Several years ago, I noticed a whole lotta facial hair sprouting along Bedford Avenue. To a middle-aged friend of mine, I confidently predicted that beards would soon be in style. He scoffed, shaking his head, incredulous at my naivete: "Naw, that's a hippie thing. No way." But a few months later, he started growing a beard and still sports the most bountiful crop of face-fuzz of anyone I know. Meanwhile, all the young dudes of Brooklyn have left him behind: they're now sporting mustaches.
There's no question that the sprawling youth colony clustered around the L subway line is a significant bellwether — and boy, do they know it — although it remains to be seen whether it can engender anything more significant than fashion trends. I think it will.
I just read a book of essays, What Was the Hipster?, published by the journal n+1. New York Observer senior editor Christian Lorentzen wrote a very sharp, funny piece, but for the most part What Was the Hipster? is full of high-falutin', hyper-educated discourse, academic concepts studded with exotic surnames like Bourdieu and Zizek. I have never been able to fully comprehend stuff like that; all I have is a pragmatic take on the hipster phenomenon, which I will now offer to you, dear reader.
A recurring theme in the n+1 book is the idea that no one ever cops to being a hipster. Various writers offer theories about this but in my humble opinion they either aim far too high or (more often) don't really answer the question. Here's the deal about why you don't admit to being a hipster: being a hipster means you have an intuitive grasp of what is hip — or, more precisely, what is about to be hip. If you say you have it, you don't. It's like saying you're cool. Or like saying you're lucky. The very act of declaring so jinxes it, renders it false.
Here's another recurring theme: Why does everyone hate on hipsters? Well, the thing is, not everyone hates on hipsters. A reality check: Most people out in the real world don't even come across them, don't know they exist, would not even recognize a hipster if they saw one. The people who can recognize hipsters enough to dislike them en masse do so for one and sometimes two reasons. One is that the arrival of hipsters in a neighborhood means that many of its residents will imminently be pushed out by rising rents. And who could blame those people for hating hipsters.
But for the other haters, hipsters are a living, breathing reminder that they are not totally hip (anymore). And that can be hard to take. In a culture that prizes being ahead of the curve, being unhip can be a source of shame, jealousy and resentment; there's a type of person who likes to feel that they are generating trends, not passively conforming to them. It's a point of pride. So those people lash out at hipsters, just as the hippies lashed out at the punks and, before that, the beatniks lashed out at the hippies. In those cases, the older group insisted their bohemia was better. I'm not so sure that's true this time — I get the feeling that deep down, hipster-haters wish they could be in the club.
The thing is, to be in touch with the zygote of the zeitgeist (and I truly apologize for that turn of phrase), you need a lot of what hipsters have: free time and few obligations. Hence the rationale – "I could still be hip if I didn't have a 9-5 job, kids and a mortgage." Of course, you also need a very rarefied and prescient aesthetic, but then a lot of people think they have that.
The class component — "fucking trust fund hipster!" — stems from the fact that affluence is one sure way to have enough free time and mental space to remain alert and receptive to the slightest cultural vibrations, rather than being distracted by the hurly-burly of, you know, making a living.
It's a mistake, though, to dismiss hipster culture in toto. Sure, there are tons of clone kids with their clown glasses, unflattering haircuts and awful Reagan-era thrift store clothes, living rigorously unexamined lives punctuated by fleeting, superficial allegiances. But there's a lot of really, really smart, progressive hipsters too. Like their more vapid confederates, they fully acknowledge that we are what we buy. (I'm sure that makes some people hate on them even more, but it also happens to be true.) The difference is, they're trying to figure out how to turn that to an advantage. And actually, they may already have figured it out. There's no sure way of knowing until we see how it plays out but I'm with n+1 co-editor Mark Greif: my hunch is that the fixed-gear bikes, the used vinyl LPs, the tribalism, the DIY ethic (cooking, clothing, music venues, etc.), the pervasive non-ownership of TV sets, and yes, even the beards, all forecast a larger move toward simplification and, in the broadest sense, economy. As we reel from the devastating consequences of living beyond our means, those are clearly Good Things.
I think the kids are all right. And I'm probably correct — after all, I totally called beards.