The hipster – a much maligned cultural figure that is easily identifiable but yet know one can readily define them. ‘Fixie’ bicycle – check. Facial hair (on men, of course) – check. Tattoos – check. Retro clothing – check. Glasses, geeky or colourful – check. But what is a hipster? What do they stand for and are they representative of a deeper malaise in youth culture?
But what does hipsterism represent? Youth culture as we’ve known it has always had a soundtrack to suit the clothes and the look that sets it apart. Fashion and music have gone hand in hand since the teenager was born in the 50’s jet-age. In the second decade of the new millenium what is most notable is the absence of a singular defining youth culture movement.
Perhaps the internet has played a big part in this: with music being so readily available to be consumed – by illegal means or otherwise – no single genre has bragging rights amongst the kids. It is true that hip-hop has, since the mid-90s, come from strength to strength – but how relevant is the bling-bling culture and themes of get-rich-quick-you-can-have-it-all promotion of hip-hop in a world that has become accustomed to wobbling world markets and mass austerity?
As an ever increasing number of genres have come into being, it gets more and more difficult for youth culture to have a singular dominant narrative. Today’s kids are perhaps the most music savvy ever – it’s possible for teenagers and those in their early 20’s to have pop music from every post-War decade, encompassing every known genre on their ipods and iphones.
Yet Hipsterism, if it stands for anything seems to be a melding of the old and the new; the retro philosophy and weltenschauung of the Beat Generation with the 21st century consumer lust of gadgets – with Apple’s cutting edge gadgets being the symbolic hipster embellishment. Yet the sartorial choices of the hipster – everything from the facial hair to the comedy jumpers, are a salute to an ethereal past when ideas of fashion were not so fixed, an alternative reality (or past) where wardrobes and styles were won at a church tombola, and flung together with a personal sense of the ironic and self-deprecating.
Hipsterism, is in many ways, yet another indicator of class. Hipsters are by and large, middle-class and working in relatively low-paid but sought after positions in the creative arts industries. Educated to degree level and beyond, and time-served in the middle-class 21st century sweat-shops known as internships, hipsterism is a means of demonstrating the creative lifestyle and bohemia that the capitalist monster will allow. “Tune in, turn on and drop out” may have have been a maxim for a previous generation where late-capitalism and post-industrialisation of western cultures hadn’t quite mastered the trick of wilfully massaging the mirage of democracy and freedom upon its over-worked and underpaid populaces. Tuning in and turning on still maintain their absolute relevance in the internet-age, but with people (who are by no means all hipsters) queuing up for hours and days before the launch of the next Apple product, for this generation dropping out is not an option.
From the mid-1960’s until the early 90’s, every decade produced a youth culture that had a sound, a fashion and some political philosophy – or at least a focal point to rebel against, whether it was the Vietnam war or cultural stagnation in mid-70’s Britain, or the Criminal Justice Bill in the early 90’s. Hipsters, apart from having a de facto liberalism, have no defining moral standpoint.
Perhaps hipsterism is a perfect cultural narrative for the times: the make-do and mend second-hand chic and carbon-neutral bike as a mode of transport, is in some way in keeping with the austerity of the post-credit crisis world, a world which offers little in the way of political choice. Along with this is the embracing of new technology and the latest sought after gadget – ideas that clash, like a hipsters attire.
With the ‘American Century’ drawing to a close, and its cultural and political clout being eroded away by the rise of Chinese and eastern hegemony, the ideals that America gave to the world – that of political freedom, of youth worship and ‘the cool’ are slowly being chipped away in an era that has seen personal freedoms curbed through terrorism and descent crushed through a rapidly changing political landscape. The affectation that hipsterism gives off – the post-war aesthetics of don’t-give-a-fuck beat generation bohemia, have parallels in the times when the world was living with the daily threat of nuclear war, diffused into a cultural nihilism.
The final clue to Hipsterism being the last call of youth culture isn’t solely about Chinese imperialism either: An ageing world population will always hold youthhood in high regard, if only for sentimental reasons, but the grey agenda will come increasing to the forefront of thinking over the next decades – with many emerging economies placing the elderly, and wisdom that they bring, in a greater regard than the youth-fixated culture of America, placing greater emphasis and power on those who are closer to death than birth.
Youth culture isn’t going to disappear any time soon. But youth culture has grown up and is reaching a midlife crisis. And that crisis involves tattoos and knitted tank tops.