In defense of hipsters

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By Tom McCauley – Contributor

The epithet “hipster” is flung around a lot, but no one seems able to define what a hipster is. Is it someone who dresses oddly, drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon and loves music most people have never heard of? Then we’ve got hundreds, possibly over a thousand of these characters (myself included) careering around Omaha, all going to record stores and fist-bumping one another.

Spend some time with any young, skinny dude sporting an ironic mustache or a girl wearing her grandma’s living room curtain as a dress, however, and you’ll probably hear a condescending joke or two about hipsters told in a way that makes it clear you’re not supposed to think the joker is, God forbid, a hipster. Even though it’s totally obvious that they are.

I am as guilty of this as the next person. But why?

When did “hipster” gain such a negative undertone? As recently as ten years ago,  Joe Strummer of The Clash said in a Guitar World interview that “you want a crowd of hipsters at your show so you can hang out with them afterwards. They’ll show you all the cool places in a city.”

In Norman Mailer’s revolutionary 1957 essay on hipsters, “The White Negro,” he wrote that hipsters – who loved sex, marijuana, jazz and having a good time in an era where Ward and June Cleaver represented the white-bread mores of mainstream America – ultimately wanted to “divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”  Sounds pretty cool to me, at least on paper.

Heavens to Betsy, how the situation has changed.

Now it seems a hipster is a schmuck who likes all the things you like – the same bands, films and pastimes – but likes them for the wrong reasons, whatever those are.

The term has completely lost its socially-revolutionary connotations and has become a catch-all slag for a subset of young adults who go to underground rock and hip-hop shows, wear mismatched clothes, and harbor overweening opinions on things that don’t matter to most of the world, such as the view that every publicly-acclaimed band’s new album sucks.

Even the word conjures a hilarious image in many people’s minds, as evinced by “Look at this F***ing Hipster,” a popular website and now best-selling book of irreverent photos that is probably only bought by hipsters themselves. Which is appropriate, because hipsters appreciate irony – especially the irony of un-self-realized hipsterhood.

I’d like to see a return to the days when “hipster” was code for “avant-garde intellectual” rather than “sartorial goofball.” Hipster used to represent a daring social category of young folks: those who lived on the fringe because they had compelling intellectual and moral reasons to reject mainstream society and refused to allow their lives to be dictated by deep-rooted institutions and vapid public opinion. They helped pave the way for a new morality unencumbered by outmoded traditions. We might all be wearing ankle-length dresses and fancy slacks and getting married at age eighteen if not for the influence of the hipsters or their bastard stepchildren, the hippies.

Today’s counterparts to yesterday’s hipsters shun the term, using it to brand those they view as poseurs and weirdoes. Hipsters are becoming as maligned as Emokids (another misunderstood term), and that’s a shame, because the word hipster is great word with a fascinating history. Plus, it’s less ridiculous than hepcat.

So, come on, all you hipsters. Embrace your hipster selves. Lift your Milan Kundera books to the heavens.

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