Saturday, December 29, 2007


It took me until today to understand what the word "hipster" has come to mean. When I heard people complaining about neighborhoods infested with hipsters, bars ruined by hipsters, I didn't really give it much thought beyond remembering Yogi Berra's lament: "The place is too crowded--nobody goes there anymore." The red herring was the word "hipster," which to my mind couldn't possibly be synonymous with "yuppie" or any of the other terms for people who have more money than you do but no souls, and who spend their free time subjecting all you hold dear to unfriendly takeover.

In my mind the hipster stood for fingerpops, harlequin-pattern banlon shirts, cuban heels, toothpick and cigarette both at the same time, mohair suits, shirt-jacs, chesterfield overcoats, comb in the breast pocket, use of brylcreem years after the British Invasion, Jimmy Smith records, Mongo Santamaria records, Arthur Prysock records, unfiltered Kools, the novels of Richard Stark, the pornographic novels of Alexander Trocchi, the glory days of Gent and Cavalier, never raising the voice above a throaty whisper, clipped hand gestures, wakefulness despite half-shut eyelids, communicating volumes entirely with the eyebrows, walking with a rolling shuffle, having a substantial number of friends whose race is different from yours.

You get the picture, I think. Yes, it was largely a male phenomenon--there were hipster women in black leotards, but they didn't look all that different from beatnik women in black leotards. It was a style that may have peaked between 1957 and 1963, but it remained, persistent and underground, for decades afterward, ignoring all movements and trends, implacable in its deep and nearly unreadable coolness. I myself didn't really get it until it was way beyond my grasp, a school of elegance I could no longer even aspire to. By that time you'd get at most fugitive glimpses--in jazz clubs, at the race track, in a few fringe neighborhoods, occasionally among old-school bikers. By now the true hipsters are mostly in their 70s, and less visible than ever. They'll take their secrets to the grave.

So it's especially disheartening that their name has been reassigned, and not to any foolish but vigorous crop of tyros, but to parasites. Eric Fredericksen defines the hipster as "a consumer of (sub)culture, a person who substitutes taste for creative drive." That sort has probably been around forever, but didn't really become an identifiable genus until maybe the 1980s, when the vastly increased size of the market made it possible to pursue consumerism as a full-time activity. Hunting esoteric cultural kicks turned into connoisseurship; possession of items distinguished chiefly by their obscurity at once inflated the desirability of those items to others and became tantamount to having produced those items oneself. Now hipsters have gone way beyond Scandinavian psychedelia and Japanese bondage photography. They collect neighborhoods. Soon those will run out, too. You are advised to protect your neck.

Special thanks to Edward Champion and Eric Fredericksen.