Hipster is a term that is difficult to define, mainly because its definition has changed so much over time. The term (arguably) first entered mass culture with the publication of Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which recounts the rise of the jazz-age hipster from the 1920s-40s and its later manifestation in Beat culture. In this controversial piece, Mailer states, “You can’t interview a hipster because his main goal is to get out of a society which, he thinks, is trying to make everyone over in its own image.” Thus from the very outset early in the twentieth century, the hipster remains elusive in terms of providing a self-definition. The hipster thus became defined instead by those observing from the outside. To self-identify as a hipster in early-mid twentieth century subcultures was to, in effect, not be a hipster at all. Thus, the very definition of a hipster, if we can even call it that, becomes a self-contradicting Catch-22.
In the age of jazz and the Beats, hipsterism was a means of deliberately constructed self-identification within an authentic counterculture (though such identification remained purposefully vague to those outside that culture). 20th century subcultures and countercultures have continually defined themselves through association with a certain brand of decidedly non-mainstream music. While the term “hipster” has moved in and out of use, the notion behind it has remained through each decade with each major shift in countercultural expression, from psychadelia to punk to goth to grunge and so forth with so many in between.
The qualifications for authenticity of this counterculture inevitably shift, however, as each sub/counterculture has eventually met an uber-commodified mainstream version of their own culture, and a tension between authenticity and “selling out” is always present (i.e., from the Sex Pistols to the “American Idiot” musical, the tension between Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans, or the “mainstream” “success” of Modest Mouse in 2004).
This is why the current sub/counterculture is so hard to define, but the fact that the term “hipster” has once again entered the lexicon allows for an interesting contrast between the hipsters of Mailer’s era and those today. There are sufficient working definitions of the current hipster all over the Interwebs (and even an evolutionary chart), but the current iteration seems even less self-indentifying than the previous generations, and the search for “authenticity” within counterculture has become riddled with even more anxiety in the wake of postmodernity and the Information Age.
But the term’s cultural currency has gotten the most mileage out of hipster humor. There are numerous blogs and websites devoted solely to making fun of hipsters, and these have become so pervasive that it seems those who make comedy at the expense of hipsterism have been the entities who most influentially define exactly what it is, and this media-entrenched pattern of meta-irony likely makes the trend seem even more pervasive than it actually is. Self-indentification (and, thus, any stable definition) is even more elusive because the term itself has denigrating associations (one can wear clothes and listen to music associated with hipsterism, but not actually “be one”). More importantly, however, is the larger function of the “Mailer effect” for the contemporary hipster: the hipster is defined even more by outside representation, not by self-definition.
Thus, stating who/what today’s hipster is like the legal attempt at defining porn: you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. And we’ve begun to see it all over premium cable television.
Exhibit A: Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-09)
This short-lived, endearing, occasionally brilliant exercise in subtle quirk comedy (the creators made the smart decision of stopping it after the second season when it was already running out of steam) isn’t your Weird Al brand of song parody. With some notable exceptions (“You Don’t Have to Be a Prostitute” riffing Sting’s “Roxanne,” “Bowie’s in Space” parodying Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as the episode does the same for his whole career, and “Albi the Racist Dragon” being a send-up of “Puff the Magic Dragon”), the Conchords preferred to engage in vague pastiche over direct referential parody in the great majority of their music. Songs like “She’s So Hot – Boom” (a reference to Shaggy or Snow?) and “Foux du fafa” implicitly reflect and echo genres, but are essentially parody without a direct object of critique.
While Bret and Jemaine certainly posses the sartorial signifiers of hipsterism (Bret’s ironic animal t-shirts/sweaters, Jemaine’s dark-rimmed glasses, etc.) and the show features the surrounding Park Slope area of Brooklyn as something of a character in of itself (though no Williamsburg/Bushwick, it’s still one of several hipster hubs in the borough), it is the simultaneously nostalgic, ironic, and ahistorically schizophrenic vague referencing to past popular music which defines the show as a unique and decisive reflection of a postmodern musical consumer culture associated with hipsterism.
Exhibit B: Bored to Death (HBO, 2009-present)
Placed right in the same time slot after FOTC’s departure, and taking place largely in the exact same neighborhood as that show, Bored to Death preoccupies itself largely with another aspect of hipster consumer culture altogether: the culture industry. Bored to Death presents a Brooklyn filled with prematurely washed-up early-30s unemployed artists obsessed with making their cultural mark through print (Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames through writing novels, Zach Galifianakis’s Ray through comic publishing (and Galifianakis is nothing if not the hipster standup comic, and Schwartzman hipsterism’s indie film representative)). Everybody is ambitious but lazy and uninspired, while a criticism from Slate is peeking around every corner. It’s a self-aware kind of comedy: jokes about anything from gentrification to rent control apartments abound, wrapped up anachronistically through the series’ academic-nostalgic romance with literary noir.
But what’s most interesting about Bored to Death is its scope: it represents a consumer/producer subculture not in a vacuum, but interacting with other components making up the diverse cultural intersections of NYC. Park Slope hipsters clash with Park Slope moms, Schwartzman at one point confronts skater kids, and there exists a hyper-aware throughline of characterizing distinctions made between Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Perhaps most interesting is the presence of George (Ted Danson), Jonathan’s pot-smoking boss who constantly reflects on his past conquests during the sexual revolution while he watches print die in front of his eyes, thus providing a generational contrast between two different brands of hipster.
Exhibit C: Portlandia (IFC, now)
Portlandia represents the inevitable logical extent in the evolution of hipster-based comedy. The show is essentially Internet hipster jokes manifested in sketch form (think of it as an adaptation of “Stuff White People Like”). Headlined by SNL player Fred Armisen and former Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein, the show perhaps exhibits best the definitions of hipsterism that arise from the critique of hipster comedy. In contrast to the desperately attempted anti-materialism of past subcultures (the original hipsters, the Beats, punk), Portlandia posits hipsterism as accelerated, obsessive consumerism, whether through engaging in technology and social media, locavorism, competitive consumption of culture, or simply putting birds on everything. Like the other two shows and as evidenced by its title, Portlandia engages in a hyperawreness of place, but the nostalgia introduced in the series’ opening song is misleading: instead of seeing the city and, by extent, hipsterism, as a continuation of 90s Pacific northwest culture (which, at least initially, possessed a nominal banner of anticonsumerism), Portlandia points toward a greater shift toward a larger and more transparent culture of conspicuous consumption amongst (mostly) white liberals that is hardly exclusive to Portland.
While it’s difficult to see exactly what the hit-and-miss show is saying besides “people do this stuff,” Portlandia does provide further evidence that those most concerned with critiquing, parodying, or exaggerating hipster culture are often those who themselves engage in and are preoccupied with the very practices being lampooned. But in portraying contemporary hipsterism as nothing but excessive consumption, the sub/counterculture is then revealed to be neither “sub” nor “counter” but one component of a heterogeneous system of capital – which if one follows the repeated histories of “selling out” is arguably what all the predating subcultures inevitably became anyway.
Sorry, Norman, but the search for authentic self-expression is futile.