What is a Hipster? (And why you should care)

When the term “hipster” comes up, which is not an uncommon occurrence with the ongoing expansion of hipster culture and its tendency to interface with underground roots music, there always seems to be some confusion around the term. Part of the reason for this can be explained in one of the attributes of hipster culture, which is to be very isolated from common circles, yet to be hyper-concentrated wherever hipster culture does exist.

I wouldn’t say hipsters are secretive, but having no desire to expand their numbers or to promote themselves (many times it is the antithesis, wanting to stay “exclusive”), and because there’s not many examples of hipsters in popular culture, this lends to hipster’s being an enigma for many. Lots of folks are outright perplexed by the term, or their idea of the term is outdated. And making things even more difficult, many times hipsters refuse to acknowledge that they’re indeed hipsters, or lack the self-awareness to understand they are part of the hipster subculture.

So to make a reference for everyone, I am going to set out on the difficult task of explaining what a modern hipster is. To save some grief, I’ll go ahead and admit the obvious, that when setting out on such a task, using generalizations is inevitable, and that this is rarely fair to individuals, or their individual stories or motivations.

And this is not meant to be a critical, or sarcastic look at hipsters, more a sociological explanation. Truth be known, I am fascinated by hipster culture, though like many, at times I may gawk at it as an annoyance. I don’t want to load this down with qualifying statements, but I will drop the mother of all qualifying statements and say that I have hipster friends, and have spent time in and around hipster culture, enough that I feel I have a grasp of it to take on the task of defining it from my perspective.

So what is a hipster? Hipsters are predominately white, 20-something, well-educated, liberal or progressive, urban dwelling career college students from upper middle class backgrounds. They eat organic, buy local, listen to indie rock on vinyl, and are quasi-employed. They may not as much crave attention as their appearance may hint, but rather covet acceptance from their hipster community, and do so by imbibing in the hipster archetypal representation very deeply.

Appearance:

Skinny Jeans

Possibly the most-identifiable characteristic of hipsters are jeans that fit low on the hips, fit tight, and come to a taper just above the ankle. They could be jeans purposely cut this way, or vintage jeans found or tailored from a too-small size, or women’s jeans worn by men to effect the skinny jeans cut. The look is many times crowned with vintage canvas shoes, converse (sometimes in flashy colors), Keds, or sometimes puffy high-top basketball shoes, loosely-laced with the tongue flapping out. A year ago, skinny jeans were the patented hipster accoutrement. These days they are still very common, but not necessary to the hipster look.

V-Neck T Shirts

Pretty self-explanatory, this is a trend that has also been picked up by mainstream culture. It’s now common to find both V-Neck and plain neck shirts at department stores, where years ago it wasn’t. This has challenged hipster to find even deeper V-neck shirts to distinguish themselves.

Mustache

It used to be any mustache would do. A simple mustache was ironic enough, but just like with the V-neck, as the mustache is becoming more commonplace in mainstream culture, hipster culture has adopted the outlandish, Rollie Fingers-style mustache: bushy, with wax if necessary. The bigger and more outlandish the mustache, the better.

Justin Bieber has adopted numerous elements of hipster culture in his look.

Huge Glasses (Wayfarer)

One of the newest additions to hipster culture, but one of the most identifiable and current are huge glasses, many times called “hipster” glasses by manufacturers. Think Roger Ebert circa 1985, or Ray Ban’s long running “Wayfarer” frame. The bigger, the better, and they’re not to be mistaken with retro, old-folks frames.

The “Fixie” Bike

The bicycle is by far the preferred transport of hipsters, and possibly the most fascinating and inexplicable identifier of hipster culture is their propensity to take bikes with gears, and retrofit them where they one have one single gear fixed for riding. Bike manufacturers have also been releasing new fixed-gear model bikes with tall seats, to meet the increasing demand. Being against conventional wisdom, the “fixie” is mostly a fashion statement (though there are some substantial principles behind the retrofit, including fitness).

If you do see a hipster in a car, you can bet it is old, but not yet vintage, likely an import, many times a Toyota, sometimes a Volvo or Volkswagen, but they steer fairly clear of vehicles that may come across as “hippie”.

Irony in Fashion

This is the one that is the hardest to describe, and usually stimulates the most discussion. When people use “camp” or “kitsch” or “nostalgia” in fasion, it is because they think that element of fashion is cool. When hipsters use irony in fashion, they are wearing something because it is purposely not cool: a George W Bush election T-shirt, a Rainbow Bright head band, a McDonald’s hat, camoflouge (to make fun of rednecks). Many times they purposely want to look what would traditional be considered “nerdy”. Many would consider the current phase in the evolution of hipster culture as the “meta-nerd” phase.

Irony is also a huge player in hipster behavior, how they interact with themselves and others: acting apathetic to something they like, overlaughing or overclapping at something they don’t. Some may consider male hipsters acting homosexual (and some do), but this may be a shallow interpretation of the irony in their behavior.

Other hipster calling cards are Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, self-rolled cigarettes, high waist lines on women’s pants, and Apple computers (thought the popularity of Apple has dulled this calling card of late).

Geography:

Though a hipster’s outside appearance may be the easiest way to identify them, their geography many times is what truly makes them hipsters. Huge swaths of the country can’t boast anybody that comes close to being a hipster, but since hipsters identify themselves significantly with where and how they live, they have created massive communities for themselves, mostly within the gentrification zones of urban locales.

With their propensity to buy local, work local, and use bikes for transportation, there is little need for them to stray outside of their world. This also necessities them living close in, and living in an area that is not too expensive, but still “hip” enough to be socially acceptable. Wherever urban renewal is beginning to take shape, but has yet to effect the cost-of-living significantly, that is where the hipsters drop anchor. Once the area becomes fully gentrified, it’s no longer hip for hipsters, and they move to the next up-and-coming neighborhood.

This dynamic also effects bar/restaurant/coffee shop/food store infrastructure. Hipsters are rabid socialites. Many times hipsters don’t just move into a neighborhood, they effect a takeover of it, infiltrating not just housing, but the business and industrial landscape as well. Like a necessary part of the animal food chain, hipsters are a natural part of the gentrification process. The presence of cool, well-educated white young adults usually drops crime levels, beautifies neighborhoods, simulates new, independent business and art, and eventually entices retirees and high-end urban investors to the area. Then the hipsters move to the next neighborhood in need of gentrification.

Along the coasts and in big cities is where these hipster communities are most likely to be found, though they can also exists in small bands based around coffee shops, record stores, music venues and bars in mid-sized towns anywhere. Many college towns cater to the hipster culture where it may not normally otherwise be, towns like Athens GA, Boone NC, Denton TX, Lawrence KS, Norman, OK. The largest hipster epicenters are the large West Coast cities: LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Austin, TX is also a big hipster epicenter. Some famous hipster neighborhoods include east Austin, Echo Park in Los Angeles, and the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle (though its gentrified in recent years).

The Hipster’s Impact on Country & Roots Music

The reason that hipsters can pose a threat to country and roots music stems from their propensity to take over venues, bars, and whole neighborhoods when they move into an area. Because hipsters tend to be semi-affluent, they are able to outspend poor whites, poor blacks, and the working class people who may be the more traditional patrons of bars and venues that cater to blues, country, punk, and metal music. When the hipsters move in, these venues “gentrify” to the new demand, many times replacing roots music with indie rock: the hipster’s preferred genre.

Some long-standing roots venues and their communities have fallen to hipster gentrification, and as the trend continues to be for the American population to move back into cities, this trend could worsen. Hipsters and indie rock have also infiltrated or outright taken over numerous festivals that were built by country and roots musicians, and have even infiltrated large institutions like Austin City Limits.

Indie rock music deserves support just as much as any other genre of music, however it seems unfair when that support is gained at the expense of the original music that created and invested in that infrastructure initially. Hipsters can also infiltrate specific roots music scenes, creating a “trend bubble” that instead of offering long-term support to a scene or band, makes something hyper-popular to only burst later when the hipsters move to the next hyper-trend,  leaving the bar or band or scene feeling outmoded or passed over.

But it would also be unfair to omit the positive impact much of hipster culture has on the revitalization of urban areas, their tendency to be very socially-conscious and responsible citizens, and to be general friends of the arts. Hipsters perform a very necessary role on the socioeconomic scale. The key to making sure the impact of hipsters and hipster culture on roots music is not adverse is by understanding their tendencies and motivations. Hipsters aren’t going anywhere, in fact the chances are they are only growing, so country and roots music must meet the challenges that the introduction of their demographic creates in the traditional roots music corridors in urban areas, in local music scenes, and in large nationally-focused festivals.