What’s so awful about being a hipster? Noah Brand looks into the issue.
“Yeah, I used to be into that, but now I really like something obscure you probably haven’t heard of.” Insert laughter.
Say hi to the only hipster joke, repeated ad infinitum, with occasional variants involving facial hair and skinny jeans. And it’s such utter bullshit that I just can’t take it any more.
The structure of mass media is this: certain things get really popular, usually because they’re well-marketed and have mass appeal. Even people who are only casually aware of an artform or genre will know about these things, and that’s cool. There will also always be many, many things that never become widely popular, but are truly excellent. Sometimes they’re ill-marketed, sometimes they’re highly specialized, other times they’re just not the sort of work that appeals to a massive audience. You only find out about these things when you care a lot about the subject.
Thus, almost all of us are hipsters. Sports aficionados speak highly of underrated players who don’t get marketed as stars, arguing strenuously for Joel Przybilla or Jemile Weeks. Casual music listeners (like myself) don’t know who Brian Eno is, but musicians tend to adore him. People who aren’t really into comic books have heard of Batman and the Hulk, but are unaware that the Hernandez brothers are gods. Serious book lovers will blow right past authors you’ve heard of and start going off on Georgette Heyer and why Patricia Highsmith’s short fiction is better than her novels. There are even political nerds, cracking Harold Stassen jokes to each other and trying to explain how it’s really all about the House Ways and Means Committee.
Right now, a lot of readers are wondering why I used such obvious references in the previous paragraph, instead of the really interesting stuff that’s off the radar. Congratulations, you’re a hipster.
So if hipsters are just people who care about something enough to dig down below the surface, whence cometh the endless hate and derision for them? Most folks will say it’s about the hipster attitude, the notion that knowing about obscure bands and artists makes them better than you. And that’s a fair criticism. That attitude does exist, and it arises in any fan community, because in fan communities, caring is currency. Caring more about something, as made manifest in knowing more about it, is how fans determine status. And that form of currency is, in itself, a reaction to social forces in an interesting way.
We live in a society that tends to devalue knowing things and caring about stuff. Our perception of “cool”, especially for men, is based on being too aloof and jaded to ever care about anything, and proudly ignorant of any number of important issues. This arises partly from a strain of anti-intellectualism in American society that runs back centuries and periodically produces disasters like George W. Bush, but just as important is the notion of vulnerability. To care about something is to make oneself vulnerable. It’s safer to be sardonically withdrawn from emotional engagement, never showing passion for anything lest it be mocked.
Thus hipsters of all stripes, including you, gentle reader, are engaged in a redefinition of cool. Cool, according to the new definition, is not defined by disengagement or emotional detachment. It is defined by passion, by the willingness to risk looking foolish in pursuit of something you really like. You are cooler than someone else not by caring less, but by caring more, by knowing more, by engaging more. That is, I’m just going to say it, a better definition.
So yes, there is value in being a hipster. There is honor in caring about art and culture, in studying the subject of one’s passion. I’ll wear the label proudly if only because everyone else seeks to dodge it. I am the thing nobody wants to admit to being, the Untrue Scotsman. Because you know what? Claiming not to be a hipster is so mainstream.