The Oxford English Dictionary defines hipster as, “a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.” Though a difficult term to define, the hipster experience is identifiable as one of pretense, expense and decadence.
The hipster trend has brought about a renewed passion for craft and rustic Americana. But does that make up for serious shortcomings? In criticizing this trend, are we focusing too much on trivial foibles—replacing small with tall, fetishizing “indie”—and not enough on the socio-economic consequences of a culture that takes over low-income neighborhoods with tsunamic pace?
Over a five-day road trip from Connecticut, to Washington D.C., to Nashville, Tennesee and finally to Asheville, North Carolina, the homogeneity and pervasiveness of this trend became clear. In the wild, the hipster ostensibly considers himself unique (i.e. outside the mainstream) but exists in plain uniformity.
The wheel well of production van got all jammed up with hipster last night. Really slowed us down. #SXSWproblems
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) March 13, 2012
After leaving Washington we drove 666 miles to Nashville, Tennessee. That night we went to the Hermitage Cafe, a relic of the drive-in culture located on an otherwise industrial corner. The man behind the counter spoke with an accent bordering on caricature and the food arrived on oversized, hospital-white plates, served alongside slightly burnt coffee.
The impact of the hipster trend became apparent when contrasting the Hermitage experience with breakfast the next morning. We went to a café in East Nashville that operated out of a repurposed auto shop, replete with dimmed lights so that, like a casino, you never quite know the time, artificially tired so that you have an incessant yearning for organic, free range, GMO-free poured-over coffee. The space imitated the industrial aura of the Hermitage Cafe neighborhood, replacing late-night travelers with the laptop crowd and cheap, massive portions with miniature dishes priced on the upper-end of obscene.
The beanie-wearing barista spoke in a barely audible murmur, nodding as we ordered. Our food arrived on undersized slabs of wood, so eating was as much about consumption as it was balancing, hoping to minimize casualties that rolled off the edgeless oaken boards. This culture appreciates quality—a laudable shift from the mainstream. However, the love of unnecessary complications—tiny plates, precarious seats—is often infuriating.
A long road trip destroys the illusion of uniqueness with this cultural-phenomenon. The Nashvillian barista showed up in each city, stamped from a rubber mold, donning the same sartorial mix-match—a wool beanie no matter the weather.
The coolness of a hybrid champagne bar and bookstore in downtown Asheville was ruined as soon as a couple ordered a bottle of bubbly at 11:30 A.M., planting themselves in the middle of the store, crossing their legs in unison like synchronized swimmers and getting high off their own absurdity. The bookstore down the block, run by an older woman who stacked books like sandstone pinnacles, brought the kitschy reality into focus.
A love of obsolete Americana has produced some positive results. The once-dead vinyl record industry is projected to reach the $1 billion mark in 2017 or 2018, returning business to companies like United Record Pressing in Nashville. Community Supported Agriculture groups, or CSAs, number over 4,000 in the United States promoting healthy eating and small, local farms. The resuscitation of defunct industries and support for farmers and organic eating are clearly beneficial.
However, as any city-dweller knows, this group are the harbingers of gentrification in urban areas, pushing out low-income residents of color. This parasitic quality, where people move to an area for the ethnic authenticity, only to push the source of that culture to the peripheral, is a reality most residents of Williamsburg or East Nashville would choose to ignore. They replace affordable grocery stores with extravagant alternatives, push out bodegas for yoga studios and irreparably alter the neighborhood hum. There is sincerity in this lifestyle, but also a lack of understanding of how impactful the shift is long-term.
Hipsterism may just be a product of maudlin nostalgia, with some sincerity behind a veil of phoniness. While this works to preserve elements of the past, this culture has committed real damage. Recognizing the ubiquity of “hipsterism” or (white upper-middle class) Millennialism is likely the only way to address this malady. In understanding that one’s “unique” lifestyle is anything but, one can understand the broader impact. The idiosyncrasies, though infuriating, mean little in comparison to the social, cultural and economic change brought about by movements like these.