You f*cking hipster!

on

 

You F*cking Hipster

a rhetorical analysis of the strategies used to ridicule and deligitimize the hipster subculture.

I didn’t choose to be a hipster.  I grew a mustache out one day, because it was the only facial hair that I could adequately grow that didn’t resemble pubic hair (my desire to grow facial hair is a much longer story).  I wore a fedora because all other hats messed up my pompadour. I enjoyed brightly colored clothes because too many of my friends in high school were goth, and I didn’t want to be labeled a goth.  Honestly, I’ve never wanted to be labeled at all.  I have spent ridiculous amounts of time in thrift stores rummaging through out-of-fashion clothing so that I could wear something that defied categorization.  My inability to afford clothing from a department store, also contributed to my style choice. I searched out music that was fresh and new because the radio played the same music so incessantly to the point of torture.

Then, one day, the culmination of all the activities I enjoyed were labeled “hipster.” I didn’t know exactly what this meant, but reading the context in which it was used, it seemed reviled.  The most common adjective used alongside the term was “f*cking,” such as “You’re a f*cking hipster!” I denied being anything, but found myself analyzing the term.  Having previously attempted to be a part of the punk subculture, I searched for qualities about myself which makes me distinctly hipster, just as studded jackets, mohawks, loud talentless music, vague antipathy, and puking makes up the punk subculture.  I found various similarities between the two when comparing the two subcultures, how they are, or have been, their traditional portrayal in pop culture.  Both possessed an aversion to capitalistic materialism (at least punk did before Hot Topic).  Both decreed an alternative lifestyle.  Both yearned for their particular “authenticity.”  Both are derided and shunned by mainstream culture.

Pinpointing the exact definition of hipster proves more difficult than defining the punk, due to complete denial by hipsters in their involvement with the subculture.  Yet, we know they exist, as a “hipster” will not do anything to change their hipster-defining habits, and thus remain complicit.  We can build a definition of hipster, though, through the symbolic convergence theory or Ernest Bormann[1], and applying fantasy-themed rhetorical criticism to analyze various rhetorical artifacts that classify hipster.  This task will prove difficult, since most artifact are biased in their contempt of hipsters.  Nevertheless, these artifacts create fantasy themes, that is, assume characteristics of the hipster, that converge to create the rhetorical vision of the hipster: a shallow meaningless individual who lacks definition.  Deconstructing and reifying the concept of “hipster” separate from these artifacts, though, we will re-read the hipster as a subculture, and better understand the motivations of the hipster.  Thus, we can analyze the rhetorical strategies that are used by dominant and popular culture to delegitimize the hipster subculture, just as other subcultures, such as punk, have been.

The first artifact I would like to analyze is the 2008 Adbuster article Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization by Douglas Haddow.[2]  This was my first exposure to the term “hipster.”  Haddow’s description of the hipster are as paradoxical as the hipster itself, describing them in terms of chronic self-obsession, while simultaneously describing them as apathetic (perhaps one can be both, but if one contains any obsession, then that nullifies the classification of apathetic).  From this fantasy theme, we see apathy and over-conscientiousness, irony, the penchant for abandoning trends.  Haddow goes on to describe popular hipster symbols:

“…skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake            eyeglasses and a keffiyeh – initially sported by Jewish students and Western protesters to express solidarity with Palestinians, the keffiyeh has become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory.

The American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning”

The next artifact we turn to is a video posted to YouTube in 2007 on the POYKPAC channel, titled “Hipster Olympics,” which has garnered over 3 million views[3].  In the first 40 seconds we get characters, actions, and settings as the narrators describe the location of the Hipster Olympics in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the sponsor, Pabst Blue Ribbon (“When you aim for authenticity, aim for Pabst”), and a referee who is deliberating over the contestants, who appear disheveled, hung-over, and nonchalant.  As the announcer verifies, no self-respecting hipster would ever admit to being a hipster, so we have to assume their participation is strictly ironic.  The video follows the contestants after an apathetically delayed start.  They make their way through a series of hipster-related obstacles: withdrawing from their trust funds, sifting through thrift store clothing, taking selfies for the Myspace profiles, combing through vinyl records, partaking in incessant vanity, and judging a plain looking man (who is also a 9/11 hero).  This culminates to a finish where all the contestants halt, reluctant to be the first across the finish line because “Silver’s the new gold.”

The next artifact up for examination for hipster traits is a Buzzfeed article.  While searching for “Hipster” on Buzzfeed yields numerous results, many of them poking fun at the subculture, the quiz titled “Are You Actually a Hipster,” by Justin Carissimo[4]  comes pretty close to giving an un-sardonic description of hipsters. This quiz determines your level of hipster cred in relation to how many hipster items you select.  Each hipster item is displayed as an image without text, which underscores the superficiality that hipsterdom is (seemingly) built upon.  On the top of the list is beer, the first being PBR, followed by a craft beer (ah! the ironic contradiction!).  There are 102 options for a candidate to choose from, each depicting the author’s fantasy portrayal of hipsterdom.  From thrift stores, to certain musical albums, to images of people with kitschy bespoke items, to tattoos, to beat and transcendental literature, and specific cities, there is a wide array of traits to select.  This definitely captures the cultural capital of hipsters in its own way.  Whatever you choose, you earn a caption that is affirming your level of hipsterness.  The highest level you can earn in this quiz is “Hipster Serpico,” a reference to a disheveled slovenly-looking cop portrayed in the film Serpico, with the description:

You have a fixed-gear bicycle, a “Golden Girls” neck tattoo, and you’ve probably thought about ditching your TV. Keep on posting Instagram snaps of tacky Christmas lights and vintage chairs. The world’s depending on you.

This is a description that plays well into the hipster ego as appropriately ironic, and easy to deny.

While we could examine artifacts pertaining to hipsterdom ad infinitum, there’s one last artifact that we will examine that should suffice in summing the fantasy themes of the hipster leading to the rhetorical vision of what a hipster really is.  This is the YouTube video “Are You A Hipster,” from the IdeaChannel[5] on YouTube.   In this presentation, Mike Rugnetta asserts that you, the viewer, may actually be a hipster.  While I am befuddled as to why Rugnetta attempts to distinguish nerds from hipsters, he eventually turns to a very important aspect of hipsterdom: pastiche.  An exhaustive study of the Wikipedia page on hipsters[6] confirms the common practice of appropriation by hipsters.  Hipsters will borrow iconography, practices, traditions, etc. from other time periods and cultures and amalgamate them into their own.  This practice can be read as a postmodern technique of style where everything is stripped of meaning and reused, a technique employed liberally by authors Jon Barth and Jorge Luis Borges.  While this has been seen as egregiously offensive to many people (e.g. Indigenous Americans when white people don war bonnets), Rugnetta acknowledges that appropriation occurs all the time.  With hipsters, though, the rate of appropriation seems accelerated and reckless.

From these various artifacts, we are able to distinguish several fantasy themes that converge into a single rhetorical vision.  To describe hipsters, we can use the following terms: irony, pastiche, appropriation, apathetic, self-absorbed, authentic, inauthentic, meaningful, meaningless, “genuinely authentic.”  They drink cheap beer, but enjoy expensive beer.  They shop at thrift stores, ride fixed-gear bikes, smoke cigarettes, watch film (not movies), read, and have facial hair.  Their style is a hodge-podge of various other cultures and time periods.  While there are several examples of POC hipsters, they are usually depicted as white.  They live in low-rent parts of town, which in turn become trendy parts of town, such as Williamsburg, Hawthorne, or The Mission District, which in turn become gentrified and expensive.  This convergence of fantasy themes creates a larger rhetorical vision of a person who we, the larger cultural hegemony, are supposed to despise.  This is demonstrated in the manner in which these stereotypes are mocked in other various artifacts.

By analyzing the convergence of the fantasy themes and the rhetorical vision this convergence creates, we can deconstruct the hipster.  Through deconstructing and reification of the hipster, we can better understand the motivations of the hipster as well as the necessity of popular culture and media to delegitimize the hipster.  Take for instance, the penchant for the hipster to follow and abandon trends.  This is contradicted by the thrift store hipster fantasy them, since thrift stores are places of un-trends, dead-trends, etc.  Upon further inspection, we can conclude that a demographic of young people who can’t afford department stores (or who oppose the methods of labor that is used to produce the clothing sold at department stores) discover cheap, fashionable clothing at thrift stores.  Mixing and matching these clothes, they can create unique styles.  Larger brand name stores take note, offering similarly-styled clothing, with a benefit of less rifling through clothing but a slightly higher cost (e.g. Urban Outfitters).  Meanwhile, vintage clothing procurers (e.g. Decades) comb through thrift stores to purchase everything vintage and (now) trendy for upmarked resale.  The amount of vintage clothing that created the unique style is now limited.  The individual doesn’t change their consuming habits – they’re still poor but crave style.  Now, though, their style is relegated to the “ugly” clothes left on the racks.  This “ugly” clothing then becomes trendy, and the cycle continues.  It’s easy to see, then, how hipsters are perceived as adopting and abandoning trends quickly, never sticking with a trend long enough for it to gain any meaning.

Another contradictory fantasy is the hipster’s taste for PBR, and also craft beer.  This is a minor piece of an overarching narrative of the hipster desiring the very cheap, yet craving the authentic.  Indeed, the official team beer of hipsters remains PBR.  This is because PBR is cheap.  When going to a party or a large gathering of people, such as a knitting circle, you want to bring something to share.  Most hipsters can’t afford to purchase a high-quality craft beer for all of their friends.  Thus, PBR is the beer of choice at gatherings.  Alone, though, hipsters will indulge and purchase a craft beer of higher quality because they do enjoy high-quality products, but can’t afford a large quantity.  Craft beer is perhaps the only thing of high quality they can afford.

Further re-readings of the hipster symbology and iconography reveals how many of the fashions and trends are motivated by their lack of finances, or skepticism in economics.  Hipsters don’t necessarily like fixed-gear bicycles because they are trendy, but because they are cheap and easy to maintain.  Hipsters didn’t really like something (such as a band) “before it was cool,” but rather, they liked it when they were able to afford it.

This economic skepticism creates a culture of pastiche.  When one spends much of their time in thrift stores, picking and choosing through hordes of used goods that aren’t necessarily categorized, they must set out on their own to determine which pieces fit together based on their own self-style, resulting in pastiche.  In the thrift store, objects from various cultures intermingle and blend.  Meaning is stripped from them, except for the price tag.  There is an existential reality in the thrift store: items that were once sentimental and cherished are discarded.  The sentimental aura that made them valuable to an individual is stripped as the object is resold at discounted prices.  This thrift-store-cultivated perception continues past the checkout aisle – American culture is interpreted as a “melting pot,” where icons and traditions are appropriated and blended together endlessly until they are stripped of their original meaning.  The American culture that American Millennials grew up in was that of pastiche – art forms that were of a distinct cultural type were made accessible through high speed internet.  Art was swapped and exchanged at an exponential rate, to the point where all forms of expression became blurred.  They found relics and artifacts for cultural significance exchanged not in a manner of cultural respect or inheritance, but in terms of economy, both in terms of monetary capital and cultural capital.  This is how we are able to view King Tut in the United States. They found authentic artifacts out of place of their original intent and meaning. Thus the search for authenticity becomes inauthentic. Irony is their only authenticity.

Viewing King Tut in America isn’t a genuine experience, and thus, viewing this authentic artifact outside of its original purpose or meaning, also contributes to the culture of pastiche. Millennials were raised with a plethora of “authentic” experiences that turned out to be false.  To borrow from Baudrillard, they were presented with Disneyland, a type of “child reality,” that assumed this reality ended and continued beyond its gates[7]. We were promised enchantment, but told to ignore poverty. They were told that the United States was the greatest country in the world, yet all of their products were made in foreign countries.  It’s not that hipsters embrace irony; they grew up in it – it’s their comfort zone. Now, they attempt to utilize the tools they were given to find or create an idea of authenticity.  Of course, the end result will always be inauthentic (which itself will be authentic).

By deconstructing the hipster in this manner, we may better understand the rhetoric that is used to describe or ridicule the hipster.  The hipster subculture has an abstract aversion to commercialistic interests and capitalistic influences. When given a demographic that is either intentionally or unintentionally avoiding the capitalistic influences of culture, it behooves that culture to ridicule and deride them, so that others may turn to those capitalistic influences to prove they are not that which was ridiculed and derided.

Using the rhetorical vision of a hipster, Budweiser released an advertisement during the 2015 Super Bowl to sell their beer.[8]  This advertisement opens with heavy beat music which connotes intensity and passion, with close up shots of people handling ingredients.  Appearing on the screen is low-fi typography which narrates the commercial.  About 10 seconds into the commercial, a man with a handlebar mustache is sniffing a craft beer.  This is the archetypal image of the hipster: a mustachioed white male enjoying beer to an absurd degree while wearing ironically-fashioned glasses.  At about 26 seconds, we get another shot of three unfashionably-dressed, thick-rimmed bespectacled white males who also appear counter to demographic Budweiser hopes to reach in their advertising.  By deriding hipsters, Budweiser plays off of a common dislike of hipsters, and attempts to place their beer as counter to hipster culture.  (Ironically, the use of lo-fi sans-serif typography is considered a hipster aesthetic.  Additionally, their use of horses galloping is an attempt to establish authenticity: the ultimate hipster goal.  In reality, horses haven’t been used to transport beer in centuries; thus, they are inauthentic: also the ultimate hipster goal.  Finally, Budweiser uses rice in its beer production, which they don’t acknowledge, since this would make the beer less authentic.  Thus, Budweiser is itself, hipster).  This artifact shows clearly how a commercial entity attempts to counter an alternative non-consumer philosophy.

In the course of this essay, we have analyzed several artifacts.  These artifacts demonstrate the fantasy themes of the hipster which converged into the rhetorical vision of the hipsters.  I went further deconstruct some of the fantasy themes in order to show how many of the decisions, trends, and fashions of hipsters are based not on an aesthetic of “cool,” but rather on economic realities as well as the larger culture of pastiche in which millennials were raised.  By gaining this further understanding of the hipster, we are able to understand why the hipster is mocked in such a large scale.  The aversion by the hipster of capitalist and commercial objectives has resulted in a culture that derides and ridicules the hipster.  This is in the hopes that consumers will avoid the stigma of hipster by consuming more.  This analysis of the particular subculture of hipster can be used to understand the rhetoric used to deride other subcultures, such as punk or hippies.  Both of these subcultures are also derided for suggesting a lifestyle free from commercial aspirations, and are perceived as a threat.  Thus, it is in commercialistic interest to delegitimize these subcultures.

[1] Rhetorical Criticism pgs 97-103, Foss

[2] http://www.sproutdistro.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/hipster-zine.pdf

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAO4EVMlpwM

[4] http://www.buzzfeed.com/justincarissimo/are-you-actually-a-hipster#.dmB226zJ1

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3xe-Wxio1o

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hipster_(contemporary_subculture)

[7] Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

[8] http://www.hyzercreek.com/harryautobio.htm

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