Medium: Cool

Medium: Cool

Imagine you are a visitor to a church, and you walk in to find that nearly everyone around you is a well-dressed, fashionable, “indie”-looking twentysomething with skinny jeans, stylish hair, and a clear sense of cutting-edge fashion. You look at yourself, and you don’t fit in. You feel self-consciously excluded, unfashionable and awkward. We all know what this feels like. Whenever you’re around a bunch of hipsters and you are clearly not as hip, you feel uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel that way.

Introducing the Poorgeoisie

When I was in New York City earlier this year, I took some pictures of a person lying on a couch on a sidewalk in the East Village. I wasn’t sure if he was a hipster or a homeless person. This question has come up numerous times in my hipster field research over the last couple years, and it’s definitely becoming harder to tell the difference. Apparently the homeless look is hotter than ever. Actually, I first noticed the trend a few years ago in L.A. and wrote a post on my blog entitled “Derelict Chic” back in 2007.

A New York City Blur

A New York City Blur

“Only connect.” That is the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s Howards End—a book I have not actually read, but which I have on my list. “Only connect” is a sort of life mantra for a friend I had dinner with in Brooklyn last night, and in thinking about what I could say about my NYC experiences over the past few days, the phrase kept coming up. “Only connect.”

Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but it’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

Obama's Blow to Hipster Cynicism

When Obama won the presidency on November 4, 2008, hipsters everywhere were ecstatic. The vast majority of hipsters (that is: indie-dressing fashionable young anti-establishmentarians) were Obama fans, and those that were not were mostly anarchists or otherwise apolitical or libertarian. But while Obama’s election was a proud moment for hipsters, it was also a significant blow to their long-term viability.

Hipsters Getting Married

I saw Rachel Getting Married over the weekend, and really enjoyed it. It features a performance by Anne Hathaway that more than meets its billing, as well as some remarkable supporting performances from Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt (in the title role). The movie is artfully made and certainly Jonathan Demme’s best directorial effort since Silence of the Lambs.

But the thing I like most about this movie is its commitment to hipster realism. It has an almost ethnographic-like attention to the details and culture of hipster, which I—as a person who is currently writing a book about hipsters—readily appreciated.

The movie is about a wedding—the marriage between Rachel (a pasty white woman in her early thirties) and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), who is black and an uber-hip musician. As the film’s wedding weekend unfolds, the two families mix and mingle like one big happy hipster reunion, with no racial unease to be found. Race is never acknowledged in the film, nor is it ever hinted at that this wedding is in any way stylistically unorthodox.

The wedding is India-themed, in part and parcel. The bride and bridesmaids wear saris and the groom and groomsmen wear kurtas, and there is a sitar player. Oh, and the cake is in the shape of an Indian elephant. The rest of the wedding is a diverse hodge-podge of other cultures and traditions, with eclectic backyard decorations, red meat on the Barbie for food, and a wild assortment of music/dancing all through the night.

The music is really where the film hits the nail on the hipster head. It is eclectic with a capital E. Dozens of Sidney’s bohemian musician friends are bumming around the house during the entire wedding weekend, jamming to jazz and folk and whatever they feel like. A drums-and-guitar emo punk plays a Hendrix-style wedding processional. Sidney sings Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" for his wedding vow. There is hip hop, an African drum collective, a jazz trumpeter, and an androgynous DJ for everything in between. And that’s only what I can remember.

In the N.Y. Times, A.O. Scott lauded the way that Rachel “gathers races, traditions and generations in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism,” all the while painting a “faithful and affectionate” picture of blue-state America. It’s an apt description, certainly, but I would substitute “blue-state America” with “hipster-state America.”

The people partying with gleeful, postmodern abandon (when they are not embroiled in family drama and emotional catharsis) are the very essence of hipsterdom today. It's about pastiche, de-contextualized pop commodities, “subversive” stylistic fusion, and non-committal, consumer-oriented multiculturalism.

The whole thing reminded me of this article I read recently on PopMatters.com, in which Erik Hinton writes this:

The rise of the hipster signals our waning ability to experience the other. The world at large is quickly losing touch with alterity. As a result, we are losing the capacity to create meaning. The shallow virtual reality of hipsterdom—the world remade as simply an empty aggregate of trendy bands and silly clothing—is merely the first indication of this.

Hinton goes on to point out, quite correctly, that the hipster’s tendency to collapse and collect bits and pieces of all culture and boil it up in one “totally unique” persona stew, ultimately creates a void of meaning wherein cultural distinction and difference is lost. For example, as hipsters become more and more identified by the styles and tastes they accumulate, they lose their own sense of identity. “Who am I?” gets lost in the more pressing hipster question: “what bands, brands, and quirky styles do I like?”

As Hinton continues:

…our lists of particulars become the whole of our personalities. This is why we see that kid at parties dressed like Hunter S. Thompson and break-dancing with gold chains around his neck, the girl reading Byron, wearing a Siouxsie T-shirt and hanging out at the bike shop… The hipster is no more than a conscious manipulation of the freedom to live these piecemeal identities, comfortable in the awareness that identity can be constructed out of any bands, clothing, cheap, regionally esoteric beer, and inane micro-fiction that pleases. The hipster is a pastiche of old and new culture, free from the limits of meaning or the constraints of authentic identity.

Given this, it is appropriate, I think, that the characters in Rachel (with the exception of the three aforementioned female leads) seemed rather hard to pin down. They were gloriously complicated in a hipster/stylized/quirky-is-good sort of way, but I didn’t get a real definite sense of who they really were.

Which is the problem of hipsterdom in general: there is an ironic loss of unique identity (alterity, difference, etc) in the all-consuming desire to fashion a “unique,” rebellious identity. It’s about getting lost in style and subversion, and forgetting that skinny jeans and Parliament cigarettes can only go so far in setting us apart.

Derelict Chic

Los Angeles is a place where anyone can be a celebrity—and I mean anyone. It’s also a city that boasts one of the largest homeless populations in the world (50,000 and rising). It was only a matter of time, then, that a homeless person became a celebrity.

Meet John Wesley Jermyn (aka “The Crazy Robertson”)—a streetperson who has lived on Robertson Blvd in L.A. for twenty some years. Like many vagrants in the City of Angels, Jermyn comes from a successful background (he was a star baseball player in high school and college, and was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1969). Unlike most vagrants, however, Jermyn has a clothing line named after him.

Kitson, a trendy boutique in the uber-popular Robertson shopping corridor, has recently launched "The Crazy Robertson" brand of T-shirts and sweatshirts. The line includes a $98 hoodie with Jermyn’s likeness on the back and the words “No Money, No Problems.” The twenty-something trio that launched the label made a deal that offers 5% of the line’s net profits to Jermyn, though so far he has refused to accept much cash, preferring to be paid in food, liquor and paper for his art projects.

In the meantime, Beverly Hills hipsters are snatching up the Crazy Robertson shirts—the latest fad in the increasingly odd and self-conscious “gauche/trash” trend in L.A. fashion.

Nary an indie-rock concert today that does not have dozens of rich kids dressed in Olsen twin derelict, “ashcan” homeless style. A few weeks ago I was at a Joanna Newsom concert (a freakfolk harpist/singer-songwriter) and there was loads of this boho, straggly-haired unkemptness. I even saw one guy with a stick hoisted over his shoulder with a cloth sack hanging off the end of it, railroad bum style. I felt like I was in a Jack Kerouac novel.

Homelessness is probably not trendy or cool if you are a homeless person, but it is increasingly chic for many wealthy and hip folks in Los Angeles. Look no further than L.A.’s infamous “Skid Row.” At 50 square blocks, this bastion of third-world poverty is the largest encampment of homelessness in the nation. But it is also—increasingly—the hottest site of high-end real estate development in downtown Los Angeles. Literally across the street from the homeless tent camps are newly renovated loft spaces that sell for $1000-2000/month. In efforts to (perhaps) get in touch with their unpretentious earthiness, many yuppies are moving into the gentrified shantytown. Oscar-nominated “it” actor Ryan Gosling lives in a loft on Skid Row. “You can't filter yourself from reality there,” Gosling remarked in a Guardian interview.

As bizarre as this all is, it does make some sense. People long to be “homeless-friendly”—especially rich, socially conscious, guilty white folks. And since riding public transportation, working at a soup kitchen or volunteering at a city mission is out of the question for much of the leisure class, moving in next door is the next best option! Spending hundreds of dollars on designer homeless clothes sends a message of solidarity, right?

Well, maybe, but solidarity does nothing to alleviate real world problems. The gentrification of Skid Row may “clean up” downtown L.A., but where will all the homeless people go? I wonder if Ryan Gosling realizes that the “reality” he is paying top dollar to live within will be directly impacted by his being there? Do the patrons of Kitson realize that the $98 they spend on a “Crazy Robertson” sweatshirt could buy ten sweatshirts for people on the streets?

Probably not, but that’s because “derelict chic” is a trend. And trends have little concern for consequences.

Types of Hipsters: Part Three

The final installment of my "12 Types of Hipsters" series:  

9) The Ex-pat Otherwise known as the jet-setting international kid or the hostel-hopping backpacker, the Ex-pat hipsters are those who can’t stay in one place for more than a year. They spend summers in Australia, winters in Chile, and spring breaks in Spain. Their passports are prized possessions, and full or exotic stamps. These hipsters are typically multi-lingual and well versed in international relations. They work hard and spend almost all of their money on traveling, though often they combine work and travel by getting jobs or internships abroad. They are frequently big on humanitarian causes, and often do stints in Africa or other Third World countries. They are wayfaring, Lost in Translation-type existentialists who lack any sense of “home.” Sidenote: this particular brand of hipster is disproportionately high in Christendom, what with the globetrotting, YWAM-esque missions sensibilities and all…

  • Fashion: Backpacker/safari/European. Jeans, hiking boots, all-weather outerwear. L.L. Bean for the preppies in the lot. Thrifty cheapness (H&M) for the others.
  • Music: All about transition and changing moods, and typically more international in scope than other hipsters. European folk, French ambient, etc… Air, Blur, Ray Lamontagne, The Frames, The Jesus and Mary Chain, M83.
  • Movies: Never really in one place long enough to see a lot of movies—more about DVDs-on-laptop-while-riding-trains. Even so, they do have a soft spot for road movies and cinema that ponders things like time and impermanence. Favorite directors; Richard Linklater, Yasujiro Ozu, Sofia Coppola.
  • Celebs of this kind; Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor, Chelsea Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Prince William.

10) The Activist Hipsterdom has long been tied to that most expressive rite of democratic passage: protest. In the 60s the cause was clear: the Vietnam War. In the 80s and especially the 90s, the causes became much more diverse and decentralized amid the explosive information age. Today, hipster activism is usually anti-war or anti-globalization, or otherwise economic in nature (fair trade, third-world debt, etc). Activist hipsters make their voice heard in many other social causes as well: urban poverty, education, civil rights, etc. They take pride in being “in solidarity” with the trampled-on and disadvantaged in life, and often live in the midst of them. Though not nearly as violent or lawless as their Vietnam-era forbears, these activists are certainly passionate and feisty, especially during elections, summits, or large political gatherings.

  • Fashion: Che Guevera chic (formerly turtleneck-and-beret mod chic). Sometimes militaristic, lots of army-surplus, t-shirts with hand-written messages or pictures, etc… Varies a lot though, as Activist hipsters come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Music: Political-minded rock vis-à-vis Rage Against the Machine, or some of the more retro, Vietnam-era protest acts. Any music remotely resembling subversive political messaging is welcome. Radiohead, Gorillaz, Bob Dylan, Nirvana.
  • Movies: Pop-expose documentaries are big, as in Michael Moore or anything from Participant Productions. Movies with messages of something to say politically are preferred over neutral entertainment. Favorite directors: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Walter Salles, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach.
  • Celebs of this kind: Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Rosario Dawson, Alec Baldwin, Green Day.

11) The Health Nut This type of hipster might trace its origins to the hippie communes that dotted the countryside during the 60s rebellion against McDonalds consumerism. The organic, “live off the land,” “we hate preservatives” attitude of these hippies is alive and well in today’s assortment of “tight-abs and Power Bar” health junkies. These are the hipsters who run a lot, frequent stores like GNC and Wild Oats, and participate in the aerobic fitness craze du jour (pilates, yoga, tai-chi, etc). They enjoy the outdoors and shun most television or “couch-potato” behavior. Mostly they just look really tanned and toned all the time, and pair off among themselves when it comes to dating (because who else can live up to those standards?) Places like Boulder (Colorado) and the Pacific Northwest are the breeding grounds for this hip phenom.

  • Fashion: The latest in sportswear and comfortable running/cross-training shoes. Eddie Bauer, North Face, Nike, etc. Lots of fleece and outdoorsy-fabrics. Sunglasses tend toward the wrap-around, ski styles. Beanies and visors are the headgear of choice.
  • Music: Hodge-podge. Tends towards mid-level, harmless alt-pop like Keane, Coldplay, The Shins, with occasional interest in shimmering psychedelia to the tune of The Flaming Lips or Polyphonic Spree. For workout-inspiration, however, lively rap and hard-rock are allowed: Jurassic Five, Linkin Park, Jay-Z, etc.
  • Movies: See Yuppie, with a bit more of a classy sports-movie/inspirational twist. Obscure sports documentaries like Into the Void, Murderball, Spellbound, etc are favorites. Foreign and specialty films are preferred over mindless couch-potato fodder.
  • Celebs of this kind: David Beckham, most young Olympic stars, Lance Armstrong, Matthew McConaughey, Madonna, Neve Campbell.

12) The Emo-Goth Goths, as we know them today (not as in medieval Eastern European vampires), seem to have emerged sometime in the 70s or 80s. Since then they’ve been a mainstay of “alternative” lifestyle, and have scared scores of parents and church ladies over the years. Goths are pretty easy to pinpoint (their appearance is among the most predictable in hipsterdom), but vary widely in demeanor and background. A lot of the slightly overweight kids from junior high with the “Mean People Suck” buttons become Goths in their later years. Usually indoors types (white skin is a badge of honor) big into computer culture and gaming, they don’t get out much except to nighttime concerts or to another Goth’s dwelling place. The Emo-Goth is easily the most threatening young person to the establishment—and in his/her cigarette-puffing, dramatic-bangs-in-my-eyes swagger, The Emo-Goth is proud of such an abrasive position.

  • Fashion: Obviously, lots of black. Black clothes, black fish-net stockings, black hair (most likely died, with streaks of various sorts), black nails, black eye-liner, etc. Tends toward the freakish, with dungeon/S&M touches here and there (spike bracelets, leather, you know…). Suits and dresses are welcome, though they must be sleek, dark and mysterious. Proper hairdos include the “one eye shrouded” look, which says “the world is too dark and painful to look at with both eyes.”
  • Music: Music is huge for these hipsters. 80s noise bands and goth pioneers are big heroes. Current new-wave throwbacks are goth-friendly as well. All things twisted, urbane, industrial, and “dark eye-shadow”… The Cure, Depeche Mode, NIN, Interpol, David Bowie, Fiona Apple, The Knife.
  • Movies: Hard to pin down. Goths are sometimes science-fiction and fantasy fans, with a penchant for comic-book adaptations, anime, and/or “Matrix-esque” fare. Others prefer concert films or drug fodder (i.e. kids movies and/or 50s sci-fi) Favorite directors: Peter Jackson, Wachowski Brothers, Hayao Miyazaki, Ridley Scott (older stuff), Richard Kelly (the guy who did Donnie Darko).
  • Celebs of this kind: Edward Furlong, Juliette Lewis, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Manson, Rose McGowan.

Types of Hipsters: Part One

If Rule #1 of hipsterdom is that it’s always one step ahead of the mainstream, then Rule #2 is that “hipster” is an extremely broad, diverse classification of people. But it was not always this way. Back in the day of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Warhol, and friends, “hip” folks used to be a very limited, specific entity. Not so in today’s postmodern, blurry world of cross-marketed mayhem. Today, hipster pervades our culture. From the lofts of Brooklyn to the trailers of the Ozarks, “hip” is as American as apple pie. We all want a taste. Thus, defining types of hipsters is more of a cross-sectional assessment of American culture. You can be a hipster jock, a hipster nerd, a hipster Muslim or a hipster Baptist—sometimes all of these at once (hopefully not…). The point is: there are almost as many types of hipsters as there are types of people.

Because lately I’ve re-discovered my fascination with the theoretical questions surrounding the ontology of cool (see this post), I thought it would be fun to try to articulate some of the more prominent likenesses of hipster in today’s world. Most hipsters will fall into one or several of the following categories, though I’m sure there are some oddball types that I’ve overlooked.

So, without further ado, enter the parade of hip (in three installments):

1) The Natural Insofar as a hipster can be a natural, organically existing entity, this is the closest you get. Seemingly without trying, The Natural attracts legions of horn-rimmed eyes at every soiree he or she walks into. This hipster typically comes from urbane parents or family who have long been attuned to or supported culture and the arts. Education is important, but so is social involvement and active participation in and appreciation of artistic endeavors. Good taste comes naturally for this person, who has every right to be elitist or snobbish, but avoids this whenever possible. They are well rounded, successful, and hard to denigrate. If there is a downside to this kind of hipster, it is that observers tend toward jealousy or fear, and friends are usually in it for status or to learn pointers.

  • Fashion: Impeccable and respectable, daring but not over the top. The consummate trend-setter.
  • Music: Nothing too trendy, hard to peg. Tends to have a nice balance of appreciation across genres and time periods, with lots of influence from parents and growing up amidst good music. Beatles, Dylan, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Jeff Buckley, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chopin.
  • Movies: Has seen most of the AFI Top 100, and favors older, classic Hollywood cinema. Appreciates lots of foreign film too, Warhol shorts, and non-political documentaries. Favorite filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog.
  • Celebs of this kind: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Sienna Miller, Prince Harry.

2) The Newbie This is one of the more intriguing, though surprisingly common, breeds of hipster. The Newbie is fresh off of a former life of less-than status (that is, less than cool, less than stylish, more like the mainstream). The Newbie is found in large numbers in the sophomore classes of colleges, though sometimes freshmen (second semester) at more hip-friendly campuses. The Newbie often comes from a naïve, “everyone likes Dave Matthews and drives SUVs!” high school experience and then finds that in college, respectable uniqueness is the name of the game. Therefore, he/she scurries to find a hip niche, latching on to current fads and working hard to establish an individual style. Frequently they’ll attend a concert or movie that will instantly change them into a lifelong devotee. Very faddish, fickle, passionate, and irksome to many established hipsters.

  • Fashion: Chameleon. Always trying new things, with many more misses than hits. Recycles current wardrobe in various new ways. Can’t afford high fashion, though avoids boring staples like Gap and Old Navy. Tries a lot of statement tees and vintage band shirts, though typically feels uncomfortable in them at first.
  • Music: Very impressionable. Open to recommendations and attends lots of concerts for ideas. Scours old CD collection for salvageable records; usually only finds a few worthy of hipster repute. Johnny Cash, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Devandra Barnhart, The Shins, whatever Pitchfork says is cool…
  • Movies: Takes longer to fashion a personal taste in cinema, but latches on to those “eye-openers” seen on late-night dorm viewings (Requiem for a Dream, Full Metal Jacket, Fight Club). Doesn’t have favorite directors yet.
  • Celebs of this kind: Cameron Diaz, Lauren Conrad, Mandy Moore, Shia Lebouf, Dakota Fanning, any reality star trying to make it big on VH1.

3) The Academic Being in to smarts is a broad trait of hipsters (all of them are more or less well-educated), but there is a specific type of hipster whose identity is defined by the bookish quality. This is the guy who came late to philosophy class everyday with tortured, tussled hair, but still blew everyone away in the discussion. This is the girl with thick-rim glasses who drinks red tea and reads Adorno for fun. These guys are way into intelligence and the image that accompanies that persona. They tend to be independent but thrive in academic circles and reading/writing groups. They like art and fun, insofar as they understand the socio-cultural implications of it, of course. You find these hipsters at colleges and in urban environments with a healthy culture and thought life.

  • Fashion: British intelligentsia couture. Glasses (trendy, horn-rimmed most likely), clean earth tones, lots of blazers. Nothing flashy or too youthful. Has the look of Banana Republic or Burberry but often by way of a cheaper, more student-friendly alternative.
  • Music: Not hugely important to the daily life of the Academic hipster, but very much appreciated. Classical and jazz are cool to them, as are more mellow and intelligent singer-songwriters. Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Phillip Glass, Nina Simone, Feist, Brian Eno, Arvo Part.
  • Movies: Heavy on the foreign films and euro-existentialist cinema. Hardly ever goes to the multiplex for a popcorn flick, unless it is a Harry Potter adaptation or some other book-to-movie guilty pleasure. Favorite directors: Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Lars von Trier, Patrice Leconte.
  • Celebs of this kind: Wes Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rivers Cuomo, Natalie Portman, Claire Danes.

4) The Dilettante Sorry to use a term that “The Academic” might use, but it fits. Dilettante is a word for someone who has a superficial, yet passionate admiration for the arts. In other words, this is the artsy-fartsy hipster who really doesn’t know that much about art, but likes the image. They took art in high school or college and fell in love with the sexiness of it. They love art openings, gallery parties, and all things “fringe” in the world of cinema, music, theater, or whatever. When you quiz them on the difference between rococo and neo-classical, however, they brush you off as pedantic (because they do not know what you’re talking about, but like using words like “pedantic”). Still, they have respectable taste because they associate enough with real artists who tend to have good taste. The Dilettante is a sometimes-artist (mostly failed), but tends toward amateur art-criticism and usually has a job and life completely separate from the weekend art binge.

  • Fashion: Cocktail party chic. The skinny jeans, t-shirt and blazer look is popular for guys; heeled-boots, slinky dress and bohemian Anthopologie jewelry for girls. Lots of unnatural hair color.
  • Music: Heavy on techno and art-rock—music you’d hear at a swank warehouse art party. Moby, The notwist, Four Tet, Squarepusher, Thievery Corporation, The Field.
  • Movies: Art house all the way—the more subversive the better. Favorite directors: Todd Solondz, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, P.T. Anderson.
  • Celebs of this kind: Mary Kate Olson, Mischa Barton, Macaulay Culkin, Seal, Kirsten Dunst, select journalists or MTV VJs.