (Laneway, Peats Ridge) and suburbs (Newtown, Surry Hills) where hipsters visibly congregate, but any notion of solidarity or collective ideology will be shattered if you ask these people if they think they are hipsters.

The most likely response is a strong refutation, often on the grounds that they were into, for example, vintage shops before they even knew what a Hipster was.

An ironic concession is also possible; “Yes I am the most hip hipster around, and I pride myself on that achievement.”

In a sense, both responses typify the hipster concerns of authenticity and subversion respectively. But attempts to see these responses as universal are also unsatisfying. Furthermore, if you are undertaking such bizarre ethnography, you are surely on the cusp of hipsterism yourself.

Rebelling and conforming

The other imposition on hipster culture is that it is resistant. Loose ties to independent media, youth rebellion, and past subcultures (including the original 1950s hipsters fabled in Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro”) may have aided this diagnosis.

The immediate irony of non-conformity is that it inevitably leads to conformity of another kind; adherence to a new canon. This hypocrisy underpins a lot of the criticism of hipsters, yet there is another level of hypocrisy worth noting; the mainstream is becoming increasingly hipster.

The hipster aesthetic has emerged as the best form of sellable cool. Sydney publicans James Wirth and James Miller (The Flinders, The Abercrombie) have cottoned on to this nicely, purchasing formerly run down Sydney Hotels and revamping them with some tragically stylish memorabilia, cool music and attractive bar staff (a formula so successful even Sydney hospitality heavyweights Justin Hemmes and the Short brothers have been trying it out).

Fast-food chains like Grill’d, Beach Burrito and Mad Pizza e Beer are all working on a similar charm. And most midrange car commercials these days seem to show hipsters bopping around carelessly to indie music.

Hipster vs punk

The contemporary hipster culture is particularly interested in authenticity. Flickr/Platform 3

All this might seem to disqualify hipsters from the category of subculture. But even the original punk scene in London – perhaps the most mythologised of subcultures – was equally complex and contradictory.

What lent punk a singular narrative, crystallising it as an actual culture, was not its protagonists, but rather the media. The subsequent process of (mis)representation and reinterpretation was so unpredictable that punk music popped up some years later in America as the sound of Neo-Nazism.

Perhaps the best way to rethink the issue is to consider a subculture the way we think of a national culture. Individuals or groups within a nation are both influenced by and distinguish themselves from the national culture, which whilst not without convention, is largely an abstract and fluid concept.

Furthermore, people do not belong specifically to this culture, but rather it is one of many that constitutes their identity and levels of association can vary greatly. Subcultural involvement is much the same.

Hipsters gone global

However, just as with punk, simplistic representations of hipsters cannot be separated from the lived experience. Hipsterism is a global phenomenon, suggesting the way it has spread is largely due to information exchange.

Furthermore, the day-to-day lives of hipsters, or people who look like hipsters at least, are affected by the stereotype promoted through the media and parody; hipsters might call other hipsters, hipsters insinuating they are merely following a hipster cliché. As you can see, it’s easy to get caught in circles here and things can get a bit surreal.

Whilst employed as an insult, and overused of late into relative ambiguity, the uprising of the term “hipster” has ultimately had the effect of strengthening an array of ideologies and styles that have been around for a while.

It is a cognitive social shift that can’t be removed from gentrification and the new style of “creative workspaces”, and it is not likely to slow given the strong presence of hipster types in the media promoting its use, even if through criticism.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The terms "hippie" and "punk" and "beatnik" were, and are, used as indiscriminately.

    The majority of people bearing those labels were conforming consumers.

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  2. S Brewin

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I think the criticism of hipsters for hypocrisy by ‘conforming to non-conform’ is misplaced – the ‘mainstream’ these days is so fragmented that there is no overwhelmingly dominant ‘mainstream’ against which to rebel. Hipster culture is really just about subscribing to a particular mode of cool which sits well within the spectrum mainstream and always has. The internet and the ability to consume a broad range of music, fashion, film, art, culture from all over the world, beyond what your local radio, newspaper or television station tells you to consume has forever changed the concept of mainstream – this is why we’ll never get another band like the Beatles – people aren’t all sitting at home listening to their transistor radio as their only source of music. The fact that the mainstream is now so diverse itself has fundamentally changed the concept of subcultures themselves, and how they interact with the ‘mainstream’.

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to S Brewin

      'Never get another band like the beatles'?
      because they founded a new genre (Jay Z/Biggie etc, Kraftwerk)?
      or because they were consistently innovative and a bit generally awesome with their rock mysic (radiohead, queens of the stone age)?

      I also wonder if the boundaries that distinguished subcultures and the mainstream was ever as absolute, or if history has fossilised it that way..?

      I do agree that styles and ideologies are much more dispersed in the age of new media though.

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    2. S Brewin

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sam Egan

      I didn't mean that we would never get another band like them in terms of musical prowess, but in terms of an all encompassing superband adored simultaneously by millions across the globe. I don't think any band or artist will ever be able to attain that kind of critical mass anymore, because our attention spans are shorter and we have so much more culture available.

      I think you could be right about history fossilising subcultures and dominant styles though.

      I like your comment below about Sydney borrowing Melbourne's doc Martens. But I would like that, being a parochial Melbournite with hipster sympathies. If there's one thing we love in Melbourne, its articles in the Age about how Sydney is trying to establish a Melbourne style bar scene, but can't because of their restrictive licensing regulations and uptight local residents. And also saying that Sydney 'has no soul'

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    3. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to S Brewin

      Yes, my time in Melbourne illuminated how much you folk love Sydney slamming. I'm glad for the 'Melbournising', your comments about restrictive licensing and uptight local residents are pretty on the money. I think the uprise of hipsterism has had a lot to do with shifting people's attitudes towards things like small bars etc - then again, once they are widely accepted and loved, perhaps they lose a bit of that subcultural appeal.

      Another significant moment in the bhipster movement (although its always been around) is the warehouse culture. I think a lot of hipster type bars work on a legitimised version party warehouses, and often a speakeasy vibe. So whilst legal and legitimate, there is a sense of danger...kind of.

      We've heard a lot about Sydney vs Melbourne, though. Would be great to hear from somebody about hipsters in other Aus cities.....??

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    4. Jai Seeber

      Electrical Engineer

      In reply to Sam Egan

      I'm actually from Perth, and the hipster scene here has grown out of control over the last few years. Yes, thanks to licensing laws there has been a shift towards small bars, and more intimate live music venues... But i think the Hipster scene here is almost a reaction against the "cashed up bogan" image Perth has been blighted with.

      Perth has always had a kind of hippie, alternative culture centered around Fremantle. But the Hipster culture in Perth is quite distinct from that. The Perth hipster spends most of his or her time hanging around the inner city suburbs like Mount Lawley, which could easily be mistaken for a suburb in Melbourne.

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    5. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Jai Seeber

      Yeah the cashed up bogan is in many ways the antithesis of the Hipster. Thr irony here, is that being a hipster is pretty expensive (in Sydney, at least) living in the inner city etc.

      I had a great moment in the Sydney CBD recently, one of the new hipsterish small bars were selling beers at 8.00, but the suit bar over the road was doing a $3 happy hour. The bohos were paying top dollar and the capitalists drinking cheap!

      On the syd/melb/perth etc thing, do people think that hipsterism is directly related to a locations (for lack of a better way to put it) creative production - art, music, literature, design etc? Both in quality and quantity?

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    6. Jai Seeber

      Electrical Engineer

      In reply to Sam Egan

      That is definitely true, but is it really irony? Or perhaps it really is about class. Hipsters shop at op-shops, for sure. They don't seem to flaunt wealth. But every hipster i've known comes from a well off middle class family.

      The cashed up bogan on the other hand, does flaunt his or her wealth. But their new found disposable income does not make them any less working class.

      With regards to locations, i do think physical locations are important. There is trend back to the local, from the globalised. Most Hipsters would rather see the band from around the corner play in a small bar, than Lady Gaga on a massive stage.

      I think that "creative culture" is a lot like milk. To be fit for mass consumption, milk must be pasteurised and homogenised, which makes it more palatable but kills the distinctive character. Hipsters have tried milk straight from the cow, and know they can only get it from their local farmers market.

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    7. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Jai Seeber

      The op-shop thing is funny, especially places like Cream on King (newtown) and Cream on Crown (Surry) which basically purchase en-masse from another source (op-shops out in the suburbs I've been told) wash, categorise and resell in a tendy shop with vinyl playing and a street fighter machine at about 6 times the price.

      It is much cheaper to shop at somewhere like Kmart, or even industrie/cotton on etc than this type of op shop.

      What we haven't yet discussed though is subversion, how it might be more hipster to shop at K-mart....either because it is alternative to the Hipster masses, it is ironically wearing trashy mainstream clothing, subverting the hipster ideal of anti-capitalism, or maybe just affirming that you really are broke!

      Organic markets are very hipster, but once again, we can't limit hipster behaviour too much - it is inevitably incorrect making this brand of ethnography very difficult to theorize!

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  3. Georgia Costello

    Writer

    By the look of these pics you haven't really understood the nuance of the hipster. The images presented with this article are not hipster! The thousands (threethousand.com, twothousand.com etc) continuously hit the hipster nail on the head with their landing page photographs... may I suggest you consult this website and refine your photographs so as to have a little more hipster cred.

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  4. Jai Seeber

    Electrical Engineer

    I think what people mean by "hipster" is often just about a certain fashion look, the comes from trendy New York buroughs like Williamsburg.

    But i think the essence of "being a hipster" is really about recongising the importance of proper culture, rather than the mass-produced, homogenized junk-culture that most people in society are content with. This applies to music, fashion, film, art, literature and so on.

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Jai Seeber

      I think there is a definite aesthetic insinuation of calling somebody a hipster, but whether this is stronger than impositions of ideology (or attitude) is hard to say.

      Williamsburg is certainly heralded by many as the birthplace of hipsterism, but perhaps that scene just gave rise to the phrase. It is definitely impossible to pin down one location, but some others of note may be Portland, San Francisco, Berlin, Stockholm, London, and surely others that I'm not quite hip enough to know of.

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  5. Jai Seeber

    Electrical Engineer

    Can i also add, if you want to study hipsters, you live in the wrong australian city :P

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Jai Seeber

      True, the hipster thing has been around a good bit longer in Melbourne. In a funny way, Sydney is trying to Melbournise itself lately, a bit like a cheer leader borrowing her younger sisters Doc Martens for a rock concert.

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    2. Donncha Redmond

      Software Developer

      In reply to Jai Seeber

      If you want to study hipsters, you live in the wrong country :-)

      Hipsterism seemed to arrive in Oz a few years after it hit mainstream in NY or London.

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    3. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Donncha Redmond

      Certainly as a word that is true. I suppose it depends what you consider hipsterism. Visible tropes like fixed gear bikes and American Apparel clothing are definitely derived from overseas.

      But Australia has a long and rich culture of alternative music and art which are undoubtedly more admirable moments of the whole hipster thing (not to say that alternative = hipster).

      There is definitely a thing about hipsterism that promotes a slight romanticisation of other times and places though - that the 'real' is always elsewhere.

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  6. tim brennan

    mostly harmless

    Hi Sam
    Very interesting article. I was wondering when you think 'hipsterdom' started? and how it differs from the post-grunge alternative culture (say 96 - 03)? I'm too old to be a hipster (i think) so my view is probably warped but to me it seems as though there are lots of differences these tend to be more at the superficial level while at a deeper level there is a lot of continuity.

    Some random examples: the items of fashion are definitely different e.g sunglasses, caps, tight jeans (although…

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to tim brennan

      Thanks for your comment, I'll have a go at answering some of the Qs but let me know if I miss any.
      As for an origin of 'hipsterdom' - if you had asked me at the begining of the year, I would have said London 1976 - the original premise of a research project I just finsihed was that the original punk scene founded the central ideas that have lingered in the alternative sphere and have been re-incarnated through various movements (like the ones you mention).

      It is not a theory I have entirely abandoned…

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    2. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Sam Egan

      and re Melbourne, I see your point. I've lived there for a while and thought a lot about the differences between Aus's two major cities, esp re Hipsters.

      There is a curious point that the Hipster thing being more prominet perhaps makes it less hipster...less subcultural maybe. Without indulging in facetious amniguity, it is a real hipster thing to hate it when a place/bar/musician is crystallised as hipster, esp ah hipster merges more and more with the mainstream (which subcultures often do).

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to Matt Granfield

      a copy of it is sitting next to me. A friend sent it my way just as I was finishing my thesis on Hipsters by which point I had properly OD's on hipster crit, so I've only read the first ch. Hope to finish it soon. Would love to discuss when I have?

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  7. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Funny thing is that I thought the whole hipster thing appallingly boring because we only get to see the ignorant fashion victims. The people wanting things like brake-less fixed-wheel bikes for urban riding when they have barely any riding experience.

    From the comments made here I come to understand that some of my favourite cafes and venues are characteristically hipster.

    Well darn me, until this moment I had rejoiced in their being so much like a rethink of my favourite haunts of the late 1960s - early 1970s.

    As with back then, it is the vacuous extremists who make anything worthwhile look silly.

    Thank you all for the enlightenment.

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    1. Sam Egan

      Cultural Researcher at University of Notre Dame Australia

      In reply to John Harland

      yes it is definitely a bit more fluid than some portrayals/opinions may suggest.

      In a way, saying that the fixie riding, moustached, skinny..............sipping coffee and talking about warhol.......kind of people are hipsters -end of story, is a bit like saying those flag waving folk at the cronulla riots in 2005 were Australians - end of story.

      cultures sort of hover above people more than they inhabit them I'd suggest.

      What's more, the hipster caricature - the subject of ridicule- is not at all valued in hipster(ish) discourses.

      What is worthy of more cultural capital is a reflexive ability to critcise.enjoy the whole thing. A bit like what we're doing now. - engaging in hipster sociology on an academic website is a bit hipster itself! Anybody using a mac!? :-)

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I love being able to ride my bike and be retro cool rather than retro-grouch as I have been for a long time.

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  9. Maxime Lancien

    Journalist

    Hello,

    my name is Maxime Lancien, I'm from Paris.
    I'm in Perth until December, the 21 th. I will be back January the 5th and will stay five more days.

    I'm writing an article about " bogans", the so-called "cashed-up bogans" in Perth and WA, for Le Monde diplomatique, a French international monthly newspaper.

    As it has been said, cashed-up bogans are in many ways the antithesis of hipsters, that's why I would like to highlight cultural issues linked with the hipster scene in Perth, to check if it's a "reaction" to CUBs as Jai Seeber wrote here.

    It would be a great pleasure if I could interview any of you based in Perth about "looking beyond the parody to define the hipster".

    Please, let me know if you would agree.
    Thank you very much !

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  10. Christopher Hanlon Sydney

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Sam, thank you for this piece. I read your informative and perceptive article with glee. As an Australian designer and eponymous business owner it is refreshing to see an interesting take on the changing status quo and your article has helped to fuel my interest in Australian emerging culture and form my opinion. I see the hipster movement as a group of disparate individuals united by self-belief; of Aussies doing the traditional working class thing of 'having a go' with whatever they have. And with what appears to be very little or no government support and an economic and social system biased towards pre-existing monoliths (did I mention antiquated?). I take my hat of to all the people having a go and who choose not to drown in misery. Follow your dreams - because there are enough Australians who will follow you too. And for those small groovy coffee shops around town - well they are just a piece of the cake.

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