Like Alexis de Tocqueville before her, Frenchwoman Lorena Galliot has come to American shores to tell us who we really are. After emigrating from Paris to New York City last summer, she wanted to know what a hipster is, exactly. She’d heard the term — epithet, really — innumerable times, but no one was able to give her a solid, Merriam-Webster definition of the word. Even the Internet proved mostly useless.
So, armed only with a video camera and a fairly simple question, “What is a hipster?” Galliot went hipster-hunting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as you do. The resulting video, called “The Hipster Hunt,” is four minutes and 42 seconds of people who look like hipsters giving vague explanations of what a hipster is, perhaps to throw her off the scent. When the video ends, Galliot can only provide us with an unsatisfactory, un-Tocquevillian answer to her query, “Je ne sais pas” or, “I don’t know.”
Don’t worry, Ms. Galliot, you’re not alone, as the subjects in your video demonstrate. It’s easy enough to imagine what a hipster looks like — there’s certainly a Pabst-drinking, fake-glasses-wearing, fixed-gear-bike-riding Platonic ideal of the hipster — but what a hipster looks like and what a hipster is are two different things. We could get all ontological and probe what it means to be a hipster, but that’s the sort of thing only hipsters talk about. A more important and interesting question is: Why are hipsters bad?
Obviously, they’re really annoying, what with their annoying hipster clothes, annoying hipster music and all those annoying hipster things they do. In 2007, Christian Lorentzen wrote an anti-hipster treatise for Time Out New York called “Why the Hipster Must Die” (the subtitle of the essay has the phrase “modest proposal” in it, so you know he’s just being hilarious). The piece is a catalog of grievances against what Lorentzen calls the “hipster zombies,” who are ruining the party by having “fetishiz(ing) the authentic and regurgitat(ing) it with a winking authenticity,” which means they’re dressing and acting like beatniks, hippies or punks, or are busy “turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures — vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.”
So then the main knock against hipsters is that they co-opt cool fringe cultures, thereby blunting the edge these cultures might have had, making them safe for public consumption. Hipsters are middlemen, working in the space between the fringe/underground/cool/hip and the mainstream. Indeed, the paradox of hipsters is that despite claiming to be allergic to all things mainstream, they do more to shape and define the mainstream than any other cultural group. It’s a thankless job.
If envy is the central fact of American life, then envy is also central to animosity toward hipsters.
“They think they are better than everybody else,” University student Jack Wray said.
Hipsters are cooler than you, at least that’s what people who don’t like hipsters seem to think hipsters think. In our economized culture, we treat coolness as a scarce resource, and we see hipsters as robber barons, hoarding all the cool for themselves while twirling their annoying hipster mustaches.
Fortunately for us, that’s just a metaphor, as they call it in the writing trade. If anything, hipsters sacrifice their own chances of coolness so that we might become just a little bit cooler. In this way, the answer to Lorena Galliot’s question, “What is a hipster?” is all around her.