Blips on the cultural radar

Omigod, there’s a label that fits (or maybe I should add an “s”) me! To wit:

By now, the traits of hipsterism are easily recognizable to culture vultures: Hipsters are white, urban, occasionally privileged, attitudinally earnest and functionally alternative. They live life at the intersection of Pabst Blue Ribbon and day-glo leggings—worn with irony, or maybe not. They listen to indie darlings like Pavement, or anthem rockers like Arcade Fire. Maybe even a little Wu-Tang. Everything obscure is good; a headband on some longhair of a man; a waifish girl sporting several thick gold chains.

The hipster—torn between ironic, “who cares if I’m wearing a tracksuit” detachment and the exhibitionism required to perform the trend—is complicating traditional ideas of identity and sexuality. And this lifestyle is all the more striking when the kids mixing white-boy silhouettes and post-punk swagger are already culturally conspicuous—when they are black.

And there you go: My favorite filmmakers include Jacques Tati and Wes Anderson; I’ve got a soft spot for sci-fi, anime, and wuxia flicks; I only wear clothes with sports teams on them on laundry days; I love comics; I listen to Phish (Oops! That’s not so hip.); I operate a blog, for Chrissakes; and, dude, I skated back in the day and even bought issues of Thrasher.

Holy moley, I’m a blipster. Yessir, that’s one of them fancy portmanteaus: black + hipster. (And the fact that I just used “portmanteau” in a sentence pretty much clinches it, right?)

But what, really, is a hipster in the first place? Do hipsters actually call themselves that, or is it like “yuppies,” a term only used by those insulting them? For that matter, and a little closer to the bone, did anyone in the 1960s–or even into the early 1970s–actually call himself a “hippie?” After all, hippie derives from hipster–according to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia, and both seem to be terms thrust upon their namesakes by the media and not (as far as I can tell) the other way around.

“Hipster,” though, meant something different–and much more explicitly racialized; more on that in a sec–in its original incarnation than it does now and, in any case, no one today would use the terms “hippie” and “hipster” interchangeably. “Hippie” evokes Burning Man, Hal Ashby, Tom Robbins, the Grateful Dead, and the banged-up VW bus—the whitest of white rebellion. “Hipster” means the Knitting Factory, Wes Anderson, Tao Lin, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Smart Car—the whitest of white self-consciousness. One might have come from the other but they’ve definitely cut the cord.

Both are anxious modes, just as I’m anxious to point out that yes, nonwhite people surely play at (and attend) Knitting Factory shows; and yes, I know Tao Lin isn’t white (but I bet 95% of his audience is); and Hal Ashby and Wes Anderson’s movies both show an uneasiness with their white privilege.

But the anxiety of “hipster” and “hippie” stems from the fact that both derive their meaning from engagement black experience. Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” was the ultimate tract for the trope—I always forget that its subtitle is “Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”—and the white kids adopting the term were doing so because they were consciously adopting the jazz idiom and African American culture as their own.

Like so much in American pop culture, though, the term is divorced from its original intent in the same way that it always goes: take the fashions, lose the blackness. Again, Wikipedia notes the division:

In the late 1990s, the term started to be used in new, sometimes mutually exclusive ways. In some circles it became a blanket description for middle class and upper class young people associated with alternative culture, particularly alternative music, independent rock, alternative hip-hop, independent film and a lifestyle revolving around thrift store shopping, eating organic, locally grown, vegetarian, and/or vegan food, drinking local beer (or even brewing their own), listening to public radio, and riding fixed-gear bicycles.

In other words, Stuff White People Like.

Even there, however, the spectre of blackness remains. Along with its idiotic precepts about what white people like (okay, okay, hipster white people), the blog holds the assumption that black folks (okay, okay, all nonwhite people) don’t like these things, too. (Do they really think only white people watch The Wire? Are they on the crack that the show discusses so fervently?) “Hipster” limits the discourse both ways.

So, while the aforementioned “blipster” article is initially interesting, it reveals its limitations, too, simply because it too assumes restrictions on what whites, blacks, and anyone else should like—or should be conditioned to like—that have been blurred since the beginning. If black experience is intricately tied up with the hipster concept, and always has been, then it shouldn’t be a surprise (or a call for concern) that there are blipsters. In fact, I’d argue that the term is redundant; urban blacks are living naturally the experience that whites glean. Only now it’s working vice versa, too.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Blips on the cultural radar

  1. LMc says:

    OK, as someone who was of high school age in the very late 60’s, living in far west Texas amid billboards put up by the John Birch society, (look him up) we WERE known as hippies and even called ourselves that. Was this only because we lived in such a non-supportive place – I don’t really think so, but obviously I may not be able to see the forest for the trees. Certainly, we wanted to live with new attitudes and awarenesses, but also loved all of the accoutrements of the time. I wasn’t one of the really brave ones in terms of what I was able to get away with, but I experienced my share of it all.
    I’ll wait for those of you who came along later to be able to look back at all this with enough detachment and clear vision to assess it.

  2. Dad says:

    living through life and be able to assess and/or making judgment between previous times and now is challenging for writers/critics. the rules have changed so much that comments maybe should be categorized in eras. it is certainly good to see someone trying to may sense of it all.

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