Intersections The Undead Hipster
“If you can’t have money, cool will do.”
This is Intersections, a column by Kashana Cauley. Every other month, Cauley will explore the intersection of class and culture in her life.
You’d probably think you know why you hate my Brooklyn neighborhood the second you step into it. You’d turn up your nose at the store that only sells small-batch artisanal mayonnaise and the combination surf shop/third-wave coffee shop/Korean seafood place. You’d scoff at the skinny-jeaned masses, the exquisitely maintained beards, the thrift-shop sweaters. And you’d think you had the people under the clothes and hair nailed as well.
You probably wouldn’t know what to think of me: my blackness, my pink-tipped hair, my cheap apartment in an elegant brownstone, and my predilection for the band Tame Impala. If you asked me whether I was a hipster, I would probably say no, but I wouldn’t say I hated them. How could I hate the people who listen to the same music I do, dye their hair with the same cheap dyes I use, and eat Korean tacos too because they’re one way to enjoy our lives without buying a house or a car or some other item we can’t afford? There’s a struggle that brings us together: a quiet knowledge that our time in this neighborhood is temporary; that we, because we’ll never have as comfortable a lifestyle as our parents, are biding time in places we find fun until rising rents kick us out.
The stereotypical hipster is a young, white, middle-class aesthete who demonstrates superior cultural taste through their choice of clothing, music, food, and drink. Generally, hipsters aren’t artists or writers or musicians—they’re the people who, instead of engaging in creative pursuits themselves, adopt the lifestyles of people who do. It isn’t acceptable to identify as a hipster, because it would be weird for someone to call themselves hip or admit they were a poseur. But they don’t need to call themselves hipsters: They’re quietly busy being hipper than you by consuming culture that you’ve either never heard of or don’t understand well enough to find cool.
Aesthetic tastes aside, hipsters are, first and foremost, young people. Today’s young people—millennials—make less money than our parents did . Our salaries are lower, our college debt is sky-high, and our job security is, in many cases, nonexistent . We’re more unemployed and underemployed than older people; we do more part-time work . We came of age in an era where the cities that allow us to work our way into the middle class have unaffordable housing, and the cities with affordable housing have limited class mobility, so relocating to make ourselves better off often isn’t an option .
Still, the thing the hipster is most often described as is dead. A Google search for the phrase “hipster is dead” pulled up millions of results . You can buy a “Hipster is Dead” poster for $12.96 . “What Was the Hipster?” asks an N+1 book published in 2010 that concludes that strains of anti-materialism have diminished the appeal of hipsters’ traditional emphasis on consumer goods .
John Saward argues in an ambitious Vice article from December 2015 called “Here Lies the Hipster” that the hipster is dead because we all receive and accept the exact same taste cues from the internet: “There are no cultural elites because there is no scarcity. On the internet, anyone can be a billionaire. TFW, emojis, memes that speak to your most omg same! impulses, the universality of all things . . . We are the same people, always, our need for community and rebellion and isolated self-realization simultaneously. ”
Other arguments for the hipster’s demise: Hipsters have been replaced by a more moneyed subculture that combines hipster taste with yuppie careers called the “ yuccie ” ; hipster style is out of fashion ; and the popular yet circular argument that the hipster is dead because we hate them so we’re sure they’ll go away soon.
People have declared modern hipsterism over since 2009 . Hipsters are being killed off by cultural critics while I watch an artisanal grocery store, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a bicycle store open in my neighborhood in the last calendar year. The hipsters are dying, articles insist, while I walk past liquor shelves filled with quinoa-based whiskey. Thank God the hipster is gone, say the numerous other articles that ran with the aforementioned Vice story as part of an investigation into the hipster’s demise. The length of our culture’s funeral for the hipster—seven years of eulogies—suggests that rather than dead, the hipster is undead: a cultural phenomenon destined to torture us forever. Why won’t the hipster die?
Hipsters have lusted after inexpensive cultural pleasures for the last eighty years. The term arose in 1941 to replace the word “hepster,” which meant the same thing: black jazz musicians who spoke jive, and their white fans . As jazz gave way to bebop and, in the fifties and sixties, the rise of beat poetry, the hipster’s taste evolved too. In a 1957 essay called “ The White Negro ,” Norman Mailer described hipsters as black people and the whites who imitated them through their pursuit of sex and the proper deployment of cool language: “Like children, hipsters are fighting for the sweet, and their language is a set of subtle indications of their success or failure in the competition for pleasure. Unstated but obvious is the social sense that there is not nearly enough sweet for everyone. And so the sweet goes only to the victor, the best, the most, the man who knows the most about how to find his energy and how not to lose it.”
Jazz musicians first started shortening hipster to “hippy” or “hippie” in the late forties , and it took over as the dominant term in the late sixties for people into free love, pot smoking, and psychedelic music. But in the seventies, “hippie” became a derogatory term, as did the term “hipster” when we resurrected it in the nineties. Today’s hipsters are blamed for everything from self-absorption to gentrification to expensive beer and bad music . They buy coffee and bikes and clothes and vinyl en masse for one pleasurable hit after another.
But the culture the hipster consumes doesn’t tend to cost much. Sure, a $4 cup of pour-over coffee or a $5 short-rib taco isn’t cheap—but compared to, say, a house, the goods the hipster is known to buy often aren’t very expensive. Hipsters aren’t buying houses, or cars, or other “big-ticket” items . They’ve been frozen out of the long-term purchasing economy by the 2008 recession and boomers’ refusal to retire .
Even if you ignore the data on how little money the overwhelming majority of young people make in order to decide that hipsters are a tiny, moneyed subset of millennials, hipster culture has become popular enough that even its more expensive facets can be bought cheaply . “Hipsters, after all, know how to adapt,” argues a 2011 NPR story , “how to make the cheap chic, the disheveled dishy, the peripheral preferable. A shaky, shabby economy is the perfect breeding ground for hipsters.” Most people can afford to shop at thrift stores; the right vinyl and books can be found used as well as new. Restaurants can be pricey, but grocery stores are crawling with cheaper versions of artisanal food. If you’re dedicated, you can always fix up an old bike. If you can’t have money, cool will do.
Buying affordable luxuries makes sense as a method to survive and find pleasure in an exclusive economy that’s shrinking the middle class . The optimistic way to look at a city like Portland, Oregon is to decide that food trucks, hand-crafted greeting cards, and craft beer have created a unique, fun culture; the pessimistic view is that young people take solace in hipster cool in order to paper over the “economic stagnation that set in after the collapse of timber industry [and] redlining and other manifestations of racial discrimination that persisted into the 1990s .”
Thirteen dollars will buy you a craft cocktail in Brooklyn, but you’ll have to scrape together $739,610 to buy an apartment . Since the average New York millennial makes just under $40,000 a year , buying a Brooklyn home isn’t in the cards.
Despite the hipster’s lack of cash, cities have openly attempted to attract them as a revitalization strategy. In his article “Dead End on Shakin’ Street,” Thomas Frank discusses the failure of city government-led efforts to attract hipsters to gentrify post-industrial urban economies in Cincinnati, Detroit, and Cleveland. “The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple of thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic .”
A few things went wrong with that plan. Hipsters don’t make any money, so they can’t, and never have , spent a city back from the brink. Corporations see coolness “almost as vital for drawing good workers as more traditional benefits like retirement plans and health insurance ,” i.e. an excuse to compensate people less. And hipsters who do succeed in making neighborhoods cool get priced out of them.
If local governments want hipsters around, and young people are buying hipster goods to distract themselves from the reality of how much worse off they’re doing than their parents, there’s no good reason for the hipster to die unless we form and encourage labor unions, implement truly universal health care, make college affordable, and otherwise enact the kinds of public policies that put people back into the middle class. Millennials are the most nonwhite generation the U.S. has ever had ; any policy changes meant to benefit us will have to account for the financial effects of the past and current discrimination we’ve faced as well.
Except we seem to be moving in the other direction. College tuition continues to spike. Temporary jobs have increased by 57% from 2009-2014, and are projected to continue increasing . Declining union membership has been linked to a decline in the number of people in the middle class, and both of these trends don’t show any sign of ending . As of December 2015, for the first time in more than forty years, the majority of Americans aren’t middle class .
A history of labeling black neighborhoods as credit risks has left minorities in segregated neighborhoods with lower home values, high poverty rates, low-quality schools, and higher interest rate mortgages . Blacks and Latinos receive lower returns on college degrees , suffer from higher unemployment rates than other groups , and make less money when employed . Our failure to close this minority wealth gap means that the country, as a whole, is becoming financially worse off.
My generation made the mistake of entering the workforce at the wrong time. And what we’re being offered in exchange for this error is hot dogs made from locally sourced meat . And seasonal Appalachian food . And an Australian-style coffee shop called Sweatshop that also sells barista-designed socks. I can buy all-natural ice cream filled with homemade cookies and candy a few blocks from my apartment. Or a truckload of cheap vintage clothes. I don’t mind buying any of these things when I can, but they sometimes feel like crappy substitutes for job stability.
My hipster friends and I—the ones who live in Brooklyn and the ones who don’t—haven’t had a conversation in years that hasn’t included our terror of rent increases. We are happy with our local restaurants and bars and our proximity to the people we like to hang out with, but acutely aware that if our apartments cost a couple hundred dollars more per month, much of what we like about our lifestyles might disappear. We would love to buy, to put down roots, to stay in the neighborhoods we’ve rented in for years. We have careers that give us enough money to enjoy ourselves and enough uncertainty about whether we’ll be able to keep working in them to have to keep planning for that day when we have to leave.
In the meantime, I can eat hip, wear it, and hang out with people who do the same. I do like artisanal food and vintage clothes. But I’d trade their proliferation in a heartbeat for the chance to eliminate my high-five-figure student debt or buy an apartment. Hipsterism will never satisfyingly replace middle-class comfort. Every consumption hit puts off my thoughts about how economically screwed my generation is for only so long.