put a bird on it

Good-bye, Portlandia. Good-bye, Hipsters.

Photo: IFC

The other day I was in an Urban Outfitters, trying on sale-rack jeans, as I have done intermittently for the better part of 15 years. But this time, something was off. In these jeans, my legs didn’t look like my legs, or at least how I understood how my legs looked. Did they not fit? I couldn’t tell you. It’s more that my legs felt out of place. That’s what watching the final season of Portlandia has felt like. Same legs; different jeans. Same show, with the same interests, tone, and priorities; different cultural moment.

My feeling shopping that day, and my feeling watching Portlandia in 2018, is connected to the same four-letter word that’s actually a seven-letter word, and it’s “hipster.” Portlandia was the king of the once-mighty genre of hipster comedy, but like with skinny jeans, there is no longer a market for it. To quote one of the show’s most famous sketches: It’s over!

If you want a thorough timeline of the rise of hipster comedy, you can read one of my two articles on the subject — one, two — but it would be useful to do a quick refresher. Even though we’ve lived through the hipster era, it’s easy to forget how far back the word goes. It’s been flopping around on and off since the 1940s, when it was used to describe mostly white jazz fans, but it wasn’t until the turn of the Willenium that we started seeing it aimed generally at who we associate the term with. The first New York Magazine reference I can find is from a 2002 article about the rise of crack use in Williamsburg, which is very funny. In general, around this time you saw the word popping up more and more in major city magazines and alt weeklies. The term started tip-toeing into the mainstream in 2003, when two books came out that presented themselves as a sort of Young Hipster’s Almanac — Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook and Josh Aiello’s A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster. In 2006 and 2007, partly because of technological invention, hipsters start getting used more and more as punch lines in web videos, like “Hipster Olympics.” A couple years later, there was an explosion of generic hipster sketches, mostly on YouTube, which just looked for “novel” ways to run through the same ten or so clichés.

In 2011, hipster jokes arrived on TV, in the form of maybe the worst Happy Endings episode ever and the entirety of 2 Broke Girls. This was also the year Portlandia premiered. It offered a reinvention and road to salvation for hipster-related comedy by ignoring the same stereotypes and avoiding the actual word, instead focusing on the culture itself. Portlandia was the first in a line of TV shows — Girls, You’re the Worst, Love — where the characters were hipsters, where comedy was derived from certain hipster traits, but that wasn’t the sum total of the joke and the sum total of their personalities. But Girls and Love are over, and You’re the Worst will be soon, too. That’s why the end of Portlandia, the form’s standard-bearer, is such an important marker of the term’s death. If hipsters are irrevocably intertwined with the jokes about hipsters, then the word “hipster” doesn’t die when people stop describing people as one, but when they stop making fun of them.

How did this happen? Let’s look at some graphs! Here are the Google searches for “hipster” since 2004 (as far back as you can go on Google Trends):

Here is the graph again, with a pinpoint for a specific month — June 2015 — where it seems the decline really starts happening:

Now, let’s act like a CIA chief, tapping a screen and asking for their underling to zoom in there. What the hell, we have to pick a date in June 2015, so let’s go with June 16:

Ha! That was the day Trump announced he was running for president. This whole thing has been about Trump all along! I’m kidding, this is just a coincidence. Ultimately, I think there’s something much more elemental going on. Let’s look at another graph:

The blue line you recognize from above, but the red line? That represents searches for “millennials.” Here are the hipster versus millennials searches in the United States since June 16, 2015:

Oooh, that’s a-spicy correlation! I want to underline the point with one last graph comparing searches for “What is a hipster” and “What is a millennial” in the United States, since January 20, 2009, Obama’s inauguration day:

The point where the two lines first intersect: July 2015. There is hypothetically a counterargument that is like, well, maybe “what is a hipster” search is down because people already know about them. While this is a fair point, I believe “what is a hipster” is the search term used by someone who has come across a video making fun of hipsters (or has been called one). A decrease in searches means a decrease of interactions, means a decrease in consumed hipster jokes. I see these graphs, and I see people losing interest in hipsters, and in making jokes about them. It is, however, not as easy as saying everyone just found a new thing to joke about instead — millennials. Because, when it comes down to it, they are the same jokes.

When looking at these graphs, I was reminded of something Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch said to me about that Happy Endings hipster episode, when I interviewed him about hipster jokes for one of those previous pieces: “It just felt like a bunch of estranged adults trying to burn the youth they don’t understand with some real ‘zingers.’” At their core, hipster jokes were jokes about young people. Or more specifically, these new young people, moving into the neighborhoods the former young people had already gentrified but in a “cool,” “authentic” way. Comedy about millennials is exactly the same. Take this SNL sketch:

Essentially, millennial jokes are what Gen-X jokes or baby boomer jokes were when those people were in their 20s. Hipster jokes were just a bridge, focusing on the group of young people on the border of two generations, young Gen-Xers and old millenials. It makes sense, then, that Portlandia was made by two true Gen-Xers making fun of the new youths they saw infiltrating their city. Now that it’s over, Portlandia, not unlike Laugh-In, will remain as a sort of time capsule for those between times. If you’re thinking, right now, that you’re technically in this demographic but are not a hipster (because “no one admits they’re a hipster” yada yada), I am truly sorry because you don’t really get a choice. All of our parents were hippies, because even if they only heard about Woodstock in the papers, their hair was pretty long. And your jeans were pretty tight.

Yep, we’re still talking about jeans. Because the same reason Urban Outfitters doesn’t sell jeans I’m used to anymore is the same reason people aren’t interested in hipsters, is the same reason why Portlandia feels so out of place: No one cares about old people or their interests. Not even old people — they are busy watching their sugar or sustaining the lives of helpless babies. We are a youth-obsessed culture, and that’s the real common-causal variable. I’m old. All of my friends are old. Portlandia is old. But, don’t worry, like the show, we’ll all be dead soon. And until then, while people are still paying attention just a little bit, let’s get something, anything, and put a bird on it.

Hipsters Are Over