Defining and Exploring Modern-Day Hipster Culture

Jessica Lee

The word “hipster” instantly brings to mind a number of stereotypical images: Ray-Ban sunglasses, record players, moustaches and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

The television show “Portlandia” on IFC has hipster-mocking down to an art. From the local grocers who snub you if you don’t bring your own bag to the bartender who wants to be referred to as a mixologist, the characters on the show are extreme examples of hipster subcultures.

But although the word “hipster” is thrown around on a regular basis, it is hard to define what hipster actually is when the subculture is continually evolving. Each person has his or her own idea of what a hipster is, so giving the word “hipster” a concrete definition is virtually impossible.

Rhetoric of Hipsterdom professor Christopher Taylor teaches how the modern day hipster came to be.

The word “hipster” is a derivative of the word “hip,” and according to Taylor, the original hipsters were young African-American males who lived in urban environments during the ’50s. They found community in jazz music, specifically bebop and a language they developed called jive.

From that culture sprung the Beats, poets who lived a vagrant lifestyle in search of brotherhood. Later, the hippies took that sense of community to the extreme by living in communes and sharing their belongings. The punks, on the other hand, used anti-authoritative beliefs as a means of coming together.

But the question remains: What is the modern-day hipster?

Taylor believes that to even begin to define a hipster, you must first understand apriorism.

“Apriorism is this instinctive knowledge where you evaluate something before it exists,” Taylor said. “It’s really important for a lot of people to have this uncanny knack to identify what is good before the rest of the world knows.”

Apriorism serves as the hallmark of hipsterdom, and ”Portlandia,” of course, has tackled it with typical subtlety. One of Fred Armisen’s quirky Portland characters, the “it’s over!” guy, exhibits apriorism to an extreme degree. In one episode, he rides his bike up to a bar he had presumably previously patronized himself, and sees a man in a suit inside. He immediately exclaims that the bar is “over” because if a “mainstream guy” like that is inside, then it isn’t cool anymore.

But there is more to the hipster than just knowing about something before the rest of the world does. The hipster is all about image.

Editor and contributor to the book “What Was the Hipster?,” Mark Greif writes that the hipster is the “hip consumer.” According to Greif, the hipster is one who does not create but instead consumes in all the right ways, whether it be eating the right food, wearing the right clothes or listening to the right music.

Christina Lough, drummer for Austin band Foreign Mothers, echoes the belief that a hipster is someone who does not create anything original and merely recycles others’ interests and aesthetics to cultivate a hip persona.

“Hipsters see an original person or a group of original people who have certain interests and hobbies and mimic it because they think those people are cool,” Lough said.

Austin filmmaker Ryan Brown is currently working on a documentary about hipsterdom. Brown believes that hipsters started out as a group of people who believed adamantly in one particular thing such as eating organically and buying locally. It was when others began to pose as hipsters that the term lost its positive affiliation.

“I think that the modern form of the hipster is people who have actual beliefs,” Brown said. “But then it became cool and gained this cool factor losing the philosophical part.”

Brown has found the word “hipster” is now used as a derogatory term. As a result, no one wants to affiliate himself with that label. Taylor agrees.

“People don’t like to be labeled,” Taylor said. “Who wants to be predictable? Who wants to be hipster? The most hipster-y thing you can do is living your life constantly evading being labeled as a hipster.”

Each generation has its own subculture, and it certainly appears that ours is this modern version of the hipster, as undefinable as it seemingly is. It will be interesting to look back 10 years from now and analyze what the hipster was, but for now, we can only theorize.

Printed on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 as: the origins of the hipster: Hipster definition evolves with culture, dates back to Bebop generation