Those of us in our 30s and younger have come of age during a time of incessant media-based self-reflection. Not of the meaningful, “Where do I fit into the universe?” kind that might’ve passed for existential maturation in a more philosophical era, but of a more superficial stripe. “What is my personal brand?” we ask ourselves. It’s something that was a lot easier to answer in the past, when there were only so many to choose from, and when a career or class did most of the heavy lifting for you. Today the perpetually splintering brackets of contemporary demographic specificity engender an eternal anxiety of self, one in which we’re meant to renew our vows of identity with regularity. And the choices are many. Identifying as bros, or tech nerds, foodies, gamers, health-conscious types, fashionistas, politicos, or the sports-obsessed are all viable branding options. There’s just one type that we’re not supposed to assume for ourselves, which is strange, because we’re all obsessed with it: the hipster.
It’s time for that to change. I am a hipster and I’m not ashamed of it.
This overarching identity dilemma is one born of aggressive social-media expressions, singing songs of ourselves each day and launching them unto the world to either coalesce in harmony with our peers, or to serve as a jarring counterpoint. Nowhere is this type of perpetually refreshing navel-gazing better illustrated than in our repeated investigation into the idea of hipsterhood. Barely a week goes by where we’re not confronted by it—28 Signs You’re A Hipster, What Was the Hipster?, and so on. More often than not, these come, for some reason, in the paper of record. This past weekend Steven Kurutz contemplated his own unexpected metamorphosis into this most picked-clean carcass of identity. “My initial surprise was replaced by a stark realization: as a 30-something skinnyish urban male there’s almost nothing I can wear that won’t make me look like a hipster,” he wrote, surprised to find himself enlisted into a community he never volunteered for. “Such is the pervasiveness of hipster culture that virtually every aspect of male fashion and grooming has been colonized.”
The versatility of the hipster signifier is what makes it such an empty avenue of exploration in goofy listicles and trend pieces while also engendering skeptics’ frustration with its dogged refusal to go away. Public approval of hipsters is at 16 percent, according to a recent poll—Congress looks good in comparison. As Kurutz notes, almost everything can be woven into the hipster fabric now; it’s a choose-your-own-ending story where every option leads to the same page, you standing there in some silly hat or other. White guy with a beard? Hipster. Black dude on a skateboard? Hipster. Just a sort-of-skinny cop? Hipster. Woman riding a bike? Hipster. You can play either a mandolin or a turntable and somehow still be a hipster. No rules! As a result, hipsters have become both an object of incessant scorn, but also endless fascination. When a hipster can be defined as anything, it also essentially means nothing—that’s an undeniably appealing paradox to poke at.
One thing that seems universally agreed upon, however, as most of these types of pieces about what constitutes hipsterhood point out, and the thing that makes Kurutz such an obvious candidate for hipsterhood himself, is that no one—even the most self-evidently hipster among us—wants to admit to fitting the description. The only rule of hipster club is don’t admit you’re a member of hipster club. Nothing could be seen as less hip than actually wanting to align oneself with a superficial demo. That’s exactly the wrong attitude, it seems to me, if we’re to pin down this mercurial concept. The original hipster was someone who bucked the status quo and jumped out ahead of the curve. So, unlike Kurutz and the thousands who have come before him bending themselves into logical pretzels trying to shrug off the designation, I’d like affirm my hipsterhood—with pride.
Go down any halfway reasonable checklist for what constitutes a modern hipster, and I’ll stand up well. Tattoos and black-rimmed glasses? Check. Tight jeans and undersized hoodies with retro sneakers? Every day. I work in the media and spend most of my nights out at clubs, bouncing from one trendy cocktail bar to the hot new restaurant opening where—surprise! —I regularly upload photos of my exploits to Instagram. I won’t drink a cocktail unless it’s made with an intensely bitter spirit like Fernet. I spent years playing in an indie rock band. Most of my friends are in bands or are DJs or bartenders or bloggers. This is hard to say, but it’s important to fess up to: I always know the door guy.
I know that all sounds corny to state so baldly, but I’d be lying otherwise. It’s important to recognize ourselves as we are, and voracious self-deprecating self-awareness is itself a form of literary-hipsterdom. Speaking of which, I’ve read all the important books, and know about all the important bands, and I regularly thread these facts into conversations in such a way designed to make my taste appear superior to the tastes of those around me—even if it’s to point out how much better I am at having bad taste than others, opting for a broad, anything-goes populism that allows me to consume lowbrow popular culture filtered through an assumed intellectualized lens. In fact, I’m so hip I know that there isn’t even such a thing as an important band. I play up my working-class roots when the situation calls for it, and my educated media persona when that fits better. I’m a social chameleon, a voracious consumer of culture who knows how to use it as a weapon or as a salve. I studied poetry in school, for Christ’s sake.
Perhaps this hipster persona is something that has always been obvious to everyone who knows me, but I’ve never actually said the words out loud until now. It feels so freeing to admit it.
Granted, in my mid-30s I may be a little old at this point to fall anywhere but the outer edges of the coolness scale. But on the other hand, having a frame of reference with which to compare and contrast contemporary hipster signifiers against those of recent decades might actually make one more of a hipster than the immaculately styled 20-year-old who has no idea what he’s talking about, right? I literally remember the ’90s.
I am a hipster, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why wouldn’t someone want to dress in a way that he thinks is fashionable? Why shouldn’t I enjoy exciting restaurants, new cocktails, documenting my life with my friends? Are we supposed to be proud of eating at chain restaurants, and being ignorant about culture? People regularly ask me what my tattoos mean, a stupid question to which I give a stupid, if honest answer: They mean I wanted to look cool. Guess what? It worked.
People compulsively complain about hipsters out of a sense of insecurity, when really, like bees, or sharks, the hipster is more scared of you than you are of them. By otherizing and stigmatizing “cool,” it absolves us from considering our own shortcomings. People who read books you don’t like are hipsters, so now you’re off the hook from reading those books. Complicated food and drink recipes, difficult music, hard-to-pull-off clothes? Not for me, we all say, and then settle into the rut of the middle of the road. We mock the hipsters when we should be thanking them, because like it or not, many of these trends we’re so quick to dismiss now are going to filter down into the mainstream sooner or later. Do you have any idea where your entertainment even comes from? How many truly horrible indie rock shows and DJs and art openings and readings and bars and fashion shows people like me have to suffer through on a nightly basis so we can sift through the cultural slush pile and report back to the rest of the world? We ate foam for a year there! And we did it so you wouldn’t have to.
Who’s your favorite band right now? We liked them two years ago and blogged about it. What’s your favorite restaurant? Where do you think the early buzz came from? Those sneakers you’re wearing? My people made those possible. Without hipsters there would literally be no art, no music, nothing but football and hamburgers and porn, and we even made all of those things more palatable. Someday, a year from now, you could hear my favorite band in a car commercial, all because I’ve martyred myself on the altar of the ephemeral—an analogy that resonates, because Jesus was the original hipster. Hipsters are the canary in the coal mine of culture, sometimes wearing an actual coal miner costume.
Of course I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but isn’t that exactly how a hipster should approach self-reflection? The single most defining trait of hipsters is our allegiance to irony, we’re told. And it’s true, because I don’t even know if I believe any of the stuff I just wrote. It seemed like it might sound cool at the time and I thought by sharing it people would notice me and I’d end up feeling, albeit briefly, less lonely. If that’s not hipster, then I don’t know what is.