Feb 1, 2013

What's a "hipster"?

     I always like to reply to innocuous Facebook posts with long-winded, smart-alec replies, so when a friend asked "What's a "hipster"? I felt it necessary to give a response. What I ended up thinking about, however, is how pointless the word "hipster" really is these days. The label we know is far removed from Ginsberg's idea of "angelheaded hipsters*". Instead, we're left with a tepid insult for kids who listen to unsigned music and wear hats. 

     The word first came into use in the 40s and was used to describe white people who listened to "black" jazz, or anyone who was part of jazz culture. The term was also self-applied to the devotees of the Beat Generation authors. It's the ancestor of the word "hippie". In modern times the word overtook the term"indie kid" to refer to the fans of independent, later "indie" art culture. The word was usually not a self-applied label, and soon came to be derogatory.

     I disagree with people who try to use the label, because, to me, it doesn't seem to apply to any particular group. It's instead used to describe youth who dress in a retro-modern fashion style, listen to little known music, misunderstand the concept of irony (I blame Alanis for that.) or who belong to the predominant college culture of the 2010s. In it's modern derogatory usage, the word isn't used to describe a certain group, but to anyone exhibiting any perceived characteristic of the "hipster" archetype, rendering it nearly useless in any real sociological or demographic sense. 

     I've been called a hipster myself, or been told that I "look like a hipster". I wear hats, like documentaries, and am enthusiastic about music and art. The only thing separating me from the pure hipster archetype is the fact that can define the word "ironic". Am I a hipster, though? I don't think so, because I don't think anyone is. As far as I can see, the word is useless. It can be used to describe a vast variety of people from all walks of life. 

     My grandpa wears hats, listens to jazz, and talks a bit of jive. My dad incorporates outdated slang into his vocabulary. My brother knows about artists before they hit the radio. My mom doesn't quite grasp the concept of irony. Are they hipsters? For a word to be of any use, it needs to have some clarifying meaning. If a word can mean anything, it is useless. If anyone can be a hipster, then really no one is.

     "Fuck it, let's all stand up." 
          -Eminem, The Real Slim Shady

     *"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
     dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
     angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of
          -Allen Ginsberg, from Howl, for Carl Solomon