Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Operationalizing the Hipster

On Facebook today, a friend posted this cartoon, accompanied by a note which read: “[R]elevant to many "Hipster" conversations [I]'ve had recently, [I] think this does a good job of pin-pointing the empty phrase.” I certainly concur that it humorously depicts a real phenomenon of hipsterism, primarily because the term hipster has become an epithet that is rarely, if ever, portrayed in a positive light, but it does not define what a hipster is. I don’t necessarily believe that it is an empty phrase, although it may seem that way, being so ill-defined. Usually, the definition is based on the old adage “I know it when I see it,” (incidentally, the same way in which Justice Potter Stewart defined hard-core pornography) rather than a definition of what it is, or what it is not, beyond superficialities.

I wrote my Master’s thesis on digital music consumption and, in focus groups of music listeners, the character (or caricature) of the “hipster” emerged frequently, usually as representative of a type of elitism, coolly sitting in judgment of current music and its fans. When I wrote about this, my advisor asked me to operationalize this term, meaning that I had to define it in academic terms well beyond the anecdotal way that I had been using it. In short, she was asking me to fill this empty phrase.

Ultimately, what I came up with was this:

The hipster phenomenon is confusing because, generally used as a pejorative term, it is rare to find people who will willingly define themselves as such. More difficult is coming up with an adequate definition for a hipster without relying on stereotypes (skinny jeans, Converse All-Stars and thick rimmed glasses without frames in them). This new type of hipster is not to be confused with the hipsters of the 1950s. The original hipsters, as described by Hebdige in Subcultures: The Meaning of Style (1979), were a white youth subculture based on a kinship for urban African-American culture, speaking the same lingo, having the same love for jazz, and sharing a world view with urban African-Americans including the aspirations of making out and moving up” (p.49). This was in contrast with the beats, who, on the other hand, were described as being far more suburban. Far from understanding, or even trying to understand, the actual desires of African-Americans, the beats idealized their poverty, which, to them represented “a divine essence, a state of grace, a sanctuary” (p. 49). As opposed to the hipsters, who were portrayed as actually being in the know, the beats were described as essentially slumming, cultural tourists, completely out of touch with the actual culture except for an appreciation for jazz music.

Today’s hipster is not defined by a relation to African-American culture, although it could be argued that the stand-offish Brooklyn hipster of today, perhaps unknowingly, emulates the cool, elusiveness of the prototypical jazz musician. Arguably the best definition of today’s hipster comes from Will Straw (1997) who defined hipness in relation to record collectors. To him, hipness involved the cultivation of knowledge which would be protected with a particular nonchalance. Thus, the hipster would not readily divulge what he (Straw was defining hipness in terms of male archetypes) knew because he would not want to let on that such knowledge often came from scholarly or pedantic study as opposed to experience or instinct, and to maintain boundaries that make the hipster seem “elusive and enigmatic” (p.9). No more would the jazz musician tell a fan what records he studied that influenced his sound, insisting that his playing was all “feel,” than would a hipster record collector confess that his tastes developed over years of listening to records alone and reading music magazines and musicians’ biographies.

In short, I determined that it is kind of a know-it-all-ism with the sources of knowledge hidden from view. One may argue that hipness, then, is a fa├žade to prevent the world from knowing how uncool they really are, but I don’t wish to make judgments. My theory of hipsterism is summed up the old joke:

“How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb?”

“(Scoffs) What, you don’t know?”

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Straw, W. (1997). Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture. In S. Whitely (Ed.), Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (pp. 3-16). London: Routledge.