“The counterculture does not exist,” Tuck says, as he crouches within the window display of New Haven’s two-tiered Urban Outfitters, adjusting the black tongue of an unworn Chuck. “The only people that don’t sell out are Frenchie and those bums on the street,” he adds, gesturing through the plate-glass. Tuck layers his flannels over tight tees, wears a permanent five o’clock shadow, and complains about Yale students who think themselves too good for the store’s mock-military jackets. “They come into the fitting room, try on an outfit, and say, ‘Oh, I’d never shop here!'”
These particular Yale students are “hipsters,” Tuck explains, but he elaborates: “They don’t exist.”
One disgusted Yale grad agreed.
“If you were a hipster, you wouldn’t go to Yale,” he said, citing student groups such as the Yale Political Union and the Yale Philosophy Review as examples of the college’s inherent fuddy-duddyness. This was before he admitted that he had wooed his girlfriend by namedropping indie rock bands like the Clientele and Nothing Painted Blue.
If nothing else, the anecdotal evidence of a local’s resentment and an alumnus’ hypocrisy reveals Yale’s aversion to hipsterhood or, at least, its label. Tuck, for one, believes all hipsters to be posers, for whatever was once considered “counterculture” or “subversive” has since been assimilated into popular discourse and subsequently neutered. The anonymous graduate, meanwhile, dismisses wholesale any possible meshing of blueblood and blue jeans: How can an individual who claims to loathe the status quo entrench him or herself in a University that hangs a portrait of the tragically unhip George Bush Sr. in its central dining hall?
“Just look at them,” Jonathan Dach ’08 said, pointing out a crowd of fumbling, Chuck-sporting kids wearing hoodies under blazers in Davenport’s dining hall as they served themselves frittata with a silver spoon. “Hipsters are hypocrites.”
Such is the paradox embodied by the elite’s elitists, a paradox realized on the small and large scale: in a decision to sport socks with heels (and yet look cool) and in a decision to attend an Ivy League university (and yet wax subversive). The only way a hipster can defend matriculation at Yale is to deem it ironic, or “ironic,” akin to issuing an “up-yours” rejoinder not directed at the system but at the other hipsters — for, unless cool kids think hipness egalitarian, yoking dorks, nebbishes, punks, valley girls and jocks alike, it will always be about elitism, about proving oneself better than another, than all others. This is one of the few hipster certainties.
A survey of Yale publications that have sought to shed light on those counterculture hypocrites reveals a tradition of definition and misdefinition, most notably in addressing the hipster aesthetic.
Most recently, Alex Charrow ’07 observed in a Herald article that “all hipsters have a look they give [that] illustrates their frustration, irony, and utter boredom.” She detailed her search for a “hipster boy” to date for an article on campus dating, but the boy she chose didn’t entirely agree with Charrow’s reduction. The victim explained that he thought people were “just people,” not entities reducible to archetypes. When pressed over Instant Messenger as to why he might have been stuck with the label, he hesitated, finally explaining that he and his friends like “indie rock.”
“Oh, and I worked for gunslinger.,” he typed. “I think they’ve partially defined the word ‘hipster’ for Yale.”
Indeed, music rag gunslinger. has taken up more copy philosophizing on the hipster conundrum than any other magazine. Their October/November 2004 issue ran an op-ed that sought to define the purebred hipster.
“Presumably, hipsters know all about irony,” Editor-in-Chief Anne Nguyen ’07 wrote.
She was, of course, being ironic.
“The true mark of hipsterdom is … treating everything with the same tongue-in-cheek attitude,” she went on. “The definition of irony, however, seems to get more and more blurry (is being ironic part of being a hipster, or is being a hipster ironic?).”
Norman Mailer said as much half a century ago in his essay on hipsterhood, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Mailer classifies this elusive/allusive figure as a “philosophical psychopath,” one who is antithetical in his very being: He takes his irony very seriously and couches his depreciatory rhetoric in the language of joshing. It is impossible to discern who he really is underneath all of those defensive layers.
This is to say that the praxis of hipsterhood is also that of denial: denial of other hipsters, denial of the unhip, as well as denial of one’s own hipness. As such, the hipster condition, theoretical and practical, is best emblemized by that which it denies — that which is specifically not hip at all.
Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish band known for cutesy songs which you can cry along to, for instance, wasn’t, isn’t, and never will be hip: their adorable melancholy, the dolorous-fey disjunction junction that’s seen also in clowns with tear-drenched face paint and in post-ecstatic candy ravers, precludes them from hipsterhood. Still, there is something to be said for the twee ditty, “I Don’t Love Anyone,” the nihilism of which borders on self-indulgence, whereby the loving of nothing resembles, albeit strangely, the adoration of oneself alone.
In other words, the hipster is the quintessential know-it-all, “know” in the familiar sense, “know” in the Biblical sense and, as stated above, “know” in its homophonic sense, i.e., “no-it-all.” She has seen everything there is to see, heard everything there is to hear, and what results is a tired, apathetic, been-there-done-that attitude, in which everything is a bore, not worth experiencing.
The narrator of “I Don’t Love Anyone” would have you believe he doesn’t love anyone, meaning, of course, no one is good enough for him. But he gives himself away, namedropping, “The World is as Soft as Lace,” a song by Felt, a British band from the mid-80s, the lyrics of which read, “I will not believe until it’s mine / Until it’s mine / All mine,” thereby declaring his imperialistic hyperbole, this irrepressible need to colonize all that came before him so that all who follow him will, in turn, follow his will.
But those who follow his will are readily misled, for to be a hipster is not only not to love, but also not to try. It is to appropriate and acquire, but not to give anything back.
Reiterating the zero-sum game on which a hipster’s hedonism is predicated, Marcuse wrote, “[T]he ‘state of nature,’ no matter how refined, prevails: A civilized bellum omnium contra omnes, in which the happiness of the ones must coexist with the suffering of the others.” He speaks to the broader consumer-capitalist culture of which the hipster-paradigm is of course a part, but the dialectic — between the haves and the have-nots — plays itself out on the microcosm, as well. The unhip are the have-nots, while the hipsters are the haves. They have everything — taste, style and cultural cache — and they have done everything.
But if hipsters have exhausted the experiential possibilities, what do they allow themselves to kind of sort of like? That is, what are their facebook.com interests? gunslinger.’s editor-in-chief dared to broach that question.
“The danger in being a hipster,” Nguyen wrote, “is that standards for music often become a blurry amalgam of what you like, what your friends like, and what Pitchfork likes.” Here Nguyen refers to the music review Web site pitchforkmedia.com, for which Rachel Khong ’07 is a staff writer.
“The danger in being a hipster is looking and acting like a douche bag,” Khong said. “The danger in being a hipster is winding up useless and wearing sunglasses after dark. The argument that it’s dangerous for you to listen to what you like and what your friends like and what Pitch
fork likes just seems petty … Why would anyone listen to music they didn’t like anyway? … There’s nothing fake about loving a band or a record, regardless of where you heard it first.”
Still, Pitchfork sells its starred reviews as the sanctified products of cool — the stepping stones to manufactured hipness. In “The Conquest of Cool” (1998), Thomas Frank argues that what we find liberating, rebellious or “hip” is inextricable from the fabric of consumer culture. Nowadays “peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category spectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves.”
Hipsters, it seems, find their true selves by declaring everything untrue: The proto-hipster is James Dean’s “Rebel without a Cause” or Holden Caulfield, who describes the world as full of phonies, a cute hyperbole co-opted by livejournalists the world over, and Frank himself.
“The relics of the counterculture reek of affectation and phoniness, the leisure-dreams of white suburban children,” Frank wrote.
Ultimately, the progeny of the “white suburban children” Frank described matriculate at the world’s Princetons, Harvards and Yales, where they situate themselves squarely as squares.
William Deresiewicz, a professor in Yale’s English department, remarked, “I joke with my friends that 40 percent of Yale students are girls with pulled-back dirty blonde hair who wear halter tops when it’s hot and sweatshirts when it’s cold. And 40 percent are their boyfriends.”
The unsaid 20 percent might be called “hip” by the sweatshirt-wearers, but they strut their stuff in blazers and cardigans, the dress code of the establishment. As much was pointed out in a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Organization Kid,” in which author David Brooks glowered at the present generation of workaholic students at Princeton, an Ivy League school where he found no counterculture.
“[Today’s college students] grew up in a world in which the counterculture and the mainstream culture have merged with, and co-opted, each other,” Brooks wrote. “For them, it’s natural that one of the top administrators at Princeton has a poster of the Beatles album ‘Revolver’ framed on her office wall.”
In other words, “the hip” is now “the Man.” Perhaps Brooks found this to be the most conservative generation because its counterculture — its “hipsters” — claims not to love anything, chooses instead to reward apathy and thereby seeks not at all to change the world except through selective appropriation.
It seems the only way to rebel would be to do as once done in days of yore, as detailed by Marcuse: “It is a familiar phenomenon that sub-cultural groups develop their own language, taking the harmless words of everyday communication out of their context and using them for designating objects or activities designated tabooed by the Establishment.”
What are the taboo words nowadays? Why, “Yale,” “Urban Outfitters,” “Pitchfork,” and, yes, “hipster,” of course.
The true hipster would ironically wear an ironic T-shirt, would ironically buy hip records and would ironically be, as Nguyen prescribed, a hipster. In turn, the most ironic thing that a hipster could do would be to go to Yale ironically. Following through, the second-most ironic thing a hipster could do would be to write an article about hipsters — a feat so lame it wheels right back to hip, and then chugs back to lame again. As it stands, the hippest Yale student must be a hypocrite. And she is.