What is in a hipster?

(1)  "... Although hipsters are technically conformists within their own subculture, in comparison to the much larger mainstream mass, they are pioneers and leaders of the latest cultural trends and ideals...  The true irony here is that many of the detractors of hipster culture are in fact unknowingly following a path that hipsters have carved out years before them."

(2) "Definitions are too mainstream."
- Urban Dictionary


Most of Gen Y (and indeed, likely most of the people alive in the Western World) have encountered the word 'hipster'. A lot of people have been called it, and a lot of people have been calling it. The term seemed to arise out of a seemingly unpredictable fixation youth suddenly developed over vintage clothing, facial hair, tattoos, irony and bands-nobody-else-had-heard-of-which-were-ruined-as-soon-as-they-were-because-they-had-sold-out-and-become-mainstream.

The word 'Hipster' was coined in the 1940s, one of the two terms (the other being 'Hepcat') to refer to a blooming jazz subculture at the time. However, living in the present-centric world that we do today, that's totally irrelevant. What is relevant is how our post-2009 conception of the hipsters came to be, and furthermore how the hell you're supposed to spot one. The biggest problem here, as any studious social taxonomist will know, is that these kids we intuitively feel require the label and the understanding that we think they fit within it just really don't want it.

To perhaps try to begin piecing together an understanding of this subculture that doesn't want to be identified, we should start with some research. The best measure of a culture's conscious I believe rests in its its vernacular. Despite having dropped out of maths (and High School, no less) as soon as I could, I'm going to attempt to draw some sketchy conclusions from data. Data that I found on the internet.

I used Google Ngram Viewer (totally nifty device, get into it) to check out the frequency with which 'hipster' has been used in published material over the past 208 years - you know, just to see if your great grandparents were half as concerned about calling people out for rolling up the cuff of their pants. Voilà, here's the findings:

hipster chart1

The terms of comparison are 'beatnik' (the 60's version of a just as easily misunderstood subculture) and 'hype'. 'Hypebeast' didn't register at all on Ngram, as I'm guessing it's not only too colloquial, but also way too fresh to be popping up in any novellas of even the past decade. This pretty line graph shows us a few things:

1. The terms 'hipster' and 'beatnik' first began cropping up in books around the 1960s, lending creedance to the pretty much accepted fact that those subcultures were first recognised/created around that time period

2. 'Hype' totally became a thing in the early 2000's, increasingly falling into print on many a page from the 1980s until hitting its peak at about the time Hypebeast started, in 2005

But all this information really shows is published professionals' use of the words, which for all intents and purposes really does not usually serve as the best yardstick for what the layman is thinking about (although, it is extremely interesting seeing the increasing intellectualisation of the layman's interests). What we need, then, is some kind way of gleaning what the everyday person thinks about. What could possibly better provide insights into this than the very search engine we use to find out everything from whether we're pregnant to how to cook a potato? Enter stage right, Google Trends.hipster chart2

Here we go; the inside of your head and your smartphone history from 2004 to 2014. I thought 'YOLO' would stand as a beautiful lowest-common-denominator yardstick, a term which appears to have grown at an erratic, inexplicable pace, if we didn't know 2011 heralded the drop of Drake's 'The Motto'. Contrasting the disgusting temporarily incessant popularity of that term, we notice an interesting thing about our obsession with hipsterdom: it's been growing since 2009. Slowly, but steadily. The general public's interest seems to have waned with regard to 'hype' in and of itself, and we haven't really cared about beatniks for at least the past decade.

So what happened in 2009 [side-note: holy shit, that was five years ago]? Well, beside the fact that it started on a Thursday, it was the first year post the realisation that American banks had fucked up the world's economy and caused the Global Financial Crisis/'Recession'. It was the year that 'Swine Flu' was declared by the World Health Organisation as a global pandemic (for which you can thank the enduring trend of clinical facemasks in airports). Obama was sworn in to office. Michael Jackson died.

Correlation doesn't imply causation, so I really can't draw anything from that chunk of nostalgia and seriously present it as the impetus for the (re)birth of hipsters. Perhaps the best way to look at the situation, then, is the same way some common media outlets (I'm looking at you, New York Times) did - by "recognising" the movement as the culmination of, and theoretically subsequent end-times, of all culture. Characterised in this way, hipsters are the chewers and spitters of everything potentially and eventually trendy. They play on irony to the extent that irony loses all meaning. They clump together and conform in anti-conformity, throwing the observing 'normal people' into writhes of cognitive dissonance.

The shackles of definitive characteristics involving preferences for vinyl, moustaches, tatts and v-necks have now so far filtered into the 'mainstream'  that they're useless. And no others have since come to take their place. Consequently, 'hipster' has become the chosen derogatory slur thrown wholeheartedly at any individual who makes any show of distinction from the norm. It's the signifier for the person we judge has somehow 'tried too hard' by thinking about or involving themselves in things outside of the cliche box.

So, what's in a hipster? I've got no fucking clue.




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