Friday 31 October 2014

Damn hipsters: The young rebels without a cause

It will come as no surprise to anyone living in the capital that south Dublin is considered one of the world's hipster hotspots. With their Abe Lincoln-style beards, super-retro bikes and skin-tight chinos, they're hard to miss and have fast become a modern-day target of ridicule. While Emily Hourican acknowledges that without the hipsters there would be no offbeat ethnic restaurants, artisan food shops and good coffee, she wonders if there is any substance to their style

Emily Hourican

Published 09/06/2014 | 02:30

‘Today’s hipsters are mostly without anger or visible disaffection’ - a hipster with one of their modes of transport, a vintage bicycle
‘They take their style references from the past - Edwardian chic meets frontiersman practicality’ - the classic male hipster look
‘Hipsters have even achieved what would once have been dismissed as impossible - infiltrated the Irish rugby team’ - Gordon D’Arcy and Aoife Cogan in November 2013
‘Hipsters have even achieved what would once have been dismissed as impossible - infiltrated the Irish rugby team’ - Gordon D’Arcy and Aoife Cogan in November 2013

For those of you who may have been quietly wondering just what the deal is with young guys sporting absurd beards (and I'm thinking Abe Lincoln or Karl Marx-type facial hair here, not just a bit of designer stubble), skin-tight jeans, jumpers with low V-necks and geeky specs – the kind that used to be called National Health – possibly riding around on a very old bicycle, even a unicycle, the good news is that, no, they haven't just been released from the isolated attic where they spent their entire childhoods. In fact, they are an actual, discernible subculture.

They are called hipsters, and retro-irony is their trademark. Along with beards. But you'd spotted the beards already.

In Dublin, the hipsters have mushroomed from a few subdued outliers into a busy, thriving scene, mainly concentrated around Stoneybatter, Camden Street and Clanbrassil Street, anywhere that craft beer is brewed or rare pork breeds roasted. They have even achieved what would once have been dismissed as impossible – infiltrated the Irish rugby team. Step forward Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D'Arcy. Hipsters, basically, are happening here.

And for those of you who know all about hipsters, well, just when you thought the deluge of "latest-hipster-trend" stories couldn't get any more foolish, along comes the New York Times with a suggestion that monocles are the Next Big Thing for skinny metrosexual guys, whose style icons are a bizarre cross between Beau Brummell and Grizzly Adams.

What was interesting about the story wasn't so much the attempt to position monocles at the cutting edge, so much as the locations where these had, apparently, been spotted. "Monocles are increasingly being worn by hipsters from the trendy enclaves of Berlin cafes and Manhattan restaurants . . . to parts of south Dublin."

You see, it's official! Dublin is actually one of the hipster capitals of the world. However, like any good statement, this one raises at least as many questions as it answers. Who are these hipsters? What is their creed? And why are we all so obsessed with them?

The first thing to say is that hipsters do not self-identify. Ask anyone if they are a hipster (except my six-year-old son) and they will say "No. Way. Man", just as no one will admit to being a sexual deviant or a tax accountant. Think Dylan Thomas's definition of an alcoholic: "someone you dislike who drinks as much as you do." Or comedian Tim Heidecker – "Nobody hates hipsters more than hipsters." Hipsters, invariably, are "other people".

This is because there are many mocking layers to the term, hints of a sneer, whether from the media, who get to run a jumble of absurd stories on the basis that they are trends within hipster subgroups, or from the rest of us, who are just trying to enjoy a decent bit of Venezuelan street food without having to deal with constant low-level irony from our waiter, who is wearing skinny jeans, a plaid shirt and a whole lot of attitude. "Can I get you anything else?" is not a phrase that lends itself readily to sarcasm, but, hey, they can still try.

So, given that no one is going to read this piece and admit that I'm talking about them, I feel I have permission to speak very freely. First, though, let's get one thing out of the way: gratitude. We owe the hipsters a lot, and we must not forget it.

Good coffee and high-speed broadband in every corner caff, restaurants that go well beyond French, Italian or "Modern Irish", and into more interesting, exotic cultures; the revolution in organic, artisanal food, which may, occasionally, go too far (coffee beans eaten and then excreted by small South American mammals anyone?), but is very welcome; a resurgence in all-but-forgotten crafts and styles; most of all, a genuine antidote to vacuous celeb culture. Hipsters do not watch the Kardashians, nor do they follow Premiership football teams; they do not spend long evenings taking selfies in Krystle nightclub. And finally, we must thank them for their rejection of blanket corporate hegemony.

Hipsters are for the little guy, the local mom-and-pop store and indie producer, whether of music, beer or art. Hipsters shop vintage rather than high street, and can see the beauty in what the rest of the world considers rubbish because it isn't new and made by somebody in Louis Vuitton. They say things like, "This represents more than just a candy bar. It represents a new way of crafting food," and it embodies a "fiercely independent, almost Emersonian spirit."

At their best, hipsters are a force for urban good, transforming run-down neighbourhoods into up-and-comers via the march of gluten-free doughnut shops, remodelled VW vans selling burritos, and community gardens started on abandoned lots. Just look what they have done to the one-time wasteland around Smithfield.

Theirs is a rebellion against the vortex of globalisation, into which it sometimes looks as though everything will eventually fall. No to Coca-Cola, Nike, Toymaster and Baby Dior. Instead, they take their style references from the past – Edwardian chic meets frontiersman practicality – and their cultural references from the obscure and obsolete.

This means hipsters have strange bedfellows. Like old-school farmers who never embraced the Brave New World of high-intensity food production; grandmothers who crochet and make Irish lace just the way their mothers used to; skilled craftsmen who never adapted to labour-saving, but unlovely modern methods, and who were nearly forgotten until the hipsters came along and heaped respect upon them.

Older is better, basically. Except where technology is concerned. Hipsters love technology, preferably fancy and space age. But, even there, they try to stay one step ahead of the rest of us, moving from Facebook in their droves, onto Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and ever more esoteric platforms.

Lots of things say hipster: kale, unicycles, Polaroid cameras, facial hair, kimchi, blackboards with life-lesson-101 phrases in fancy writing, sherry, braces, pipes, library membership, cardigans, fermented green tea, raw chocolate brownies, penny farthings, Etsy, vinyl, kids called Corduroy and London, wearing vintage Mickey Mouse T-shirts and home-crocheted scarves. Hipsters are in favour of breastfeeding – often until their children are old enough to ask for a glass of home-brewed Kombucha – barter and, of course, beards.

In fact, if hipsters stand for anything – and we will get to that later – it is irony, crafts and facial hair. In recent years, we have had improbable vogues for goatees, sideburns, handlebar moustaches, pencil moustaches, the full early Pioneer, even the chinstrap beard. What's next? Mutton chops? Neck beards? Is there any arrangement of chin, cheek or top-lip hair too absurd to become a "thing" with them?

Along with the beards, hipster guys wear skinny jeans, slogan T-shirts, lumberjack shirts and toe sneakers that look like fake bear paws. Think Woody Allen, Kurt Cobain, guys who play the banjo – especially if they play it on their iPhone 5s via a series of downloaded apps that cost twice as much as an actual banjo.

Hipster girls, meanwhile, favour a kind of geek chic: androgynous, low maintenance, thrift shop. Think maxi dresses, flat shoes, jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts – Alexa Chung, basically. Failing that, try Chloe Sevigny or Zooey Deschanel. Their look is the complete antithesis to the pumped-up porn-star aesthetic the mainstream media is pushing – all hair extensions, fake boobs and platform stilettos – and, therefore, definitely something you would like to see your daughter adopt.

There's another reason to be grateful to hipsters. Hipster girls aim to look intelligent (accessorise with a copy of Plato's Republic or anything by Chuck Palahniuk), independent (no logos, unless ultra-ironic ones, nothing on-trend) and a little bit reckless. Tattoos are a good thing, but they must say something about your personality; no yin-yang signs or Celtic lettering please.

Another reason to like hipsters is, they bring us things. They are cultural truffle pigs, foraging deep into the cutting edge of music, food, social media and fashion, unearthing new and forgotten things and sounds of value, only for the rest of us to swoop in and busily snaffle up their finds. At which point, the true hipster has to move on to something else. Popularity, to hipsters, is like sunlight to vampires.

Hipsters may refuse to self-define, but they have no trouble at all conforming to the stereotypes of their subculture, chiefly a paranoia around the idea of something being "played out", and the need to move on before that happens. Whether it's London, South William Street, African dance music or spats, hipsters need to feel that they are at the vanguard, and gone before the mainstream get there.

But why does everyone seem to hate them? Polls show (I know, but they do, seriously) that 42 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of hipsters. Now, goodness knows what that actually means, so New York magazine spelled it out in a headline: The Hipster Must Die. Adbusters magazine, the bible of counter-culture cool, was even more dismissive: "The hipster represents the end of Western civilisation – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning."

Meanwhile, a rash of blogs carrying various permutations of the words "hipsters", "fuck", "die" and "hate" can be found for cities across Europe, America and Canada.

Here, we have www.broadsheet.ie, whose vigilant hipster-baiting is pretty much a cornerstone of its creed.

Why, just a few years ago, we were cheering the return of more traditional crafts, like knitting, tapestry and crochet; "What a wonderful, recession-chic antidote to expensive nights out in nightclubs and fancy restaurants," we said. "How innocent. How authentic." Dress-making and furniture-restoring courses were on the up.

We delighted to see cheap-but-tasty street-food folk coming in their TukTuk trucks and vintage campers, craft-beer brewers and low-carbon-footprint cycling enthusiasts. Now, we dismiss the whole lot ruthlessly as "hipster-ish". We might still like bars and restaurants, such as CrackBird (and anything else by High King of Hip, Joe Macken), Damson Diner, The Fumbally, The Grand Social, The Workmans Club, but it doesn't stop us muttering, "Damn hipsters," about the wait staff and other customers.

We enthusiastically support bands like Belle & Sebastian and Arcade Fire once they break out into the mainstream, but still sneer at hipster kids for searching out new, unknown acts in Whelan's, or off-main shabby, low-key venues full of exposed brickwork and rough-hewn wooden counters, where cocktails are made from organic, 100 per cent agave Tequila and served in jam jars with a sky-high price tag.

Of course, hipsters are a safe slag. Predominantly white, educated, middle class, without gender distinction, we can diss them all we want without being called racist, sexist or elitist. They are the Charlie Browns of our culture, guys we can all get behind hating. And, because no one will admit to being one, it doesn't even feel personal. It's like hating Daleks or the Romulans; good, clean fun. Often, they are simply a landing stage on the way to something even more conformist – a sanctioned break-out for kids from Blackrock College or Loreto on the Green, before they settle down.

Our attitude is so schizophrenic that it must be more than the average mistrust of youth culture. What is it about the hipsters that aggravates so? Personally, I think it's the ironic quote marks around everything. An endless, debilitating self-awareness that doesn't allow them to take anything seriously. No cultural loyalty or earnest conviction, just relentless sarcasm and novelty-hunting. Even the irony has a faux quality to it. They search for things that are "real", that have a past, and "authentic" values, but then treat them as disposably as yesterday's smartphone.

Their historical precedents, whether they know it or not, are Generation X, the Mods, the Bright Young Things of the 1930s and the fin-de-siecle decadents, including Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Huysmans and Saki.

Hipsters may not have the intellectual underpinning of the fin de siecle, and are distinctly less fun than the Bright Young Things, but what they have in common are that they are dandified in dress, mannered in speech and lifestyle, and disaffected in politics. The fin de siecle decadents were anarchic, and the Bright Young Things, hemmed in on either side by Fascists and Communists, made a virtue of having no politics. Naturally, both were hated by all serious and right-thinking members of society. Hipsters, caught between eco-warriors and Republican climate-deniers, seem to have adopted a similar nihilism: "civilisation is collapsing, we can't do anything about it, so let's just enjoy the ride, and seek out the very best single-estate cocoa chocolate bar while we do it."

Both the fin de siecle generation and the Bright Young Things were followed by horrible world wars, and it is no accident that the word hipster itself was first used about the post-World War Two generation in America, the beat generation of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, existentialists who made a radical choice between being hip or square, where being square meant conforming to the considerable repression of American society. "In such places as Greenwich Village, a menage a trois was completed – the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life," wrote Norman Mailer in 1957.

Of course, today's hipsters are mostly without the anger or visible disaffection of the originals. And, because theirs is now such a dominant subculture, their non-conformism is almost as conformist as a North Korean rally.

Pop into any restaurant or coffee bar within the so-called Hipster Triangle that joins the corner of Exchequer Street with Dame Street and Aungier Street in Dublin, and you will find interchangeably bored young men and women, self-consciously dressed and consuming the best of what's on offer, with an ever-anxious eye on what might be coming next.

In place of the undeniable anger of Ginsberg's "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night", this lot have sarcasm and a restless desire for newness. Instead of politics, they have values – "organic", "artisanal", "local" "authentic" – and instead of the courage of their convictions, they have an ironic refusal to take anything seriously. Even their dancing is ironic, a kind of shoulder-shrugging, invisible-quote-marks homage to the "idea" of dancing – a "hey, imagine people actually doing this for real?" parody.

Somewhere, the anger burnt itself out. Probably crushed by the same sense of futility in the face of relentless globalisation and capitalism that affects all of us. So that, instead of Kerouac's jittery, visibly damaged, drug-addicted dropouts searching to create their own society from the clean, condemnatory cookie-cutter monotony of post-war American social life, the hipsters gradually evolved into an anodyne subculture defined by novelty-seeking and consumerism rather than politics.

At which point it became a massive draw for all those kids who wanted to be different, without that being dangerous. Hipsters reject corporate takeover but, without challenging it, they duck under the political parapet and engage only on a micro-level: "I choose the wholefoods cafe round the corner rather than Burger King."

The problem is, without any coherent political underpinning of their lifestyle, they are constantly in danger of having their own subculture repackaged and sold back to them by the very corporate world they affect to despise. And that is what makes them so ultimately frustrating.

All that energy, money and goodwill harnessed to nothing more substantial than whim and whimsy. They may also be about to eat themselves. Because, out of the insatiable desire to be ahead, to be apart, to find the cool in uncool, the hipsters have come full circle, into something called Normcore.

This is the ultimate rejection of traffic-stopping fashion razzmatazz, in favour of supermarket-brand jeans, fleeces and chunky white socks. It is – Ooh! double-helpings of irony – about blending in rather than standing out, and, as such, it is the trend that is set to swallow everyone, from suburban dads, middle-aged tourists and Midwest students, to Larry David and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Normcore, according to Vogue.

It is the in-est of in-jokes, and, like dog whistles, undetectable to most of us. Only those really, really in the know will get it. And that, to hipsters, is irresistible.

The ultimate Irish hipster

Identify him by the Salvador Dali-esque waxed moustache, worn with plaid shirt, braces and ironic bus-driver tats.

That, or a beard so full and bushy you think that it may be worn for religious reasons. Until you see his toe sneakers.

Hangs out in The Bernard Shaw, the IFI, The Workmans Club, any restaurant owned by Joe Macken.

Drinks coffee, as long as it's single-estate and wet-processed, craft beer and cocktails made with absinthe.

Eats anything from South America; chicken as long as it's doused in chilli peppers.

And burgers. Hipsters own burgers. But the burgers have to be topped with the really weird – caramelised chilli banana and almond pesto – or the most simplistic retro-classic – a single gherkin and slice of Cheddar.

Listens to Fight Like Apes; any bands you've never heard of, until you hear of them, then the Ultimate Irish hipster will never play them again.

Watches subtitled European films. Shops at Urban Outfitters, The Loft in Powerscourt, in charity shops along Aungier Street, but not the ones that do great window displays and only sell the contents at prearranged times, because they're "played out".

Accessorises a unicycle, a copy of Kerouac's On the Road, grandad-style glasses, an iPhone 5S.

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