The year is 2006. Young, naïve, Abercrombie-wearing Mary is sitting in her room listening to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and texting her friend on her pink Motorola “Razr” cell phone. Fast-forward seven years to the summer of 2013 and this same girl finds herself smoking a cigarette at a Vampire Weekend concert, wearing high waisted jean shorts that she bought for 3 dollars in a thrift store. Once, everyone wanted to be the same as one another. It was almost as if overnight, people changed their minds and said, “Hey, I’d like to be different than everyone else now.” Sure, Vampire Weekend’s fan base has gained momentum in recent years, but their “indie” sound was by no means the same genre of music I was listening to in sixth grade. God forbid I ever ventured from the iTunes top 100 back in the day; the sixth grade cool police might have written me up and prevented me from watching a Laguna Beach marathon with the rest of the “in” crowd.
What happened to my idea of cool? Did my personal preferences change, or did I change to fit my surroundings? I had taken a small step into the hipster trap. But then again, so did everyone else around me, and I was not about to be left behind and uncool. Aside from the fear of exclusion, certain aspects of the hipster movement opened new doors for me. I still sang along to Shakira’s chart topping hits, but seeing everyone else adopt a style that was different made me less afraid to express some of my hidden interests that were not considered “cool” in earlier times. The typically urban subculture that arrived in Buffalo seemed to sweep me off my feet, in good ways and bad.
Subcultures have always existed in society, responding to the mainstream and sticking it to “the man.” From ’60s hippies to ’90s grungers, groups of people acting in favor of nonconformity is nothing new. Is this just our generation rebelling against cultural norms? Kevin Clang of Boston.com writes that unlike these past movements, the hipster movement is “the first of its kind seemingly satisfied to just be, without the drive to do or change anything.” It relies almost exclusively on individuality, rather than a given set of values or goals, as opposed to the beat generation or hippies. There is a lack of political motivation that has fed past social movements. Hipsters aren’t known for trying to change a social construct or make any real difference in the world. The movement exists “for the sake of itself,” but does not favor recognizing itself as a group (Clang). It is the subculture that does not want to be a subculture.
Hipsters take pride in being the minority, making great efforts to not be grouped as mainstream. They like indie bands, thrift shopping, listening to vinyl, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, wearing thick glasses, and knowing cultural objects that no one else knows about. The cultural objects that are associated with hipsterdom seem to be one giant reference to the past, in an attempt to rise above the consumerism of the modern day. Having things that are “vintage” or “retro” is a trademark of the hipster. An older man who listens to vinyl on his record player does so because he has been doing it since record players have been around and perhaps under. A younger person who listens to vinyl on a record player might be associated with hipsters because it is believed that he is only doing it to be “cool” rather than appreciating vinyl’s higher audio fidelity or past musical tradition. Perceived motives classify hipsters. In admiring similar things, hipsters have accidentally formed their own group, a culture that moved into the mainstream they carefully tried to avoid.
When I asked my friend Chris if I could interview him about being a hipster, he was offended and said that he resisted labels. Of course I responded that that was a very hipster thing to say. No one wants to be branded as one concrete thing, but his reluctance stems from the stigma, and possible misconception, that hipsters see themselves as superior which is part of the reason why they are so easily mocked. It seems like hipsters might be trying too hard to be different and think they are better for actively making this effort. If people have to try so hard to “be themselves,” then are they really being themselves?
Nevertheless, the movement that prided itself on individuality grew at rapid speed, and gained popularity in a subculture that rejected popularity. In “There’s Nothing Hip About Being a ‘Hipster’ Anymore,” Mel DeCandia mentions a statistic stating that in the 2012 elections, “50 percent of voters 18-29 identified themselves as hipsters, according to The Washington Post.” Urban Outfitters gained notoriety in the middle of ’00s decade for making “hipster” products available,and subsequently became popular to the masses. The media embraced the change as well. Popular films like 500 Days of Summer and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, emphasize individuality and indie soundtracks. While the popularity of these films would qualify them as part of the mainstream, they highlight certain hipster components. The characters have eccentric cultural tastes, and appear to have had a significant impact on youth interests. We all wanted to take pictures with a Polaroid camera and listen to The Smiths after watching these statement pieces. It suddenly became cool to not be cool. Being “different” was the latest trend.
How did being different become cool? What even makes something cool? This will most likely remain a mystery for a very long time, making it almost impossible to predict what the next “cool” object will be. However, certain theories of “cool” can point us in a helpful direction to discover why the hipster movement might have occurred. In “What Makes Things Cool? How Autonomy Influences Perceived Coolness,” an article in a journal of consumer research, authors Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell study the meaning of “cool” and how an object’s or trend’s “coolness” develops. They clarify that “cool” is a “perception or an attribution bestowed by an audience,” not something that is inherent in an object (Warren and Campbell 544). As a result of their studies, they formed a theory that suggests consumers perceive a cultural object to be cool when they believe it is autonomous in an appropriate way. In defining the word “autonomous”, the authors emphasize the object’s independence of social norms, in terms of its motivations. However, the “cool” behavior must be deemed as effective and valuable as the norm, and the norm must be one that is not considered legitimate (e.g. necessary, socially beneficial) by the participants in the culture or subculture that rejects the norms (Warren and Campbell 546). What does this have to do with the hipster movement? The hipster subculture is almost exclusively defined by interest in new and unconventional cultural objects. If an autonomous object is more likely to be cool, then it was only a matter of time before the hipsters and their “unique” tastes moved into the spotlight.
Cultural objects don’t instantly become cool because they are distinct from norms. They need exposure through social connections. This connection provides a path for coolness to occur, and is one of the reasons that many people cite as to how they found their way into the indie scene. Maria, a 22-year-old artist, describes how the mix tape that her sister made for her was the turning point in her musical interests. She stopped listening to pop radio and started listening to alternative rock, a genre she was unfamiliar with prior to the mix tape (Arsel & Thompson 797). My friend Chris had a similar story when asked how he grew into his tastes. His brother had given him a CD featuring some indie bands, and he immediately fell in love. Once he had discovered what he liked on a deeper level, he embraced it completely and did not hide it from his social circle. He states that in doing so, one of his close friends also began to listen to similar music and dress in a similar fashion. Seeing other people highlight their different tastes makes this socially acceptable to us, and in turn we are more inclined to highlight our own interests. We try so hard to see ourselves as special, so the qualities that make us exceptionally different “become increasingly central to our identity” (Arsel & Thompson 798). Therefore, we tend to expose those qualities to others, thus furthering whatever values they carry with them. The hipster movement’s focus on identity and individuality was perpetuated through the sharing of social experiences.
I asked Chris what he thought of the hipster movement gaining prevalence in our personal circle of friends and he said, “We simply got older, and with maturity we grew out of the fear of being different, unlike when we were younger and our only goals were to ‘fit in.’” To me, society used to be all about fitting in. Having what everyone else had. Doing what everyone else did. In a sense, the hipster trend follows this pattern as well. Liking unique things makes you a hipster, just like everyone else. If everyone is a hipster, is anyone a hipster? Is there anything unique about being a hipster anymore? Being a hipster is being an individual, to a certain extent. They like things that are in contrast with societal norms, but these things are the same “different” things that the rest of hipsters like. In that sense, being a hipster might not be equal to being an individualist.
As much as we like to roll our eyes at it, the hipsters taught us it was okay to like what we like, no matter how many or few other people like it. My sister, Annie, might be viewed as part of the mainstream, as she wears popular name-brand clothing and listens to top 40 music on the radio. When asked how she formed her interests, she answered, “I’m not sure because I don’t do it consciously, I just like what I like and there’s nothing more to it.” I’ll admit that in recent years, I saw my sister as “uncultured” because she was listening to music that I deemed unworthy. But she doesn’t care how many other people share her interests, and she doesn’t care about being branded “mainstream.” Maybe we are getting too caught up in trying to label others, in order to see ourselves as “different.” We quickly write someone off as a hipster or as being in the mainstream, and think, “that is not me; I am different from those people.” We forget that we are all unique in our own ways, and that our worth and individuality isn’t defined by what we like. Instead of questioning the authenticity of the hipster label itself, perhaps the focus should be more on our personal individuality. Society cannot expect us to be ourselves if we are just going to be categorized in the end. We are all unique in our own identities, regardless of labels associated with our cultural interests or how we formed those interests in the first place.
Arsel, Zeynep, and Craig J. Thompson. “Demythologizing Consumption Practices: How Consumers Protect Their Field-Dependent Identity Investments from Devaluing Marketplace Myths.” The Journal of Consumer Research 37.5 (2011): 791-806. JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Bamrick, Annie. Personal Interview. 8 December 2014.
Clang, Kevin. “There’s No Point to Being a Hipster.” Boston.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC, 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 November 2014.
DeCandia, Mel. “There’s Nothing Hip About Being a ‘Hipster’ Anymore.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 November 2014.
Hamburger, Chris. Personal Interview. 1 December 2014.
Warren, Caleb, and Margaret C. Campbell. “What Makes Things Cool? How Autonomy Influences Perceived Coolness.” The Journal of Consumer Research 41.2 (2014): 543-63. JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press. August 2014. Web. 24 November 2014.