This is not the first time I’ve been asked to write about hipsters, and judging by the topic’s current popularity, one would be inclined to think members of this species were multiplying rabbit-like.
Hipsters! The word is on everyone’s lips and there’s often a sneer involved. Is this an old term with new connotations, or just something the swishing vicissitudes of Internet culture have decided to wash up on our shores — like the suddenly-popular random — and make to appear new again? Either way, I decided we would be best to inspect the ditches, banks and overhangs of etymology, not society, if we are to parse the strange prevalence of this designation.
Because, for one that’s gained such modern currency, “hipster” is a very outdated term.
Most dictionaries will date the word hip to the 1940s, and while it is undoubtedly a coinage of African American Vernacular English, its origin is uncertain. It used to be “hep,” and it was once widely asserted that the term came from “hepicat,” an expression in the West African language Wolof that means “one who has his eyes open.” But that story has been so thoroughly debunked that etymologists now have a clever expression close at hand whenever one is caught irresponsibly advancing a spurious word origin: “to cry Wolof.”
The American Heritage Dictionary summed up a most definitive definition of hipster with this simple phrase: “One who is exceptionally aware of or interested in the latest trends and tastes, especially a devotee of modern jazz.”
The modern definition has changed very little, though it has shed the association with jazz, a musical style that was once essential to hipsterdom specifically, bebop — think Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. That’s what a hipster was into. The word gained greater currency with the rise of the Beat Generation, “beat” being an expression nearly synonymous, or at least containing a large Venn overlap with, hipster. The term “beat” is also of unverifiable origin, though it is generally believed to be related to the Beatitudes from the Gospels’ Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” etc., also being the origin of “beatific.” The pejorative “beatnik” entered currency in 1958, ten years after the coinage of the original term, as an attempt to conflate Beats with Bolsheviks.
The hipsters were a blessed model of freedom for Americans partaking in the Beat Generation. They were creative and forward-looking, and they successfully integrated facets of African-American culture and, though this aspect is less examined, homosexual culture as well. The term was used famously and evocatively by Allen Ginsberg — “Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” — in Howl, published in 1956. It retained these positive and angelic connotations, even after hairy little Norman Mailer published his widely-read screed “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” in 1957, an essay that unconvincingly equates hipsters with psychopaths looking for “the good orgasm.” Shortly thereafter, the term gave way to “hippie,” an expression with completely different associations. Jack Kerouac, a nostalgic and a conservative, could not stand the hippies and “hipster” mostly disappeared into the growing annals of American archaisms.
Until recently, that is. The American newspaper of record, the New York Times, used the word “hipster” 19 times in 1990. In 2000, it used the word 100 times. Last year, it printed “hipster” more than 250 times, a startling occurrence that has led Philip Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor, to publish a blog post warning of the expression’s over-occurrence. “[ . . . ] I’m not sure how precise a meaning it conveys,” he mused, guardedly.
But it’s not just the Times; blogs, magazines and tweets are afire with references to “hipsters,” and it can seem, at times, to be overwhelmingly negative.
The late-nineties invective “hipster doofus” has been sharpened by the angry teeth of the Internet, to where we now regularly see the expression “hipster douchebag” plastered thick. In a 2009 Time magazine article on this “new” category of people, Dan Fletcher claimed, “Hipsters manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity.”
It’s pointless to go into yet another tiresome description of what the “modern hipster” is — rolled up jeans on road bikes, kerchiefs, moustaches . . . oh shit, I’m doing it — but it might be instructive to ask what aspects of the definition have changed so that a once-positive term has become leaden with negative connotations.
Certainly, a hipster is still someone on the cusp of the latest trends, someone in the know, someone with counter-culture sensibilities who cops aspects of African American and homosexual culture. Perhaps movement and physicality have something to do with the change.
A hipster from the forties or fifties was always in motion, as described by Kerouac in On The Road, among other frantic tomes. This sort of cat would hitchhike from town to town; he would bang on the rickety doors of last known addresses. He would scout the clubs for acquaintances and follow threads of wild jazz into beer-stained basements where the next big thing was blowing something gone. A classic hipster had to navigate the world — not just his world but the whole world — to find his kicks.
A modern hipster has Facebook to keep in touch with his friends. He has Pitchfork.com and Last.fm to find his music. This makes it much easier for him to remain encased in his own private world of hipsterness, whereas his contemporary of yore was pushing his way through squares to get to the club. A modern hipster doesn’t have to seek out a band like Wavves in a basement. Instead, he’s on a blog, debating whether or not Wavves is overrated — while 98 per cent of his fellow countrymen are unaware of the band’s existence.
It’s not just insularity. It’s the lack of motion — whizzing bikes aside — and physically-gained knowledge that leads to the lack in respect. A classic hipster was an expert navigator; a modern hipster is a cartographer.