So I was sitting in this retro sleek cafe, with mismatched chairs, deer heads and rusted farm tools mounted on the wall, a chandelier and thick ropes hanging from the ceiling, and a cavalcade of single-speed bicycles parked out the front. The women around me wore dainty floral dresses, their hair strategically ruffled and partly shaven, at once Rapunzel in distress and P!nk in-your-face. The young men sported the requisite tapered jeans and rugged but unsoiled boots, grains of quinoa bespeckled their Ned Kelly beards. Of course, noone was wearing the same thing in the same way. The struggle of the hipster, like trendy people throughout the ages, is to stand out while fitting in.
Hipsters, however, are especially and distinctively concerned with going their own way. Having grown up amid ubiquitous advertising and a globalising culture, they try to personalise everything. Retro seems more real to them, more "authentique". This explains the popularity of knitting clubs and etsy-style handicraft. The hipster dream is to retrieve from a deserted island a piece of flotsam and jetsam, which can be placed on the mantelpiece in their inner-city cottage and casually referred to when friends come around: ``You probably haven't seen anything like this before ...".
With the rise of hipsters, the pressure to conform to the majority has been replaced by a push to be aligned with marginalised minorities. This is evident in the movie reboot of 21 Jump Street in which a pair of 30-something cops return to high school to investigate a drug ring. Unaware of the upturn in cool that has taken place over the past decade, they assume that the dashing cop (Channing Tatum) will be the popular kid while the awkward cop (Jonah Hill) will be the nerdy outcast. Upon entering the school yard, they realise that the jocks and beauty queens have been supplanted at the top of the social pyramid by fair-trade latte-sipping gay rights activists. If you're not underground and out of place in the early 2010s, then there's something wrong with you.
The hipster desire to buck the norm and question authority accords with an affection for social justice. However, having a desire and affection does not amount to making a commitment or staking a claim. Herein lies a major critique of hipsters: no one knows who they are, what they stand for or if they'll ever make a difference.
In a much commented upon Gawker article, Tom Scocca explores the emergence of "smarm" which very much parallels the ascendance of hipsters. Smarm alludes to virtue and civility without substance or seriousness. Ultimately, it stifles and deflects the sort of anger and dissent that drives activism and constructive change. Hipster niceness, then, is "the newest weapon in the arsenal of the privileged". They're just middle-class kids hanging out in refashioned warehouses drinking craft beer, pretending to be poor.
Christian Lorentzen argues in Time Out New York that hipsterism blends many of the "fringe movements of the post-war era - -beat, hippie, punk, even grunge" b with the "cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity" and "a winking inauthenticity". The hipsters' ironic mashup is manifest in their fashion. They can don flannel and a trucker's hat, but are not westies or working class. They might have piercings and tattoos, but not in a confronting punkish way. Hipsters are preppie without being proper. They wear tight pants -à la emos, but with colour and without grisliness. Political hipsters rail against the one per cent, occupy this and that and welcome refugees in a manner that pays tribute to counter culture activism without actually giving the finger to the establishment or dropping out of society altogether.
This extraordinary eclecticism of attitudes and appearance is made possible by the internet, which serves as a cultural and historical bazaar that can be frequented with a simple swipe and tap. As a university lecturer, I am often struck by the breadth of music that my students listen to: samplings of the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Frank Zappa, Depeche Mode, Paul Kelly, Nirvana and Daft Punk. True audiophiles have an extensive vinyl collection to accompany their digital playlists. The weekly pop song countdown has become far more difficult to calculate and less significant than ever. Who wants to be top of the pops when hierarchy and mass consumption are oh so 20th century?
Marx referred to the modern era as being one in which all that is solid melts into air. Little could he imagine how this would become a literal reality in the postmodern era in which documents and files ascend to the cloud, music is streamed, money is beamed, books are digital, and photographs are snapchatted away to be forgotten rather than remembered. In all this amorphousness, entertainers such as Madonna or Kylie who have straddledepochs of music and style, cannot find anything to swing their legs over and hook on to. The contemporary equivalent would be Lady Gaga who had to be avant-garde almost every day. Indeed, as soon as she was unable to reinvent herself, she went on the nose like so many putrid meat dresses.
The same might be said of Western civilisation. Hipster as Western culture cannot thrive when it exists solely on the extremities; that is - when it's all fingertips and toes without a head to guide it, a heart to inspire it and a belly to sustain it - when it struggles to identify itself. Commentators of different ilks and ideologies worry about the stagnation and decline of this culture, not so much despite, but rather because of technological advancement.
Kurt Andersen points out in Vanity Fair that throughout the 20th century, one could select any point in terms of fashion or music and then fast forward or rewind two decades to find something radically different. The 1950s rock'n'roll of Chuck Berry or Johnny O'Keefe sounds nothing like the 1970s rock'n'roll of Pink Floyd or Skyhooks. Acid-wash jeans from the 1980s look nothing like bell bottoms from the 1960s.
But the bottomless resource that is the internet has meant that the 1990s marked the end of pop culture history. Andersen finds little to distinguish Mariah Carey from Adele. Iggy Azalea doesn't do anything that Salt 'N' Pepa didn't do 20 years ago. We see increasingly frequent reboots of story lines such that only five years passed between the fresh faced Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man being replaced by the fresher faced Andrew Garfield as the Amazing Spider-Man. Maguire's co-star James Franco, wrote in Vice magazine that the new franchise "arose even before there was time to bury the corpse of the old one and enshroud it in the haze of nostalgia". In terms of shoes, Nike Air Max's, Converse All Stars, Reebok high tops and Asics tigers never even had to come back. No trend is ever out-of-date, but nothing is innovative and new.
As I left the cafe, I read a joke on the blackboard by the door: "How do you kill a pack of hipsters? Drown them in the mainstream."
Perhaps it was just the snarky Gen-Xer in me, but I wondered if they had somehow euthanised themselves with all that self-referential irony. Their concerted efforts to refuse labels meant that they were goners as soon as someone referred to them as ``hipsters". Another part of me felt sorry for hipsters and wondered what might have been had they not been mugged by the global recession and climate change. Perhaps we will never know what hipsters were all about and yet miss them, if only because they did little to offend. And I pondered what was on the horizon.
Apparently, the next big thing is hardcore normal: normcore. The look is flat and unassuming, marked by fleece and no-name comfortable sneakers, embracing sameness with subtle quirks. Normcore makes you want to sit down and watch a few episodes of Seinfeld, assured in the knowledge that if you miss your hipster days then it's ok because they'll come around again soon.
Dr Kim Huynh is lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University. He revised this essay using an online wiki in conjunction with his POLS2101 Refugee Politics class.