Written by: Max Mogensen, Special to the Sun Journal
It’s possible to define a hipster by the stereotypes that have inspired so many bad internet jokes. That is:
Skin-tight jeans, a flannel shirt, Wayfarers maybe, tattoos, biking down the street on a fixed-gear holding a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The headphones in her ears are playing a band that I’m sure you’ve never heard of. She eats organic. He frequents second-hand shops and farm-to-table restaurants and never shaves his beard.
But that’s a really superficial and one-dimensional definition for a complex, shifting term that once stood for a specific countercultural movement. Today, it’s mainly used to describe youth-style trends.
The definition of hipster offered by Oxford American is vague enough to include anyone outside the “cultural mainstream,” so that’s about as helpful as a thrift store without a vintage section.
Luckily, there’s the crowd-sourced bastion of ever-changing pop culture references, Urban Dictionary. The most popular definition (160,000 thumbs up) says that hipsters “value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence and witty banter.”
It also purports that although “‘hipsterism’ is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities. Hipsters reject the culturally ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often seen wearing vintage and thrift store-inspired fashions [sic], tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers and sometimes thick-rimmed glasses.”
Not far off, actually, from the definitions given by some locals.
“There are people that actually create a new style that hasn’t existed yet, or they just start a new thing. And once that trend becomes more generic or people start doing it all the time, they kind of move on. I would say that hipsters . . . they just like to be different.” That’s Cody DeGraff, a millennial living in Lewiston.
A hipster is “somebody who likes music and art, and drinks local coffee, and has tattoos,” according to Catherine Tanous, a 20-something who grew up in Auburn and now lives in Portland. “I feel like they tend to be very philosophical people, but open minded. They like organic things. They’re thinkers.”
The picture that’s developing is of an urban millennial, someone interested in music and the arts, and conscientious about their choices. But someone too who tries to be outside the mainstream. The stereotypical hipster would eat local, organic and artisan food, have obscure artistic tastes and hobbies, and have a unique fashion sense to remain distinguishable.
It would be really good to talk to some hipsters, of course. Apparently they’re around and pretty easy to identify. Nonetheless, that poses a bit of a problem. It seems they’re not eager to admit to actually being a hipster.
Hipster is something you call someone else, not something you call yourself. At most it might be used to identify some aspect of style, but is never used comparably to, say, Democrat, vegetarian or locavore.
And it becomes even less a badge of honor when a term that is identified with the counterculture is co-opted by mainstream marketers.
“If you want to talk about the sociology of a hipster, there could be an hourlong talk about that,” says Ariel Berube, an employee at Bull Moose in Lewiston who could apparently moonlight as an anthropologist. “I think there’s different kinds,” she says, “like any other stereotyped group. I think you have your hipsters who won’t like the mainstream, but then you have the hipster who doesn’t know they’re a hipster.” Someone, according to Berube, who makes informed and generally healthy decisions, someone who is progressive and who is “naturally irritated with socio-political problems, but they don’t know they’re a hipster. And I think there are people who get irritated with them,” and question the sincerity of their choices.
“Hipster has become a catchall term for people who have contrary views,” says Berube. “I wouldn’t think I am (one), mostly because it’s become a hard term to identify with.”
OK, so you don’t want to call yourself a hipster, but we know you’re out there. And there are some who say L-A’s a perfect place — and that it’s the perfect time — for young movers and shakers to help steer the Twin Cities in new and exciting directions.
Hipsters among us
Tom Ardia, a local tapster and beer aficionado who runs the bar at Marche Kitchen and Wine Bar on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, says a burgeoning element in the Twin Cities is elevating the cultural and commercial environment of the area.
This group of people, he says, is concerned with where their food comes from, who makes it and its environmental footprint. They’d rather head to three separate stores downtown than one department store on outer Main Street. They value organic and local options, and will pay more for them. And style and ambiance matter to them. And, says Ardia, they’re good for business.
He doesn’t actually say the word hipster, but acknowledges they’re part of the group he’s talking about.
“There are plenty of things that are happening here,” he says. “Now you can start seeing it. . . . I think a lot of people would rather know that with the cash they’re spending they’re supporting (local) people. Having an age group be an (active) part of a community will drastically influence the look and feel of that community.”
The growth of this contingent has been natural and organic. Ardia is actually a good example. A Lewiston native, he left Maine for Los Angeles, returning four years later with an expanded perspective and palate. An entire generation of young people, some who have spent time in other places before returning to the area, have begun embracing elements of this progressive culture, whether in terms of lifestyle or fashion.
Their choices in regard to style, food, work, art or politics might be labeled, for lack of a better word, as hipsterism — though most of them probably wouldn’t call themselves hipsters. It’s actually not so much that a community of hipsters has developed, but rather that hipster choices have spread into the mainstream community.
Tom encourages more like-minded, creative types to think about moving to Lewiston-Auburn. The area is “still a pretty unsculpted piece of clay,” he says, meaning there are options and resources for energetic and enterprising people. As opposed, he says, to a place like Portland that’s already chock-full of such movers and shakers. (Portland, I should note, has been ranked as one of America’s best cities for hipsters in Travel + Leisure Magazine’s last two surveys, peaking at No. 5 in 2012.)
Ardia is not the only local business person who sees the potential value of the hipster movement.
“We embrace it,” says Jane Driscoll, senior vice president for Advancement at Goodwill Northern New England, speaking from her office in Portland. If the stereotypes are right, Driscoll is making a safe play. Hipsters are well-known for making bold fashion out of the thrift store selection. (It can be seen as a sociopolitical statement or simply a way to stay stylish on a budget.)
And, Driscoll says, they definitely make up part of the customer base at Goodwill. “They are folks that are looking for funky styles, like vintage,” she said in defining the subculture. “They’re trendy. . . . (They have) a little more awareness, a caring about the environment, being creative. And they’re out looking for their style and not something that’s cookie-cutter.”
This, according to Driscoll, makes the demographic a natural fit for thrift store shopping.
“I wouldn’t say there is marketing that is targeted (specifically to hipsters,) but we notice that there is an increased commitment to value buying, in both senses of the word ‘value,’ whether you want look at it from the point of sustainability or from the point of saving money.”
At Bull Moose in Lewiston, employee Ariel Berube says she sees “people who I think fit into those various facets of being a hipster. They’ve adopted the fashion or lifestyle choices that don’t fit into the norm.” But that’s not to say they’re all so easily classified or that they would identify themselves as hipsters.
“You’ll get people who come in here and they’re wearing plaid . . . but they’re also buying death metal or rap,” she says.
In Lewiston-Auburn, several businesses on Lisbon Street between Pine and Main attract the young and culturally hip, according to locals, among them Forage Market, Downtown Handmade & Vintage, Lyceum Gallery, Fuel restaurant and Marche. Other businesses in Lewiston are Bull Moose Music and She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It is because of the spread of hipster attitudes that such businesses have been able to get traction, most selling pricier, if healthier, offerings. The subculture values art and creativity, locally sourced and handmade products, artisanal food and independent businesses. Forage over big box, Fuel before chain eateries. And according to those interviewed, Guthries comes in as the No. 1 hipster hot spot in the Twin Cities.
“I would maybe guess it’s the music that’s playing, the atmosphere, the posters we have on the wall, the coffee shop vibe,” says Paige Bedard, a Guthries employee, in explaining hipsters’ affinity for the venue. “We offer some healthier options,” she added.
But Bedard doesn’t confirm the suggestion that Guthries represents a designated hipster hangout. “I don’t really know,” she says. “We might see some hipsters, maybe in terms of like Bates (College) kids.”
Bedard believes that most of the hipsters she sees at Guthries are college kids. Does she think the term has simply come to represent a new, mainstream demographic. “Maybe,” she says, without offering more.
Would she call herself a hipster? “People might look at me and consider that I could be a hipster. But I wouldn’t put myself in any specific group.”
A history of hip
“I wonder if this is just part of the evolution of the word hipster.”
That’s Ariel Berube, an employee at Bull Moose in Lewiston, talking about why she sees so many customers who, fashion-wise, fit the bill of a hipster, but who differ so much from the stereotypes when it comes to other characteristics, like musical preference or political stance.
Today, it would be silly to suggest that “hipster” has a definition of its own design.
“People see it on a magazine and that’s what a hipster is,” said Berube, citing hipster taste-makers (Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel among them) who, over the last decade or so, have had the brilliant idea of capitalizing on “cool” by marketing the hipster aesthetic and mentality to a mainstream audience. Hippies, mods, punks, preps or bohemians, very few subcultures are immune to commercialization.
But “hipster” has a longer history than most realize. The term was first applied, all the way back in the late 1930s to those who liked “hot” jazz and bebop. These were the “hep cats” (later “hepsters” and, by the mid-1940s, “hipsters”) who shunned the contemporary mainstream as well as the social mores of the time.
First used to describe the predominantly black musicians and those in the jazz community, the definition expanded in the ’40s to include the provocative, young white folks who frequented jazz clubs, danced, experimented with sex and drugs (marijuana, or “tea” as it was called then, was chief among them), held anarchistic political views, sought increased racial equality and generally looked for “kicks.”
Clarinetist Artie Shaw famously cited Bing Crosby as an early hipster. In this environment, hipsters were those that turned away from the social norms and systems that they believed had failed them, much like the bohemians and dadaists before and the hippies after them. In fact, the term “hippie” is itself a diminutive slang word for “hipster.”
While the real hipster, in mid-century America, was concerned with social change, equality and pushing the boundaries of convention, the “hippie,” who was latching onto the movement in the ’50s and ’60s, was often just there for the party. The “hippie” was usually the well-off, white kid who came simply for the music, the sex and the drugs.
By the 1970s, the hipster movement had given way entirely to the hippies. And when they cut their hair and threw away their last hits of LSD, it was the end of a subcultural movement that had spanned at least four decades, starting in the raucous but practically invisible clubs of the black community and being pulled, grudgingly, into the mainstream.
When the weedy husk of the movement inevitably collapsed, so empty that it fell in on itself, it was because of two main factors: the legions of empty-headed youth who had filled the subculture, and in so doing emptied it of any substance, and the marketers who latched onto it in hopes of selling more records, influencing tastes and generally commercializing.
The same might be said of the current hipster movement, which was reignited in the late 1990s by bohemians in Brooklyn, and embodied some of the contrariness, the questioning of social conventions and the attitude of experimentation that had characterized the original hipster subculture. Modern hipsterism came out of the dominant revolting sub-cultures around the turn of the decade. It traces its roots to punk, grunge, urban culture, neo-hippies and goth styles, hence things like skinny jeans, tattoos, gauged earrings and undercuts.
Over the next decade, the oppositional style and lifestyle choices of the hipster movement were slowly embraced, first by celebrities and taste-makers and then by enterprising marketers and then by more and more of the general public.
Some say the concept of hipster has finally died, even if the term remains in our lexicon.
A 2010 piece in New York Magazine, aptly titled “What Was the Hipster?” asserts that “it is evident that we have reached the end of an epoch in the life of the type.” Even at that point, the piece claimed, “hipster” existed mainly in shopping malls or as a pejorative, having already been abandoned by in-the-know brands like American Apparel and Gawker.
The “Bobo” (a bourgeois bohemian — call it a French hipster) was just coming into its own at the turn of the century. Eight years later and the “French elite declare the Bobo extinct,” read the headline of a 2008 piece in The Guardian. The “urban, wealthy, left-wing (group), conscious of fashion and the environment, reviled by their compatriots, both courted and denigrated by politicians,” was all but dead.
It’s easy to say, then, that while the people and their progressive viewpoints may still exist, in 2014 the term has likely come to the end of its marketability.
Yet hipster lives on, in places like Maine — often the last to catch the wave or see the wave’s departing backside — and elsewhere, including Travel and Leisure magazine’s ongoing “America’s Best Cities for Hipsters” rating.
We would hope that, in the decades following the “summer of love,” even as a broad social movement geared down, the best elements of that subculture — open-mindedness, hopefulness, compassion for living creatures, flower headbands — slowly diffused into our collective consciousness. Perhaps this is the stage we are now at vis-a-vis the hipster movement.
Perhaps hipsters are becoming difficult to isolate because, well, they’re gone. But what is left is a handful of characteristics that we can all embrace, regardless of how we identify ourselves or how we’re identified on the subcultural spectrum.
Skinny jeans aside — in fact, throw all of the aesthetic elements away — and you have the soul of the hipster movement: a desire for social justice, mobility and equality; a healthy fear of corporate influence; a love of art; a desire to live in a healthy, fair world; a strong sense of irony. Forget the labels (as the true hipsters have been doing since the beginning). If you possess these qualities, we can all overlook a bad haircut.
Why the hipster hating?
Today, “hipster” is a word often shunned and avoided by those who might best be identified by it. In fact, since its resurfacing in the naughts, it’s hard to tell if the word was ever used as a self-identifier. It’s a term put on one group by another, and even among hipsterish people it’s become a pejorative.
A quick story illustrates. Shortly after I took on this piece, I ran into an old friend who I thought might offer some expert testimony on this theme. I thought this not because she is someone I would label a “hipster” (I’ve got more tact than that!), but because she has always been someone, in my mind, who pursues a unique, personal and unswervingly confident sense of style, whether in fashion, art or other medium. When I approached her, however, I made the mistake of beginning the conversation: “Hey, I think you might be able to help me out. See, I’m writing a story about hipsters . . .” That was as much as I needed to say before she gave me a couple choice words. I didn’t get any printable quotes. Her reaction was a consequence of my inadvertent suggestion that she was a hipster.
If we head back to Urban Dictionary, we’ll find more hipster-hating. The second most popular entry jokingly reads: “Definitions are too mainstream.” And the third entry, in similar fashion, states: “Someone who listens to bands you’ve never heard of, wears ironic tee-shirts, and believes they are better than you.”
It’s true that sarcasm, cynicism and sometimes an artistic pretentiousness are well-worn stereotypes of the hipster. But does this really explain all the hating?
Overall, the top-rated definition that Trey Parasuco gives on Urban Dictionary is flattering. And it even offers a little more insight into the mindset of the haters: A “lot of anti-hipster sentiment evidently comes from culturally-clueless [sic] suburban frat boy types who feel that the more sensitive, intelligent and culturally aware hipster ideal threatens their insecure sense of masculinity. Anti-hipster sentiment often comes from people who simply can’t keep up with social change and are envious of those who can.”
Indeed, it’s tough to find a resource on the topic — whether an interview, an academic piece or simply a blog posting — that doesn’t treat the subculture critically, dismissively or, most commonly, as if the author is trying to avidly convince the audience that he or she is not a hipster.
“One could say that irony is one of the facets of being a hipster,” said Ariel Berube, an employee at Bull Moose in Lewiston.
Cody DeGraff, a millennial living in Lewiston, suggested that hipster-hating was a natural part of the mentality. If your aim is to be ahead of the curve when it comes to fashion, media, food, etc., and the very term with which you identify has been slowly co-opted by marketers and pulled into the mainstream, then you must distance yourself from the term.
When tweens and frat brothers are borrowing from hipster opinions and sensibilities, then the true hipster must abandon the terminology (if not the original opinions and sensibilities) or risk being lumped in with a group that has arrived belatedly at what the hipster came to when it was still novel.