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Has America finally had all the hipsters it can take?

June 18, 2012|By Matt Pearce

Outsiders might see Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Logan Square in Chicago or the Mission in San Francisco as nightmare hives of skinny-jeaned conformity. But once you looked closer, Greif said, you could see layers of kids jostling against and attacking each other over very different levels of status or money or privilege — from “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands” who hated “trust fund hipsters” who hated “couch-surfing hipsters” without stable families or other social nets — all just to prove themselves better than somebody else.

It turns out “hipster” is a big word that describes a deceptively complex group of people. But if the word gets much more popular, people probably won’t know what, exactly, they mean when they “hipster” at all — if they even do now.

Hipsters then and now

Judging from Google search data, hipsters’ lasting mainstream impact likely will be most visible on fashion. The top hipster-related search? “Hipster look.” The biggest-rising search? “Hipster glasses.”

LeBron James has hipster glasses. The NYPD has a hipster cop. And when GQ interviewed the hipster cop to talk about his retro look, it turned out that he was wearing stuff made by Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and J.Crew.

Not exactly subversive.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who specialized in writing about how taste is just another form of social competition, once wrote that “returns to past styles have never been more frequent than in these times of frenetic pursuit of originality.”

He was talking about French painters stealing from other French painters and making sly, obscure references in the heady days of modernism in the early 20th century. But the thought could also explain today’s ironic thefts of Dad’s 1980s wardrobe by a generation that, as polls have shown, prides itself on being more special than anybody.

But a lot of that self-importance seemed to come with heavy doses of irony and cynicism; Bertrand Russell, examining a similar trend of youthful cynicism in 1930, described it as a product of “comfort without power.” In those days, large numbers of talented, smart young people — produced by newfound levels of mass education — found themselves unable to get jobs commensurate with their skills, so they became cynics. (Sound familiar?)

And those qualities of self-importance and cynicism have become reviled by both the political right and the left today.

In July 2008, counterculture magazine Adbusters called hipsters “the dead end of Western Civilization” — just a bunch of self-absorbed, self-indulgent kids with no aspirations for the future who were getting manipulated by advertisers and marketers who were more than happy to sell them skinny jeans and trucker hats if they thought it made them look cool.

Instead of getting politically active or professionally ambitious, hipsters were sitting around sniping at everything and not really contributing anything. In the best-case scenario, they were consumerists no better than the older generation they were mocking.

“Western civilization's well has run dry,” Adbusters’ George Atherton cried then. “The only way to avoid hitting the colossus of societal failure that looms over the horizon is for the kids to abandon this vain existence and start over.”

The kids did not abandon this vain existence and start over. If the numbers mean anything, they say that the kids have only just begun.


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