In December 2015, VICE, described by some as “the hipster bible,” declared hipsterdom dead, and devoted a week of coverage to autopsying the phenomenon. Although the modern incarnation of the term has lingered in the common lexicon since the late ‘90s at the very least, we still haven’t been able to agree on its conclusive definition. Most of us are broadly certain of what hipsters are, yet even people such as myself, who have spent a lot of time mulling it over, struggle to wrap our tongues around it.
We can reel off hallmarks of hipsters and hipsterdom, yet at the same time we know that some of these descriptors are mutually exclusive, and can easily be applied to just about anyone that can be described as a “millennial.” Trying to explain what a hipster is to your parents feels like fishing with your hands because, in a way, we are all partially hipsters now, yet the hipster is dead.
Or, as VICE wrote in its post-mortem, it’s not quite dead, or at least not dead and buried: “2015 was the year that hipster (or at least the year the hard-defined, Look At This Fucking variety) died,” referring to the seminal hipster-bashing blog Look At This Fucking Hipster.
But let’s not forget that at the beginning of this decade, a number of publications, most notably New York Magazine, prematurely did the same, reaching for their shovels to dig out a shallow grave while the hipster endured – no, thrived like never before. My view is that hipsterdom didn’t die, but rather it shaped the mainstream in its own image and seeped into the very fabric of Western culture to such an extent that it became redundant. I don’t think that I’m exaggerating when I say that hipsters changed the world.
Seeing as I probably need to talk you into believing such a bold statement, let’s start with the explicit. Nowhere are the effects of hipsterdom as blatantly evident as they are in the once-dilapidated inner cities of the Western world. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, masses of middle-class white people, particularly in America, traded in their city apartments for houses in the suburbs. From the 1990s onwards, many of their children, particularly the politically progressive, highly-educated and artistically minded, reversed this trend, eschewing provincial living for then-rundown neighborhoods in places such as Brooklyn and East London.
The hipsters opened bars, galleries and businesses in their new homesteads, renovating and regenerating them, which first attracted others of their ilk and then later the uber-rich, gentrifying themselves out ever-deeper into the urban sprawl.
Williamsburg, a total dump some 15 to 20 years ago, is now one of the most coveted neighborhoods in the world, commanding rent prices that dwarf those of New York’s traditionally bourgeois Upper East Side. The same can be said for London’s Shoreditch, LA’s Silverlake, Berlin’s Neukölln, their equivalents in Portland, Seattle and countless other hipster urban hubs across the world.
From being total no-go zones, these areas flourished - for those that could afford them at least. But this usually came at the expense of the local poor who had, in certain cases, lived there for generations but soon found themselves priced out and displaced, a fate that would inevitably befall the first-wave hipster pioneers eventually.
Beyond just reanimating the inner city, a process which would later attract non-hipsters and help integrate hipsterdom into the wider culture, hipsters gave us a new way of doing things. They helped revive and proliferate a DIY ethos that was last utilized so dogmatically by the punk scene in the ‘80s. Brooklyn and Hackney were renovated through grassroots enterprise rather than government programs.
The same process had occurred in lower Manhattan in the ‘80s as artists and bohemian types moved into Greenwich Village and SoHo, but the hipsters had an entrepreneurial side that the former lacked. Defining the word “hipster” succinctly may be a struggle, but we all know what a hipster bar or a hipster coffee shop or a hipster burger joint looks like. These are all archetypes that are now firmly embedded in the collective hive mind.
By bringing DIY back into prominence, hipsters helped democratize entrepreneurialism, fueling a rise in small business owners in the “experience” economy that millennials are said to be so fond of. Its effect on the wider zeitgeist shouldn’t be underestimated: the rise of startup culture coincided with the hipster era, and I don’t think that these should be viewed as two parallel, unrelated currents.
The hipster brand of DIY proliferated a distinct new aesthetic that can now be found in cities as disparate as Paris and Melbourne, Austin and Belgrade, Dubai and Montreal. Its influence of fashion is well-documented, but shaping fashion is easy as the relentless churn of trends always demands new inspiration.
What’s more enduring is the mark that hipsters have left on architecture and interior design: sand-blasted exposed brickwork, industrial light fittings, loft conversions and recycled warehouses were all popularized by hipsters then absorbed by the mainstream and can now be found all across the world to the point of homogeneity. Hipster industrialism is now an aesthetic as recognizable and pronounced as IKEA minimalism. I’d argue that hipsterdom is to contemporary culture what IKEA is to furniture; whether that’s a good or bad thing is down to interpretation.
I would also argue that hipsters helped elevate common taste by bringing an artisanal approach to goods. As globalization began to take root in the ‘90s post-Cold War boom, everything felt mass produced and hipsterdom arose, in part, as a counter reaction to a mass-market mainstream culture. Many would argue that the hipster era began in the late '90s, coinciding with the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle (another city with a large hipster population, incidentally). Another definitive event in the hipster timeline is the opening of Starbucks’ 10,000th franchise.
One of the primary cornerstones of hipsterdom, aside from beards and pretension, is good coffee. Starbucks, incidentally, is now a byword for utter shit. The Frappacino conglomerate’s hostile takeover of the world’s street corners is an emblem of ‘90s globalization, which set off a butterfly effect that spawned hip, independent roasters that proliferated better coffee. The same can be said for other consumable goods, such as booze and food.
When I hit legal drinking age in 2007, Stella Artois was the pinnacle of sophistication in most London pubs, but nowadays craft ales, IPAs and various microbrewery beers are commonplace in your average corner store. Farmers markets and locally-sourced foods were niche interests a decade ago; hipsters helped bring them into the common conversation, making people think more about where their food comes from, its quality, and whether they should really be buying from supermarkets that go to sources that offer them the highest possible profit margin.
Of course, all of these things predate hipsters, but quality coffee and food miles were relatively fringe ideas a decade ago but now they’re absolutely mainstream. The hipsters picked them up and acted as a sort of marketing tool, real-life product placement, of sorts.
Because they were largely young, fun and trendy, lamestreamers that wanted to be all of these things started to ape them in the easiest way they could: by adopting the things that they could buy rather than their spirit or attitude. Most people would describe hipsters as pretentious snobs, but I would call them discerning: they demanded something better than the mass-market status quo, and others soon followed their lead.
These are just a few of the examples of how hipsterdom has shaped the zeitgeist of the early 21st century – not that I’m championing them all as objectively good. Gentrification is one of the most repugnant aspects of late capitalism, and hipsters are its poster boys (although not entirely at blame for, it must be said).
They’ve undoubtedly been a homogenous force, but they’ve also done some good, and if people were really honest with themselves they’d admit that hipster bashing is a manifestation of their own insecurities – hipsters are said to think that they are the definition cool, which must imply that everyone that isn’t one is not cool. Whether they are or not is up to debate, but their influence cannot be questioned.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.