Last weekend The Observer ran an article declaring ‘the end of the hipster’, predicting a self-implosion of the culture that everyone loves to hate. 1 A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but as a historian of post-war British youth culture, looking back to the 1960s and to mod culture, I was struck by how familiar this narrative is.
The hipster has its history in the counterculture of post-war Europe and America. Emerging in the 1940s the hipster has gone through many transformations: the jazz fan, the beatnik, the hippy, the ‘indie’. The character of the hipster itself is nothing new. Urban Dictionary now defines a hipster as ‘a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, [and] progressive politics’. 2
In The Observer article a contemporary and a proto hipster were outlined. The contemporary hipsters with ‘the beards we love to hate’ are portrayed as less authentic, and more artificial, than the original proto-hipsters. These contemporary hipsters have purportedly bought into the pre-packaged image of the hipster and eschewed the traditional route of cultural connoisseurship demanded by the wider counter-culture. ‘Hipster has simply become a word which means the opposite of authentic’, argued Alex Miller, UK editor-in-chief of Vice.
So what is the problem with these contemporary hipsters? You can no longer tell the difference between them and their ‘real’ predecessors. But this critique of consumerism and a loss of cultural authenticity is nothing new. There has long been a narrative of ‘authentic’ and ‘artificial’ youth culture.
Since the 1950s youth cultures have been courted by commercial companies. Mods relied on this relationship, as creating an identity through consumption was what defined them. Youth cultures have always been about having and creating an identity. As Jimmy famously said in Quadrophenia, ‘I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see?’ Creating an identity through clothing and consumer items has been the cornerstone of many post-war youth cultures, but this relationship between identity, commerce, and authenticity has long been a troubled one.
The narrative of mod culture as something that emerged with a small group of young people in London, that became popularised and commercialised, and thus neutralised, is in place to protect the supposed authenticity of those mods who were there first. Historians have talked of three ‘waves’ of mod: first, the intellectual jazz-connoisseurs found in Soho, who read Sartre; second, the working class young men and women of London who dressed in suits and rode scooters, and who took their influence from the first wave; third, the commercialised and ‘neutralised’ mods who bought into the culture with no thought to existentialism or Sartre, and whose clothing and consumption held no real meaning.
This last phase of mod culture became hugely popular and was inevitably presented as a banal reproduction of what came before. Narratives of popular culture as one-dimensional and artificial are hardly uncommon. Those young people who joined the culture during the ‘third wave’ were vilified and presented as uncreative and unauthentic. 3 Mod culture was often pronounced dead, both by participants and cultural critics. This narrative is all too familiar in Saturday’s Observer article.
The hipster is not dead. As with all fashions and trends, what we have come to understand as the ‘hipster’ will slowly disappear from our magazines and high-streets, but the lifestyle and ethos will continue. Instead of focusing on attacking the experiences of current hipsters as not ‘authentic’, should we not be examining why the hipster trend has become so popular, or even why its popularity has irked so many people? And finally, should we vilify the ‘latecomers’ to the scene? Why do we care that somebody else was there first, doing it ‘properly’? History suggests that someone else probably came before them anyway.
Sarah Kenny is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, working on youth culture and social change in Sheffield and Manchester in the second half of the twentieth century. You can find her on twitter @SarahL_Kenny.
- One article has even argued that ‘the hipster represents the end of Western civilization.’Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization, Douglas Haddow, 2008 https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html?page=134 ↩
- This definition was taken from the first listed definition on the page. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hipster ↩
- Writing about the mod culture of the mid 1960s, Dick Hebdige argued that ‘when a mod magazine could declare authoritatively that there was “a new mod walk: feet out, head forward, hands in jacket pockets”, then one had to acknowledge, reluctantly, that this particular [culture] had, somewhere along the line, keeled over and died.’ Hebdige, D., ‘The Meaning of Mod’, in Hall, S. and T. Jefferson (eds), Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (Cambridge, 1993) p.94. ↩