I moved to the United States five years ago, feeling very confident about my English vocabulary, only to find that my meager repertoire of cultural references made lively communication with other students difficult. The word that gave me the most trouble was “hipster” - my fellow freshmen used it frequently, and my inability to understand it made me feel horribly foreign. I eventually asked a local outcast (the inevitable companion of the foreign student on first days of school everywhere) to explain the concept to me. He said that hipsters never admitted to being hipsters, but that they could easily be identified by their tight uniform and hatred of everything and everyone. I had just moved from Germany, and hipsters sounded an awful lot like fascists.
I was disappointed to find out that the notorious hipster was nothing but an apathetic, sloppy fashionista. Furthermore, almost everyone at my college fit that description (I went to Bard), so their obsession with the concept was partially an expression of their self-absorption. I never considered that a consistent culture inspired those questionable fashion decisions. But that is precisely what Stuff Hipsters Hate argues, and the authors have gone to great pains to explain every aspect of that lifestyle.
Stuff Hipsters Hate is a spin-off of a blog of the same name (and coincidentally the name reads like a spin-off of Stuff White People Like, a recent web sensation turned bestselling book) - it is a compilation of the blog’s most successful posts, spell-checked, reorganized and pressed into a seedy-looking paperback. According to the back cover, the New Yorker found the blog “depressingly astute” and The Frisky, a bubblier publication, pronounced it “wickedly funny.” Indeed, the authors Ehrlich and Bartz attempt to tickle the funny out of the material, by being as wicked as possible to their subjects. They use case studies to document the irresponsibility of hipsters, quotes to demonstrate how they contradict themselves, dialogues to show their inherent selfishness and pretension, cartoon strips to mock their looks, and graphs and charts to point out their predictability. All these ingredients are bound together by a snarky narration, a ratatouille of bleak academic text, colorful conversational prose, rhetorical flourishes spiced up with profanity - an ungainly omelette.
While the authors seem to consider the individual hipster to be deserving of nothing but unyielding mockery, they have put this together because they believe the culture of the hipster worthy of close anthropological study. For 200 pages the authors walk us through exhibits of the group’s mating, dressing, shopping, grooming, socializing, spending and (seasonal) employment habits. The authors judge the hipster to be a very specific character type: at best, partially-employed, cheap, superficially self-confident, lazy, dramatic, narcissistic, aimless, sockless, braless, tattooed - a pale and gap-toothed “creature”, that lives in a dark apartment, with clothes, existentialist literature, dollar bills, and a dinky mattress strewn on the floor, in an immigrant neighborhood several subway stops ahead of the gentrification gravy train. In those holey halls, and in nearby parks and watering holes, they half-heartedly pursue careers and fame in music or art, secretly envy old friends that went to law school, blather on about atheism and defying conventions of all kinds, sleep with whomever manages to intrigue them and eventually grow old and uncool.
It is hard to believe that a hipster so defined can really be the driving force behind a notable cultural movement - a claim upon which the legitimacy of this book squarely rests. This hipster is a crude stereotype – too narrow to apply to a multitude of people. But this is a comedic failure rather than a conceptual one. The authors make caricatures of their subjects because they parody them too crassly. When they quote their subjects, the sentences are littered with authorial flags. A hipster break-up is transcribed as:
“I’m not gonna do that whole let’s-see-other-people thing…. Instead I’m gonna just quietly withdraw and stop responding to your texts, occasionally emerging from the ether to send you cryptic, apologetic emails about my current bout of episodic depression. I’ll use figurative language like ‘buried under life’ or ‘in a cocoon’ and make increasingly vague references to hanging out in the near future.”
Parodies are best when they’re almost mistakable for the real thing. The portions of SHH that parody the behavior of hipsters are devoid of all subtlety. They are the written equivalent of a sitcom – predictable as the catchphrase, contrived as the laugh track. Maybe it is difficult to parody somebody one has no sympathy for. Judging by the relentlessness of their lampooning, it seems that the authors feel a sincere animosity for their subjects (as well as the fascination that implies).
The research methods section of the book holds one possible explanation for that disdain. Inspired by Goodall, the authors decided to live among their subjects to study their habits – like Hunter S. Thompson, they partook in those habits themselves. Thompson developed a deep sense of loyalty and camaraderie with the Hell’s Angels while reporting on them; Ehrlich and Bartz went even further undercover and “dated” a throng of hipster boys for the good of their project. How that worked out for them can be seen in the romance section of their book: several pages are dedicated to the unreliability and fickleness of hipster boyfriends. Perhaps one should understand the authors weird rhetorical tic of referring to hipsters as “creatures” as both a nod to Goodall’s (non-sexual) involvement with monkeys and a bitter fuck-you to their pale ex-boyfriends.
On the other hand, the author’s jolly rancor can just as easily be understood as a natural consequence of their own position in society. They write that the hipster, “often forsakes societal norms such as ‘work,’ ‘commuting’ and ‘bathing.’” The quotation marks on the final three nouns are as contemptuous as they are telling - they are short for “let me introduce you to some important concepts that may seem foreign to you.” The authors maintain that conservative stance throughout the book. Colorful language aside, Stuff Hipsters Hate reads like an establishmentarian critique of the subculture.
Correspondingly, the only positive attributes the authors ascribe to hipsters are the ways in which they can be commodified: as sex and study objects, and as trendsetters. Always ahead of the curve, hipsters were likely the first people to predict the demise of their own group. Ehrlich and Bartz make the painful admission in their introduction: “the age of the hipster…may be drawing to a close.”
It is tempting for this reader to conclude that this book is irrelevant because its subject matter is no longer the talk of the town. It is irrelevant, but not because of its subject matter: a book discussing the significance of the modern hipster could be very interesting. After all, the modern day hipster managed to stage one of the safest rebellions in world history (at least ur-hipster James Dean drove fast cars); they were able to reject mainstream society while remaining entirely market-oriented (feverishly repositioning themselves as niche products; helping lubricate the Brooklyn housing market); and they proved how worthwhile it could be to invent neat categories for indistinct groups of people (though they wanted nothing to do with Sam’s Club republicans, soccer moms or Nascar dads.) What did it all mean?
Stuff Hipsters Hate doesn’t concern itself with any significance one could attribute to its subject. It doesn’t need to - the fact that it found a publisher is itself evidence of that significance. At the very least it can be read as a historical document - not as a reliable source on the culture once called hipsterism, but as a testament to coastal America’s temporary obsession with it and the profiteering chops of certain bloggers.
Perhaps hipsters willed themselves into extinction once they heard that some yuppie journalists were writing a book about them.
Leon Dische Becker is a freelance journalist/critic/translator living in New York.